Recently someone posted a rather insightful comment on Facebook to the effect that society will only change (for the better) when people are motivated by good will, and that the best way to build this good will is prayer, fasting, and love. Those are all very good things — properly understood and implemented. The problem is that they are not, in and of themselves, sufficient to get the job done.
As Pope Pius XI explained — and not just to Catholics and other Christians, but to everyone of good will — you need three essential elements to change the social order. If any one of the three is missing, there may be some success, but ultimately the effort will fail:
1) A change of heart by at least two people — to begin with. Man being a “political animal,” effective social action begins with, obviously, a social act: organizing for the common good. Before you can do that, however, you need at least two people who come together on the basis of shared values and goals.
This is where the prayer, fasting, and love come in. Even to want to organize with others you need to be oriented in the right direction, and this comes from a change of heart, an “aha!” moment, similar in some cases to getting knocked off your horse while riding to Damascus. A change of heart is not, however, an end in itself, politically speaking. (It may be all that’s needed for an individual, but we are talking social change, not individual reform.)
2) Acts of social justice to change specific institutions of the social order. This is (sort of) what the great English constitutional scholar A. V. Dicey talked about in his book with the less-than-snappy title, Lectures on the Relations Between Law and Public Opinion in England in the Nineteenth Century (1905).
Despite the title, it is a very profound book. Dicey pointed out that, unless what he called “public opinion” (much more than we understand by the term) was behind a law, the law would, in general, either have no effect, or would have an entirely different effect than what was intended.
Only by chance or coercion would an “unpopular” (again, a loaded term with a different meaning) law have the intended effect. Acts of social justice are directed toward institutions by members of that institution who have undergone a change of heart, to restructure that institution so that it complies with its original intent and the demands of the common good, what we can think of as the social manifestation of the natural law.
Virtues are habits of doing good. “Good” is whatever is in conformity with nature, the “natural law.” Institutions are “social habits,” i.e., ways of doing things. Depending on how they are structured, they may either be vicious or virtuous.
Above all, the system within which the institutions subsist must encourage virtuous action. The system cannot coerce virtue, or (obviously) it wouldn’t be true virtue. If, however, the system does not encourage virtue, or even actively encourages vice, then it is not doing the job the system was set up to do: help everyone within the system to become more fully human.
3) Only when “the public” is prepared to accept a new law on the intended terms and also accept the fundamental premise(s) behind the law will a law be effective, i.e., have the intended effect. This is why, for instance, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was the most widely disobeyed law in American history until Prohibition. The people affected by the law simply did not accept the basic assumption underlying the law: that some people could own other people as private property.
Thus, if we want a law abolishing slavery, alcohol, or anything else to be effective, first we must change people’s “opinion” that there is something wrong with what we are abolishing.
The second step is to address the institutions that make slavery or alcohol seem necessary or desirable. The third step is to empower people, economically and politically. The chief and best way of doing this is through widespread capital ownership because “power naturally and necessarily follows property.”