In this short series we’ve covered how essential it is to conform our individual and social behavior to the absolute moral standards of the natural law in order for that behavior to be truly human. In Christian/Western terms, this is often characterized as “the Reign of Christ the King.” Nor is this substantially different for any other faith or philosophy. Substituting any other personified moral standard gives you the same thing.
Of course, that leaves the term “king.” The word doesn’t really convey the essence of an absolute moral standard, even personified. That’s why Jesus’s response to Pilate sounds so odd to many people. Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you a king?”
This was a key question — for a Roman. As a Roman official, Pilate couldn’t allow an unauthorized king to operate within his jurisdiction. Also, Romans had an aversion to the term, having eliminated kings during the expulsion of the Tarquins. Plus, a former governor of Syria, Publius Quinctilius Varus, had done a few things that made it look as if he was trying to set himself up as king, and then later, by losing the battle of Teutoburgerwald, nearly destroyed the Roman Empire.
No, “king” was a dirty word to a Roman. Jesus’s answer, however, was not really an answer. He said, “That is your word for it.”
In other words, Jesus is a “king,” but not in the usual sense. He rules in a different way over both individuals and the whole of society, a way that requires that we actually rule ourselves by voluntarily complying with the precepts of the natural law that He, in Christian belief, embodies. Jesus’s answer to Pilate indicated that the question itself demonstrated that Pilate had no idea what the real situation was.
That’s all very well and good, but the problem remains how to bring our political and civil institutions into conformity with the natural law, and thus under the “rule” of “Christ the King” — but without contravening the legitimate boundaries of the respective spheres of Church and State, or violating individual freedom of conscience. So the specific question is, how do we reconcile individual ethics and social ethics?
Aristotle was not able to do so. He admitted that he saw a contradiction or a conflict between individual life and social life, that is, individual ethics and social ethics, but was not able to resolve it.
The Philosopher finally simply declared that the common good, that vast network of institutions within which human persons realize their individual goods, is not directly accessible by human beings. It is, therefore, only by chance or indirectly that we can affect the common good. If we live virtuously, we have an indirect good effect on the common good. If we live viciously, we have an indirect bad effect on the common good.
Aquinas said that Aristotle was wrong on this point — but that’s all Aquinas said. The “Angelic Doctor” didn’t do any more. Centuries later, in his encyclical Æterni Patris, Leo XIII declared that the philosophy of Aquinas was to be the guiding philosophy of the Catholic Church, and (so far as it concerned the natural law), of civil society — “the State.”
Leo XIII didn’t say any more than that — at that time. Then, in 1891, the pope did something remarkable. In his encyclical Rerum Novarum Leo XIII gave what amounted to a mandate on the restructuring of the social order.
According to Leo XIII, the life of the citizen in the State is to be in full conformity with the natural law, particularly the natural rights of life, liberty, and, most immediately, private property in capital. Taking the conflict between “labor” (concerning the spiritual and material needs of the individual) and “capital” (concerning the economic needs of the market) as his example of Aristotle’s conflict between individual ethics and social ethics, Leo XIII declared,
“We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.” (Rerum Novarum, § 46.)
There were two errors in Leo XIII’s analysis, one of omission, and one of commission. The former was that the pope implied that only by reducing consumption below one’s income could workers accumulate savings in order to purchase capital and become owners. The latter was that he only said that individual ethics and social ethics could be reconciled. He didn’t say how it could be done.
That’s what we’ll look at tomorrow in the last posting in this series.