THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The American Chesterton, VI: The Logic of Christian Socialism

As we saw in the previous posting in this series, despite “Branch Theory” — the idea that the Anglo-Catholic, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Churches are all part of the larger Catholic Church — there was more dividing the Anglican Church from the Catholic Church than a matter of mere politics.  From its founding by Henry VIII Tudor, the man-centered Church of England was necessarily in direct conflict with the God-centered Catholic Church, and (at least in the eyes of G.K. Chesterton, Msgr. Ronald Knox, and Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson) this orientation was leading the Anglican Church away from Christianity altogether.

This caused great anguish to Chesterton, Knox, and Benson, something that made all three view conversion to Catholicism as a release, despite many pleasant associations, even love for the Anglican Church.   Admittedly, the effect of the change was less for Chesterton; his anguish (“a great deal of agony of mind”) was somewhat ameliorated by having become a Christian at all.  (Vide Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton.  New York: Sheed and Ward, 1943, 159-160, 282, 455-459.)

The anguish, however, was quite real.  Evelyn Waugh gave the impression that Knox simply avoided discussion of this period in his life, while Benson grew to loathe his first published work, The Light Invisible (1903) because it reminded him of a time in his life when indecision about the situation nearly paralyzed him.  Chesterton, however (probably due to less “agony of mind”), wrote a book about it, The Catholic Church and Conversion (1926).

What caused such revulsion of feeling was the fact that a man-centered faith is, ultimately, irreconcilable with belief in God.  This was something that Sheen stressed from the very beginning, but which seems to have been honed to a fine point by his association with Knox and Chesterton.

Fulton Sheen: religion must be God-centered.
Something was missing from Anglo-Catholicism, and it seemed to Knox to be a true sense of the sacred, a genuine sacramentalism underpinning all the outward show and practice of religion.  Nor could service to humanity substitute for this, however much good — or ill — it managed to do; service to man, laudable and even mandatory, in no way replaces service to God.  Perhaps this conflict was best illustrated by Waugh’s explanation of why Knox believed he (Knox) was not suited for the role of Anglican army chaplain in the First World War:

“He never doubted that he was precluded from bearing arms, nor did he think it possible that he would be accepted as a chaplain.  Maurice Child’s [an Anglo-Catholic friend of Knox — ed.] application was refused on the grounds, it was said, that in his interview with the Chaplain-General he was asked what he would do for a dying man, and answered: ‘Hear his confession and give him absolution.’  The correct answer was ‘Give him a cigarette and take any last message he may have for his family.’”  (Waugh, Ronald Knox, op. cit., 135.)

Now for why all of this talk of religious politics and theology is important.  Many converts to Catholicism from the Anglican or other non-continental Protestant tradition, as well as those influenced by a cursory or superficial understanding of Chesterton’s real goal in converting to Catholicism, fail to realize the fundamental difference between the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church.  They easily fall victim to the very thing that Chesterton, Knox, and Sheen opposed, believing it to be the essence of Catholic social teaching and revelation.  Seeing only a political quarrel between Anglo-Catholicism and Roman Catholicism, they fail to grasp the very real problem that exists with the fundamental assumption of all who break the unity of the Universal Church: the focus on man instead of God, and the consequent shift in the basis of the natural law from the Intellect to the Will.

Pius XI: social teaching misunderstood.
Nor is this restricted to converts.  Some who have been Catholic from birth, even clergy (including influential members of the hierarchy), are among those who have allowed themselves to be duped by the promises of socialism and the allure of New Age thought.  As a case in point, the U.S. bishops’ 1986 pastoral on the economy, Economic Justice for All, makes approving references to E.F. Schumacher’s Fabian socialist tract, Small is Beautiful (1973), and Msgr. John A. Ryan’s 346-page sophistry, A Living Wage (1906).  At the same time, the pastoral exhibits a complete misunderstanding of Pius XI’s social doctrine as analyzed by Father William Ferree — even as it cited Ferree's work.

This reversal of the roles of God and man — and the whole “Anglo v. Roman” question — was also the issue with what Chesterton, Knox, Sheen, and Mortimer Adler (and others — the list gets too long to give every time we refer to it) saw as the Platonist revolt against Aristotle and the reversal of our “idea of ideas.”  That is, for Aristotle and Aquinas, people use their intellect and their reason applied to the things of the world to abstract — to form general ideas derived from particular instances and observations.  The general (the abstraction) does not exist independent of the particular.

The danger, of course, is that some people will reject the general because it is dependent on the particular.  They will claim that the general either has no objective existence because each person’s perception of ideas is necessarily subjective, or that the general does not exist at all.  This is individualism, the basis of capitalism.

Plato: ideas are independent of the intellect.
The case was otherwise with Plato, who taught the obvious truth that ideas exist just as much as the other things of this world.  He then made the mistake of claiming not only that generalizations (abstractions) exist (which they do), but that they exist independently of the particular, that is, ideas exist apart from the human mind (which they do not).

By the way, illustrating the difficulty of translating difficult concepts from another language, Sheen made the same argument in Religion Without God.  Sheen, however, said that ideas are conceived, but do not exist, where Adler said that ideas exist, but are not real — yet they were both saying the same thing!  (This could be a good reason to learn the original Latin of Aquinas.)

As Adler explained,

“More than a full measure of reality, the world of ideas had for [Plato] a superior grade of reality.  The physical things that we perceive through our senses come into being and pass away and they are continually in flux, changing in one way or another.  They have no permanence.  But though we may change our minds about the ideas we think about, they themselves are not subject to change. . . . The world of changing physical things is thus for Plato a mere shadow of the much more real world of ideas.  When we pass from the realm of sense experience to the realm of thought, we ascend to a higher reality, for we have turned from things that have no enduring existence to enduring and unchanging (Plato would say ‘eternal’) objects of thought — ideas.”  (Mortimer J. Adler, Six Great Ideas.  New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1981, 8.)

Adler: commitment to common sense.
The danger here — and the reason Chesterton, Knox, and Sheen (and Adler) rejected Platonism — is that some people will deny the particular because within the Platonic framework it is transient, and therefore (so the reasoning goes) “lower” than the general, or even unnecessary for those who have ascended to a higher reality.  This is collectivism, the basis of socialism.

To understand, then, why Sheen opposed socialism so strongly it is only necessary to apply common sense to the question — and to accept that which Sheen, as well as Chesterton and Knox accepted as a matter of course: Aristotelian-Thomism and the principles of reason illuminated and guided by faith, and that God, not man, is at the center.  As Adler concluded his comments on Plato, distinguishing reality from existence (or existence from conception, as Sheen had it),

“For those of us who cannot shuck off our commitment to common sense, Plato goes too far in attributing reality to ideas, and much too far in exalting their reality over the reality of sensible phenomena — the reality of the ever-changing world we experience through our senses.  We do not hesitate to reject Plato’s theory of ideas, and declare him wrong in attributing reality to ideas as well as to physical things, and a superior reality at that.  For us commonsense fellows, it is the world of ideas that is comparatively shadowy as compared with the tangible, visible, audible world of things that press on us from all sides.” (Adler, Six Great Ideas, op. cit., 8-9.)