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THE Global Justice Movement Website
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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Philosophies at War, IX: The Apostle of Common Sense

Soon after publishing Saint Francis of Assisi, G.K. Chesterton wrote an introduction to a rather ponderous doctoral thesis by a student of his friend, Msgr. Ronald A. Knox, an obscure American priest by the name of Fulton J. Sheen.  Sheen’s book, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy in Light of the Philosophy of Saint Thomas (1925), is, at one and the same time, Sheen’s most substantive work and the most difficult of all his voluminous writings to read.  It has almost none of the fluid ease, even sprightliness, that mark even his second book, Religion Without God (1928) — the “sequel” to God and Intelligence — as well as all his later works.
This is understandable.  God and Intelligence is the only thing Sheen published not written specifically for a popular audience, but to fulfill the requirements for his doctorate.
Obscure priest named Fulton J. Sheen
Even so, the book is well worth reading, assuming one is prepared for what to the modern mind is some extremely intricate, if logical reasoning.  As Chesterton explained, alluding to the attacks on Christianity by the New Christian and Neo-Catholic movement that received its name with the publication in 1825 of Henri de Saint-Simon’s Nouveau Christianisme,
Free-Thinker George Bernard Shaw
In this book [i.e., God and Intelligence — ed.], as in the modern world generally, the Catholic Church comes forward as the one and only real Champion of Reason.  There was indeed a hundred years ago a school of free-thinkers which attacked Rome by an appeal to reason.  But most of the recent free-thinkers are, by their own account rather than by ours, falling from reason even more than from Rome.  One of the best and the most brilliant of them, Mr. Bernard Shaw, said only the other day that he could never entirely agree with the Catholic Church because of its extreme rationalism. . . .
The question to which Dr. Sheen here applies the rational as opposed to the irrational method is the most tremendous question in the world, perhaps the only question in the world.  For that reason I prefer to leave its intrinsic consideration to him; and in these few words of introduction to deal with the method rather than the subject matter.  The subject matter is the nature of God in so far as it can be apprehended at all by the nature of man.  As Dr. Sheen points out, the intellectual purity of the problem itself is much confused nowadays by a sort of sentimental version of the divine dignity of man. . . .
The blasphemy is not ours.  It is enough for us that our enemies have retreated from the territory of reason, on which they once claimed so many victories, and have fallen back upon the borderlands of myth and mysticism, like so many other barbarians with whom civilization is at war.  (G.K. Chesterton, “Introduction,” Fulton J. Sheen, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy in Light of the Philosophy of St. Thomas.  New York: IVE Press, 2006, 9-11.)
Maisie Ward
In her biography of Chesterton, Maisie Ward related that when Chesterton informed her and her husband, Frank Sheed, that he was writing a book about St. Thomas Aquinas, she was worried that he was overreaching himself.  She said she would have been even more worried had she known that he had already dictated half the text to Dorothy Collins, his secretary, before doing any research and then sending her to London to buy some books on Aquinas.  “What books?”  “I don’t know.”  (Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton.  New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943, 619.)
This sounds bizarre until we put what Chesterton was doing in context.  Once we realize that Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox” is not an exposition of Thomist philosophy, but a response to Tawney and others of the New Christian-socialist movement, everything falls into place.
Chesterton didn’t have to read up on Aquinas before starting work, because he already knew what he was going to say, having had the thoughts running through his head for years.  He had identified the issue he wanted to address a decade before, and had received an intensive education in the essence of Aquinas’s philosophy — most especially the first principle of reason (the “principle of contradiction,” that nothing can both be and not be at the same time under the same conditions) — from “the American Chesterton,” Fulton J. Sheen, plus what he picked up from Msgr. Ronald Knox . . . who had already spent years himself on the issue, and would spend a few more before finally putting his thoughts down in Enthusiasm (1950).
"I'd rather have that commentary on Aristotle!"
All Chesterton really had to do was dictate a very detailed outline that would need a little editing and polishing to turn into proper book form, and then go to some references to fill in the details and make certain he got the facts straight.  “Some books on Aquinas” — never mind what — might actually have been almost more than he needed to finish the job.
And what was it Chesterton wanted to say?  Briefly, he was going to give another try at answering the question, What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?  (Psalms 8:4.)  The whole problem with the New Christians and socialists, in fact, was and remains a distorted concept of man, and thus of God in Whose image and likeness man is made.
One of the Catholic Church’s most fundamental principles with respect to the temporal order (existence in this life) is the sovereignty of the human person under God.  The things of Earth are only important insofar as they contribute to or assist in the task of people becoming more fully human.  As Fulton Sheen put it,
The Western World must learn that Totalitarianism cannot be overcome by Socialism, by laissez-faire Capitalism, by Individualism, or by any combination of these, for what has gone wrong is not the means of living, but the ends. The economic and political chaos of the modern world can be overcome only by a non-political, non-economic, non-Marxian, non-Freudian concept of a man and society. This does not mean that politics and economics are of no value; they are. But it means they are of secondary value for, unless we know the nature of the creature for whom politics and economics exist, it is just as useless to meddle with them as it is to fool with a blast furnace unless we know its purpose. Unless we restore the Christian concept of man, and thus build a human rather than an economic order, we will be forced into a Totalitarianism in the hour we are doing our most to combat it.  (Sheen, Philosophies at War, op. cit., 97-98.)
Pope Pius XI
And what is “the Christian concept of man”?  Pius XI stated it very well: “Only man, the human person, and not society in any form is endowed with reason and a morally free will.”  (Divini Redemptoris, § 29.)  This “Christian concept of man” corrects the capitalist distortion that puts the right to be an owner in a special class, and completely refutes the socialist doctrine that transforms the right to be an owner from a natural right, to an expedient, prudential matter.
And why is the socialist/New Christian position wrong?  Because (as Fulton Sheen insisted) it puts man at the center, not God.  To the New Christian and socialist, man is not made in God’s image and likeness, but the other way around.
This has profound implications.  The Catholic Church teaches that the natural law is based on what we can discern from human nature through the use of reason.  That is because human nature is a reflection of God’s Nature, which (God’s knowledge and reasoning being absolutely perfect) is “self realized” in His Intellect.  If, therefore, something is contrary to reason, it is necessarily contrary to human nature, and being contrary to human nature, is necessarily contrary to God’s Nature, and is wrong — always, no exceptions.
The Triumph of the Will
The socialist/New Christian says, no, that is not correct.  If something is contrary to love, the greater good of humanity, the expedience of the State, or anything else that can be justified as the Will of God (or the People, Der Volk, the Spirit of the Age, or anything else), then it is necessarily wrong, despite the fact that it is in conformity with human nature as discerned by the force and light of human reason.  Faith trumps reason.  The Will triumphs over the Intellect.  Might makes right.
That is why Aristotelian-Thomist philosophers through the ages have insisted that the natural law must therefore be discerned by reason and accepted by the Intellect, not accepted on faith by the Will.  Shifting the knowledge of right and wrong, of good and evil, from the Intellect to the Will — from reason to faith — is, in every case, the direct route to totalitarianism, whether religious or political.
And that was the issue Chesterton addressed in his book on St. Thomas Aquinas — the assault on reason, that is, on common sense.