Yesterday we looked at what Pope Francis said in his Urbi et Orbi address about the many problems that afflict modern society, especially as they affect children. What His Holiness said was necessary and salutary, of course, but he did not get into a solution. That is understandable, as you can’t do too much in a brief talk, but the impression many people no doubt got was that an increase in goodwill and personal virtue would be adequate.
|Msgr. Knox: For the enthusiast, the ungodly have no rights.|
Unfortunately, what with the widespread misunderstanding of social justice throughout the world, many of the people who got the impression that individual virtue is sufficient automatically make the assumption that what Pope Francis was mandating (anything you like coming from the pope is a mandate, while anything you don’t like is prudential) was that somebody other than themselves — the ungodly rich, the ungodly politicians, the ungodly ungodly — must act directly on the problem by divesting themselves of their ill-gotten wealth, power, and existence, or they are damned to hell for all eternity. As Msgr. Ronald Knox pointed out, the common opinion among “enthusiasts” (ultrasupernaturalists), is that the ungodly have no rights that the godly need respect if it gets in the way of what they want.
|No, I'm not talking to the man behind the tree, but to YOU.|
This is understandable, up to a point. Seeing that individuals are often helpless to act to address social problems, many people unacquainted with the principles of social justice naturally assume that Pope Francis is talking to somebody else. After all, what good does it do to tell someone who is helpless to do anything, to do something? No, the pope must mean that anyone with wealth, power, or whom I dislike is a criminal until and unless (and even then) he or she does what the pope is mandating . . . right? The rights of such people get in the way of God’s Will, and can not only be ignored, but completely abolished.
Wrong. The key to understanding social justice is that the rich, powerful, and those whom we regard as ungodly can be just as helpless as anyone else when confronted with a social problem. There is also the problem that, like it or not, the ungodly — or those we have deemed ungodly — not only have the same natural rights as everyone else, they must be equally respected. The natural law is not based on opinion about a deity’s will, but on human nature, which is the same for everyone. Even the ungodly are as fully human, and human in the same way, as everyone else.
So, even the ungodly can be helpless to address a social problem. As Pope Pius XI explained, using the problems with the wage system as an example,
|Pope Pius XI|
But social justice cannot be said to have been satisfied as long as workingmen are denied a salary that will enable them to secure proper sustenance for themselves and for their families; as long as they are denied the opportunity of acquiring a modest fortune and forestalling the plague of universal pauperism; as long as they cannot make suitable provision through public or private insurance for old age, for periods of illness and unemployment. In a word, to repeat what has been said in Our Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno: “Then only will the economic and social order be soundly established and attain its ends, when it offers, to all and to each, all those goods which the wealth and resources of nature, technical science and the corporate organization of social affairs can give. These goods should be sufficient to supply all necessities and reasonable comforts, and to uplift men to that higher standard of life which, provided it be used with prudence, is not only not a hindrance but is of singular help to virtue.”
It happens all too frequently, however, under the salary system, that individual employers are helpless to ensure justice. (Divini Redemptoris, §§ 52-53.)
“Now, that,” our godly warrior of justice might say, “is a little less than helpful. First the pope says that workers must receive a just wage, have the opportunity and means to acquire and possess capital, and make provision for the future. Then he says the very thing he tells us to do is impossible! That sounds like a lot of doubletalk.”
That’s because it is a lot of doubletalk — as is the insistence of many commentators that § 52 mentions only wages when it clearly argues in favor of widespread capital ownership and making provision for the future. That is, it’s doubletalk if you don’t finish reading the passage:
It happens all too frequently, however, under the salary system, that individual employers are helpless to ensure justice. unless, with a view to its practice, they organize institutions the object of which is to prevent competition incompatible with fair treatment for the workers. Where this is true, it is the duty of contractors and employers to support and promote such necessary organizations as normal instruments enabling them to fulfill their obligations of justice. But the laborers too must be mindful of their duty to love and deal fairly with their employers, and persuade themselves that there is no better means of safeguarding their own interests. (Ibid.)
|Fr. William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D.|
In other words, when there are situations that need to be addressed, individual justice and charity direct people to, well, act directly on the problem. That is, was, and always will be individual virtue, not social virtue.
And social virtue? Specifically, social justice? That is another matter. As Father Ferree explained in his pamphlet, Introduction to Social Justice,
Here the two levels of justice are clearly distinguished. On the level of commutative or individual justice the employer is helpless, and note that this happens “all too frequently.” Now evidently, if he is really helpless to do full justice, he does not sin when out of sheer necessity he falls short of justice. In individual justice the case is closed, for the employer can do nothing about it; and the injustice must be allowed to continue out of sheer inability to stop it.
Above this field of individual justice, however, there is the whole field of Social Justice, and in this higher field the case is never closed. The “helplessness” of individuals comes from the fact that the whole industry is badly organized (“socially unjust”). Social Justice demands that it be organized rightly for the Common Good of all who depend upon it for their welfare and perfection. Therefore employers have the duty — the rigid duty of Social Justice which they cannot disregard without sin-to work together (socially) to reorganize their industry. Once this reorganization (act of Social Justice) has been accomplished by group (social) action, then the employers will no longer be helpless in the field of individual justice, and will be under obligation to meet their strict duties in this latter field. Rev. William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., Introduction to Social Justice. New York: The Paulist Press, 1948, 12.)
So, the response in individual justice and individual charity is to meet needs directly, the response in social justice and social charity is to get organized and restructure the institutions of the system to make it possible for individual justice and individual charity to function once again. That is completely different from the usual understanding of papal teachings on social justice, which supposes that because individuals are often helpless, the pope must be referring to all those people against whom we have some kind of grudge or just dislike for whatever reason.
No, responsibility for the system, the common good, is a personal responsibility of each of us. Although we are individually helpless to solve social problems, we become effective when we organize with others and remove not the problems themselves, but the cause of the problems. That is the difference between individual and social virtue.
The question then becomes, Where do ordinary people, who are ordinarily powerless, get the power to organize and act on the system? We’ll look at that next week.#30#