Back in 1966 Dr. Norman G. Kurland, now president of the all-volunteer, interfaith Center for Economic and Social Justice (CESJ) in Arlington, Virginia was in New York City. He was meeting with Stokely Carmichael and Ivanhoe Donaldson and explaining to them the ideas of lawyer-economist Louis O. Kelso, best known as the inventor of the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) regarding achieving broad-based capital ownership without redistributing existing wealth.
At one point in the discussion, Stokely Carmichael shook his head and said something along the lines of, “Well, it’s a great idea . . . but ‘they’ will never buy it.” Taken somewhat aback, Norman Kurland responded, “Stokely, I thought you were a revolutionary. No true revolutionary would ever say such a thing!”
In extenuation (somewhat) of Stokely Carmichael’s comment, he had never come across the social thought of Pope Pius XI as analyzed by CESJ co-founder Father William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D. Had he done so, he would have learned that the “third characteristic” of social justice is that — in social justice terms — nothing is impossible.
It is important, especially for Christians, to note the qualification, “in social justice terms.” This is because many people who base their faith on faith (which thereby becomes self-justifying) instead of reason, will quote Jesus’s words, “With God, all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26) as a reason for ignoring any and all objections to what they want to accomplish. This allows them to ignore the rights of others whom they regard as “ungodly,” such as the rich or anyone with whom they disagree on any subject, and insist on immediate gratification of their desires (see the previous posting in this series, “Social Justice Takes Time”).
That is not, however, what either Jesus or Father Ferree meant. Rather, what it means to say “all things are possible” or “nothing is impossible” is that all possible things are possible, and that nothing that is not contrary to reality is possible. As the solidarist jurist and political scientist Dr. Heinrich A. Rommen (a student of Father Heinrich Pesch, S.J.) noted, “Absolute power . . . is the power through which [God] can do everything that is not in itself contradictory.” (Heinrich Rommen, The Natural Law. Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1998, 55.)
No, there is no such thing as a free lunch, either in religion or in social ethics. As Father Ferree explained,
Third Characteristic: Nothing is Impossible
Another characteristic of Social Justice, which was already pointed out in Chapter Two, is that in Social Justice there is never any such thing as helplessness. No problem is ever too big or too complex, no field is ever too vast, for the methods of this Social Justice. Problems that were agonizing in the past and were simply dodged, even by serious and virtuous people, can now be solved with ease by any school child. Lest this statement seem too extreme, let us take an actual example of such an insoluble problem of the past.
|Fr. William Ferree, S.M., Ph.D.|
A Common Problem
The following problem was proposed on a national radio hookup:
I know many businessmen, lawyers, physicians, who lament the trend to the unethical in the special worlds in which they operate. They tell me that the tide is running against them, that too many of their rivals have reduced business ethics and professional ethics to three principles: 1. Everybody is doing it; 2. If you don’t do it, someone else will; and 3. You can’t do business nowadays with old-fashioned principles. Especially in the metropolitan cities, they say, the degeneration is obvious. They blame this set of persons and that, but they all seem to agree that decline, if not actual decay, is upon us.
“It’s easy enough,” they add, “for you preachers to tell us to stand firm, to hew to the line, and all that. But we have families to support, homes to maintain, food and clothing to buy . . . . We must do what the others do or be sunk. The crowd is running all one way; we cannot forever buck the stream!”
This is a sincere and straightforward statement of a problem as common as any to be met at the present time. In fact, it is an understatement: to complete the picture we should add that the laws of our secularized society are usually in favor of the crowd which is running all one way! It is not too hard to see that this is identically the same problem which Pope Pius XI presented in a passage which we have quoted several times: “It happens all too frequently, under the salary system, that the individual employer is helpless to insure justice.”
The radio preacher happened to be a rather pronounced individualist, and the best answer he could give to his own problem was the following: “Right is right if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong if everybody does it. What the businessman needs, and what the professional man needs is a new declaration of independence.”
Notice that the first part of this answer dodges the question. The businessman had said in effect, that he as an individual was helpless to insure justice. He knew the system was wrong, but he did not know how to buck it. The only information contained in the answer was that there is such a thing as right and wrong. If the businessman had not known that perfectly well before he stated his problem, he certainly would not have called his system wrong!
The second part of the reply is more to the point; but that “new declaration of independence” which sounds so nice in a speech, is precisely what the businessman meant by the last three words of his complaint: “We must do what the others do or be sunk.” This certainly is not much help!
|Pope Pius XI|
It is difficult to see what other answers could have been given from an individualistic point of view. The speaker could of course have told the businessman to “use his own judgment,” or to “do the best he can,” but this once more is not much help; and the businessman is looking for help. The only other solution would be to tell the businessman that since he has to make a living, and has to pay his debts and meet his other obligations, he should go ahead with his business, since its injustice is something which he cannot help, and which is only indirectly willed. This may indeed offer the businessman a chance to save his individual soul while precariously balancing on a “good intention” in the midst of evil, but it certainly does nothing to remedy the evil.
The Right Answer
No other answer, except a frank admission that the problem is insoluble, could be given from an individualistic point of view. The answer which Pope Pius XI gave to his own statement of the same problem was not individualistic at all — it was social; namely, that the employer who found himself thus helpless to insure justice had a duty to organize, among the employers, institutions which would make the practice of justice possible. How this organization would be carried out we have seen in the simple example of social action above (the unjust community).
Once more notice how directly and clearly the Pope solved that problem which was absolutely insoluble to the radio speaker who had an individualistic philosophy. That is why individuals, at least from now on, will not be very bright. Not only that, but they will be downright wrong-failing against Social Justice.