Pope John Paul I was head of the Catholic Church for only thirty-three days. Even in that short period of time, however, he made it abundantly clear not only that he was a “Vatican II pope,” but a “Vatican I pope,” with all that implies — something we hope to make clear in this brief series.
|Pope John Paul I|
One thing we also need to make clear is that this is not a “Catholic” analysis of the pontificate of John Paul I. It is, rather, a “catholic” one, that is, an examination of his few statements concerning the social teachings of the Catholic Church from an Aristotelian-Thomist natural law orientation.
That being the case — and necessarily understood properly only within that context — “Catholic” social teaching applies to every child, woman, and man on the planet Earth, no ifs, ands, or buts. To say (as one commentator did some years ago) that — and this is an exact quote — “Jews because they are Jews have nothing in common with Catholic social teaching” is to miss the whole point of Catholic social teaching by a couple of country miles, as well as to be spouting some exceptionally nauseating nonsense.
Even to call Aristotelian-Thomist natural law social teaching Catholic instead of catholic is misleading to a degree. Of course, any Catholic who knows his or her faith would and should disagree with that statement. Such a Catholic (at least one who knows that the Church teaches something because it’s true, it’s not true because the Church teaches it!) would naturally (and quite accurately by Catholic belief) argue that the universality of his or her Church’s social teaching is just one more instance of the universality (in the sense of fullness, not completeness) of Catholic teaching in every sphere of faith and morals.
That is because Catholic social thought, in common with Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy, is based on the dignity and sovereignty of the human person under God. Nor is that a meaningless phrase that can be twisted to mean whatever someone in power wants it to mean. It has, rather, a specific meaning based on the meaning and purpose of human life itself.
And that is?
As Aristotle put it in the opening of his Nichomachean Ethics, all things by nature seek the good. The whole of Aristotle’s ethics — his moral philosophy — is based on that principle, and nowhere is that more true than with human beings.
That is because — per Catholic belief — each human being is made in “the image and likeness of God” . . . which does not mean we are clones of a deity. No, it means every human being has the potential, but only the potential, to be perfect as God is perfect, “perfection” meaning absolute and complete conformity to God’s Nature.
Put another way, “the image and likeness of God” means that where God is infinitely perfect, human beings are infinitely perfectible. The paradox of human existence is that we must strive to conform ourselves ever closer to that which is perfect, knowing all the while that we can never get there.
Now, while that is a very profound thought on which to meditate, and every human being worth his or her salt should meditate on it . . . what does it mean? It means simply this: that the meaning and purpose of human life is to become more fully human.
|Saint Thomas Aquinas|
That is not a “tautology,” a statement that simply says something again, often just using different words, e.g., “an old antique” or “the reason is because.” No, it is a reflection of the fact that where human beings have the infinite capacity to acquire and develop virtue (“human-ness”) and thereby conform more and more to their own nature, God is infinite virtue, and is-was-ever-shall-be already fully conformed to His own Nature.
(If we may insert a parenthetical comment here, we just had an example of how difficult it is even to discuss God using mere human language and concepts, and why this blog series is going to confine itself to purely human principles that apply to everyone, regardless of religious belief or lack thereof. To say that God “is-was-ever-shall-be” is a very, very weak way of trying to convey that God hasn’t merely existed for all time, exists now, and will always exist, the concept of time itself is irrelevant to Him . . . and there we go again — is “Him” adequate in any way? God is necessarily “outside” time altogether. Nor can you say that God exists in all times and places at once, i.e., “God is everywhere,” for He is also “outside” place as well as time. And even saying “outside” or “apart from” isn’t right, either. Rather than go insane trying to figure out how to talk about that which you can’t really talk about, we’ll stick to human concepts and leave God to God, as least for the purposes of this discussion.)
Returning to our point, given that the meaning and purpose of life is to become more fully human, and that we become more fully human by acquiring and developing “human-ness” or virtue (for that is what “virtue” signifies — it means literally “man-ness,” but it signifies “human-ness”), how do we acquire and develop virtue?
|George Mason of Gunston Hall|
As American statesman George Mason hinted in his draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, human beings acquire and develop virtue by exercising their rights under natural law, primarily life, liberty, and private property. “Human dignity,” therefore, consists in respecting the natural rights of every child, every woman, and every man . . . and yet again we run up against more words that we need to understand before we can even start discussing Pope John Paul I’s social doctrine:
Common good: that vast network of institutions within which human beings as “political animals” acquire and develop virtue.
Institution: a “social habit,” a “social tool” such as an organization, law, custom, tradition, even the most important social tool (in the civil sense, not the religious), the State itself that provide the specific environment that encourages the acquisition and development of virtue.
Liberty: freedom, exemption from extraneous control. In this context, it includes “civil liberties” enjoyed by members of a society, freedom of association, and freedom of contract. It does not mean doing whatever you want.
Natural law: the general code of human behavior, determined by applying reason to the evidence of our senses. Natural law consists of conforming one’s self to — that is, building the habits of — prudence, temperance, fortitude, and, above all, justice, justice being the highest natural virtue.
Private Property: property is not the thing owned, but the natural right to be an owner, and the socially defined bundle of rights that define how an owner may use what is owned within a specific set of circumstances. The right to be an owner is absolute in every human being, while the rights of property must be limited and adapted to circumstances. The most important rights of property are control and enjoyment of the fruits. That is, an owner may generally do as he or she wishes with what he or she owns as long as he or she does not harm him- or herself, other individuals, groups, or the common good as a whole, and is entitled to all income generated by what is owned, just as he or she suffers any loss.
Right, Natural: a general norm based on observations of human nature that no human law may legitimately violate; fundamental human rights that must be adapted to every human circumstance without exception, and thus take an infinite number of forms, but that are inherent in each human being simply because each human being is human. Chief among the natural rights are life, liberty, and private property.
Right: the power to do or not do some act or acts in relation to others. A duty is the obligation to do or not do some act or acts in relation to others. Every right has a correlative duty, just as every duty has a correlative right. It is impossible to speak of a right without a duty laid on others, or a duty where others have no right.
That’s enough for starters. Next week we’ll get into the definitions of justice, which is where so many people manage to get off track. And after that we may get to a discussion of Pope John Paul I’s social doctrine . . . once we have the words and concepts we need to understand it.#30#