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, May 26, 2020

The Living Wage and Social Justice

According to the Wikipedia entry on him, Msgr. John A. Ryan (author of A Living Wage, whom we met in the previous posting on this subject) was “a leading Catholic priest who was a noted moral theologian, professor, author and advocate of social justice.  Ryan lived during a decisive moment in the development of Catholic social teaching within the United States.”
Msgr. John A. Ryan
Well . . . technically correct, except for the “social justice” bit.  Of course, “noted” doesn’t necessarily mean “right,” and being out in front as a leader might mean that you are just a good marketer of yourself . . . which Msgr. Ryan definitely was.
Anyway, about that whole “living wage” argument of Msgr. Ryan.  You see, even if paying a “living wage” is “distributive justice” as Msgr. Ryan claimed in his 1916 magnum opus of that title — which it isn’t, as wages are paid in commutative justice, duh — it isn’t social justice.
This, of course, is utterly shocking to all the “experts” in natural law and Catholic social teaching.  They instantly shriek HERESY! DISSENT!!  You are attacking the Catholic Church’s JUST WAGE DOCTRINE!!!!!!!!!* (Of course, since CESJ has always advocated paying a just wage, it's hard to see where this comes from, a "just wage" being defined as the price of labor set by a free and open market, supplemented if need be with charity, just as Pius XI said.)

Er, Give us Msgr. Ryan, that is. . . .

"Can we get a little more light with the torches? And let's hear some howling!"
* Oh, by the way, did you know that the Catholic Church doesn’t have a “Just Wage Doctrine”?  That’s right.  It has a “Just Wage Discipline” which is something a wee bit different. . . . unless you’re a socialist/modernist and need the Catholic Church’s fake endorsement of your opinion in order to be able to browbeat others into accepting your new dogmas, something at which Msgr. Ryan excelled, as we shall see in the next posting on this subject.  For those with a high tolerance for contradictory nonsense and the ability to suffer fools gladly, see Dr. Rupert J. Ederer, “Just Wage Doctrine: What Happened?” Culture Wars magazine, May 2005, 20-33; Thomas Storck, “The Just Wage,” The Distributist Review, October 2019,, accessed May 20, 2020; John Médaille, “Is Economics a Science?” The Distributist Review,, accessed May 20, 2020.
To correct the not-so-slight (but very sleight) misimpression that wages are 1) paid under either distributive or social justice, and 2) that the Catholic teaching on wages is absolutely, completely, totally, unchangeably the WORD OF GOD (bow to Keynes), it will be useful (meaning “absolutely essential”) to see what, exactly, the Catholic Church’s teaching on wages really is, not just listen to another warmed-over version of Msgr. Ryan’s doctoral thesis.
Pope Pius XI
And that is?  We believe Pope Pius XI stated it rather explicitly,
First, so as to avoid the reefs of individualism and collectivism. the twofold character, that is individual and social, both of capital or ownership and of work or labor must be given due and rightful weight. Relations of one to the other must be made to conform to the laws of strictest justice — commutative justice, as it is called — with the support, however, of Christian charity. (Quadragesimo Anno, § 110.)
From this passage we see that “relations” between employers and employees are supposed to conform to the dictates of “strictest justice,” meaning commutative justice.  “Relations” logically includes working conditions and compensation.  Accepting Pius XI’s statement as being consistent with Catholic social teaching (don’t laugh; there are people, “experts,” who insist that the pope doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or will edit or reinterpret papal statements to agree with what they want to hear), we can therefore safely conclude that wages are not paid out of social justice or distributive justice, but out of commutative justice.
So, if social justice does not govern payment of wages, just or otherwise, what does it do?
Rev. William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D.
According to CESJ co-founder Father William J. Ferree, social justice is the particular virtue directed to the common good (institutions), not to individual good (wages).  Consequently, social justice enables individual justice and charity, it does not substitute for it.  As Pius XI explained the difference between individual justice and social justice — probably in explicit refutation of Msgr. Ryan’s theories,
In reality, besides commutative justice, there is also social justice with its own set obligations, from which neither employers nor workingmen can escape. Now it is of the very essence of social justice to demand for each individual all that is necessary for the common good. But just as in the living organism it is impossible to provide for the good of the whole unless each single part and each individual member is given what it needs for the exercise of its proper functions, so it is impossible to care for the social organism and the good of society as a unit unless each single part and each individual member — that is to say, each individual man in the dignity of his human personality — is supplied with all that is necessary for the exercise of his social functions. If social justice be satisfied, the result will be an intense activity in economic life as a whole, pursued in tranquility and order. This activity will be proof of the health of the social body, just as the health of the human body is recognized in the undisturbed regularity and perfect efficiency of the whole organism. (Divini Redemptoris, § 51, emphasis added)
Now we are in a position to address directly the erroneous claim that the just wage is due under social justice.  This is necessary to  convince the modern “expert” in the field of Catholic social teaching because the clear teaching that wages are payable under commutative justice doesn’t faze them.  They simply respond (when they bother to respond) that saying wages are due under commutative justice says nothing about not also being due under social justice; that there are no explicit statements in Catholic teaching that wages are not due under social justice.
"OMG! Is that what it says? I'd better learn to read!"
Yes, there are.  Here (just as an example) is the passage usually cited in support of Msgr. Ryan’s contention that paying a living wage is a demand of “social justice”:
In the first place, the worker must be paid a wage sufficient to support him and his family. . . . Every effort must therefore be made that fathers of families receive a wage large enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately. But if this cannot always be done under existing circumstances, social justice demands that changes be introduced as soon as possible whereby such a wage will be assured to every adult workingman.  (Quadragesimo Anno, § 71.)
Well . . . that certain puts us in our place, doesn’t it?
Or does it?  Let’s see what Father Ferree had to say about this particular passage:
"Now you hut my feewings."
Now if we were to hand this quotation to a number of people, and ask each one of them what Social Justice demands in it, almost every one of them would answer, “A family wage.”*
They would all be wrong! Look again at the syntax of the sentence: the direct object of the predicate “demands” is the clause “that changes be introduced into the system.” The Pope’s teaching on the family wage is that it is due in commutative or strict justice to the individual worker; — what Social Justice demands is something specifically social: the reorganization of the system. For it is the whole system which is badly organized (“socially unjust”) when it withholds from the human beings whose lives are bound up in it, the power to “meet common domestic needs adequately.”  (Rev. William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., Introduction to Social Justice.  New York: Paulist Press, 1948, 11.)
*   Don’t give us no backtalk about there being a difference between “just wage,” “living wage,” “family wage,” or any of that.  You know damn’ well they are all referring to the same thing.
That, we think, pretty much demolishes Msgr. Ryan’s claim that his “living wage” theory is consistent with Catholic social teaching, but it doesn’t really tell us anything about the theory behind the theory, or the man himself.  Given the adulation heaped on Msgr. Ryan by generations of clergy, scholars, and students, maybe it would be useful to sift through the legend and get a few facts, as well as “the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves” instead of the “documents of faith” on which people have been relying, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out in his little sketch of Thomas Aquinas when confronted with Siger of Brabant, a sort of thirteenth century version of Msgr. Ryan:
The "Dumb Ox" becomes a raging bull.
So, in his last battle and for the first time, [Aquinas] fought as with a battle-axe.  There is a ring in the words altogether beyond the almost impersonal patience he maintained in debate with so many enemies.  “Behold our refutation of the error.  It is not based on documents of faith, but on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves.  If then anyone there be who, boastfully taking pride in his supposed wisdom, wishes to challenge what we have written, let him not do it in some corner nor before children who are powerless to decide on such difficult matters.  Let him reply openly if he dare.  He shall find me then confronting him, and not only my negligible self, but many another whose study is truth.  We shall do battle with his errors or bring a cure to his ignorance.  (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”.  New York: Image Books, 1956, 94; cf. Aquinas, De Unitate Intellectus Contra Averroistas, § 124.)
That is why, in the next posting on this subject, we will address the issue of intellectual and religious bullying, as seen in the campaign that Msgr. John A. Ryan carried on against an obscure fellow academic by the name of Fulton John Sheen. . . .