Thursday, June 4, 2020

Interlude: A Short History of Social Justice

As described in the Wikipedia — which, despite its reputation, has its moments . . . this not being one of them — Msgr. John A. Ryan (1869-1945) of the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC “was a leading Catholic priest who was a noted moral theologian, professor, author and advocate of social justice.”

We will grant that Msgr. Ryan was a Catholic priest (although who he was leading where might be open to question), a noted theologian (the moral part may also be open to question), a professor (a position, not necessarily a compliment), an author (of some rather questionable tomes), but there was no way he was an advocate of social justice.  He was a socialist, a modernist, and a New Ager, as we pointed out in the previous posting on this subject.

Msgr. Luigi Aloysius Taparelli, S.J.

Differences over the meaning of the term social justice appear to have contributed to the bizarre animus that Msgr. Ryan exhibited toward Fulton J. Sheen.  To explain, we will take a brief respite from chronicling Msgr. Ryan’s activities and deliver a short discourse on social justice.

In Catholic social thought, social justice has gone through two stages of development.

The first stage was in the 1830s when Monsignor Luigi Aloysius Taparelli d’Azeglio, S.J. (1793-1862) developed a principle of social justice to correct the errors of the socialists.  In 1840 he published Saggio Teoretico di Dritto Naturale — “The Theoretical Essay of Natural Law” — to explain his principle.

Socialist “social justice” can be summarized as “the end justifies the means.”  Even the principles of natural law, the capacity for which defines human beings as human beings, can be set aside to achieve the goal of a better society.

In Taparelli’s principle of social justice, the end does not justify the means.  Everything, even (or especially) social improvement and the general welfare, must be subordinate to the natural law as understood in Aristotelian-Thomism, i.e., in Catholic belief, to God. (Heinrich A. Rommen, The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy.  Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1998, 45.)

Thomas Aquinas
     Taparelli’s concept, however, was not a true social ethics, but individual ethics with a good intention toward the common good. (Rev. William J. Ferree, Introduction to Social Justice.  New York: Paulist Press, 1948, 10.) What Taparelli developed was a new principle of social justice as an application of traditional virtues meant to benefit individuals directly, but with a general intention to benefit the whole of society indirectly.

Most (if not all) of today’s confusion about social justice results from trying to resolve the socialist and the Taparelli versions of social justice and come up with a consistent definition.  Obviously, however, a theory of social justice that says the natural law is subordinate to the will of the people (socialism), and one that says the will of the people is subordinate to the natural law (Taparelli) can never be reconciled.

The second stage in the development came in the 1920s from Pope Pius XI (Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti, 1857-1939; elected 1922), possibly in reaction against the activities of socialists and modernists like Msgr. John A. Ryan.  Pius XI developed a doctrine of social virtue explaining how the human person gains direct access to the common good.

In Pius XI’s thought, traditional individual virtues benefit individuals directly, and society indirectly.  Social virtues, on the other hand, benefit society directly, but individuals indirectly.  Further, acts of individual virtues are carried out by individuals as individuals.  Acts of social virtues are carried out by individuals as members of groups.

Those are important points, and you might want to read that again, then take a look at this graphic:



Schematic: Individual Virtue and Social Virtue



(Efficient Cause)

Direct Object

of Virtue

Indirect Object

of Virtue

Individual as Individual

The Human Person

The Common Good

Individual as

Member of a Group

The Common Good

The Human Person

Through acts of social virtue, then, human persons can effect necessary changes directly in the social environment — “the system” — conforming the institutions of the common good more closely to human nature.  This establishes and maintains the proper environment for becoming virtuous.  People can more easily become more fully human, because the system encourages them to become virtuous.

Pope Pius XI

For many years prior to his election Pius XI had made an in-depth study of Taparelli’s work.  Developing Taparelli’s principle, the pope appears to have realized that it is possible to bring the human person together with others in solidarity.  Significantly, solidarity is not a mere feeling, but acceptance and internalization of the principles that define a group as that specific group.

Through organized action directed at building or perfecting the common good, people can secure their natural rights and restructure institutions to conform to human nature as far as possible.  The work of social justice never ends, because institutions as human creations can never be perfect.

This is in sharp contrast to the principles of socialism that seek to absorb or subsume the human person into the State or collective.  Socialism tries to change human nature by abolishing natural rights and conforming it to “ideal” institutions as defined by some élite, thereby achieving a perfect society, “the Kingdom of God on Earth.”

Pius XI’s breakthrough in moral philosophy was this: the recognition of social justice as a particular virtue directed to the common good with a defined act of its own.

Pope John Paul II, Personalist

This was a major advance in developing a sound theory of personalism consistent with natural law and Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy.  Personalism being any school of thought or intellectual movement that focuses on the reality of the human person and each person’s unique dignity (Rev. Thomas D. Williams, L.C., “What is Thomistic Personalism?” Alpha Omega, Vol. VII, No. 2, 2004), it demands that the institutions of the common good be equally accessible by every natural person, i.e., by every human being, and thus that every person have power.

Full and direct access to the common good in turn requires more than every person being able to exercise the full spectrum of the classic individual virtues and rights.  This is because individual virtues and rights only grant indirect access to the common good.  A holistic understanding of rights and virtues at both the individual and social levels, however, requires that each person have direct access to the common good and all its institutions through the free exercise of the social virtues, especially social charity and social justice.

The bottom line here (as we have said before) is that social justice is not a substitute or a replacement for individual justice and charity, but a virtue in its own right, directed to the common good.  For example (straight out of Quadragesimo Anno) here is CESJ co-founder Father William Ferree’s analysis of how most people completely misunderstand social justice.  As Pius XI stated,

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.)

Fr. William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D.

Now, here is what Father Ferree had to say about this particular passage:

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.)

In other words, social justice does not consist of doing things for people directly, but in making it possible for the things to be done!  Yes, that’s pretty mind-blowing to generations of “Social Justice Warriors” and other activists, convinced they were “doing” social justice by demanding others do things.

It’s also pretty upsetting and rage-inducing . . . if, like Msgr. John A. Ryan, you define social justice as direct action benefiting individuals instead of direct action on the common good, and you deviate even from Msgr. Taparelli’s principle of social justice by ignoring or revising the natural law, especially the natural right to private property.

And that’s exactly what Msgr. Ryan did, and why he seems to have had such a rage and ongoing vendetta against Fulton Sheen, as we will see in the next posting on this subject.