For some reason, the criticisms we expected from yesterday’s blog posting did not materialize . . . at least as anticipated. We expected that people would claim that we were being disrespectful to Pope Francis, that we were dissenting from Catholic teaching, so on, so forth, etc., et al., so it goes.
|St. Thomas Aquinas|
There were a few hints of that, of course, but by and large the reaction was favorable . . . except from people who wanted to argue whether there are such things as absolutes. This might not have bothered us so much had it not been in a FaceBook group ostensibly devoted to the discussion of Thomism, that is, the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas . . . which is based on the assumption that there are absolutes and that absolute truth cannot change. Applications of truth, certainly, but not truth itself.
That is why, for example, the right to property, an absolute truth, is absolute in every single human being. The rights of property, on the other hand — applications of the absolute truth of the right to property — are necessarily limited and socially defined according to particular circumstances.
Understanding this requires a discussion of the first principle of reason that is the foundation of the entire philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas.
To explain, the first principle of reason can be stated in two ways, one positive, one negative.
Positively, the first principle of reason is called the law of identity. That is, that which is true is as true, and is true in the same way, as everything else that is true.
|Asserting natural law is relative puts you. . .|
For example, a rock is as much a rock as every other rock. It might be igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic, but it is fully a rock. A semi-rock cannot exist, any more than someone can be a little bit dead. Furthermore, a rock is as truly a rock as a tree is as truly a tree, an animal is as truly an animal, or — and this is the point — as a human is as truly a human. Semi, partial, or incomplete humanity is out of the question.
Negatively, the first principle of reason is called the law of (non) contradiction. That is, nothing can both “be” and “not be” at the same time under the same conditions.
For example, a rock cannot at the same time be a tree, nor a human be that which is not human. Most importantly, nothing can both exist and not exist at the same time.
So how does this apply in discussions of social and economic justice, especially when contrasting, e.g., socialism and Catholic social teaching? It dates back to the early nineteenth century when Catholic social teaching was first recognized as a separate field within the greater body of natural law theory.
Having observed the damage done by mistakes in philosophy, politics, and theology by the socialists and modernists, Monsignor Luigi Aloysius Taparelli d’Azeglio, S.J. (1793-1862) developed a principle of social justice to correct the errors. In 1840 he published Saggio Teoretico di Dritto Naturale — “The Theoretical Essay of Natural Law” — to explain his principle.
The socialist version of “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. This is pure moral relativism, which is what happens whenever you get away from the idea of natural law as an absolute.
In contrast, 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.
This, however, was not a true social ethics, but individual ethics with a good intention toward the common good. 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.
As Aristotle explained in the Nichomachean Ethics and the Politics, this is sound guidance for the bios politikos, the life of the individual citizen in the State. It does not, however, address specifically social problems, such as flaws in our institutions that inhibit or prevent the exercise of individual virtue.
Most (if not all) of the confusion over social justice results from generations of scholars and advocates attempting to resolve the socialist and the Taparelli versions of social justice and synthesize 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. Any attempt to do so, or even define it in any meaningful way, can only result in contradiction.
Essentially, Taparelli’s work did no more than restate traditional moral philosophy. As such, it was no more effective at countering socialism and the other new things than papal condemnations had been. Social justice remained, by and large, a euphemism for socialism, and people continued to be alienated from society at an accelerating rate.
The equivocal passages in Pope Francis’s latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, exhibit this confusion, resulting in a document that, as we noted, should in our opinion be withdrawn and corrected to remove the confusion.