A lot of fuss was made recently about President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Barrett, belonging to a group called “People of Praise.” Now, what Judge Barrett does on her own time is own business, and this has nothing to do with her qualifications or lack thereof for the position of Supreme Court Justice.
|"Natural law rules, moral relativism drools."|
No, what we’re after here is a brief discourse on the difference between individual or personal virtue, and social virtue. The fact is that “social justice” has gotten a very bad name in large measure because people keep insisting on confusing individual justice with social justice.
Now, this discussion is not “religious” but “natural law.” It just so happens that a religious leader was the one who developed a “completed theory” of social justice . . . which doesn’t mean that it is fully developed or articulated, but that it holds together without contradiction. The People of Praise are (is?) clearly for individual virtue and life, not social virtue and the “bios politikos” — the life of the citizen in the State.
Pope Pius XI addressed one of the missing pieces in Leo XIII’s thought. This was through Pius XI’s development of 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.
Through acts of social virtue, 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.
For many years prior to his election Pius XI had made an in-depth study of the work of Msgr. Aloysius Taparelli. Developing Taparelli’s principle of social justice (that all acts should have a “good intention” to benefit the common good), 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.
|Pope Leo XIII|
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.
Leo XIII’s program in Rerum Novarum took for granted what individualists and collectivists alike did not even consider possible: that people can directly access and reform the common good. Pius XI’s breakthrough in moral philosophy was the recognition of social justice as a particular virtue directed to the common good with a defined act of its own. This resolved one of the major difficulties with the social program (as distinct from the social doctrine) of Leo XIII.
Building on Leo XIII’s thought in this manner 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, 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.
Two factors seem to have kept people from understanding the social virtues as something distinct from the individual virtues. First and foremost is the failure to realize that the social virtues are not directed to individual goods or natural persons.
|Fr. William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D.|
Social virtues (acts or habits) are directed to the “objects” of the common good and “artificial persons” — institutions that affect persons. Second, the efficient cause or subject (that which carries out the act of a virtue) of both individual virtue and social virtue is the human person.
There is, however, a difference between the efficient cause of an individual virtue and that of a social virtue. Where the efficient cause (that which carries out the act) of an individual virtue is the individual person as an individual, the efficient cause of a social virtue is the individual person as a member of a group. As Father William Ferree explained,
It is surely nothing new to suggest that man is the efficient cause of the act of social justice; but something that has not been sufficiently adverted to is that only the member of a group is capable of such an act. A completely isolated individual cannot practice social justice, even though he be a man in possession of all his powers. . . . All men, utterly regardless of any theories Aristotle may have had about foreigners, resident aliens, slaves, mechanics, and laborers, are efficient causes of social justice, insofar as they can perform any act of virtue, i.e., be in possession of the “use of reason” and exercise of their will.
Pius XI’s social doctrine thereby solved one of the most serious problems of modern life: the powerlessness and thus alienation of the human person from society — but with one critical omission. Social justice and its commanded act told precisely the theoretical who, what, when, where, and why, but it left the practical how incomplete.