It seems that His Excellency, the Most Reverend Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, and current president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, is creating a bit of a stir. Last week, on Thursday, November 4, 2021, he made comments (or “railed” or “ranted,” depending on who’s doing the reporting) branding “new social justice movements” as “pseudo religions” and “dangerous substitutes for true religion.”
Well, Archbishop Gomez is wrong, and we have no hesitation in saying so. There is nothing “new” about these social justice movements at all . . . unless you count the label hung on them by Pope Gregory XVI in 1834 when he referred to them as rerum novarum: “new things.”
Otherwise, His Excellency is absolutely right. What most people think of as “social justice,” i.e., the “new things” of socialism and modernism, have been “pseudo religions” and “dangerous substitutes for true religion” from the very beginning — and were explicitly intended as such.
To explain, as we noted in yesterday’s posting, widespread understanding of “social justice” these days is really a widespread mis-understanding, and has been for nearly two centuries. As we noted, the correct understanding of social justice is not redistribution or any other form of socialism or moral relativism, but to enable the individual virtues to function as intended. That’s all.
|Chesterton: Attacks from within and without|
Unfortunately, what happened is that in the early nineteenth century a number of people decided that what the world needed was a new religion and politics to replace the failed religions and political systems of an earlier day. Underlying this was a shift in the understanding of “liberal democracy” from a theory that recognizes the sovereignty of the individual human person under God (personalism), to one that recognizes only the sovereignty of the abstraction of humanity (collectivism) or that of an élite (individualism).
As G.K. Chesterton noted in his book on Thomas Aquinas, the attacks on traditional Christianity came from both inside and outside Christianity. From the outside they eventually became known as “socialism,” while from the inside they came to be called “modernism.” In both cases they were initially known by various religious labels, such as “the Democratic Religion,” “the New Christianity,” “Neo-Catholicism,” and so on.
As an example of what was going on outside Christianity while claiming to replace it with something better, take the strange case of Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon (1760-1825). Fasten your seatbelts. You’re in for a very surreal ride.
|Henri de Saint-Simon|
Saint-Simon early on exhibited an animus against traditional forms of religious, civil, and domestic society. At the age of thirteen his family imprisoned him for refusing to make his First Communion. Later he ran away to fight for democracy in the American Revolution and was captured and imprisoned by the British until freed by the Treaty of Versailles. He married a wealthy woman for her money, then divorced her a year later in the vain hope of marrying one even wealthier.
Saint-Simon’s proposals and projects for the improvement of society were grandiose. In 1783, he presented an idea for a canal linking the Atlantic and the Pacific to the Viceroy of New Spain (Mexico). In 1788, he put together a comprehensive — and unworkable — program for the economic revitalization of the Spanish economy.
During the French Revolution Saint-Simon made a fortune in speculation, but then was imprisoned for nearly a year. After his release under the Directory (1795-1799), he proposed the formation of a gigantic savings bank to fund his philanthropic projects with other people’s money.
Despite leading a vicious and dissolute lifestyle, Saint-Simon preached the need for a universal moral code and the scientific and social reform of humanity. As a result of his profligate habits, he was bankrupt by 1805 and tried to make a living as a copyist supplemented with what his writings would bring. He failed to generate sufficient income to support his chosen lifestyle and became notorious for sponging off of friends and acquaintances.
Finally, in 1823 Saint-Simon attempted suicide but was no more successful in that than in anything else. His social ideas, however, intrigued Olinde Rodrigues (1795-1851), a banker, mathematician, and social reformer, who agreed to support him in his basic necessities for the rest of his life.
In 1803 Saint-Simon had begun publishing works detailing his religious, social, political, and economic ideas. These focused on “associating” all of society in a unified whole, integrating production with a moral code based on science. This, being objective and scientific, could be coercively enforced.
Augustin Thierry (1795-1856) became enthusiastic about Saint-Simon’s vision of an ideal future society. As Saint-Simon’s “adopted son,” Thierry served as Saint-Simon’s secretary from about 1814 to 1817. After Thierry left to pursue his interest in history rather than religious political economy, Saint-Simon replaced him with Auguste Comte (1798-1857), the future founder of positivism.
By 1819 Saint-Simon and Comte had decided that society needed to be run by religious authority of some kind, but not one relying on traditional concepts of a transcendent God. Comte would develop this idea more fully after Saint-Simon’s death in his “Religion of Humanity” that replaced God with Collective Man.
|Joseph-Marie, comte de Maistre|
Influenced by Joseph-Marie, comte de Maistre (1753-1821), Saint-Simon and Comte developed the idea of a society organized like a “medieval theocracy” in which people would all associate on the basis of shared moral values and common social vision. In place of civil governors or ecclesiastical authorities, however, there would be an “Industrial Hierarchy” wielding economic, political, and military power, the last of which would soon fade away as society became harmonious.
By putting everything under the Industrial Hierarchy, there would be an end to conflict between classes and universal prosperity and harmony would ensue in a scientifically and morally directed economy. Democratic only in name, the whole of society, construed as exclusively economic in nature, would be devoted to material improvement, with special emphasis on uplifting the poor.
According to Saint-Simon, Christianity had been useful in its day, but that day was now past. He decided a new religion was needed to replace Christianity, not merely reform it along economic and humanitarian lines.
|Le Nouveau Christianisme (1825)|
Consequently, in his last book, Le Nouveau Christianisme (1825), “The New Christianity,” Saint-Simon declared himself the prophet of a “true Christianity.” This was a universal religion returning to the pure doctrine of Christ with the goal of evolving a rational, scientific, positivist religion. A global social organization stressing “the spirit of association” and based on peace and the brotherhood of man would direct economic life and bring an end to poverty.
Saint-Simon’s goal, like that of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), was “to resolve Christianity into its essential elements” by focusing on the moral teachings and removing anything purely religious. Unlike Jefferson, however, Saint-Simon summed up his efforts in the precept, “The whole of society ought to strive towards the amelioration of the moral and physical existence of the poorest class; society ought to organize itself in the way best adapted for attaining this end.”
As the Encyclopedia Britannica comments, “This principle became the watchword of the entire school of Saint-Simon.” It represented a complete reversal of the proper role of “society” — the State — which is directed to the care of the institutions of the common good, not providing individual goods, except as an expedient in an emergency.
In Catholic social thought, the common good should be structured so that people can meet their own individual needs through their own efforts. Only when institutions fail is “society” to step in and provide individual goods, and then only until the social order can be restructured so that it once again provides the opportunity and means (“access”) for people to take care of themselves.
For Saint-Simon, however, education, persuasion, and voluntary cooperation were to be the means of instituting the Kingdom of God on Earth. Only if that failed would coercion be applied.