The Personalist Project

NB: I posted this article last week on the Member Feed at Ricochet, a site dedicated to discussion within a "center/right" perspective. It was partly in response to several comments and posts over the months since Pope Francis was elected expressing worry that he appears to be a lefist. I'm re-publishing it here, since it touches on personalist themes and questions too.

Argentine Cardinal Bergoglio’s election to the papacy has caused some consternation on the right.  He has been known to criticize capitalism, decry excessive disparities in wealth, and tout “social justice”—things American conservatives and libertarians naturally associate with a disastrous political and economic leftism.  Loyal Catholic conservatives have been quick to remind everyone that the Pope is only infallible in the areas of faith and morals, not economics or politics.  But that reassures only up to a point.  Most of us—Catholic or not—grasp

1)   that the economic realm is not so easily separable from the moral and doctrinal realms, and

2)   that, like it or not, the Pope’s influence extends well beyond the strict limits of his charism of infallibility.

A leftist Pope would, without question, advance the cause of the left and depress the cause of the right.

My aim in what follows is not to make a case that the new Pope is actually a man of the right.  It is rather to distinguish the leftist notion of social justice from the Catholic notion of social justice, so that when we hear the Pope use the term, we don’t leap to wrong conclusions.  We don’t assume he’s a leftist, and we don’t miss out on what he’s actually saying.

Keep in mind that the “the Catholic idea” is the idea that emerges from the doctrines and authoritative documents of the Church and “lives” naturally in the minds of faithful Catholics (i.e. Catholics who conscientiously conduct their lives according to those teachings). It is not to be confused with the ideas of many or even most people who identify themselves as Catholic. Many Catholics, like the population generally, have been infected with the leftist idea of social justice, so that very often Catholics’ ideas are markedly out of step with Catholic ideas, if you follow me. Regardless of how many members practice and/or defend birth control—to take a parallel case—it remains true that the Church opposes contraception unequivocally as inimical to the mystery of life and love. Similarly, no matter how many nuns, priests and parochial schoolteachers, say, may be infatuated with liberation theology and “the social gospel,” the authentic Catholic notion of social justice remains something very different.

Very different of course doesn’t mean totally different.  There are key points in common.

Both concepts were formed in response to a cluster of historical and cultural developments, namely, the industrial revolution, the rise of capitalism, and the decline of the agriculture-based society. Notwithstanding the significant material benefits these developments conferred, it cannot be denied that they also involved some large-scale human upheaval, including:

  1. The breakup of natural communities and extended families, as workers migrated toward industrial centers.
  2. A rising problem of alienation—from God, from others, from nature, and from the traditions and customs that had previously “sheltered” and rooted personal life.
  3. A tendency for persons to be reduced to functionaries in a system—cogs in a profit-making wheel.  (De Tocqueville put his finger on this concern when he noted in Democracy in America that increasing the efficiency of the worker through specialization of function tended to reduce him as man.  “The art increases, the artisan decreases.”)
  4. The bifurcation of society into contending economic classes: the owners and managers living in opulence, and the workers living in poverty.
  5. The exploitation of the environment on a scale previously impossible.

These inter-related phenomena are what gave Marx his opening—what made his theory appealing and plausible across nations and generations.  Workers felt themselves alienated. They felt themselves used. They experienced the inhuman noise and grime associated with industry.  They saw their bosses getting super-rich, while they labored like slaves and seemed to get further behind in life.   (I’ll never forget that mournful tune my mother used to sing sometimes: “Sixteen tons a day and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt… Peter, don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go, for I owe my soul to the company store.”) 

The fact that these same workers were cut off from former communities and traditional, more spiritually enriching ways of life made it easy to fan the flames of envy and resentment that fire the engine of revolution. (It’s much easier to dehumanize and despise the rich owners you’ve never met than the Lord of the Manor, whom you know personally, whose wife cared for you in sickness, and who has shown your family generous hospitality on numerous occasions.) The comradeship of the labor movement in industrial centers substituted for the lost natural kinship of village and town.  Devotion to the cause substituted for devotion to religion. (If you don’t believe me, read Whittaker Chambers.  Read Simone Weil.  Read D.H. Lawrence. Read How Green Was My Valley and Max Havalaar and Grapes of Wrath….  If we want to defeat Marxism, we need to come to terms with the real human problems that made it attractive.  We need to understand how and why it ever resonated in the first place.)

Being concerned with the good of persons, the Church saw all this as it unfolded.  She saw the problems that attended the industrial revolution.  She saw the way the wealth that capitalism created for those who knew how to take advantage of it often involved the exploitation of the poor and vulnerable.  (It’s no use denying it, it did.)  She saw the way being severed from natural communities meant persons were spiritually adrift in the world, tending to lack a right sense of meaning and identity, making them vulnerable to all manner of abuse.  She also and at the same time observed the rapid rise of evil ideologies.  She saw how they were sweeping the world and threatening darkness and violence on a hitherto unthinkable scale.  She saw that all this called for a new, deeper and fuller articulation of certain fundamental moral truths (always implicitly present in the doctrines of our Faith) about the nature of persons and their relation to God and to society, among them:

  1. That there is a communitarian dimension to personal existence (entailing a repudiation of a radical individualism.) Our individuality is shaped, even to a large degree constituted, by our relations to others, which means we have responsibilities to others and for others. Persons flourish in communion with one another; they suffer when they lack communion.
  2. That there is such a thing as the common good for which we are collectively responsible, and that this common good involves spiritual and cultural goods as well as material goods.
  3. That every laborer is to be treated as he is in truth: a person of infinite worth and dignity, an end-in-himself, never to be used as mere means, whether for pleasure or profit.
  4. That just as no individual may domineer and abuse another, no group or class should be “lording it over” others—enriching and aggrandizing itself at the expense of what’s due to others.
  5. That the earth’s resources are a gift of God to be cherished and shared with all, not expropriated and hoarded by a powerful, rapacious and luxurious few.

Her new elaboration—beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum—of these and related truths is summarized in the term “the social teachings of the Church.”  The term “social justice,” I gather from a web search, was coined in 1840 by a Jesuit priest.  It has been formally incorporated into the Church’s teaching over the course of the last 100 or so years, including the documents of Vatican II.  It is, as Cardinal Bergoglio put it, “a true and proper development of general justice.”  It refers, at least in part, to right relations between segments of society: men and women, old and young, rich and poor, black and white, “Jew and Greek,” employers and employees, able and disabled, majority and minority...  Social injustice occurs when one segment is permitted (by manipulating the levers of power) to illegitimately dominate and mistreat another. Think, for example of the Apartheid regime in South Africa, or the Jim Crow laws, or the treatment of women under Sharia, or the “generational theft” taking place in America now through deficit spending on welfare programs. These are “structural wrongs” that can’t be addressed or remediated by throwing the perpetrators in jail. They can only be addressed on a societal level, through changes in law, custom, and culture.

While the Church pondered the question of social justice and its exigencies, the left made its own use of the concept.  Its take is a drastic reduction and bastardization of the Catholic meaning, just as communism is a grotesque and diabolical perversion of the authentic notion of communion.

To make the point more concrete, I’ll lay out a number of key differences between the Catholic sense and the leftist sense.   The first four are preliminary and fundamental; the rest more directly concerned with economics.  The list is not exhaustive.

  1. The left replaces the personal God of Christianity with impersonal world-historical forces.  It “immanentizes the eschaton,” while the Church holds that perfect justice is only achieved in eternity, by God.  Human efforts toward justice will always be incomplete and imperfect.  It is a dangerous illusion to think we can achieve justice here below by putting the right people and policies in place.  “The idea that men can be as gods and re-create a paradise on earth is the serpentine promise of the Left. It is an idolatry that overshadows all others.” Horowitz, David. Radical Son: A Generational Oddysey (p. 415).
  2. For the left there is no transcendent moral order against which the justice of individuals and societies is measured.  There is only “progress”.  Hence, the end justifies the means.  Whatever and whoever advances the cause is good; whatever and whoever stands in its way is bad. Power is wielded to benefit its proponents and marginalize its opponents. For the Church, there is an objective moral order, discernible through right reason, against which all persons and policies, groups and governments are to be judged. The role and duty of human authority is to restrain bad acting so that the good can flourish.  No good end can justify inherently evil acts or policies.
  3. Leftism is a secular religion that denies the doctrine of original sin.  It holds that man in his “natural” state is good and innocent.  He is corrupted by unjust social structures.  According the Church, all persons, governments, associations, and institutions are affected by the fallen human condition.  Social injustice grows out of the sinfulness in the human heart. As Solzhenitsyn put it, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties, but right through every human heart— and through all human hearts.”
  4. The Catholic sense of social justice holds that there is a “givenness” about reality—the nature of the person and the created order—that must be respected.  According to the left, nature is fundamentally manipulable—something to be shaped according to human will.  So, for example, that we are created male and female and that the sexual union of man and woman engenders children, the Church recognizes as given in the design of the human person.  Good laws and policies comport with such basic facts.  The left recognizes no “given,” no design.  It asserts the right and grabs for the power to shape reality however it wants.  So, while for the Church, human law is subject to Reality, for the left, Reality is subject to the will of those in power.
  5. For the left, “social justice” is first and last about the political order.  It is achieved through the application of state power, i.e. by coercion.  For the Church, social justice is primarily about the moral order, which is to say, it can only be achieved through freedom.  An individual doesn’t become generous by having his money confiscated; a society doesn’t become just through force.
  6. In the left’s vision of social justice, the individual is subordinate to the collective, while in the Catholic concept, social justice is grounded on the individual rights and dignity of persons.  Individuals are metaphysically prior to any collective.  Communities exist to serve the good of individuals, not vice versa. (Cf. CCC: 1929 “Social justice can be obtained only in respecting the transcendent dignity of man. The person represents the ultimate end of society, which is ordered to him…” and 1930: “Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy.36 If it does not respect them, authority can rely only on force or violence to obtain obedience from its subjects.”)
  7. In the left’s vision of social justice, personal responsibility is abolished, or radically reduced.  Guilt and victimhood are determined by your place in the collective or your cooperation with or resistance to “progress.”  Crimes are overlooked or imputed not according to individual responsibility, but according to what advances the cause. Likewise, benefits are granted or withheld not on the basis of merit or need, but on the basis of belonging to the group.  Are you black?  You’re a victim of racism.  Are you white? You’re a perpetrator of racism. Are you a woman? You deserve a leg up.  Are you a (white) man? You need to be knocked down a few pegs. Are you a delinquent? You must not have gotten enough handouts.  Are you rich? You must have taken more than your fair share.  And so on. The Catholic notion of social justice, by contrast, is grounded on the deeper moral principle of personal responsibility. 
  8. The left’s notion of social justice aims for income equality. The Catholic notion of social justice doesn’t, though it does warn against the danger of “excessive disparities” in wealth, of the kind endemic in, say, South America and Communist countries, whereby an elite class live and rule in luxury, while the masses barely survive.  The Catholic Church proclaims the equality of persons as persons, under the law, and in front of God.  But it grants that persons are not equally gifted, equally fortunate, or equally virtuous.  That means some will be rich and some will be poor.  Some will be powerful and some will be needy.  All of that is perfectly fine, provided the rich and powerful respect the rights and dignity of the poor and accept a proportional responsibility (that is, responsibility in proportion with their power and influence) for the common good.  What’s not fine is for the rich to hold the poor in contempt, to reduce them to subservience, or to treat them as mere means to the end of profit.  It’s also not fine for a powerful few to seize and hoard resources that, at least in a sense, belong to all. Think, for example, of the House of Saud treating the oil of Saudi Arabia as a private family fortune. 
  9. The leftist idea of social justice aims at determining outcomes. The Catholic idea aims at creating the conditions within which individuals can provide adequately for themselves and their families.  (Cf. CCC, 1928. “Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation.”)
  10. The left conflates society with government; the Church doesn’t.  Government is only one aspect of society, hence the moral injunction beginning, “society must ensure…” is not to be taken to mean, “the government may enforce…” (Cf. CCC, 2431: “However, primary responsibility [in the area of economic activity] belongs not to the state but to individuals and to the various groups and associations which make up society.”)
  11. The left views private property as essentially divisive and abusive, “the root of social conflict.” In the Catholic understanding, private property is closely bound up with human dignity. It is the natural reward of hard work and upright living.  But, the right to private property is qualified by two things: 1) what we owe to God, 2) what we owe to others.  In other words, the “self-made man” of the capitalist ideal is a chimera.  His life, health and smarts were a gift from God. His education and training he owes, typically, to his parents and teachers.  The good laws, infrastructure, and policing that allowed his business to prosper were bequeathed to him by others.  In justice, then, he owes a portion of his earnings to society.  To God, we owe gratitude, and generosity toward the less fortunate.  This kind of “giving back”, of “making a return” for the good we have received, in contrast with the leftist mode of confiscation, has a moral radiance that benefits society well beyond the material good it does.  It is the opposite of the resentment and envy provoked by miserly hoarding.  I once heard a son say in a eulogy for his rich Catholic father, “Dad used to teach us, “Money is a lot like manure: Pile it up and it stinks; spread it around and it can do a lot of good.”  This is Catholic social teaching in a nutshell.
  12. The Church endorses free markets in the economic sphere as the best and means of just wealth-distribution, consistent with the demands of human dignity.  She warns against the inefficiencies inherent in highly centralized, command economies.  She opposes the abuses and excesses endemic in the Welfare State, wherein the state absorbs into its bureaucratic morass functions that properly belong to associations closer to the person. (Cf. Centesimus Annus, 48: “By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.”)  The left reviles free markets and aims at centralizing state power and collectivizing the means of production.

I could go on. But I hope enough has been said to at least sketch a picture in broad strokes.  When the Pope speaks of social justice, he is not naively adopting leftist terms and notions without understanding their implications.  Much less is he falling in with the atheistic secularism and materialism that animates the left’s “progress” in the world.  Rather, he is speaking carefully and thoughtfully, drawing from a long and deep tradition of Catholic moral reflection applied to the unique circumstances and challenges of our age.  He is furthering the Church’s mission in the world by directing our attention to fundamental moral values and principles that challenges all societies and economic systems.  He is calling us to a kind of societal conversion toward a more just and more perfect way of living our life in common—a “civilization of love.”

One hundred years after the publication of Rerum Novarum, Pope John Paul II, personalist philosopher and spiritual father of the Solidarity Movement in Poland, promulagated a commemorative encyclical, Centesimus Annus.  (Emphasis in the original.)

During the last hundred years the Church has repeatedly expressed her thinking, while closely following the continuing development of the social question. She has certainly not done this in order to recover former privileges or to impose her own vision. Her sole purpose has been care and responsibility for man, who has been entrusted to her by Christ himself: for this man, whom, as the Second Vatican Council recalls, is the only creature on earth which God willed for its own sake, and for which God has his plan, that is, a share in eternal salvation. We are not dealing here with man in the "abstract", but with the real, "concrete", "historical" man. We are dealing with each individual, since each one is included in the mystery of Redemption, and through this mystery Christ has united himself with each one for ever. It follows that the Church cannot abandon man, and that "this man is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission ... the way traced out by Christ himself, the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption."

This, and this alone, is the principle which inspires the Church's social doctrine. The Church has gradually developed that doctrine in a systematic way, above all in the century that has followed the date we are commemorating, precisely because the horizon of the Church's whole wealth of doctrine is man in his concrete reality as sinful and righteous.

Comments (2)

Sam Roeble

#1, Sep 3, 2013 1:32pm

Thanks for this post.  It needed to be said.  The continuity with which the Church has always approached labor, the worker (best represented by St. Joseph), and society, is the answer to all the conflict still left over from the global economic crisis of the past few years.

James Barclay

#2, Sep 8, 2013 2:44pm

Bingo! Katie.  If someone was reading Peter Maurin or Dorothy Day that would be it.  The continuity with the personalism of the Church has been the continuity in the Catholic Worker Movment.  And, Samise, I love the mention of St. Jospeh and I hope you meant St. Benedict Joseph LaBre.  This is the "Gentle Personalism" he was speakling of.  I was able, finally, to get a copy of Emmanuel Mounier's "Personalism"  My favorite clarity of the spirituality is in "The Kingdon of God is With You" which is on Gutenburg.

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