Preface for Maundy Thursday

It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ our Lord; who for our sins was lifted high upon the Cross, that he might draw the whole world to himself; who by his suffering and death became the author of eternal salvation for all who put their trust in him.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Pacifisticuffs, Part Three: "No One Can Breathe Against Their Will"

Christianity and the Republican party are almost inextricably linked in the American mind today. Even before the advent of the controversial HHS mandate, the nearly universal Democratic endorsement of abortion, and its friendlier attitude to gay rights, as well as to various forms of state intervention in the home -- all this made the GOP and the churches seem to be natural allies. Moreover, the more liberal disposition of Republicans to the rights of business, forming a strong contrast to Marxism and its ideological relatives, seemed to many (if only by being opposed to Marxism, which has never disguised its utter hatred of Christianity) a natural complement to Judeo-Christian values.

The idea of class warfare is largely a foreign one to our minds. Venerable Dorothy Day declared herself a pacifist in the class war, and it meant something at the time, since radical and even revolutionary sentiments were then by no means unknown in this country; today she would probably be met chiefly with blank stares, and perhaps one histrionic rebuke from an intensely conservative, but not traditionalist, Catholic.

I don't espouse the concept of class warfare as set down by Marx. Having finally read the Communist Manifesto, and having found it a puzzling mixture of insight, illogicality, eloquence, and colorlessness, I feel safe dissociating myself from it without undue prejudice: the notions that all conflicts among men are economic in origin, that the bourgeoisie are to be naturally and rightly mowed down by the proletariat, and that violence is an appropriate means of accomplishing this end -- I can accept none of these things. I am not a materialist, and even if I were, I can see little reason to view humanity through an exclusively economic lens; nor as a Catholic Christian do I believe that any kind of men are naturally or rightly opposed to any other kind.

But to say that the rich do not, in point of fact, make war against the poor, and that the poor do not at times respond in kind, seems impossible. Oppression is one of the salient facts of human existence, and that oppression very frequently takes the form of economic oppression. Or, to put it more simply, the rich exploit the poor. To call it war does not seem to me to be overstatement; for it is often precisely lives, through livelihoods, that are at stake. Or, to quote Ambrogio Ratti, better known as Pius XI:

"In the first place, it is obvious that not only is wealth concentrated in our times but an immense power and despotic economic dictatorship is consolidated in the hands of a few, who often are not owners but only the trustees and managing directors of invested funds which they administer according to their own arbitrary will and pleasure. This dictatorship is being most forcibly exercised by those who, since they hold the money and completely control it, control credit also and rule the lending of money. Hence they regulate the flow, so to speak, of the life-blood whereby the entire economic system lives, and have so firmly in their grasp the soul, as it were, of economic life that no one can breathe against their will. This concentration of power and might, the characteristic mark, as it were, of contemporary economic life, is the fruit that the unlimited freedom of struggle among competitors has of its own nature produced, and which lets only the strongest survive; and this is often the same as saying, those who fight the most violently, those who give least heed to their conscience." -- Quadragesimo Anno, paras. 105-107

His Holiness' words, penned in 1931, remain true, and relevant, in our own day -- succeeding as they did on Pope Leo XIII's famous encyclical on the rights of labor, Rerum Novarum, and since followed by others, such as Bl. John Paul II's Centesimus Annus, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Many Christians today give every impression of categorically dismissing such sentiments as these, and even of viewing capitalism as part and parcel with the faith itself. Those Catholics who do not dismiss the teaching of Humanae Vitae on contraception may well dismiss the repeated affirmations of the Magisterium that individualistic capitalism is not compatible with the faith either. Nor, with its Darwinian concept of the market and its divorce of economics from all moral considerations -- "as if it were for charity to veil the violation of justice which lawmakers not only tolerated but at times sanctioned" (Quadragesimo Anno, para. 4) -- could it be expected to be allied to Christianity. And in fairness, it is not only the Popes who have stated flatly that Liberalism (as it was then called) was in essential conflict with the faith; the free-market Liberals themselves said so.

Am I then professing socialism? No. To the extent that I sympathize with any political causes, the only two I much credit are anarchy (with qualifications that need not detain us) and monarchy; monarchy being, in my view, a close second-best to anarchy, and a cut above representative democracy, if only because kings are more easily caught than committees. One of the great falsehoods of the American political system is the notion that capitalism and socialism are the only two economic -- and, by extension, political -- systems on the market, or that at most any real organization of society will be some compromise between the two, as natural extremes.

What I do profess, with some warmth, is that the churches have been widely discredited by the commonplace acceptance of the economic theory of man -- an intrinsically utilitarian thing. Capitalism, from its inception, reduced man to the status of a machine for making profits, instead of a being with rights to be respected -- for instance, the right to a just wage and to decent conditions of work; something that no agreement can nullify: a man does not waive his right to what his humanity entitles him to, merely because he settles for the little he can get out of a desperate need to survive. And socialism (as Chesterton pointed out) simply took that view of man and reversed the status of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in fulfilling its demented and disastrous course. In capitalist countries the poor have nothing; in communist countries it is the same, with the addition that there are no rich -- except the governors. The Catholic Church, virtually alone, has attempted to stem the tide of this diseased view of man; but her rank and file, at any rate in this country, have not been conspicuous for their prophetic alternative in economic life; and American Catholic politicians, from Ted Kennedy to Paul Ryan, have shown themselves more American than Catholic in their willingness to compromise on matters of justice in order to secure political support.

What does any of this have to do with pacifism? Well, the fact that radicalism in politics often issues, both theoretically and practically, in revolution, is no small matter. The still graver reality that there cannot be peace without justice ought to be a warning to us, too. But I am not espousing a revolutionary solution, for the simple reason that I do not believe revolutions solve anything whatever. I don't mean that they are invariably or necessarily unjust; but what is needed is a revolution of man himself. Aristotle wisely remarked that men do not become tyrants in order to keep warm. Men become tyrants because they are men who have the same passions and pleasures that we do, and wish to indulge them. There is no depravity inherent in the powerful that is not, at least, potential in ourselves.

I seek a pacifist solution to class war as well as to military war. That solution is conversion of heart. Only by mutual commitment to justice and charity can economic violence be solved; and there can be no mutual commitment to justice and charity except by a personal commitment to these things. Society will not do for us a job that we decline to do ourselves; for society is only a name for ourselves, considered en masse. Both inaction (as the capitalist may desire) and revolution (as the socialist may promote) leave the nature of things as they are. We must act -- but we must not be violent, for force does not produce peace.

Act how, then? I have said it here before, and I will say it again: Reform yourself. It is the only thing you can ever do, ever. Give to the poor, work for an equitable system, but above all, seek and pray for a just heart. It is out of just hearts that just societies are made. They aren't made of anything else.


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  2. I greatly appreciate your blog and wish you all the best. I particularly appreciate your uniting of nonviolence and chastity, the call to interior conversion and mercy amid so much contempt and disdain.