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Catholic Social Doctrine: Priority of the Good over Right

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
March 8th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

To recover our classical and Christian heritage, which is ever ancient ever new, we should turn to the Catholic social doctrine.  And I do not mean the Catholic social doctrine as filtered by left-wing (or right-wing) ideologues, dissenting theologians, or others who are wolves in sheep's clothing.  I mean the Catholic social doctrine as proposed by the Church's Magisterium.  The real thing.  Get it from the source: Read the Bible, then read the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.  Most of what you need to get started is within the covers of those two books. 

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - Relying on reason and guided by Revelation, the Church has her own political philosophy, or perhaps better, principles of political philosophy.  The Church rejects the political visions of many upon whom the modern State is founded: of Machiavelli, of Hobbes, of Locke, of Hume, of Kant, of Rousseau, of Marx, of Rawls, and of a large list of others.  These have led us to a dead end, and it is time to recover our classical and Christian heritage, for it is the most human of all others out there.

To recover our classical and Christian heritage, which is ever ancient ever new, we should turn to the Catholic social doctrine.  And I do not mean the Catholic social doctrine as filtered by left-wing (or right-wing) ideologues, dissenting theologians, or others who are wolves in sheep's clothing.  I mean the Catholic social doctrine as proposed by the Church's Magisterium.  The real thing.  Get it from the source: Read the Bible, then read the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.  Most of what you need to get started is within the covers of those two books. 

Standing far above the thinkers of modernity and seeing much further and clearer than them, in the Compendium, the Church offers a personalist vision of politics and a personalist theory of authority.  The Church's personalist political philosophy is based upon the nature of man, i.e., the fact that he is a person and that he operates under a natural law.  She therefore holds to a theory that good has priority over right, and not that right has priority over the good.  For the Church, it is the good that defines right.  It is not the right that defines the good.

The progressivist blogger Jeremy C. Young hit the nail on the head when he said, "If you want to understand President Obama's soul, read his books.  But if you want to understand his beliefs, read John Rawls." 

John Rawls--the political philosopher of secular liberalism par excellence--somehow thought that giving right the priority over good would end the interminable squabbles over what was good.  Personally, Rawls was driven to this because he despaired of man's ability to know the good, whether through reason or revelation.  Raised an Episcopalian, as a young man Rawls--overcome by the horrors and accidents of war which ruins some but brings the best in others such as St. Maximilian Kolbe--rejected the God of his fathers, the Christian God.  He despaired of knowing the truth and ended up hating the God of his fathers and the God of his countrymen. 

Rawls hated our God.  Catholics ought to know that before they read him.

Read Rawls's early book A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith and his much later and posthumously published "On my Religion," and you will be saddened by the descent of a soul which looks like Michelangelo despairing, condemned man in the Sistine Chapel slowly being drawn into Hell.  The Liberal guru Rawls's last thoughts on the subject were that he saw Christian moral teachings as "morally wrong in some cases even repugnant."  Taking Christianity seriously, the chief theoretician of liberalism opined, "could have a deleterious effect on one's character."

Christianity's ethics repugnant?  Christianity ruinous on one's character?  Really?

Moved by this anti-Christian animus, the brilliant but misguided Rawls--who epitomizes the modern American political philosopher--created a political theory based upon indifferentism to truth and moral relativism (and one, though draped in the words of neutrality, was really biased in favor of liberalism and against natural law, which means against Christianity). 

In one way Rawls was certainly right.  His theory kept us from arguing about the good, but in consequence, all that happened was that we are interminably squabbling over rights.

The ethical and so also the political worlds are divided into two: those who give priority to the good over the right, and those who give priority to the right over the good.  Classical ethics and political philosophy emphasizes good over right.  Modern ethics and political philosophy emphasize right over good. 

The classical view is virtue-based.  It relies on such luminaries as Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Hooker, Suarez, Vittoria, Bellarmine, and the American Founding Fathers . . . oh . . . and also the Popes. 

Since the modern view is not based upon the good, it has to find a substitute for it.  Therefore, the modern view--where just not simply Epicurean and built around self-pleasure or self-fulfillment--is either duty based (e.g., Kant), utilitarian-driven (e.g., Mills and Bentham), contractrarian (e.g., Locke, Rousseau), value-based (Scheler), or based on emotivism (e.g., Hume, Moore, Ayer).

The Church's social and political doctrine is classical, not modern.  It is therefore timeless.  The Church teaches the timeless truth that the modern penchant of holding the priority of right over good is wrong.  It is bad for man.  It is bad for his societies.  It is bad for his political institutions.

Here's the thing: in order to hold that good takes precedence over right, one has to have a conception of what is good for man.  That means one has to know what is man's purpose, what is his end (in Greek, his telos).  This means before we can speak about justice (right), we have to know what's good for man, what is due him.  It's silly to talk about rights when we don't even know what is good for man, for there is no right if there is no good to support it.  We cannot talk of justice if we do not know what is due man, what is his good, for justice is giving a man his due.

Someone who believes in the classical view of things--that the good precedes the right--will find all this talk about rights without having knowledge of the good as silly.  Modern politics is silliness, silliness handled as if it were serious, but silliness all the same.  And will always be silliness, until we get down to talking about the good.

The classical construct fell apart for a variety of reasons, including the religious divisions caused by the Reformation, the efforts of the thinkers of the Enlightenment, the Darwinian materialistic pseudo-philosophy that so effectively captured our intellectuals in the 19th century, the rise of Pragmatism, and the influence of Liberalism which viewed society as a group of individuals, each of whom had interests, ends, and conceptions of the good that were equally valid, and among which visions government had no business of choosing.  The abandonment of the notion that man had an end (telos), that man's good was defined by his nature and its inclinations, and that we could discover it, led to a prioritization of the right over the good and this required a re-definition of justice.

Since moderns have abandoned any good for man and rely only on rights without any basis in the good, what this means is that justice in the modern liberal order is essentially procedural.  Justice has no substance, since if justice is to have any substance there must be an understanding of the good.  Without a substantive basis in an objective good, justice becomes conventional--a matter of agreement or a matter of the positive law of the State alone.  In jurisprudence, we call this positivism.  This means rights are given to us (posited for us) by the majority or by the government, since they are not based upon our good, our nature, but on our wants or the wants of others.  Ultimately, this leads to what Pope Benedict XVI has called the tyranny of moral relativism.

In the final analysis, the notion of the priority of the right over the good is self-defeating.  It is a slogan intended to avoid the hard thinking that is required to know the good.  Either that or a cover for libertinism.  In either event, it is a cowardly retreat into skepticism, into moral agnosticism.  As Charles Taylor put it in his Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, "the good is always primary to the right" if for no other reason because "the good is what, in its articulation, gives the point of the rules which define the right."

The modern refusal to face the good, to ask those tough questions--what man is made for, what is his end, and what inclinations and order are built within the nature that is given to him by his Creator--is what is at the heart of its reversal of the classical and Christian principle that the good has priority over the right, and not that the right has priority over the good.

In short, put away Rawls's A Theory of Justice, Political Liberalism, and Justice as Fairness.  Instead, open up your Bible, the Compendium and, if you really want to feel like a counter-cultural radical, break open the Papal social encyclicals and let them inform your thinking. 

It may be one of the most patriotic and freeing thing you do.

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Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

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