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Catholic Social Thought in Proper Context | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | September 29, 2011
Brian Benestad, Church, State, and Society: An Introduction to
Catholic Social Doctrine
Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011.
"The concept of justice as order in the soul of the individual needs to
be rediscovered today." — Benestad, 144.
"Nowadays, service to others is often presented as the distinguishing
characteristic of a Catholic university; but without linking that service to
the prior task of seeking truth and achieving some order in one's soul through
prayer, a sacramental life, acceptance of the Catholic creeds, and the practice
of Christian morality. It seems naïve to me, and even Pelagian, to think that
Christ-like service can be informed and embrace without a foundation in
Christian doctrine and a basis in learning." — Benestad, 284.
We have been waiting for this remarkable book for a long time, one that
knows not just episcopal and papal thought but the whole history of theology,
political philosophy, and philosophy at large. This book has roots not only in
the Greeks and Romans, but also in Scripture and the great theologians of the
Church. And it is aware of the pitfalls of language and ideas that often steer
Christian thinkers into the heady, dangerous realms of ideology. Dr. Brian
Benestad knows his Locke and Hobbes, his Marx, and the more modern liberal
relativist theories associated with Rawls and other American writers.
Benestad, at the University of Scranton, is the best qualified and able
of American scholars to write an overall understanding of Catholic Social
Thought, which has tended to become a rather narrow and isolated body of
knowledge. Benestad's mentor, whom he often cites and whose collected essays he
edited, was the late Father Ernest Fortin, A.A. Fortin, along with Heinrich
Rommen, Jacques Maritain, Yves Simon, John Courtney Murray, and Charles N. R.
McCoy, was certainly the most critical and acute mind in the intellectual
circles of his time. Fortin covered the whole gamut of thought from Plato,
Aristotle, and Cicero, to the Fathers of the Church, Aquinas, Aquinas, Dante,
and into the modern world. Fortin was familiar with Strauss and Bloom and their
critiques of modernity.
This book is more than the "introduction" of its sub-title. It is
nothing less than a critical, philosophical reflection on the whole tradition
of what is loosely called "social thought or doctrine." It knows its way through
the relation of reason and revelation. Its range includes economics,
environmentalism, universities, political institutions, war, life and family
questions, subsidiarity, and culture. Metaphysics is always just below the
Benestad, to be sure, unlike Plato, Aristotle, and the current pope,
does not have much to say about music. But he makes remarkable use of classic
literature and novels to illustrate virtues and vices. He is obviously a
broadly learned man in the tradition of liberal education. This overlook of
social thought is doubly necessary as many of the basic words and notions that
are found in modern thought and in political usage are anything but neutral or
friendly to what Catholicism is and what it holds.
Thus, a major effort of Benestad is to clarify what is meant by
"justice," "rights," "social justice," "values," and "dignity," the language
that even the popes and bishops have, sometimes incautiously, chosen to use to
explain Catholic positions in the public order. Each of these words has an
ancient or recent history that is anything but self-evident. Different
philosophies make each concept in effect equivocal, not meaning at all what
other users mean.
Each concept or word needs to be carefully distinguished. We need to see
that what Hobbes meant by "rights" was not what Aristotle meant by justice.
Among these words and phrases, perhaps none is more necessary to rethink than
that of "social justice," a very modern phrase from the late nineteenth century
that cannot, in spite of heroic efforts to do so, easily be reconciled with
classic political thought or Christian terms. The phrase is inspired largely by
modern liberal thought that presupposes human autonomy with no relation to
natural or divine law.
Benestad does a remarkably fine job in tracing the roots and
implications of this phrase and how it might be properly used so that it does
not bear its ideological baggage from Locke or Rousseau. A major reason that
Catholic thought has not had the impact that it should is because words like
justice, values, rights, and dignity come from Hobbes, Locke, Nietzsche, Weber,
and Kant. They do not mean what it looks like they mean from a tradition of
Aquinas or Aristotle. Benestad, to his credit, is well aware both that these
words are the meat of modern discourse and the source of considerable
confusion. The book is a constant effort to relate rights to duty, dignity to
being, values to objective norms, and justice to virtue.
Indeed, it might well be said that the major effort of Benestad is to
show how no concept of justice as some sort of rearrangement of society can
stand by itself apart from the classical emphasis on the need of individual
virtue. We cannot have a "just" society if we do not have "just" people who
know that justice is not a subjective "right" or "want" but something that is
Aristotle's political philosophy had been well aware that regimes
reflect the virtue of the people that composed it. He knew we cannot have a
good regime and un-virtuous citizens. Modern thought has largely rejected this
to claim that vice and disorder can be cured simply by change of regime. It
doesn't and cannot happen that way, even though some regimes are better than
Benestad is completely familiar with what is known as modern Catholic
social thought from the work of Leo XIII on. He knows of Pius XI and Pius XIII,
John XXIII, and Paul VI. He is aware that in John Paul II and Benedict we have
something in the Church that has perhaps never existed before: two popes, one
following the other, both working together, who are themselves first class
scholars and (particularly in the case of John Paul II) charismatic leaders of
world historic significance. The world has done its best to refuse to
acknowledge their genius and the truth of their lives and teachings. In this
sense, our intellectual problems are initially moral ones.
Benestad is well aware of the extra-ordinary genius of the present
pope. His appendix is devoted to Caritas in veritate, the pope's third "social" encyclical. At one level,
it is amusing to realize that the Catholic Church has been headed since Leo
XIII at the end of the nineteenth century by men of superior intellect, but
more recently by men the equals of any minds or their own or any other time.
How little this intellectual foundation of the Church is appreciated within the
Church and culture is a judgment on the quality of the lived faith and ongoing
intelligence of our time.
The book contains four parts with twelve chapters. The first part
concerns "the human person, the political community, and the common good." Part
two covers "civil society and the common good, three mediating societies
(family, Church, and universities). Part three brings us to private property
and the universal destination of goods. Finally, part four is on the
international community and justice. It is in this latter section that Benestad
deals sanely with war and international institutions.
One thing that particularly struck me about this book is that Benestad
always makes his own judgment on the issues that he presents. The reader always
knows where he stands on the issues, and why. He is quite critical of many of
the politicized American episcopal initiatives in the social order, none more
so than that of Cardinal Bernadin's confused "seamless garment" doctrine. Often
such documents bear ideological traits that never should be there.
Benestad is a prudent man in the classical sense. And as he knows, that
prudence is a fundamental virtue both of politics and of scholarship. We want
to know where, on the basis of the evidence he presents, the scholar stands.
Too often issues of economics or politics are presented as absolutes whereas
they are contingent issues that could reasonably be otherwise. Benestad is always
clear on this distinction.
One of the best chapters in the book (they are all good) is the one on
the Catholic university. Benestad's remarks on the Jesuit general's view of
universities is most illuminating for those who wonder why things went wrong.
Benestad's mentor, Father Fortin, also spoke to this university issue. What
Benestad recognizes is that universities are not simply training grounds for
jobs or for social action as they are often made out to be. He understands the
classical need of a study of the theoretic order as such.
understands that the very endeavor to study the classic authors, to think with
Plato and Aristotle and Augustine, is itself more likely to move the souls of
students to do what is right than any hands-on experience, however useful, may
accomplish. In addition, classic thought always keeps the issue of truth before
minds bent on action. This chapter is the best overall critique of modern
Catholic universities that I have seen, particularly if we add Father Fortin's
and Msgr. Sokolowski's remarks on Catholic universities. (Fortin, "Do We Need
Catholic Universities?" Human Rights, Virtue, and the Common Good; Sokolowski, "Catholic Tradition and the Catholic
University," Christian Faith & Human Understanding).
Two authors that Benestad frequently cites, Mary Ann Glendon and Jean
Bethke Elstain, along with Janet Smith, show not merely the importance of women
scholars, but of women scholars who do not just talk about women (though they
talk about them too). Benestad's chapter on the family reads like it is written
by a family man, which, of course, Benestad is. He understands how much danger
the family faced within society today.
Benestad is very careful to state and explain the validity of the
Catholic position on family, abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage,
cloning, and a host of other issues that are the topic of every day discourse.
He is quite aware of the most pejorative effect of many Catholic judges and
politicians on the undermining of the family. Benestad is wise to be guided by
Leon Kass and Robert George in many of these areas of bioethics and family.
In short, Benestad tells us what we need to know about Catholic Social
Thought. It is a serious book that requires careful reflection and reading. It
would be difficult to overestimate the importance of this book. I note that it
has little to say about Islam, surely a (if not the) major problem of the Church in the immediate
future. Likewise, I think that the nature of environmentalism needs more direct
analysis and criticism. It is the source of much modern totalitarian thought
and not just some effort to keep the earth for the future or the grass green.
On two issues I thought something was missing. One was the notion of
legal justice in Aristotle. Many recent Catholic writers have tried to make
this mean social justice in their sense. But for Aristotle it simply meant that
every act of an individual could affect the common good. Hence, it was also
open to legislation for this purpose. It does make the point that Benestad
wanted to make, namely, that the common good is not something apart from
private goods. The perfection of a virtue includes its relation to others.
With regard to the common good itself, I am sorry Benestad did not
refer to Yves Simon, perhaps our best thinker on this issue. The common good is
not some overarching good over and above everything else. Rather it is a good
that of its very nature allows other goods to exist and flourish. Without
careful distinction, it is quite easy to become a totalitarian by advocating
the "common good," not that I think Benestad does this, of course.
This book is the book in the
field because it knows the whole field, including the philosophical questions
to which revelation is addressed. Benestad has clearly done his homework. I
read his earlier book on Catholic Social Thought, The Pursuit of a
Just Social Order, when it was first
published in 1982 by the Ethics and Public Policy Center. It was clear to me
then that Benestad was a young scholar to whom we could look with utter
confidence that things would be seen and judged in a profound philosophical and
The present book is simply the fruit of thirty years of thinking on
this topic and talking it over with his students, to whom he often refers, and
with fellow scholars. It is something to be savored and studied, and yes,
enjoyed, for its calm pursuit of the truth of things, even and especially
political and social things.
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James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007),
and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age,
is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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