Truth, justice, and the mystery of evil

Catholics have been willing to accept prudence as the prime political virtue. But that willingness is one reason many people have found Catholicism too worldly.

Detail from "Temptation of Christ" (1872) by Vasily Surikov [WikiArt.org]

God’s unity and simplicity mean that for Him truth, justice, and power are all the same. He isn’t conflicted, doesn’t do half-measures, and never loses.

The evident reality of falsehood and injustice makes that hard to understand. We can understand the unity of truth and justice, but power seems something else. If God is all truth and justice, and He’s all power too, how can there be evil?

The difficulty is practical as well as theoretical: the basic problem of politics is how to join truth and justice with power.

Can we do that? If so, how?

Plato was the first to think about the problem systematically. His answer was that kings must be philosophers, people who through natural gifts and long study have attained to knowledge of what justice really is. Having attained that knowledge, they would then proceed to realize justice here on earth—although perhaps at the expense of truth, if we bear in mind his concept of the “noble lie”.

He admitted that success in such an enterprise was unlikely, noting for example the clumsiness of many philosophers in everyday affairs. But he thought it important to have a solid ideal of a just society as an ultimate reference point. And he thought it important to show such a society was at least possible. Otherwise “justice” would be too empty a word.

Experience has confirmed his judgment as to likelihood. Rulers who try to realize grand social schemes have often brought about disaster. And they have rarely been philosophers in Plato’s sense. Marcus Aurelius tried to be one, and for the most part was a good emperor, but he realized the limitations of his situation and made no attempt to turn the Roman Empire into Plato’s republic.

Many have hoped for more. Moses proposed a comprehensive system of law, but it included concessions to human weakness, and was never put completely into effect. The prophets were more restrained, and limited themselves to denouncing particular abuses and dreaming of a kingdom of justice to be established by divine intervention. Their denunciations had limited effect, and the reign of justice they foresaw has yet to materialize.

Jesus, who spoke very little about secular government, seems yet more restrained. He was willing to submit to established authority, for example with regard to the payment of taxes. And Paul, his follower and interpreter, told Christians to honor and obey secular rulers. But neither said much about how to take part in public affairs, and both ended up getting put to death by the world’s most highly regarded government.

And it’s not obvious how to apply the Gospel to secular public affairs. Is it wrong for government to think about the morrow? Are the courts really obligated to forgive murderers seventy times seven times? And what is spiritual about making decisions for people and forcing them to comply?

Given such difficulties, the Church has tended toward a natural law understanding of political life—at bottom, taking experience, common sense, and practical judgment as guides. There is plenty of biblical and theological support for that approach. The Book of Proverbs and Paul’s letters are full of practical wisdom, and if God made the world and called it good, then the way the world works and our natural goals and normal ways of achieving them must also at bottom be good.

So Catholics have been willing to accept prudence as the prime political virtue. But that willingness is one reason many people have found Catholicism too worldly. It was the devil who said he could offer Jesus dominion over the kingdoms of the world, because they had all been delivered to him. If that’s so, why is it right to pay much attention to worldly practicalities? And if the Faith simply commands us to act like normal people exercising everyday prudence, what’s so extraordinary about it?

Also, the magnitude of evil, and the difficulty of doing much about it or even acting rightly ourselves, can make common sense seem grossly insufficient. Times of upheaval multiply those impressed by such difficulties. People want to do something, but conditions compel a sense of the world’s intractability.

That creates special difficulties for modern people, whose view of the world has been formed by the example of technology and industrial organization, and feel a consequent obligation to reconstruct the political world to make it more just. The French activist, writer, and mystic Simone Weil provides an example. She was an ardent and perceptive woman with great logical powers. (She came by them naturally—her brother André was one of the world’s great mathematicians.) As the world headed toward the Second World War she like others saw good reason to emphasize the opposition between what is good and what is powerful.

Also, she was originally a communist who accepted that worldly affairs were ruled by material forces. When religious experience—including a vision of Christ—led her to give up her materialism she retained her sense of the power of amoral force. The good, represented by the Gospel, became for her worthy of all love but utterly powerless.

That outlook led her to sympathy with the Marcionites and Cathars, who rejected the material world along with the God of the Old Testament. Even so, she retained her commitment to political activism, but in a form detached from practicality. The Free French in London had her write think pieces about the shape of French society after the war, but her most passionate efforts went into a scheme to get herself parachuted into occupied France to serve as a combat nurse with the Resistance. (Her health was bad, and she had no training as a nurse.)

Weil lived intensely, gave her all, and died before her views had matured—many say before she was baptized. So she’s more a source of insight and inspiration than guidance. After the War, prominent Catholics who shared her concern with political and social matters tried to find a way toward something more practical.

They were generally hopeful, but their efforts often involved what seems a willfully optimistic misreading of secular tendencies. Pope Saint John XXIII set the tone for the Second Vatican Council and the period that follows. His encyclicals took an optimistic view of industrialization, spoke to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and favored generally technocratic methods for dealing with social problems: social planning, the welfare state, world government, and confidence in the natural and human sciences.

As an intelligent and experienced man he knew there could be problems, but didn’t seem inclined to take them seriously. As he commented in his opening address to the Council:

Not, certainly, that there is a lack of fallacious teaching, opinions, and dangerous concepts … But these are so obviously in contrast with the right norm of honesty, and have produced such lethal fruits that by now it would seem that men of themselves are inclined to condemn them, particularly those ways of life which despise God and His law or place excessive confidence in technical progress and a well-being based exclusively on the comforts of life.

So he recognized practical atheism and the technological consumer society as issues but apparently expected them simply to vanish in the light of truths obvious to everyone. That optimism, and the accompanying trust in secular progress, deeply affected the Second Vatican Council and the following period. For the most part Pope Francis carries them forward.

In fact, though, secular progress has meant an attempt to unite a scientistic view of truth and a hedonist and egalitarian view of justice in a bureaucratic and commercial system of power. The result has been an inhuman regime that suppresses every authority except money and bureaucracy, including such humanly necessary ones as family, religion, and particular cultural tradition.

So if Simone Weil’s gestures seem quixotic and futile, and secular progress has turned destructive, how do we bring power, truth, and justice together? Now as always, it seems that the right course is political prudence, which is realistic about secular movements, combined with a constant effort to live by and propagate a better vision of man and the world. That is the Church’s classic strategy and is now as valuable as ever.


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About James Kalb 105 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

9 Comments

  1. Kalb writes of modernity’s nostrums: “[The] optimism, and the accompanying trust in secular progress, deeply affected the Second Vatican Council and the following period. For the most part Pope Francis carries them forward.”

    “CARRIES THEM FORWARD”? A severe hyperbole. Instead, in the cited critique of Laudato Si (First Things) Reno concludes more that Laudato Si is simply not up to the mark as a Church TEACHING. Yes, he does also fault Laudato Si for endorsing a bromide merger of modern Technocracy and Global government…

    But, instead, in the particular instance of Laudato Si, are we dealing more with a collage of cut-and-paste ghostwriters plus scientific amateurism, all blessed with hastily edited inclusiveness? Two points:

    FIRST, a camel is a horse designed by a committee.

    As an admitted exploratory document, Laudato Si” still seems too hastily (and ideologically) cobbled together by too many hands, as to the nature, the causes and the solutions to ecological problems (sacrificing too much for the sake of political timing, in advance of the Paris Climate Accord?). At one point the document would “REVERSE the trend of global warming” (n. 175, anthropogenic causation); at another it would “ADAPT” to “climate change” (n. 170, the alternative multiple causation).

    Authentic prudence—and across the political divide—would have been a morally-grounded, strategic and welcome Church teaching (but buried in the additive composition).

    SECOND, institutional architecture.

    Laudato Si eclipses Subsidiarity (mentioned in n. 157) behind one-dimensional Solidarity—with its rhetorical advocacy of a “true world political authority” (n. 175). Not much effort, either, to build POSITIVELY on a few existing and longstanding initiatives and models: on-the-books requirements for (the requested) environmental impact statements (U.S. 1969), some corporate triple-bottom lines (profits/people/environment), and public/private and even global preservation programs, e.g., the Nature Conservancy.

    On the difference between global GOVERNANCE versus world GOVERNMENT, too little time or effort or possibly insight. The more cogent, consistent and precise Pope Benedict was less likely to be ignored by some or exploited by others (Caritas in Veritate, nn. 57, 58, 67).

    And Pope John XXIII (referenced by Kalb), was clear enough too: “, “But WHATEVER THE SITUATION, we clearly affirm these problems should be posed and resolved in such a way that man does NOT have recourse to methods and means contrary to his dignity . . .” (Mater et Magister, 1961, caps added).

  2. Mystery. If God is all truth and justice, and He’s all power too, how can there be evil? (Kalb). Consequently, “How to join truth and justice with power”. The remainder of this article doesn’t respond directly to the first question. Nevertheless not to be outdone by a theological quibble Lawyer Political Theorist James Kalb answers the first question indirectly suggesting evil is in the will. Of men. Kalb’s references that in concluding his study of secular and religious commentaries that indicate to this reader success at joining Truth and Justice with power requires good intent. Technically virtually any form of government seems valid as Kalb suggests in citing Christ. The Dilemma. John XXIII – who “favored generally technocratic methods for dealing with social problems social planning, the welfare state, world government, and confidence in the natural and human sciences” – was putatively naive. Pope Francis rigorously [my take not Kalb’s] “Carries them forward”. Without that religiously oriented good intent, “The result has been an inhuman regime that suppresses every authority except money and bureaucracy, including such humanly necessary ones as family, religion, and particular cultural tradition”. Kalb’s correct resolution “is political prudence”. The Temptation is well chosen as entree to this article. Satan’s offer of worldly authority presumes an exchange, Christ surrendering his real suzerainty, the spiritual leaving The Prince of this World free rein. If I may add my thesis here, that transaction has successfully taken place during this pontificate.

    • Triune Oneness = (1 + 1 + 1 = 1)
      versus
      Groupthink =(“Pluralism” = “My name is legion, for we are many” [Mt 8:28-34])`

    • For clarification. That a transaction has successfully taken place during this pontificate doesn’t imply a sort of two party agreement. Rather that a policy of secularization beginning with Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin’s acquiescence to China regarding Catholicism in that nation [previous approval of China’s communist cultural, demographic vision], the ideological restructure of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute on marriage and family, a secular globalization emphasizing socialist egalitarianism, ecology as primary to personal mores – in effect an overall capitulation to a worldly, less than Christian posture.

      • There’s another important issue raised by James Kalb the belief that all government is corrupt based on Satan’s claim to ‘ownership’ implied in the Temptation. Which is not the case, for example Israel’s Judges, King David, Cyrus of Mesopotamia were just rulers. Similarly Our Lord commends Christians respect the emperor The Apostle adds pray for the emperor or ruler. That total authority of Satan over government never existed except prior to the Crucifixion although his influential power was great, post Crucifixion severely weakened. That’s because the transaction never occurred, Christ refused. Since the Crucifixion and Satan’s defeat, his power curtailed we’ve had many just governments. And of course absolutely evil. Today China [its government under Xi Ping] with its annihilation of the Catholic Church, ruthless demographic policy on birth and forced abortion, harvesting of body parts by unjust executions for research and sale, and growing indication of purposely spreading a devastating global disease with apparent purpose of gaining supremacy fits the description of what Baptists call totally depraved. The Great Dragon a China cultural symbol has found a true home.

  3. “It was the devil who said he could offer Jesus dominion over the kingdoms of the world, because they had all been delivered to him. If that’s so, why is it right to pay much attention to worldly practicalities? And if the Faith simply commands us to act like normal people exercising everyday prudence, what’s so extraordinary about it?”

    Because the Devil primarily accomplishes his purposes through those in power. Failure to contest the powerful person or the erroneous principle leaves open the strong possibility that the public will suffer greatly. For instance, when the state becomes the primary educator of the young, then you have the strong possibility that corruption (i.e. evil) will occur.

    “So Catholics have been willing to accept prudence as the prime political virtue. But that willingness is one reason many people have found Catholicism too worldly.”

    I suspect that it isn’t necessarily the virtue of prudence, but the vice of pusillanimity which hides itself as an angel of light.

    “Also, the magnitude of evil, and the difficulty of doing much about it or even acting rightly ourselves, can make common sense seem grossly insufficient. Times of upheaval multiply those impressed by such difficulties. People want to do something, but conditions compel a sense of the world’s intractability.”

    It’s not really that difficult (although it can be really risky). All that one needs to do is displease those in power with a relatively large audience, and somehow, have it documented/recorded. The moral sense will lead those who can to punish the powerful wicked. This is how the civil rights movement in America in the 1950s and 1960s was successful.

    The saying is that it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. I would say that it is best to light the candle where everyone can see it.

    “That creates special difficulties for modern people, whose view of the world has been formed by the example of technology and industrial organization, and feel a consequent obligation to reconstruct the political world to make it more just.”

    Technology and industry don’t necessarily make the world unjust. It is the policies which people have believed to be essential to their success (e.g. free market ideology) which have caused the injustice.

    There are some, such as Oren Cass, who are (perhaps providentially) starting to question the erroneous presuppositions.

    “So he recognized practical atheism and the technological consumer society as issues but apparently expected them simply to vanish in the light of truths obvious to everyone.”

    But given the human capacity for wickedness and error resulting from the same, the truth must be TAUGHT. It may seem very obvious to those who possess it, but, for instance, how surprised adults are at the potentially fatal mistakes that young (1-2 year old) children make due to their ignorance?

    This is why much of the world continues towards increasing evil.

    It may be a unique/rare gift (or grace) of mine, but I have noted in looking at photographs a sense of evil radiating out from, for instance, a line up of very immodest cheerleaders. It may have to do with how ugly they appear from a spiritual perspective. Granted, one can’t (without God’s help) see a person’s soul, but concepts/forms are not perceptible.

    “In fact, though, secular progress has meant an attempt to unite a scientistic view of truth and a hedonist and egalitarian view of justice in a bureaucratic and commercial system of power. The result has been an inhuman regime that suppresses every authority except money and bureaucracy, including such humanly necessary ones as family, religion, and particular cultural tradition.”

    This is a good observation, and is a reason that intellectuals are valuable to a culture.

    You are knowledgeable enough to understand the problem. “The love of money is the root of all evil.” The issue is that most politicians love money more than justice, even if they had any idea of what justice REALLY is. This is what comes from a complete lack of religious tests as qualifications for public office. We have, unwittingly or not, shot ourselves in the foot, politically speaking.

    Of course, it was Protestantism which started the whole fiasco. With no understanding that there IS RELIGIOUS TRUTH, it was deemed to be expedient to forbid a religious contest for political power, by explicitly denying the possibility that any religion (true or false, although it may not have been thought of in these terms) can obtain a dominance in the legislature.

    “So if Simone Weil’s gestures seem quixotic and futile, and secular progress has turned destructive, how do we bring power, truth, and justice together?”

    This can happen through religious tests for public office. At least with that qualification, CATHOLICS who have THE TRUTH will be able to exercise their influence. Most people (based on studies that I am, by hearsay aware of, about 80%) are followers, so even if not EVERY politician is good, the force of a few courageous leaders will probably be enough to sway (along with vigorous prosecution of bribery).

    The politicians themselves, will, more than others, stand in need of the exhortation of the Church hierarchy. On the other hand, the hierarchy MUST be able to advocate for political positions to their congregations (i.e. the voters).

    This whole excursion reveals the fundamental weakness of democracy: there is no guarantee that the majority will create just laws, and there is no massive appeal, once the laws (just or unjust) have been created, to any higher law (i.e. the natural law) WITHOUT the general and effective influence of the Catholic Church.

  4. I think it is important to note that after the resurrection, and consequent to the ascension and pentecost, the tables are, in fact, turned on worldly authority. I suppose that prudence is good, but there is also the eschatological context in which all history, subsequent to Jesus, is placed. Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me . . . .” Cf Mt 28: 18 ff. No Christian political theology can exist without this prior understanding. A fantastic modern thinker in these precincts would be Oliver O’Donovan. Esp. his Desire of the Nations.

  5. James Kalb,
    Truth is necessary for Justice. The Holy Spirit of Truth necessary for Divine Justice. Put Mercy with the Spirit of Truth and the result will be Divine Justice with Divine Peace – for what is Justice without it bringing Peace too?
    All this together is the Power of God.

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