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Systems or Individuals? On society, justice, and metaphysics

What is so disturbingly lacking in this recent wave of discussion of “civil rights” is that it has been completely evacuated of the metaphysical underpinnings of human dignity.

One of the marvels of nature is how tremendous beauty, diversity and harmony are built on some of the most elementary building blocks. Mankind, with his genius, by means of technology and art, has made what Dante once called the “grandchildren of God”: the works of our hands. Some of these works, as the liturgically, biblically and theologically informed person knows, can be elevated to divine purpose. Others are perverse: creation twisted and morphed for malicious purpose. Human societies as well as individuals thrive or perish in relation to whether they embrace transcendent moral truth, or revolt against the same.

In the past few weeks, the United States has been involved in a societal debate. There is a paucity of commentators and ‘influencers’ who are able to come to grips with the magnitude of anger and distress with clear thought and sober judgment. Further few have the courage to stand against the fury of the mob. The assertion by a very vocal ideological minority is that the United States of America is systemically racist. I do not have the time or resources to either confirm or refute that assertion, although there are plenty of others who have. I for one have serious questions, especially legal and historical, for those who make this claim. Yet what I find most troubling in almost all this public rancor is how much anger seems directed toward systems as proxies for individuals, rather than individuals as representative of, or contributors to, systems. Once again, I think the Church has a lot to share in regard to this debate.

In philosophy, the subject of mereology is one of the oldest around: what is the relationship of a whole to its parts? Aristotle of course famously said that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Of course, this philosophical debate spills over quite readily into questions of morals and especially problems within society. Traditionally, our culture has been, as Alasdair MacIntyre famously reminded us, one based upon the question of justice as that which defines moral social exchange. However, in criticizing the ‘system’ as it currently exists, no one seems to be able to define what its alternative is, other than its destruction. This is different than civil rights movements in the past. It is also why ‘defund the police’ chants are so common, a manifestation of legal and juridical nihilism: there is no moral end (telos) behind the current moral panic, just like there is no real moral end to any of the dilemmas of post modernity. As the slide into the absurd continues without seeming to stop, the human person and his dignity is probably the first and greatest casualty in this newest iteration of the culture war. When a society cannot decide with certitude that the most innocent of life, that of the unborn, is worth defending against the will of another, we have completely undercut the basis on which we can say definitively that any life ultimately matters. This is not just a further attack on the concept of universal human dignity from the common moral sense; our current societal spasms, with their emphasis on ‘system’, are also attacking individual or personal human dignity and agency.

In the vast majority of traditional Western thought, an individual has been conceived as having a natural association with his family and his community. Let me state as a relevant aside that this is not just the insight of Westerners, whose thought is demonized as simply the thought of “old white men”. This is also a thought fundamental in Confucianism and other philosophical traditions. It belongs to the common moral heritage of humanity, not simply to the variant of homo sapiens sapiens with the least melanin in their bodies.

Especially in light of the Civil Rights Act in the United States, and as we have strived to remove unjust laws like segregation and the like, even going so far as to promote Affirmative Action to undo the damage wrought by economic and educational inequalities, one has to ask: where do these assertions of systemic injustice come from?

As a citizen and as a person who believes in the classical, immemorial conception of Justice, I can completely support reforms in policing, public policy, and other matters. But what I find so disturbingly lacking in this wave of discussion of “civil rights” is that it has been completely evacuated of the metaphysical underpinnings of human dignity. Without this, we are poised only to create new aggrieved classes, not a truly just society. A society is only just in so as its individuals are. As Augustine famously remarked in his commentary on the Late Roman Empire, without justice, civilization is merely a “den of thieves”, preying on each other.

An important set of truths that we as people of faith are well positioned to reassert is that of solidarity/subsidiarity. That is to say, it is simultaneously true that people have a duty to both care for their neighbor, and that said care is most authentic when done in the most “neighborly”, relationally local way possible; as such, it is a work that cannot be sublimated into the “system” outside of the responsibility and moral engagement of individuals. Most leftists dismiss social conservatives out of hand because most Western social conservatives now are Libertarians. Libertarians usually over-accentuate the individual while diminishing the scope of his necessary relationship to society. The fading Judeo-Christian cultural consensus, which transcends the Left-Right conflict of modernity, reminds us that, in the words of the late Christian Philosopher Ravi Zacharias what ultimately determines our societies’ direction is not whether it is left or right, but “up or down” in terms of its moral sense.

Christians, as Our Lord reminds us, are the leaven that makes the whole loaf of society rise. Wherever and whenever we are at our most authentic, we constitute an essential corrective to the tendency to disassociate individuals and systems. Our metaphysical worldview makes us capable of saying “Black lives matter” and “All lives matter” in the same sentence, because we do not view these as unrelated or opposed premises. They are related in ways which we have taken for granted. Unfortunately, most of our media and college-radicalized youth are disciples of Saul Alinsky, for whom polarization is an end to achieve power by destroying the creative tension between the fundamental ideas which have governed our laws and behavior. Most of the conflict we see, in my opinion, is driven by an ideological monomania, which has no underlying principle save that of revolution and counter-revolution.

All people of good will have a common obligation now to resist the “freezing”—to use Alinsky’s term—of persons and ideas, and to reassert the societal sovereignty of the “Logos”, or a society built on reason and transcendent value. One need not necessarily have a dogmatic commitment to Christianity to share and promote this. Wherever reason and dialogue is fostered over facile denunciations and hysteria, we hold back the forces of chaos and rebellion which seek to root up and undermine our common heritage. For us, our strategy is not solve et coagula, but sape et cognosce; seek to know what is true, so that we may in the end arrive at a common understanding. Unless we do this, we will find ourself under the Empire of Lucifer, to whom Alinsky dedicated his magnum opus. And that will not be a kingdom of light, but of thick and stultifying darkness.

(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared, in slightly different form, on the Scutum et Lorica site.)


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About Aquae Regiae 5 Articles
Aquae Regiae is the Nom de plume of Fr. Michael, a Catholic priest in the United States. He is the founder and main editor of Scutum et Lorica. He has two earned Masters Degrees in Divinity and Arts.

16 Comments

  1. Aquae Ragiae writes: “what I find most troubling [is the anger] directed toward systems as proxies for individuals, rather than individuals as representative of, or contributors to, systems […] the Church has a lot to share in regard to this debate.”

    This, then, from Pope Francis: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods. …The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent […] Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things [….] We have to find a NEW BALANCE; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards […] The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow” (cited in America Magazine, Sept. 30, 2013, CAPS added).

    So-called “social conservatives” often give too little credit to this reset, this missionary charter, and to the precarious position of the related moral edifice of the Church. Yet, these two questions:

    1. What about ranking of dogmatic teaching versus discounting moral teachings?

    Or is this Jesuitical casuistry? With Thomas More, is it more about the dignity of the acting human person himself and non-divisible self-respect (?): “When a man takes an oath [for example], he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then—he needn’t hope to find himself again [….and then greater than this self-respect] Well…finally…it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love” (Bolt, A Man for All Seasons).

    Or, IF there’s to be a pecking order, THEN what, exactly, takes precedence over the primary right of any innocent human life to not be directly exterminated? And of the basic unit of any viable society—marriage and family—to not be subsumed under ersatz gender theory including the oxymoron gay “marriage”?

    2. Pope Francis is greatly influenced by the gold-medal theologian Romano Guardini.

    Guardini counseled us to hold polarities in tension, rather than to reduce things to one polarity or another (the later Saul Alinsky). But the “anger and distress” within the Church itself, today, has little to do with polarities still retained in tension—but rather at the ground level, enabled violations of the non-demonstrable and “first principle of non-contradiction.” Yes?

    Wouldn’t it be a “contradiction” in practice to divorce matters of intrinsic morality and Natural Law, e.g., “abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” from both dogmatic teaching (mercy, yes) and a focus (yes, again) on systemic/global moral dangers and conundrums? A false either/or versus the Catholic BOTH/AND?

    • Mr. Beaulieu,

      Thank you for your comment.

      When I say the Church has a lot to offer this debate, I mean in her immemoral teachings and in the engagement of lay Catholics, hopefully aided by their Priests.

      I do not deny that we have had a severe deficit in leadership under Pope Francis under most observeable metrics.

      But it is not my standard procedure to complain about the inaction of hierarchs and other people whom I may never meet, especially when answers are closer to home, in the heart with God’s grace and in the local community.

      It’s almost like they used to say about old Austria: let the others wage their wars; you, happy Church, get to work!

  2. Justice as Aquae Regiae rightly says is the essential binding force of society. As to The whole is greater than the sum of its parts [which notion Aquae Regiae assesses correctly], closer examination of Aristotle’s own words help us understand how that affects a just society. “How to describe things in numbers and definitions, What is the reason for a unity/oneness? For however many things have a plurality of parts and are not merely a complete aggregate but instead some kind of a whole beyond its parts, there is some cause of it since even in bodies, for some the fact that the there is contact is the cause of a unity/oneness while for others there is viscosity or some other characteristic of this sort. But a definition [which is an] explanation is one [thing] not because it is bound-together, like the Iliad, but because it is a definition of a single thing (SententiaeAntiquae: Aristotle Metaphysics 8.6). Aristotle speaks to the varied causes of unity that make it susceptible to definition, not specifically that the aggregate is greater than its constituents. An example is Church and State. As to the Church the Mystical Body of Christ we may assume the whole, or Body is greater than its individual constituents. Nevertheless the Church as a Body mandates justice to all in all instances. Not necessarily the State since such a mandate exists theoretically if at all. It depends on the State in the practice of justice. Despotic states consider the individual expendable for the good of the State. A fear justifiably expressed by the author. During this crisis the spectre of an iconoclastic remake of the State, the annihilation of all Common Law, Natural Law, legal principles will perforce end with the imposition of the necessarily indefinable ideals of the power brokers. Despotism as has occurred in Seattle or the communes in the streets of Paris. “For us, our strategy is not solve et coagula, but sape et cognosce; seek to know what is true” (Aquiae). Reason if efficacious is right reason, which depends on Natural Law and revealed moral principles. Unfortunately Alinskyism is incorporated within Catholicism and the Vatican’s direction toward global humanism is in motion. Hence Lucifer’s dark kingdom is already stultifying. Few sentinels patrol the parapets. Our challenge seems more dependent on the work of grace than on rational dialogue.

    • Your mention of a sentinel on the parapets reminds of Antione de Saint-Exupery (author of The Little Prince, 1943) and his novel, The Citadel (aka The Wisdom of the Sands). The emperor discovers a sentinel sleeping at his post:

      “…I found my sentry sleeping at his post. That such a one should be punished with death is but fitting. For so much hangs on his wakefulness: the safety of so many men… and the closed temples full of sacramental treasures…and granaries…and sacred books which are the granaries of wisdom and…and the sick whose last end I make so peaceful according to the ancient customs [….] Sentinel, my sentinel, you are the very meaning of the rampart enwrapping like a sheath the city’s frail body lest it should pour forth its life; for when a breach is made, drained is its lifeblood …”

      “My wish is to save not you alone but your comrades. And to obtain of you that inner permanence which comes of a well-built soul […] Therefore will I send my men-at-arms to arrest you, and you shall be condemned to that death which is the death of sentries who sleep at their posts […] You are bartering yourself for something greater than yourself […] the empire.”

      The sentinel on the parapet? A part less than the whole. And yet with an “inner permanence” that still must be affirmed, especially to him. Therefore, the mercy of capital punishment! As for the time needed for possible conversion, this from Samuel Johnson: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

  3. We need good jobs for all.

    Simple.

    “An important set of truths that we as people of faith are well positioned to reassert is that of solidarity/subsidiarity. That is to say, it is simultaneously true that people have a duty to both care for their neighbor, and that said care is most authentic when done in the most “neighborly”, relationally local way possible; as such, it is a work that cannot be sublimated into the “system” outside of the responsibility and moral engagement of individuals.”

    What does this mean as we see 140 MILLION Americans in poverty?

    • “What does it mean as we see 140 MILLION Americans in poverty?” It probably means either fake news or 100 million cases of mistaken identity. . . According to the U.S. Bureau of Census in 2017 the number in poverty that year was 39.7 million (not 140 million).

      And of these, a large share are single-parent families, especially given that 40% (10% fifty years ago) of white children and 70% (40% fifty years ago) of black children are born out of wedlock, and that a lot of other cases are tragically failed marriages. Single moms struggle to make ends meet.

      So, much (most?) of “what does it mean” is that the family unit is being culturally exterminated. Much anti-poverty rhetoric seems to overlook this underlying fact. At the interreligious Humanum Conference of November 17, 2014, Pope Francis remarked:

      “Evidence is mounting that the decline of the marriage culture is associated with increased poverty and a host of other social ills, disproportionately affecting women, children and the elderly. It is always they who suffer the most in this crisis. The crisis in the family has produced an ecological crisis, for social environments, like natural environments, need protection.”

      On this point, there is a continuity with Pope St. John Paul II who broadly defined the Church’s “preferential option for the poor”:

      “This option is not limited to material poverty, since it is well known that there are many other forms of poverty, especially in modern society—not only economic, but cultural and spiritual poverty as well” (Centesimus Annus, 1991, n. 57).

    • Tom Laney,
      I think most people want to see everyone employed in a decent job, preferably one that provides a living wage but in our present world there are fewer folk with the discipline , dependability, and work ethic to keep a job. Add in widespread addictions and relationship issues and you see many ways people can fall through the employment cracks.
      Poverty in the United States doesn’t resemble poverty in the developing world.

      • You need to add in the offshoring of jobs that has been being done by the globalist financial elites. That way they pay developing world wages while selling their products at developed world prices. We have seen what this has done to the nation’s heartland in “fly over” country. The globalist elites like to pour bile on the people living there. Obama called them bitter clingers. Hillary Clinton called them deplorables. Micheal Bloomberg made insulting comments about farmers and factory workers. Are they trying to destroy the work ethic?
        *
        While I have no idea how they would have voted, the Holy Family, and many of the people Christ called to apostolic and discipleship roles were people who worked with their hands. Their socio-economic status has more in common with the Trump deplorables than it does with the globalist elites.

        • Greg,
          It’s a shame what’s happened to local manufacturing plants. We have a little historic town nearby that used to have a Fruit of the Loom plant. It provided employment to pretty much the whole community. After the plant was relocated it’s become a virtual ghost town. Even the small Walmart shut down. Drug dealing is about the only industry active now. Local kids aspire to be street pharmacists.

  4. Ravi Zacharias was a Protestant. The fact the he is called a Christian (i.e. only Catholics are Christians) by a person identified as a priest speaks volumes. There is a heresy called religious indifferentism and statements like these contribute to its spread.

    “Especially in light of the Civil Rights Act in the United States, and as we have strived to remove unjust laws like segregation and the like, even going so far as to promote Affirmative Action to undo the damage wrought by economic and educational inequalities, one has to ask: where do these assertions of systemic injustice come from?”

    The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (and modifications) is UNconstitutional. There is no enumerated power for the federal government to regulate private employment or university admissions.

    Unfortunately, the state nowadays probably doesn’t even recognize the concept of an unjust law. Certainly, probably most self-respecting lawyers would never utter the phrase in their client’s defense (a result of today’s corrupted SECULAR law schools AFAIK). I was informed by a self-identified Catholic lawyer that he wasn’t interested in making that kind of argument in my own defense of violating an unjust law. Perhaps he was afraid of losing his license or his reputation.
    Even though the evidence included a statement of my belief that the law was unjust, the jury found me guilty. (Please research the respected tradition of “jury nullification.”)

    Affirmative Action is a form of FAVORITISM which is the sin against distributive justice. Anyone can find more about it in St. Thomas Aquinas’s “Summa Theologica.” It is called respect for persons.

    “In the vast majority of traditional Western thought, an individual has been conceived as having a natural association with his family and his community. Let me state as a relevant aside that this is not just the insight of Westerners, whose thought is demonized as simply the thought of “old white men”. This is also a thought fundamental in Confucianism and other philosophical traditions. It belongs to the common moral heritage of humanity, not simply to the variant of homo sapiens sapiens with the least melanin in their bodies.”

    It is true that the family is a natural institution. The state is as well. Both of these statements can be proven by reason, and there is no need to reach out to non-Western sources to make or support the argument.

    “A society is only just in so as its individuals are. As Augustine famously remarked in his commentary on the Late Roman Empire, without justice, civilization is merely a “den of thieves”, preying on each other.”

    This is certainly true. Notice how this point is almost never brought up. Ever since the 1960s, radicals have been in the habit of accusing institutions (e.g. “the system”) and not the individuals within them. I have no problem with advocating that immoral judges, prosecutors, police, and legislators should face capital criminal charges (or at least mandatory jail sentences as punishment) for mistakes in office. They certainly shouldn’t be allowed to continue perpetrating injustice on their relatively hapless victims. One does always have one’s Second Amendment rights which are actually a ratification of the natural rights of self-defense and property ownership.

    Part of the problem is what is called “prosecutor discretion.” This means that prosecutors can pretty much do whatever they want in secrecy with regards to filing or -most especially- NOT filing criminal charges (among other things). Justice shouldn’t depend on the political ambitions of almost certainly ELECTED officials nor on whether the incident becomes publicized. Even or perhaps – especially – lawyers seem to be nervous about communicating with the local prosecutor.

    I favor a randomly selected grand jury functioning as the initiator of all criminal charges based on their review of criminal complaints (a different grand jury per complaint). Somehow – probably through writing – they would need to gain a very basic, but sufficient, understanding of law (including the possibility of unjust laws) and perhaps there would be an advising lawyer who would NOT be the actually prosecuting attorney.

    • The fact the he is called a Christian (i.e. only Catholics are Christians) by a person identified as a priest speaks volumes.

      Yes, it means he’s a Catholic priest. There are non-Catholic Christians, and the Catholic Church is quite clear on this basic point.

      • I don’t see any problem as a Priest in hailing the work of any man or woman of good will. Ravi Zecharias, whether or not someone shares his confessional commitments, was certainly someone in my mind who had a mind firmly committed to the Christian worldview and its implimentation in the world. I have had the pleasure to work with many Christians who are far closer to Catholics in terms of their social and moral paradigms than many of those who occupy our highest institutional posts. The medievals used to speak of animae naturaliter christianae, and praise such people even when they were technically infidels. I also think there are animae naturaliter catholicae, souls Catholic in their nature. They too can be our collaborators. In so doing, I think we put flesh on their intuitions. And we may also gain not a few people for the Church and for Christ.

        I can’t tell you how many converts I have worked with who simply needed a push… a read of the Church Fathers, an introduction to Sacramentology… and they begin to formally accept what they already did inchoately.

        “Those who are not against us are for us.” For they too exorcise the demons of our culture, even if they don’t claim to belong to our Communion.

  5. One has to ask, “where do these assertions of systemic injustice come from?”….
    I’ll take a stab at this, though I’m admittedly out of my league when it comes to such things….There is something known as Critical Race Theory, and it literally proposes the very things we have been seeing in action of late, i.e. So called white privilege, systemic racism, retribution, unconscious bias, etc. It is apparently a field of study that proposes alternative narratives to challenge “white power” and the “system” (legal, political), and it takes an aggressive view towards challenging with activism etc. what it sees as the biased, dominant narrative. This seems to be geared toward challenging the Christian views which are claimed as part of our nation’s founding. Hoping there are some astute scholars that can shed some more light on Critical Race Theory.

    • Critical Race Theory is an offshoot of Critical theory. It is being taught at colleges all across this country. So when we see groups of angry college age and older, engaging in extreme radical behavior and throwing out all kinds of hatred as justification for their violence….realize this….this is being taught in academia. What you are seeing didn’t just materialize as a grassroots response to injustice. The “by any means necessary” activism, the talking points, the aggressive destruction of property and statues all of this is fed by an extreme and fraudulent ideology that is being taught at the college level across this country.

  6. This from the UCLA school of public affairs on Critical Race Theory….“CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color.”

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