By GEORGE A. KENDALL
Readers may recall an extended discussion in recent Forum columns on the topic of distributism, the economic system advocated by thinkers like Chesterton and Belloc and grounded in Catholic social teaching. The letters to the editor focused specifically on this question: Is it practically possibly to implement the distributist idea? In my contribution I indicated that, obviously, distributism, closely related, as it is, to the principle of subsidiarity, cannot be imposed, from above, by a central government, because that would entail a contradiction.
However, there is at least some hope, however faint, in the possibility of its being imposed from below, through the subsidiary units exercising their legitimate authority, grounded in the natural law, as well as, here in America, in our Constitution, to push back against bloated central power and “impose” it from below.
But this needs at least to be qualified. The reason we have huge, centralized bureaucratic organizations, both in government and the economy, with most of the power concentrated at the top, is that the obsession with the pursuit of wealth and power has become normative in our society. That obsession is a form of idolatry, and idolatry happens when people turn away from their relationship to God and substitute something other than God for Him, giving to that something the love that rightfully belongs only to Him. When that happens, people put all their energy into the pursuit of the false god.
People who have deep roots in the Christian faith don’t do this. They of course want to be able to support themselves and their families and work to get a sufficiency of worldly goods and maybe a bit more, and they of course want to have some control over their lives and their surroundings, but not in the obsessional way that characterizes both socialist and capitalist societies. They are interested in other things, and put a substantial portion of their energy into these other things — like the salvation of their souls, human community, and family life. It’s about where our energy goes. In medieval society, people simply expended energy for different things.
Eamon Duffy’s book, The Stripping of the Altars, which details the way Protestantism was forced on the English people during the 16th century, illustrates this in its portrayal of how people lived prior to the Reformation. Certainly, people wanted to make money then, and there were greedy people, then as now. But most people didn’t put all their energy into that.
For instance, there was a proliferation of holy days during the Middle Ages, days which involved, not just going to Mass, but having processions and pageants and such, taking time off work and putting energy into these activities instead. There was also a proliferation of fraternal organizations dedicated to works of mercy, which included having Masses said for the souls of deceased members. And so on. Because people put so much of their time and energy into these activities, there simply was nowhere near as much time and energy available for building huge organizations for the purpose of maximizing power and wealth, and so there were fewer such organizations and they played a smaller role in the life of that society.
When people deeply rooted in the Christian faith are at least a large and influential minority in a society, you get something like distributism, a way of living that follows logically from a Christian life lived in accordance with the true order of goods. It’s not a system which can be imposed, not even, strictly speaking, from below, but a way of life that happens when people deal with reality on the basis of Christian principles.
All of which means that when the Church gets its act together and starts to seriously proclaim the Gospel without kowtowing to the powers that be, while the people who sit in darkness begin to see how empty and meaningless the cult of wealth and power is, people will begin to act in accordance with the true order of goods, and a political and economic order in accordance with Christian principles will slowly emerge.
That doesn’t mean we can just wait for this to happen, on the principle that things will only happen when large numbers of people experience a change of heart. Trying to teach people what a Christian social order would look like is an integral part of proclaiming the Gospel and a step toward bringing about conversion. There is little most of us can do about getting the Church to stop kowtowing to powerful people and start carrying out its mission, beyond proclaiming the Good News ourselves.
Political action aimed at restoring power to subsidiary institutions is also a way of moving society toward conversion, but distributism is not a “system” to be imposed by anyone. To make it such is to turn it into just another ideology.
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If we see relativism as the enemy, perhaps we are not defining the situation clearly enough. Relativism, as used by “progressives,” is a tool for debunking those who don’t agree with their agenda. But they do not apply it to themselves. So pro-homosexual ideologues tell us to be tolerant of homosexuality on grounds that there are no moral absolutes on the basis of which it can be condemned, then turn around and assert a right to live the homosexual lifestyle. But to assert a right is to assert a moral absolute (whether genuine or spurious), thus abandoning relativism.
A consistent relativism gives us no basis for asserting things like “gay” rights. It gives us no grounds for seeing tolerance of homosexuality as any more praiseworthy than intolerance. If everything is relative, then no one has any rights, and those who persecute homosexuals are just as entitled (or not entitled) to do this as are those who defend them.
On the basis of pure relativism, we would have to say that Hitler’s agenda was as legitimate as anyone else’s — anti-Semitism and mass murder were his “truth,” and that’s all there is to it.
Brad S. Gregory, in The Unintended Reformation, speaks of modern society, with its enthronement of relativism, as the Kingdom of Whatever. I would suggest that this means that the world is whatever I want it to be and those powerful enough to force their Whatever on everyone else will prevail.
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The assumption of continuity in nature so beloved of evolutionists is closely tied to the assumption that nature is a closed system. Since nothing transcending nature must be permitted to act on it, events must always be explained in terms of antecedent events, so that, ideally, if we had a complete knowledge of what was happening in nature at the very beginning of the universe, we would be able to accurately predict everything that followed. Discontinuities in nature cannot be allowed, because such discontinuities involve something new happening, something that can’t be explained on the basis of what happened before.
Thus the problem of the Cambrian explosion, where, based on the fossil evidence, in a very short time, geologically speaking, we went from exclusively one-celled organisms to highly complex multi-celled ones, with no evidence of a gradual transition. The complex organisms simply appeared.
The reaction of evolutionists has always been to say — don’t worry, we just haven’t found the fossils yet, but we will. Now this makes a certain amount of sense. If you have been working with a particular hypothesis and, on other grounds, it makes sense to you, you don’t throw it out just because, at one point, you’re having trouble finding the evidence needed to support it — you keep looking and you keep thinking. (“If you like your hypothesis, you can keep it.”)
But there are limits to this. If you spend a century and a half, as with the Cambrian explosion, trying to find the evidence, to close the gap, without success, but adamantly refuse to admit the possibility that the hypothesis might be wrong, you are no longer practicing science but are defending a dogma. You are desperately clinging to the Darwinist hypothesis, convinced that it must be defended at all costs, because the alternative would be to open your mind to the possibility of a discontinuity in nature. There is the feeling that if that is acknowledged as a possibility, science is somehow doomed.
But, really, why shouldn’t there be discontinuities? Why shouldn’t there be surprises? Certainly, most of us, in our everyday lives, find that life is full of surprises. There is the old saying that if you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans. Most of us who are getting older can look back and realize that, if our younger selves had been told what we would be doing now, they would be astounded and probably refuse to believe it. Now of course the tendency of many, perhaps most scientists, is to try to reduce these apparent surprises to the events that preceded them and to show that the surprising events weren’t really so surprising after all, that they grew out of prior events which determined them.
This is called reductionism. It is the assumption that things that seem new and unique are always really nothing but something else, which in turn is nothing but something else, and so on (if you do this long enough, you make everything nothing but nothing).
But who says you have to do this? Certainly, events have connections with prior events, that is, causes, which help us to understand them, but the assumption that identifying these causes will do away with the newness of the events is just that — an assumption, supported by no evidence.
For Christians, of course, there is no problem with discontinuities. God is full of surprises, and the biggest surprise ever, the one that continues to astonish us and always will, is the Incarnation. We also affirm that, whatever connections human life may have with animal and vegetable life, the creation of the human soul at the time of conception is always a new event and a discontinuity. The appearance of man, a being endowed with reason, is also a huge discontinuity, though reductionistic “explanations” are hardly a rarity (Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man is devoted to this theme).
We can say the same for the coming of sanctifying grace into the soul of someone who was previously without it — the process of conversion. Those of us who were once outside the Church but are now within it certainly can testify to what a huge surprise, what a huge discontinuity, that is, however much we can trace the work of actual grace in us before our conversion. There is still something like the “leap in being” that Bergson spoke of.
Yes, nature and history again and again exhibit the gradual, continuous development that evolutionists speak of, and yet, surprises happen. Grace happens. The Spirit of God always broods over these waters, and at times there are clear signs of some mysterious, transcendent reality stirring them. It is not the proper work of science to dismiss this reality.
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(© 2014 George A. Kendall)