Fulton Sheen’s Justice & Charity originated as a series of radio talks delivered on “The Catholic Hour” between January and April 1938. They were published as a book that same year. Reading this work one becomes keenly aware of how different was the spiritual and intellectual atmosphere existing within the Catholic Church in the United States then as opposed to now. Monsignor Sheen, as expositor of the Faith, spoke from the standpoint of an assurance of what the Church taught, and an assumption that his Catholic listeners would be disposed to acknowledge and accept that teaching, not nitpick or quibble or simply reject it. Unlike today, when most Catholics seem to regard being conservative or being liberal as more important than being Catholic, neither Sheen nor his listeners or readers would have insisted that the Church’s doctrines be subjected to a test to see how well they accorded with a secular political ideology. Thus, this book is a refreshing contrast to so much of the political and social commentary produced by Catholics today.
Justice & Charity begins with political and social commentary and concludes with spiritual reflections based on our Lord’s Passion. The political and social thinking contained in the book is based on what the Church actually taught and teaches, based especially on the great papal encyclicals, Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII and Quadragesimo Anno of Pius XI. Anyone acquainted with these encyclicals knows that they deal chiefly with the economic order, its organisation, its ethics, the role of government regulation, and so on. And Monsignor Sheen boldly discusses these controversial topics, devoting separate talks or chapters to Liberty, Capitalism, Equality, Fraternity, Distribution, and others. He begins the series with a plea for charity, a plea that he will make over and over again here. But in his second talk, Liberty, he plunges into the meat of the social question with a discussion of Liberalism. Now Liberalism, as used here and in fact as used throughout the corpus of papal teaching, does not mean what it does in contemporary American usage. Sheen states the “three principal tenets of Liberalism” as: “The State must not interfere with business.” “No Collective bargaining!” and “No interference with the absolute right of property!” And then, he goes on to ask, “Now what does the Church think about them? The Church says all three are wrong” [emphasis his]. Using Leo’s and Pius’s words, he demonstrates the clear truth that the Church dissents from the Liberal understanding of the social order. “The State is not a policeman as Liberalism holds.” “The Church frankly told the employers the real reason they were afraid to permit a union was … because they were afraid of diminished profits if they had to pay higher wages.” And finally,
You may accumulate money or property or capital, but you may not do with it whatever you please …. As the eye is not free to function unless it inhere in the body and cooperate with it; as the foot is not free to walk unless it recognizes its responsibility and dependence on the organism; so neither is man free to do whatever he wishes with his business unless he recognizes his obligations to society.
It does not require much observation to realise that such statements hardly comport well with the thinking and outlook of most of those who call themselves conservative Catholics. Nor could one expect to find a popular Catholic priest boldly stating them via the mass media today. In fact, contemporary American Catholic spokesmen, to the extent that they even know or care what the popes have taught about the social question, fear to communicate that teaching to their audiences. If they did, they would likely be labeled as socialists and would offend rich donors.
That Fulton Sheen was not afraid to do so speaks volumes about how things have changed in the Church in the past eighty years, both in the clergy’s knowledge and acceptance of the Church’s social doctrine and in the laity’s readiness to acknowledge and receive that teaching.
After this initial blast at Liberalism, Monsignor Sheen proceeds to a discussion of Capitalism. He carefully distinguishes between capitalism as simply private ownership of productive property and capitalism as a system by which those who control economic activity subject the “great masses of wage-earners” to themselves, between capitalism as a merely theoretical construct and actual capitalism in action. He recognises that this second sense of capitalism includes “not only yesterday’s ‘competitive capitalism,’ but even today’s ‘monopolistic capitalism’ under which [quoting Pius XI] ‘immense power and despotic economic domination is concentrated in the hands of a few.” In other words, Fulton Sheen refuses to give credence to the deceptive distinction made by many defenders of the free market today between competitive capitalism and what they acknowledge as crony capitalism. In fact, neither form of capitalism works for the common good, and moreover competitive capitalism, due to the very absence of restraints, tends to the amassing of influence and power and thus to crony capitalism.
If we, then, distinguish between capitalism as simply ownership of productive property and capitalism as the amassing of economic power and wealth, what is the stance of the Church toward the latter? The author’s answer is clear: “the Church is clearly and undeniably opposed to Capitalism.” Of course, his strictures against capitalism do not mean that he approves of socialism or communism—at the time a real threat and not merely the bogeyman that it later became.
In the next chapter, entitled Equality, Sheen critiques the Communist solution to economic injustices. He acknowledges that there “is something good about Communism and that is its protest against the injustices begotten by Liberalism.” But it is by no means only communists who protest injustice—“Leo XIII registered a more coherent and objective protest against certain evils of the industrial order than Communism, even with its violent hatred of Capitalism.” Instead of either the false liberty of capitalism or the false equality of communism, Sheen proposes as a solution fraternity, which in the next chapter he explains as the fraternal cooperation of all involved in the economy on behalf of the common good.
The right of the Capitalist to his capital and the right of the laborer to his union, are both conditioned upon the services they render to society; they both require social justification, and they can both be revoked if the common good is not served, just as the right to drive an automobile can be revoked if one refuses to respect the lives of pedestrians or even the lives of jaywalkers.
Monsignor Sheen uses the classic analogy of the physical body, and reminds us that it “could not function if it were all eyes or all ears,” and that these organs “cooperate for the good of the whole.” In order to achieve such cooperative activity for the common good, he advocates for and explains the function of the guilds or occupational groups which Pope Pius XI, and later Pius XII, so strongly advocated should be revived and adapted to modern conditions.
For example, let there be vocational or occupational groups composed of minters, farmers, textile workers, auto-workers, civil service workers, railroad, telegraph, and telephone men, carpenters, doctors, lawyers, steel workers, and perhaps twenty or thirty other groups depending upon their function in society. Under such an arrangement, society is divided not into classes but into professions or vocations. Each group or guild includes not only the organized employees but also the organised employers in the same line of work. The reason for this is that there is a common interest between members of the same trade or profession. Professional and trade groups organize not to show their power or violence against one another, not to intimidate either, but to settle their corporate differences by peaceful means. The representatives of the employers and the representatives of the employees would, in any given group … form joint boards, meeting in regular sessions for the discussion of all disagreements as well as the promotion of their mutual interests…. The Worker would be elevated from the rank of a passive recipient of salary to that of an effective collaborator endowed with a sense of personal responsibility and dignity.
In recent decades, the notion of the guild or occupational group has mostly faded from Catholic consciousness—along with so much else of our intellectual heritage—but it was one of the most distinctive as well as creative responses to the ravages of capitalism, a response championed not only by the popes themselves, but by the two chief schools of Catholic social thought, solidarism and distributism.
In the next chapter, entitled Distribution, Fulton Sheen advocates not only “the wider diffusion of private property, both productive and consumable,” but, quoting Pius XI, “that the wage contract should, when possible, be modified somewhat by a contract of partnership [in which] wage-earners are made sharers in some sort in the ownership, or the management, or the profits of industry.” In this connection, Sheen raises a very interesting point about the worker’s contribution to society, noting how it goes beyond his actual labour to “the raising of a family for society, the education of children for the next generation,” all of which “constitute a social contribution” and for which he deserves “a social reward” in terms of participation in the management or profits of the industry. Again he quotes Pius XI, “Wealth … must be so distributed amongst the various individuals and classes of society that the common good of all [is] … thereby promoted…”
Then, in words which I wish could be read out loud at every Sunday Mass and inscribed outside the headquarters of the American bishops’ conference, Monsignor Fulton Sheen writes,
For the Catholic, then, the defense of the present system of Capitalism in which wealth is in the hands of a few is almost as wrong as the Communist solution which would destroy that wealth and expropriate it all into the hands of the Red Leaders.
And he continues in the same vein.
Why should the employers monopolise for themselves tremendous reserves for depreciation, and give themselves vast bonuses, and yet make little or no provision for the social contribution of the employees who helped create that wealth?
And one more quotation of the same sort,
The stewardship of wealth means that wealth is not a possession, but a trust … something we hold from God and for which we must render an account; it is nothing wholly personal like an heirloom, but something functional like a university endowment; it must be used for good purposes. The rich must justify their right on wealth; they may not assume that the first claim on their money is their own comfort….
Needless to say, such sentiments would not go over well with most wealthy Catholics nor with so many Catholic politicians and publicists who are committed to a defense of the trickle-down type of economics in which more and more for the rich somehow is supposed to eventually work for the common good. But everything Fulton Sheen says is based on the social teaching of the popes or of St. Thomas or the historic consensus of Catholic moral theology. When people lament the doctrinal and moral ignorance of today’s Catholics, they ought to include in this the almost universal ignorance of the Church’s teachings on the possession and use of riches.
I mentioned at the outset that Justice & Charity contains spiritual reflection as well as social commentary, and the second part of the book consists of reflections on our Lord’s Seven Last Words from the Cross, as well as a very interesting Way of the Cross for Communists. One of his teachings in this part of the book is forgiveness for our enemies, hardly a novelty in Catholic doctrine, but one that again points up a contrast between then and now. Today one can find in Internet comment boxes positive gloating over an enemy’s torture or death or his assumed damnation. But how contrary are such sentiments to the charity commanded by Jesus Christ is made clear by Fulton Sheen: “There is no injustice any human being has ever committed against us which is comparable to the injustice we commit against God by our sins….” And later on, in his Stations of the Cross for Communists, at the Eleventh Station, commenting on our Lord’s words, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he asks,
Does that mean, dear Jesus, that we must forgive, even the Communists who drove Thee out of Russia, massacred Thy religious in Spain, and closed Thy Churches in Mexico? Thy words can mean nothing else. for on another mount we heard Thee say: ‘Do good to them that hate you.’
Although occasionally Monsignor Sheen gets carried away by his own rhetoric, this short book could serve as a very helpful introduction for contemporary Catholics utterly unaware of the Church’s rich social doctrine, or inclined to reject that doctrine because they mistakenly think it was introduced by Marxist-inspired ecclesiastical bureaucrats and not by the Sovereign Pontiffs themselves, based upon the Church’s own two millennial long theological heritage. Richard Aleman notes in his Afterword “the grip of the dominant paradigm of Left and Right, which has such a hold over the minds of laymen and clergy alike,” so that all too many Catholics filter what the Church teaches through some kind of political lens. The kind of discourse which Fulton Sheen was able to broadcast nationwide in 1938 is rare enough today, and especially can hardly be found in those Catholic publications priding themselves on their orthodoxy. But, this is because they are gripped by that “paradigm of Left and Right” and their orthodoxy is but partial, as unfortunately is likewise very often the case with those who champion the Church’s social doctrine. But if we manage to escape from the grip of that paradigm we will find that there is an immense wealth of solid material from popes, bishops and bishops’ conferences, theologians and social theorists, with which we can nourish our souls and form truly Catholic minds and avoid that suffocating “grip of the dominant paradigm of Left and Right, which has such a hold over the minds of laymen and clergy alike.”
Originally published in The Chesterton Review.
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