From Policy Reform & Moral Grounding, Edited by T. William Boxx and Gary Quinlivan (Latrobe, PA.: St. Vincent College Center for Economic and Policy Education, 1995), pp. 1-20. Originally a lecture at this symposium. The crucial mark of a Christian view is that it addresses itself to politics on the supposition that politics has a legitimate area but in practice is not able to account for everything that arises in its own field. -- James V. Schall, S. J.
ON HOW REVELATION ADDRESSES ITSELF TO POLITICS
The economic problem is a ... problem which has been solved already: we know how to provide enough and do not require any violent, inhuman, aggressive technologies to do so. There is no economic problem and, in a sense, there never has been. But there is a moral problem, and moral problems ... are not capable of being solved so that future generations can live without effort.
-- E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, 1977.1
It will be observed, that Johnson at all times made the just distinction between doctrines contrary to reason, and doctrines above reason.
-- Boswell's Life of Johnson, 1784.2
The New Testament contains a number of perplexing statements that apparently have to do with economics. St. Paul said, for example, that a workman is worthy of his hire, from which we conclude that a workman who does sloppy or dishonest work is morally wrong. Likewise, an employer who does not pay a fair wage is unjust. But we are not told how the market or the company or the government or the worker, for that matter, decides what in truth is a fair price or wage or how to achieve either. Nor are we told how the consumer is related to the worker and to the employer both of whom, along with the government, can conspire against the consumer if they are in selfish collaboration. If revelation does not deal specifically with these latter things, we might wonder, what good is it? What might be the significance of revelation in apparently not deciding all these unsettling questions.?
In one famous parable, on the on the socially inadmissible grounds that the owner can do with his money as he pleases, we see the master of the vineyard paying those who worked only the last hour of the day the same wages as those who labored all day. This parable evidently suggests some powerful difference between justice and charity, for it is the workers, not the master who are chastised. Justice binds us but mercy frees us. Evidently we need both and they are not the same. Demands for justice can corrupt the inspirations to mercy. I have often called justice the most terrible of the virtues because it deals only with relationships, not, as in friendship, with the persons who have the relationships. The owner's wealth in the parable did not come unjustly. Many workers could not find jobs all day. The master of the vineyard took pity on them and gave them something to do, even for a short time. In justice, he could have left the excess laborers at the hiring hall. The hired workers who were paid the same amount for an hour as those who worked ten surely had to wonder about this. No union would stand for such an arrangement.
However, such is human nature, those who were paid a just wage for a full day's work from morning subsequently complained about those who were given the same amount of wages without putting in the same amount work. Since we are not saved in justice, we can be saved at any time in mercy. The last will be first. Doesn't God seem to be treating the world unfairly when He saves some at the last hour who have done everything wrong but finally repented? In the order of salvation, how much we do is not the most salient factor. Some do much more, some considerably less, yet all receive the same reward, though the Father's house has many mansions. Some angels differ from others in glory. The problems of the world evidently are not adequately or fully met with what we know about justice and order. Saint Thomas in a famous passage remarked that the world is created in mercy, not justice.3 To the pure humanist, perhaps no more scandalous passage exists in the Angelic Doctor's remarkable works.
And on either side of Christ, we find two thieves, one of whom remarked that both were being punished justly, but Christ, what evil had he done? Christ turned only to one of the thieves to tell him that he would be with Him in paradise. Ought Christ better to have saved both or none, why this discrimination since both were guilty? Was His mercy unequal and did it violate justice and equality, those contemporary virtues that seem to have absorbed and judged all the others? Why is justice such a harsh virtue, something that even the ancient writers understood with their doctrine of epichia? Why is the modern slogan "faith and justice" and not "faith, liberty, and justice" or even more, "faith, hope, and charity"? Does it not seem odd that the Pope in Centesimus Annus would say that we cannot even solve our social problems without the Gospel, as if to imply that somehow even the natural virtues are related to the prior purpose of revelation?
The older brother of the prodigal son, to recall another related parable, labored all his days for his father but was never given so much as a kid with which to party with his friends. The other son blew all his inheritance on riotous living but was still greeted with celebration by his father. Did not the older brother have a legitimate gripe? Was the father being unfair, that favorite word of those who think the world made only in justice? Was the older brother wrong or foolish in working hard for his father all his days? Should he not have joined his brother and wasted his substance so that his father would welcome him too? Evidently not. But there were ways to repair our faults and sins that did not appear to follow the laws of justice. Indeed, it is doubtful that justice by itself can repair the violations of justice. The point was not, then, that the brothers, to win their father's love, should have both gone off to a far country carousing and wasting their inheritances. But, along with the older brother, we can be tempted to think or do wrong even when we are doing right, especially when we think that only justice rules our relationships within our families or polities or God.
St. Paul also said that he who does not work, neither let him eat, clearly a hard saying in these days of universal compassion and welfare economics. St. Paul at one point, I believe, made tents to support himself. St. Paul was like Smith-Barney; he believed in making money the old-fashioned way, by earning it. Generosity is not supposed to substitute for personal effort and can even destroy it. Something is wrong with the pure free-loader, wrong with his outlook on the world, his view that something is his simply because he thinks he needs it. The world is not better off if everybody is given everything with no creative input on the part of each one. This seemingly ideal situation was, after all, the original condition of man in the Garden of Eden and we know what happened there. More than one flourishing economic sector has been destroyed by unconditional gifts from private, national, or international sources. Even when grace builds on nature, it is designed to complete the intrinsic purpose of nature, not to eradicate it. The poor generally want and are expected to have some title for their incomes that comes from their own dignity, from themselves. This system of mutual contribution is what Catholic social thought has traditionally called "subsidiarity".
The poor, we are told, will be always with us. As St. Paul said in Galatians, all Peter, John, and James asked Paul and Baranabas to do at their famous conference in Jerusalem was "that they should keep the poor in mind", something they were most disposed to do. But what exactly does it mean to "keep the poor in mind"? Can we help the poor if we have erroneous or silly ideas about wealth production and distribution, about work and government? St. James said that we were not supposed to go about telling the poor to be blessed and good without actually doing something for them. Is just anything we do, however, all right or enough? Does keeping "the poor in mind" also have something to do with the ideas, intentions, virtues, and methods whereby wealth is produced? The "poor" in fact have been in modern thought the primary justification for the expansion of the absolute state and for totalitarian theories. Their "cause", if I might put it that way, has become one of the primary substitutes for God in the modern world, this in a world wherein we are told by revelation to be "mindful of the poor."
Mary was praised for breaking an expensive alabaster vase to pour oil on Christ's feet, something that seemed to Judas, but not to Christ, to be a waste. The world would not be better off if there were no market for fine perfumes. If we only produced necessities, we would probably not even produce necessities, a theme that recalls the Second Book of Plato's Republic. Perhaps wealth and poverty were not in absolute opposition to one another. Perhaps the only way we could help the poor was to produce wealth which was distributed inequitably but still in a world where all received more.. Moreover, if the poor will always be with us, this truth must mean that the complete elimination of poverty, at least in some comparative sense, is not possible and therefore the claim to do so is quite dangerous. On the other hand, in the beginning, all were poor, so that one of the greatest of human resources is how not to be poor. How to produce wealth, without which knowledge all will simply remain poor, is not something directly taught in revelation but was left for us to discover by ourselves.
Envy is a vice of both the rich and the poor. No greater contempt of the poor can be shown than to presume that they do not sin against each other or to believe that all their sins are caused by their material wants. Many a poor family and many a poor nation do not think that they must steal or lie or kill just because they are poor. This is one of the great slanders of our time, without denying Aristotle's observation that we need a certain among of material goods to be virtuous. No doubt envy is a much more serious moral disorder than greed, which is itself a serious disorder.
Aristotle indeed had already located the primary causes of civil disorders in excesses of greed and envy, that is, in spiritual not material things. The fact that envy is rarely preached about or examined as a moral and theological problem, one related to the reasons for the failure of economic well being, is a telling indictment on the shallowness of our popular religious and moral social theories. This view about the poor being always with us seems to suggest that utopias are in fact dangerous if they propose precisely to eliminate poverty completely by their schema, by their reform formulae. Looking back on the now-ending Twentieth Century, we can agree with Paul Johnson in Modern Times that the real scourges of this era are rooted precisely in those philosopher-politicians who, motivated by envy and greed or their failure to discover any truly transcendent good, have sought to eliminate poverty by other than spiritual methods, by reforming society before reforming man after the manner of philosophical or revelational guidance. The real problem of contemporary democratic theory is whether it has not itself accepted these dubious theories as operative principles in the public order.
We live today ironically in a world in which the poorest of the rich societies are infinitely richer than the richest in other societies, both ancient and modern. And the grand projects to make every poor man rich ought not to end up by making every man, rich and poor, to be poorer. There is no greater imaginary moral disorder than a theory of what I call "gapism" or distributionism that conceives the world as a finite pie. In such an image, the reason the rich are rich is because the poor are poor; the rich are therefore unjust by definition because the only place they could have acquired their wealth was to take it unjustly from someone else. Nothing causes more useless and dangerous envy than this theory uncritically lodged in the minds of otherwise good men, very often religious men, who have never really thought about the conditions of wealth production and distribution. No one denies, of course, that a certain amount of injustice does go on in this world, but the primary sign of this injustice is not the fact that some have more and others less.
Only monks, it seems, are equally poor and this by rule. This is why they are vowed to live unlike other men, not because wealth is evil but because they themselves witness to what is not bought by riches. Yet these same monks built abbeys and libraries and magnificent churches. Some later economists saw in this unexpected phenomenon of the vow of poverty producing great wealth the paradox that wealth comes initially from saving, from accumulating and not spending everything we garner. Moreover, a large portion of the tourist industry of the modern world derives from how these accumulated savings were ultimately spent on building beautiful buildings and artifacts. What wealth made, at its best, was worth seeing. If you can imagine Rome, for instance, without its beautiful and impressive buildings, churches, paintings, music, roads, arches, and yes spaghetti, all in the name of austerity, you can imagine a place to which few people would go to visit.
Wealthy nations somehow seem to be those countries that have learned to save but only if they also invent and experiment and know about the world market. It is almost impossible to keep unproductive wealth except by the methods of the absolute state. "He who loses his life will save it" has also turned out to be a good principle of economic productivity. Without risk, without trying what has never been tried before, without improving what we have, what we have soon disappears. Needless to say, we need to decide not merely what we can have, but what we want. As E. F. Schumacher said in the passage I cited in the beginning, we know how to solve the problem of poverty, what we do not know so easily is how to solve the problem of virtue. That is to say, lack of virtue and of generosity is related to a lack of wealth or to a failure to use it properly.
Interestingly, the word for the old Hebrew or Attic coin, the talent, has come to mean not so much money as the brains with which to produce wealth or the ability to learn about how to make things. John Paul II makes this very clear in Centesimus Annus that the source of wealth is not material but spiritual, a notion that has been common in economic circles for some time. Countries with enormous physical resources are often very poor, while those with hardly anything can be very rich if they have both talent and certain virtues. The failure to understand the significance of this truth is what lies behind almost all of the failures of modern religious and social thought to understand the real problems of the poor in the modern world. The ultimate source of wealth is not goods or property or things, but the human mind.
But the human mind, subject as it is to the human will, is also the primary arena of order and disorder. Talents not only can be buried, but they also can be used for positively harmful purposes. The most dangerous criminal, the most dangerous politician is the intelligent one motivated by zeal and directed by wrong ideas, not simply the ones seeking solely their own ends or interests. The brains of the policeman, the criminal, the lawyer, and the professor, for that matter, can be measured with the same IQ. The talent buried in the ground is much less harmful than the ten talents employed to gain power or prestige for immoral or unjust purposes.
A Christian forgets at his peril that the origin of evil, to recall the account in Genesis of the Garden, does not arise from man's lack of material goods. The Fall occurred to first parents who had, as it were, everything, so it is not correct or possible to locate the ultimate origin of evil in something lacking, even though evil, when it occurs, is what is lacking in a good being or action. Genesis, it strikes me is most perceptive. The Fall occurred when men sought to be like gods in a world in which everything was given to them, given to them evidently not in justice but in generosity and kindness.
The Fallen Angel was, by all counts, among the most intelligent of the angels. This is why St. Paul told us soberly that our struggles are not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers, to warn us that the cause of human disorder is not in things but in the spirit. We cannot study social history without studying moral history and we cannot study moral history without studying intellectual history, including particularly salvation history. The effort to understand ourselves apart from the understanding of ourselves found in revelation is itself futile. The "whole truth about man," as the Holy Father calls is, is not known only by human knowledge, especially by a human knowledge that systematically excludes from the consideration of itself what has been taught in revelation. If anyone doubts this truth, he might try reading Chesterton's Orthodoxy, or Paul Johnson's Intellectuals or E. Michael Jones Degenerate Moderns, or better still, St. Augustine's Confessions and his City of God.
The servant, preferring to keep his coins unproductively rather than putting them in a much more profitable entrepreneurship, buried his talent rather than risk the disfavor of a just Lord. This precisely "unprofitable" servant who was admonished at least to gain some interest from the bankers, was condemned, not praised. Even a low rate of commercial interest was better than collecting nothing, and this parable was recounted in a world that thought usury in the strict sense was a sin. The point of this parable of the unprofitable servant, to be sure, was not primarily a dissertation on economics. Rather it was a discussion of the way that God dealt with us. What is characteristic of Christianity, something inherited from the account in Genesis of the relation of man to nature, is that we are not "creators" of wealth ex nihilo, from nothing, but we are able to do things with what has been given to us for the purposes for which we are created.
Why the physical world does not achieve its own purpose without man has much directly to do with why man does not define his own end, which is not simply a contract with the world for its improvement nor even something due directly to his nature. Schumacher cites the marvelous medieval Latin aphorism, "Homo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est."4 This does not mean that man will become something other than man, a Nietzschean superman, but that he himself, not by his own but by a divine design, is slated to be himself in a more complete manner than his own reality would anticipate or even imagine. Man will not demonstrate his worthiness to be related to the inner life of God by first himself, by his own powers organizing the world apart from God. Rather he will first order himself to God after the outlines suggested or commanded to him by God Himself. In following these new laws, he will be able to understand how it is that the world can achieve its end and how his own end is higher in each single instance of a human life than the whole material world itself. Much of human intellectual life is a refusal to accept this priority and ultimately, I think; this priority of purpose, end, and means is the primary source of the opposition to the Church today insofar as that Church explains itself after its own nature, as it does, say, in John Paul II's General Catechism.
To mix up the priorities is not merely a technical mistake but a moral and theological one. The proper use of our talents is not apart from the primary mission we have to know and serve God, and this in the order of His guidance and not of our own preferences or whims. The perplexities and directives of revelation about how and why to observe the commandments, not forgetting to include the new commandment which Christ has given us, are, when worked out, some of the main reasons why we can understand the real nature of world and of ourselves. They incite us to discover the reasons why we can and should know about nature and its development. In order for us to deal scientifically with the world, we must first believe that the world can be known in some sense, that it is not an illusion, that it has a relatively stable order that did not come directly from man's own mind. These are theological propositions derived from the Old and New Testaments, without which nothing much would be done in the world.
The disorders in the physical world or in the economic world are the results, not the causes, of man's own personal relationships to God and neighbor. If we notice carefully the implications of John Paul II's insistent teaching on what is called "social sin", it is remarkable how the Holy Father consistently locates any social sin in prior personal sins, a doctrine wholly in line with Aristotle and St. Thomas and largely in opposition to modern relativist ethical and political theory. Disordered regimes, as both Plato and Aristotle rightly taught us, are the results of disordered souls. This is a very ancient doctrine, confirmed again and again in revelation, but it is also a very necessary doctrine, hardly heard in the schools for a quarter century.
Moreover, although we are judged by whether we give a cup of water to someone who needs it, nowhere do we read in the New Testament about how to develop a water purifying system or an aqueducts like the Romans did, things that are said to have saved more people's health than almost anything else in medical history. Water was changed to wine at Cana. Water was used by John to baptize Christ. The Jewish law forbade pork in part it seems because of its dangers to health. But these sacred prohibitions and uses are not direct contributions to the problem of pure water throughout the world, a problem that still exists but whose solution we surely know in great detail. We are, to be sure, to pay particular attention to the poor and needy. But we find in Scripture no discussion about whether generous welfare programs run by the state help or destroy poor families and individuals or reduce solvent ones to penury, as the evidence of experience seems to indicate that they do.
Thus the very incompleteness of the New Testament in particularly social and political matters, let alone economic ones, is, I think, to be looked upon as God's compliment to the goodness of human nature in so far as it was uncorrupted by The Fall -- itself incidentally one of the most fundamental doctrines having to do with the public order. There is no more socially devastating teaching than that which says that man is intrinsically good, that there is nothing disordered in his soul, that therefore evil lies outside of his personal life whether he be rich or poor or in between, that he can be made good by certain structural changes in economic and politics..
The New Testament also has a couple of important things to say about the state, but not many. The New Testament is not a book of economic or political theory, or if it is, it is a very poor one. Revelation evidently was initially intended to instruct men on what they could not know by themselves, not what they could. Samuel Johnson's remark about knowing things against reason and things above reason is to the point. The principle of contradiction as an intellectual tool ought to enable us pretty much by ourselves to know the things against reason. But our reason needs to be instructed by a higher reason for those things we want to know above our reason, about the inner life of God and whether God, made man, has dwelt amongst us.
The fact that we can derive certain quite wise and valuable insights in both politics and economics from the Old or New Testament serves as a kind of confirmatory hint that what they contain is not against but within the proper order of things, of the whole, of what is not against reason and of what is above it. Revelation and good sense are somehow related, even when revelation takes the most unexpected turns or recommends the most improbable things, like loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate us, without at the same time naively releasing all the most hardened criminals from prisons to prey upon an unsuspecting populace.
Though St. Paul wrote a short letter to a slaveholder, revelation was not directly concerned about freeing the slaves in some political sense or about inventing aid programs for the poor or describing the proper structures to regimes. He wrote about the one thing necessary. We were to seek first the Kingdom of God, but not to try to establish it by our own efforts. Christ refused the temptation to turn stones into bread either as a sign of His power or as a sign of His ability to help the hungry. The Kingdom of God was not some sort of model political order in this life. We can never read enough of St. Augustine on this score.
Indeed, a long series of philosophers have accused Christianity in particular of a kind of incivism for its concentration on things said to be more important than economics or politics, an accusation, when sorted out, that implies that politics are more important than eternal life. The two may not be in conflict with each other, but them again they can be. Both Aristotle and Plato understood something of this priority of the things of God, which is no doubt why we can trust them in many things of this world in ways that we cannot trust more modern thinkers who confuse God with the world, or confuse the race of men in the world with God.
The moral and religious efforts devoted to virtue, to sacrament, to worship were said to deflect men from giving their full attention to certain worthy political and economic enterprises. St. Augustine, on being confronted with this charge, simply pointed out that Christians, because of their beliefs and practices made better soldiers and citizens than others. The vow of poverty seemed to deny the goodness of the efforts to produce things, but in practice it seemed to have been at the origins of modern accumulations of wealth and capital. Christ implied that man did not live by bread alone, that we should consequently seek first the Kingdom of God, which was not a political regime, and all these other things would be given to us.
This priority seems to imply, as I have said, that disorder of soul will lead to disorder of economics and polity, so that if we do not get the first relationship to God correct, well never get the latter in proper order. Christ's admonitions also seem to suggest that the important things of life can be achieved even if we do not live in well appointed political or economic conditions. Apparently, the greatest of saints can live in terrible regimes, even in terrible prisons and labor camps all their lives and reach the highest sanctity. Often it seems this is the way that the new law is best and most forcefully made known throughout the world. Likewise, those who live in the most affluent and developed society from some technical point of view can in fact choose lives of the worst moral and physical degradation.
The two most famous passages in the New Testament about politics are those from St. Matthew about rendering to God the things that are God's and to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and from St. Paul where he tells us to obey the Emperor who bears the sword to correct our wrong-doings. When they are forbidden to preach the Good News by the Jewish authorities, in a third pertinent passage, John and Paul ask in Acts whether they should obey God or man? They leave no doubt which is to be more important in case of conflict. Thus, there were limits to what the state might command even when it was rendering to Caesar. The New Testament, a revelational document, states clearly that the state is normal, natural, to be expected. It says in its own way what Aristotle said when he emphasized that may is by nature and political and social animal.
Christ at His trial even tells Pilate, who would be the equivalent of some governor of a small state, that he would have no authority over Christ were it not given to him by His Father. The fact that the state could and did kill Christ did not mean either that it acted justly or that what Christ taught was not true. If Pilate has some authority, obviously he did not get it from the Old or New Testament. Nor did he concoct it from his own imagination. Cicero had already provided a pretty decent explication of the legitimacy of the state to the Roman mind. Caesar is already in operation by the time Christ is born. In fact, He is born where He is born because of an Edict of Caesar Augustus. He is born when Caesar has already conquered Palestine. Yet, Christ never discusses, as Cicero did, whether a republic or an empire were a better form of regime. Even less does Christ tell Pilate that he is a usurper, but He acknowledges that he has some limited authority over Him.
Christ does not give Pilate a lecture on the evils of capital punishment or on civil revolution, though He does seem to accept an organization with authority to deal with certain difficult and conflicting problems over the ages. Many have subsequently faulted Christ for this failure suddenly to correct the civil and economic woes of the world, as if this is what He should have been occupying Himself with. If He had a perfect economic and political program, such people imply, they would surely believe. But subsequent experience has been long enough to make us doubt this proposition. Both good men and evil men can draw good or evil out of good. This is one of the main political lessons of Christ's Crucifixion at the hands of what was perhaps the best state in the ancient world. Others have insisted that this-worldly institutions were not what Christ was about, even though doing what He advised could not help but redound to the good of the civil and economic orders.
One of the apostles was a tax collector. Christ was asked about the power to tax, itself a sign, if anything is, of the power and legitimacy of the state. To answer the question He does not denounce the taxing powers of the state, nor does He suggest a flat tax instead of an income tax. The Romans never did in fact figure out a good way to collect taxes, one of their few organizational weaknesses. Rather, Christ asked for a coin and inquired of a hostile audience, "whose head was found on it?" The answer was Caesar's. So Christ said to his questioners, not that Caesar had no authority, nor that Caesar was an illegitimate occupant of Palestine, nor that He preferred a sales tax, but that Caesar did have authority. That is to say, the New Testament recognizes that political authority is itself legitimate.
The New Testament thus presupposes that there is a legitimate argument for political authority that is not derived from revelation. Might we say that it presupposes Aristotle and Cicero, the philosophers? Revelation is not contrary to reason but insists we know what we can find out from our own sources before we will recognize the validity of what it presents above reason. However, just because Caesar has legitimate taxing power does not itself determine the rate or type of taxation that is best. Presumably, there can be unjust taxes in any civil order. Just because the state has some power does not mean that it has absolute power.
Again we are left with the impression that Christ was not particularly concerned with whether Roman taxing policies were within due proportion or were always used for legitimate purposes. Christ seemed to like members of the Roman legion that occupied Palestine, something no doubt supported by taxes. We know from ancient taxing policies, however, that there was much wrong with the ways taxes were collected. We know too from the famous "bread and circuses", that the use of the monies collected often by force and corruption from the Empire were used for to support in leisure a corrupt populace, for base and immoral purposes, even for persecuting Christians.
A Christian about to be tossed to the lions in the Roman Colosseum, presumably, was not primarily worried about whether Roman taxing powers were being legitimately used or collected in the business of importing lions to Italy. Paul and Peter, moreover, were evidently martyred under the Emperor Nero, a none too pious man, to whom this same St. Paul told the Romans to be obedient. We do not reasonably conclude from that admonition that everything Nero did was commendable. We do not conclude that St. Paul, contrary to Plato and Aristotle, was eulogizing tyranny as the best form of rule. But if he was not, it must follow that we have some other source of knowledge about political and economic things than what we find in revelation, again without denying that what we find in revelation has implications even for political rule and economic order.
The commandments that the New Testament reaffirms from the Mosaic Law are stated generally in a negative fashion. We are told not to do certain things, ever. "Thou shalt not." John Paul II has made a brilliant statement of the meaning and reason for this approach in his Veritatis Splendor, almost the only modern public document that speaks directly of truth, particularly to moral truth. Many critics over the centuries maintain that this classical statement found in the Commandments is too negative. On the other hand, the New Testament does tell us to love one another, to do good to those who hate us. Both negative and positive commands are put before us. Why so? If we examine carefully the things we are commanded not to do, both in the order of acts and in the order of thought and willing -- we are not to do or covet doing -- we find a list of things that are so basic to human well being that their violation, even once, bears an intrinsic relationship to human worth and dignity.
Thus, killing, stealing, lying, coveting, committing adultery strike at the very heart not only of society but of the inner life of the human person who commits the sin and of those who suffer it. Chesterton as usual put it best:
The silliest sort of progressive complains of negative morality, and compares it unfavourably with positive morality. The silliest sort of conservative complains of destructive reform and compares it unfavourably with constructive reform. Both the progressive and the conservative entirely neglect to consider the very meaning of the words "yes" and "no". To give the answer "yes" to one question is to imply the answer "no" to another question; and to desire the construction of something is to desire the destruction of whatever prevents its construction. This is particularly plain in the fuss about "negative morality", or what may be described as the campaign against the Ten Commandments. The truth is, of course, that the curtness of the Commandments is an evidence, not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but ... of its liberality and humanity. It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted; precisely because most things are permitted and only a few things are forbidden... It is better to tell a man not to steal than to try to tell him the thousand things that he can enjoy without stealing; especially as he can generally be pretty well trusted to enjoy them.5
It is precisely because we do not do these forbidden things that, generally, we will be able to do the hundreds of positive things.
The human race is told to go forth and multiply and have dominion over the earth, to found cities and countries and to learn of what is. That is, it is told of the myriads of things that are there for it to accomplish in every life, but at the same time revelation contains a warning about those things that are most likely, in any given instant, to overturn inner and external integrity, to set man at odds with woman, to set mother against mother-in-law, and brother against brother. The positive things there to be done are not listed, only the negative ones that would undermine the possibility of doing rightly any thing proceeding from our natural faculties responding to grace. Indeed, as St. Thomas pointed out, those things that Christ added in the New Testament, on examination, enable us better to do those things that needed most to be done. Ironically, it is only by adding to what we know from reason or the Old Testament that the real earthly goals of mankind might, but need not, be accomplished. It is true that human beings have something to do on this earth during the time they live there. But it is also true that God does not command in detail the definite projects and systems that lie before the human race.
How is it that we go about helping others, as we are told to do and as we generally want to do? We immediately notice that we can have good intentions but that what we do to help does not always work. We have all met people who know well how to work or help others but who choose not to do so. There is somehow a difference between desire and performance. We even sometimes need to be protected from the good intentions of others. Charlie Brown is on the mound winding up. Evidently the batter hits a pop fly near the pitcher's mound. Charlie yells, "I got it! It's all mine!" But Charlie is a rational animal. As he circles looking up in the air for the fly, we hear him arguing with himself: "If I catch this ball, we'll win our first game of the season."
This rare event evidently is desirable. But then Charlie shows some doubt about his own abilities, so he prays to God, "Please let me catch it! Please let me be the hero! Please let me catch it! Please!" Charlie wants to be a hero, but doubts his own capacity so he calls on divine aid which usually aids Charlie in ways he does not desire. So he reasons further, knowing about the Fall and undeserved merit, "On the other hand," he says to himself still getting under the pop fly, "do I think I deserve to be the hero?" He would not want to be an undeserving hero to whom God has given the power to catch the ball.
Next, Charlie shows some concern for his neighbor: "The kid who hit it doesn't want to be the goat." Charlie's heroism is some batter's humiliation. But since baseball of its very nature requires some heros and some goats, he reasons further, "Is a baseball game really this important? Lots of kids all over the world never even heard of baseball." Charlie echoes the mothers who used to tell their children to eat their suppers because kids in China are starving. He brings in the poverty and deprivation problem: "Lots of kids don't get to play at all, or have a place to sleep, or...." At this crucial point, of course, the ball hits his glove and bounces to the ground before an astounded Charlie. The catcher rushes up to ask, "Charlie Brown how could you miss such an easy pop fly?" To which query Charlie replies, "I prayed myself out of it."6
Why, in conclusion, do I cite Charlie Brown in this context of revelation, politics, and economics? It is to remind us that, like baseball, our performance in life is itself related to our ideas and our motives, to what we hold valuable, to how we understand the world and our place in it. Charlie's conflicting desires, his indecision between personal glory, the worth of the game, and the concern for the other batter make it impossible for him to perform even the most simple of pitching tasks, namely, to catch a pop fly.
Revelation addresses itself to reason, to politics by clarifying what it is that we exist for, what the world is about, what is our end and our happiness. We will not get the world right if we get ourselves wrong. Revelation, as I have suggested, does not directly teach us about tax policy, about the form of regimes, or about how to produce pure water and abundant food. But it does indicate the immense importance of each human being, of the power and scope of human intellect and enterprise, of the meaning of the world and its relation to our own destinies. We can be free to do the myriads of delightfully positive things because we are, by observing the commandments, liberated from those acts that destroy any real possibility of our doing what ought to be done.
As Chesterton said, "it is better to tell a man not to steal than to tell him of the thousands of things he can do without stealing." In short, the poor are not poor because the rich are rich. The only way anyone can reach that abundance in which human life best flourishes is that everyone learn, probably at different rates, how to become richer. In short, we must know what things are against reason and what are above it, we must know that the economic problems are solved but that the moral problems of choosing to live rightly and virtually reappear in each life and in each era and constitute the real drama of mankind. These are the things that we can do that we will be judged upon in our search for that Kingdom to which we are destined, not of this world, but still addressed to those of us in this world.
Homo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est. No doubt this attention to supernatural truth is, at first sight, the least likely way in which we should expect revelation effectively to address itself to politics or economics. Ironically, in the end, since other ways have not in fact worked, it might just be the most fruitful way we can proceed even in solving our own problems.
3See James V. Schall, "On the Disappearance of Mercy from Political Theory," The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Some Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 1984), pp. 253-78,