Real Social Justice

“No human law,” writes the great Pope Leo XIII,
can abolish the natural and original right of marriage, nor in any way limit the chief and principal purpose of marriage, ordained by God’s authority from the beginning. Increase and multiply. Hence we have the family; the society of a man’s house — a society limited indeed in numbers, but no less a true society, anterior to every kind of State or nation, invested with rights and duties of its own, totally independent of the civil community (Rerum Novarum, 1891).
That passage above reveals why I cannot accept Catholic leftism — I hate to apply the good word “liberal” to a set of propositions that unite untrammeled sexual license with the power and boundless ambitions of a family-supplanting state. The Left, in fact, is wrong about abortion for the same reason that it is wrong about social justice: It conceives only of the state and of the individual pursuer of (usually material) goods.
We have a “social justice” committee in my parish. Despite the name, they do good work, collecting donations of food and distributing them to the poor. I say “despite the name,” because what they mean by social justice, and what the Catholic Left in general means by it, is something very different from what the popes and the Magisterium have meant by it.
The political philosopher Russell Hittinger recently remarked to me that the whole category of “social justice” had been transposed, and reduced, to mean “distributive justice to individuals.” That’s not surprising, since we in the West have almost wholly lost the sense that a state is made up of societies which themselves have duties and rights, societies that sometimes serve the state’s good better than the state itself can, but that ought to exist whether or not they happen to be better providers of education or alms or entertainment or whatever the good may be.
Man is not made for the state, the popes never tire of instructing us. Man is, rather, made for friendship, with God and with neighbor. It is the aim of social justice, properly understood, to foster those free associations of men, using their reason to provide for their towns, to aid the needy, to build schools, to celebrate feasts, to come together in work or play or common defense or worship.
Social justice demands that we give such societies their due — mainly, that we allow them free exercise, governed by right reason, in accord with the common good. But all my life I have watched as one pretext after another has been used by the state, with cheering from the Left, to neuter or destroy perfectly active and socially beneficial associations.
Need I catalogue them? Let me take one example. Free men came together to found the Jaycees and the Kiwanis clubs. Because those men actually did work that redounded to the benefit of the community,they were ruled “public accommodations,” rather like rest stops, whose membership might be determined by the state. Hence they were compelled to accept women as members.
I do not say they should have denied women membership. I have no opinion on the particulars of the matter, not being a member of those organizations myself. I am saying that, in a free country, such societies — all male, all female, men and women together, veterans only, Italians only, Christians only — not only have a right to exist, they have a right to pursue their vision of the common good, publicly, by transacting business, giving alms, engaging in political discourse, or whatever the need of the day may call them to do.
And yet there is a sense in which it was important for that coalition of sexual antinomians and statists to geld such men’s groups, as they wish to geld the Boy Scouts, and have gone far toward gelding the family. Recherchez le pouvoir. What stands in the way of the all-competent state, or the individual who trumpets his “right” to marry his male friend, or to view obscene pictures, or to divorce on a whim? All those societies, those often unwitting upholders of tradition, helping to police the neighborhood, they are in the way; in particular, those unions of free men who built the nation and who, if their small towns were threatened, might darned well make life uncomfortable for the smut peddler on the street corner or in the school department.
You can’t rob the house unless you bind the strong man first. Well, the strong man has been bound. Ask: What institution now is mighty enough to resist the onslaught of destruction about to rush upon us from the biotechnicians, with their proposals to hybridize man and beast? What school, county, town, club, or church wields the power to bring the wolfish state to heel, as it forces us to redefine marriage as something less than a business contract, entered into for the emotional fulfillment of the (note the word) partners? The ideal state for both the universal meddler and the irresponsible individual is one wherein all obstructing institutions are laid flat. It is a land without societies.
And what is the principal society whose function will be robbed? The family, of course. Engels understood that the family had to be co-opted by the state. The early feminists understood it, too — you know, the “good” ones like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had not yet come around on the matter of killing children, but who wished to demote the father, who cast aspersions on the family, and who divorced individual rights from any claims the common good might lay upon us.
But the family, as Leo says, is anterior to the state. It has its own rights, not the sum of the rights of the individuals within it. It is good for us all that there should be families, not because fathers and mothers happen to do a better job at raising children than the state does, but because the very relationships of love and duty in a family reflect, even on earth, the fulfillment of man’s love and intellect in that city above, called the New Jerusalem.
Has the Left in my lifetime upheld the rights of the family? Not of the head of the family, and therefore not of the family itself. Will the Left soon institute programs designed to give young men good jobs so that they may marry and raise children and become strong heads of families and leaders in their societies? Not if it wants to retain its power — and its identity, as the dispenser of all good things to a debased, cultureless, helpless people.

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Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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