Justice and Peace and People of Good Will
Some months ago, in an article called The New Creation, I sketched the outlines of the Church’s recently developed teaching on the role of civilisation, culture, and science in God’s overall plan. The development, I explained, as has so often happened in the Church’s history, has been provoked mainly by criticisms or misunderstandings from outside, the chief being that the Church is only interested in the salvation of souls.
This article will be a parallel criticism; namely that her preoccupation with the individual’s salvation has made her indifferent not only to cultural progress, science above all, but to what could be called “social progress”; that is improving the lot of the poorest and bringing about what are considered more just or more equal societies.
Given the history of the Church in both the cultural and social fields both charges are pretty steep. Not only is there the concrete evidence all over the world and throughout 2000 years of history of her interest in social welfare as well as the fine arts and culture. In the Our Father she daily teaches her children to pray that God’s will ‘be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ His will in this regard has two dimensions. After the salvation of souls comes promoting justice and peace as well as cultural progress. The Christian who doesn’t use his talents or spends his time ill-treating the other servants will be in for a really bad time.
However, in the Beatitudes we have been told not to complain when false accusations are made against us. On the contrary, we have been told to rejoice and to love our accusers. So with the 2nd Vatican Council the Church set about trying to enter into dialogue with those who since the 18th century have been her chief ideological opponents and seeing how far she can come to agreement with them about joint enterprises for the benefit of humanity in general.
Up to a point the conciliar constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, can be seen as the offer of a kind of peace treaty to the 20th century heirs of the European enlightenment who had made earthly progress or improving the lot of humanity in this world their ideal. Together with overtures went a show of willingness to join as far as possible in national and international attempts to ‘build a better world’ or the pursuit of world wide justice and peace.
Her purpose was partly evangelical. Provided the methods were legitimate, how could she hold back from such initiatives without being seriously misunderstood? In the words of Gaudium et Spes: ‘although we must be careful to distinguish earthly progress from the kingdom of Christ, such progress is of vital concern to the kingdom of God in so far as it can contribute to the better ordering of human society.’ (G&S 49. CCC1049) The same sentiments are expressed in one of the breviary prayers. “Help us to work with other people to build the earthly city ---but let us never lose sight of your heavenly kingdom.”
Such, briefly and roughly, I would say is the historical background to all the good social or cultural initiatives, which the Church now encourages her children to take part in together with those she describes in a general way as ‘people of good will’. However in launching her children into these enterprises she does insist that the aims and methods be legitimate. It is obviously important therefore for Catholics to know what is legitimate. Working with people whose fundamental beliefs and principles are different can never be without problems.
However first I want to look at the concept ‘people of good will’ which the Church now uses in a general way for her non-Catholic partners in the pursuit of justice and peace. They are not obviously all one in mind and heart.
People of Good Will
We first, of course, hear the words in a Christian context at the Nativity when the angels appear to the shepherds and promise them peace. Here the term presumably means everybody who at the time of Our Lord’s birth was not ill disposed in advance to hearing the new message of salvation.
Later in the Gospels Our Lord throws additional light on the term on two occasions, one recorded by St Matthew, the other by St Mark and St Luke.
‘He that is not against us is for us’ ( Mark 9v40 and Luke 9v50 ), and ‘He who is not with me is against me’ (Matt 12v 30).
“He that is not against us is for us.” Today these words would seem to describe those who, while not agreeing with or accepting everything the Church teaches, do not feel any animosity towards her. Such people can be seen as in the fullest sense ‘men and women of good will.’ Good will is as much a matter of the heart as of the head. It is the heart that makes people want to help the poor --- that heart which, Pascal tells us, has reasons for thinking and doing things which the head knows nothing about.
‘He who is not with me is against me’. Today this second saying would seem to apply to all those 21st century men and women who sadly, whether directly children of the enlightenment or not, see the Church as an opponent; an institution in so far as possible to be restricted or better still disposed of altogether. Charity forbids us to call them ‘people of bad will’. There is often good in some of their intentions. Let us call them ‘people of mixed will’.
These then are the partners with whom the Church has embarked on the world-wide pursuit of justice and peace and who may be of any religion or none.
Let us now look at some of the problems raised by their different standpoints.
Positions and Problems
The first and biggest problem is that for Catholics and most other Christians There can be a better but not a perfect world. There is going to be sin right up to the last day. To believe this, I would say, is necessary if one is to have a properly balanced view of what is possible.
How many of our non-Christian fellow men and women still believe that history and progress are going to end in some kind of earthly paradise is difficult to decide. I was going to say ‘probably a lot fewer than used to’, when I came across the following passage from the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. After listing a number of contemporary world views it concludes with the words. “There are still others whose hopes are set on a genuine and total emancipation of mankind through human effort alone and look forward to some future paradise where all the desires of their hearts will be fulfilled.”
However the Council took place 50 years ago and since then what is called post-modernism has intervened. Post-modernism seems to be a mixture of ‘relativism’ (truth is dependent on the standpoint of the individual) and a generally more sceptical attitude towards the possibility of reaching objective truth except in certain areas of science. Nevertheless this does not seem to have diminished the wide-spread interest in trying to make the world in some way or other ‘a better place.’
The second problem is what justice requires. Whether we are working with men of good will or mixed will their ideas of good and bad and right and wrong will often conflict with ours.
Justice is not the same as charity. Helping the poor or disadvantaged in collaboration with non-Catholics presents relatively few difficulties. It is a matter of supplying immediate needs. Justice, on the other hand, in the sense we are considering, means trying to see that everyone gets their due on a regular long-term basis, their due including a decent standard of living in terms of the society and times they are living in. This inevitably means government intervention and the making of new laws. Catholic social teaching in no way objects to government intervention when necessary. There have been times when it has called for it. The question then is how much and of what kind?
The third problem is of a different kind. Can you have a just society without just men? Obviously not? How then do you make them?
For the Church the family is essential. To make just men out of unjust adults who have never known love may be possible with the help of grace in individual cases, but not just men in the mass. Again in the case of individuals, where a family has failed a good school can sometimes rectify the situation. But this does not make schools a possible substitute for the family on a nation-wide scale.
It is the same with virtue as a whole. Justice is like a man or woman alone on a desert island. It cannot live long in the soul all by itself. There has to be training in the other virtues. Here too the family is indispensible.
The End and Meaning of History
In the light of all the fore-going it seems to me we can say that, from a Catholic standpoint, history has two ends; a primary end and a secondary end.
The salvation of souls is the primary end. ‘What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and suffers the loss of his soul?’ This primary end is being fulfilled every minute of every day as millions of souls pour ceaselessly heavenward. During their life on earth they have been learning how to be live in heaven and earning the right to. The world will end when their number is complete. The Church calls them the elect. The elect are those who, from all eternity, God has foreseen are going to make it to heaven.
The secondary end, the one I wrote about in my previous article The New Creation , means working with God during our life on earth to ornament and ‘complete’ creation, as the CCC now puts it, by developing all the powers and potentialities of nature--- human nature, biological nature and physical nature --- in the production of works of art, literature, engineering and science, or anything else which will adorn our transfigured homeland to the glory of God.
Strangely enough the children of the enlightenment did not get things entirely wrong. There is going to be an earthly paradise at the end of time. But it is going to be after the last day, not this side of it; it will cover the whole earth not just a limited area like the garden of Eden; and it will only be partly the product of human effort.
“However, let us leave the last word about paradises, earthly or heavenly, with our Holy Father, Pope Francis. ‘Only by humbly accepting one’s limitations and recognizing God’s infinite abundance can people resist the diabolical temptation of thinking that by our own efforts we can save the world and ourselves.’ ” (Lent Message 2015)
Copyright © Philip Trower 2015
Version: 9th May 2015