Mephistopheles: I am a part of a part that once was a whole. […]

Faust: Now I see the plan you follow.

Wholesale annihilation won’t prevail,

So thou’rt beginning on a smaller scale.

As Goethe observed, reductionism appears to have become the favorite technique of Satan in the modern world. Or, in the words of the brilliant Jewish psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl: “The true nihilism of today is reductionism … Contemporary nihilism no longer brandishes the word nothingness; today nihilism is camouflaged as nothing-but-ness.”

Examples of this phenomenon can be seen throughout the whole spectrum of human knowledge: Luther’s five solas; Descartes’ rationalism; Locke’s liberalism; Freud’s libido; Darwin’s biology; Smith’s capitalism; Marx’s communism. No one from this list was original in the sense that they identified something that had never been seen. It was precisely the opposite: they each made their mark by not seeing something, whether we are talking about the necessity of the priesthood or the hand of God in anthropology.

Each from this list could be easily described as an effort in reduction from the complex to the simple. The effort is particularly striking in Luther’s case, where “faith alone” and “Scripture alone” are clearly intended to exclude something that came before. The whole reductionist affair is one of the “signs of the times” the popes are always talking about. In fact it seems to me that this reductionism is one of the most pressing “signs” that they spend their time trying to fight, particularly through the corpus of documents known as Catholic Social Teaching, which is a corporate attempt by the Church to achieve justice in the social sphere.

The Papal Fusion

We can know this is true by observing how often within Catholic Social Teaching the popes clearly attempt to fuse the “part” back to the whole. They are trying to fuse subsidiarity with solidarity, mercy with justice, love with truth, etc. They are constantly trying to restore balance where it has been destroyed by the reductionism. To say it another way, they are always trying to restore justice to its wholeness while the world, in the spirit of Mephistopheles, attempts to take it apart piece by piece.

This isn’t because everyone is evil. Rather, as St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic Church would tell is, it is because they are good, or more precisely it is because they desire the good. They desire justice. They just fail to obtain it in its purity. That’s what sin is. Sin is the result of the action of beings who desire good but allow themselves to be misled about what exactly the good is and how to go about getting it.

Those who emphasize subsidiarity to the exclusion of solidarity are preferring one aspect of justice, the individual, but to the neglect of its other aspect, the corporate. Those who emphasize solidarity do the opposite. Both cling to justice but they treat the whole teaching reductionistically, and thereby fail to adequately understand and serve the justice they seek.

I mention this because I recently obtained a pre-release copy of Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is by Michael Novak and Paul Adams. My review will appear in The American Conservative. Without spoiling that review, I can say that Novak and Adams’ project struck me as one of the supreme examples of the problem of truncated justice we are discussing here. It is essentially an effort to formulate a notion of “social justice” without allowing for the existence of the social aspect of man’s nature. It is an attempt to reduce social justice to an individualized virtue.

St. Thomas knew that justice, to be properly understood, had to be divided into its individual and its corporate aspects. These he referred to as two “species” called commutative and distributive. The kind of neo-liberalism represented by Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is attempts to develop a theory of justice without taking account of Aquinas’ second species.

Social Justice Partial and Whole

These attempts to reduce the Catholic understanding of justice to the commutative aspect make mincemeat of Catholic Social Teaching and the concept of justice in general: adding a principle here, rejecting a pope there, and ignoring whatever documents don’t suit the purpose (which is quite a few). By omitting the corporate aspect of justice, they render the concept of “social justice” automatically unintelligible.

But what saddens the reader is that it is all so unnecessary. The authors are clearly seeking justice, and they could have it. The popes want them to have it. But they want them to have it all. That’s why Pius XI wrote long ago (1937) in Divini Redemptoris that “In reality, besides commutative justice, there is also social justice with its own set obligations, from which neither employers nor workingmen can escape.”

Now it is of the very essence of social justice to demand from each individual all that is necessary for the common good. But just as in the living organism it is impossible to provide for the good of the whole unless each single part and each individual member is given what it needs for the exercise of its proper functions, so it is impossible to care for the social organism and the good of society as a unit unless each single part and each individual member—that is to say, each individual man in the dignity of his human personality—is supplied with all that is necessary for the exercise of his social functions. If social justice be satisfied, the result will be an intense activity in economic life as a whole, pursued in tranquillity and order.

Novak and Adams would destroy the Catholic understanding of social justice and keep only the internalized habit—the “virtue” of justice in the individual sense. Certainly justice is a virtue in that sense, but it is also something more. It is also an objective criterion of justice in society. That is what the popes call social justice. Would that we could rediscover the virtue and the social application of justice. For now, Mephistopheles is winning.

Daniel Schwindt lives and writes in central Kansas. He he married relatively late and works a job that doesn't suit him in order to pay off the debt he incurred earning a degree he doesn't use. He is the editor of Solidarity Hall and the author of There Must Be More Than This: Identity & Spiritual Renewal in the Kingdom of "Whatever" and Catholic Social Teaching: A New Synthesis (Rerum Novarum to Laudato Si').


Further Reading:

Pope Pius XI’s Divini Redemptoris

Daniel Schwindt’s Catholic Economics

Thomas Storck’s What is the Christian Understanding of Social Order? and What Authority Does Catholic Social Teaching Have?

Dylan Pahman’s Scapegoats of Christian Social Thought

St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologicae II-II, q. 61


Editor's Note: In an earlier version of this article, the final block quote read: "Now it is of the very essence of social justice to demand for each individual all that is necessary for the common good." It has been updated to read: "Now it is of the very essence of social justice to demand from each individual all that is necessary for the common good."