God’s unity and simplicity mean that for Him truth, justice, and power are all the same. He isn’t conflicted, doesn’t do half-measures, and never loses.
The evident reality of falsehood and injustice makes that hard to understand. We can understand the unity of truth and justice, but power seems something else. If God is all truth and justice, and He’s all power too, how can there be evil?
The difficulty is practical as well as theoretical: the basic problem of politics is how to join truth and justice with power.
Can we do that? If so, how?
Plato was the first to think about the problem systematically. His answer was that kings must be philosophers, people who through natural gifts and long study have attained to knowledge of what justice really is. Having attained that knowledge, they would then proceed to realize justice here on earth—although perhaps at the expense of truth, if we bear in mind his concept of the “noble lie”.
He admitted that success in such an enterprise was unlikely, noting for example the clumsiness of many philosophers in everyday affairs. But he thought it important to have a solid ideal of a just society as an ultimate reference point. And he thought it important to show such a society was at least possible. Otherwise “justice” would be too empty a word.
Experience has confirmed his judgment as to likelihood. Rulers who try to realize grand social schemes have often brought about disaster. And they have rarely been philosophers in Plato’s sense. Marcus Aurelius tried to be one, and for the most part was a good emperor, but he realized the limitations of his situation and made no attempt to turn the Roman Empire into Plato’s republic.
Many have hoped for more. Moses proposed a comprehensive system of law, but it included concessions to human weakness, and was never put completely into effect. The prophets were more restrained, and limited themselves to denouncing particular abuses and dreaming of a kingdom of justice to be established by divine intervention. Their denunciations had limited effect, and the reign of justice they foresaw has yet to materialize.
Jesus, who spoke very little about secular government, seems yet more restrained. He was willing to submit to established authority, for example with regard to the payment of taxes. And Paul, his follower and interpreter, told Christians to honor and obey secular rulers. But neither said much about how to take part in public affairs, and both ended up getting put to death by the world’s most highly regarded government.
And it’s not obvious how to apply the Gospel to secular public affairs. Is it wrong for government to think about the morrow? Are the courts really obligated to forgive murderers seventy times seven times? And what is spiritual about making decisions for people and forcing them to comply?
Given such difficulties, the Church has tended toward a natural law understanding of political life—at bottom, taking experience, common sense, and practical judgment as guides. There is plenty of biblical and theological support for that approach. The Book of Proverbs and Paul’s letters are full of practical wisdom, and if God made the world and called it good, then the way the world works and our natural goals and normal ways of achieving them must also at bottom be good.
So Catholics have been willing to accept prudence as the prime political virtue. But that willingness is one reason many people have found Catholicism too worldly. It was the devil who said he could offer Jesus dominion over the kingdoms of the world, because they had all been delivered to him. If that’s so, why is it right to pay much attention to worldly practicalities? And if the Faith simply commands us to act like normal people exercising everyday prudence, what’s so extraordinary about it?
Also, the magnitude of evil, and the difficulty of doing much about it or even acting rightly ourselves, can make common sense seem grossly insufficient. Times of upheaval multiply those impressed by such difficulties. People want to do something, but conditions compel a sense of the world’s intractability.
That creates special difficulties for modern people, whose view of the world has been formed by the example of technology and industrial organization, and feel a consequent obligation to reconstruct the political world to make it more just. The French activist, writer, and mystic Simone Weil provides an example. She was an ardent and perceptive woman with great logical powers. (She came by them naturally—her brother André was one of the world’s great mathematicians.) As the world headed toward the Second World War she like others saw good reason to emphasize the opposition between what is good and what is powerful.
Also, she was originally a communist who accepted that worldly affairs were ruled by material forces. When religious experience—including a vision of Christ—led her to give up her materialism she retained her sense of the power of amoral force. The good, represented by the Gospel, became for her worthy of all love but utterly powerless.
That outlook led her to sympathy with the Marcionites and Cathars, who rejected the material world along with the God of the Old Testament. Even so, she retained her commitment to political activism, but in a form detached from practicality. The Free French in London had her write think pieces about the shape of French society after the war, but her most passionate efforts went into a scheme to get herself parachuted into occupied France to serve as a combat nurse with the Resistance. (Her health was bad, and she had no training as a nurse.)
Weil lived intensely, gave her all, and died before her views had matured—many say before she was baptized. So she’s more a source of insight and inspiration than guidance. After the War, prominent Catholics who shared her concern with political and social matters tried to find a way toward something more practical.
They were generally hopeful, but their efforts often involved what seems a willfully optimistic misreading of secular tendencies. Pope Saint John XXIII set the tone for the Second Vatican Council and the period that follows. His encyclicals took an optimistic view of industrialization, spoke to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and favored generally technocratic methods for dealing with social problems: social planning, the welfare state, world government, and confidence in the natural and human sciences.
As an intelligent and experienced man he knew there could be problems, but didn’t seem inclined to take them seriously. As he commented in his opening address to the Council:
Not, certainly, that there is a lack of fallacious teaching, opinions, and dangerous concepts … But these are so obviously in contrast with the right norm of honesty, and have produced such lethal fruits that by now it would seem that men of themselves are inclined to condemn them, particularly those ways of life which despise God and His law or place excessive confidence in technical progress and a well-being based exclusively on the comforts of life.
So he recognized practical atheism and the technological consumer society as issues but apparently expected them simply to vanish in the light of truths obvious to everyone. That optimism, and the accompanying trust in secular progress, deeply affected the Second Vatican Council and the following period. For the most part Pope Francis carries them forward.
In fact, though, secular progress has meant an attempt to unite a scientistic view of truth and a hedonist and egalitarian view of justice in a bureaucratic and commercial system of power. The result has been an inhuman regime that suppresses every authority except money and bureaucracy, including such humanly necessary ones as family, religion, and particular cultural tradition.
So if Simone Weil’s gestures seem quixotic and futile, and secular progress has turned destructive, how do we bring power, truth, and justice together? Now as always, it seems that the right course is political prudence, which is realistic about secular movements, combined with a constant effort to live by and propagate a better vision of man and the world. That is the Church’s classic strategy and is now as valuable as ever.
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