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On Wall Street Protests, Social Justice, and Religion
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-10-14 07:15:58
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“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”

Were we to ask who uttered the above statement, most people would readily identify Karl Marx. What gives him away is the famous slogan: “religion is the opium of the people.” The quote actually originates from the introduction of Marx’s 1843 work Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. There, Marx in effect turns up side down the transcendental dialectical philosophy of Hegel and brings it down to earth, so to speak, without however rejecting its determinism. People have confused this philosophical strategy for a call to a crude sort of materialism, dialectical so called, even hedonism on the part of Marx. But we know that Marx was looking for an ideal just society redolent of monks living together in fraternal community in a monastery. Moreover, he admired the works of art of the Italian Renaissance. Most of those works are religious in nature, nothing short than a bridge to spiritual transcendence.

If we reads attentively the above quoted passage, one begins to realize that Marx is not so much against religion per se, as a sort of comfort for the people, as he is for the abolition of illusions of happiness. He knows quite well that religion (the burial of the dead) has been present from the very beginning of civilization together with the family (marriage) and language. He borrows those notions from the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico whom he had read and is in fact quotes in some of his works. Some scholars speculate that the very idea of homo faber (man the maker) derives from Vico’s epistemology: the idea that what we can know with absolute certitude are only the things that we ourselves make, i.e., institutions, artifacts, language, culture in general, and especially history because we can then return to their origins.

Nature, on the other hand was made by God and only He can know it with absolute certitude. We are sent back to Socrates’ self-knowledge: true knowledge does not reside in the manipulation of nature but in knowing oneself. The ancient wise Socratic dictum remain: “Know Thyself.” Only from that issues a life examined and worth living. Marx, as an attentive reader of man’s history or man the maker of history, also knows that religion will probably remain part of any viable civilization. Proof by hindsight is that neither in the Soviet Union, nor in Communist China has religion ever been eradicated despite efforts to do so. One begins to wonder if indeed Marx was a Marxist after all. 

But there is another intriguing question about Marx’s general attitude toward religion and it is this: what would a Marx redivivus think of present day religious thinking on social justice? Even closer at home, what would he think of the Wall street protests going on all over the US as we speak? Would he loudly approve of them as an example of what in his philosophy goes under the name of “class warfare” as fanatical capitalists loudly assert in order to discredit the whole protest?

“Class warfare” is of course the favored epithet of right leaning politicians and pundits (such as Fox news) who have taken to label the protesters as “the mob,” to characterize them as an anti-social mob who hates work and it rather be in the streets agitating for revolution, envious of the super-rich on Wall Street (labeled “the job providers”), out to foment class warfare by pitting Americans against Americans. A former Speaker of the House, who now would be president, has called half of them as people who cannot pick up after themselves.

Mind you, the super-rich in our country are 1% of the population and now own 25% of the country’s wealth. In the 50s those same super-rich were paying 90% taxes and doing so willingly since even with those high taxes they were still making plenty of profits vis a vis the middle class. Now they are being provided with bailouts from the people’s taxes when they encounter financial trouble, of their own making to be sure, since they claim to be too big to fail. In effect we have socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor and middle class. After sending the economy into a tail spin, they have been rewarded for their greed and negligence with tax breaks and loopholes. To add insult to injury they balk at the very idea of sharing in the sacrifices engendered by a faltering economy and accuse those who would initiate a debate on this issue of simple social justice as people fomenting “class warfare” in America. The same right leaning legislators who are sent to Washington to represent their people, seem to consider it their duty to defend the economic interests of the rich from which they obtain the necessary funds to run for their re-election. What a sad scenario!

I have already written extensively in Ovi on the issue of the relevancy of the modern Papal social encyclicals (see for example: http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/4745, http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/4415). My last contribution was on two diametrically opposed concepts of justice. Let me now present to the reader a schematic rendition of the official Catholic teaching on social justice, especially as articulated through the modern Papal encyclicals on the same, as presented by Josh Daly and Alex Neroth Van Vogelpoel. At the end of this preliminary exploration I will pose again the above question to an imaginary 21st century Marx and perhaps hazard an answer or two by the same Marx as resurrected in the our century. It has been said that Marx and his philosophical ideology on social justice is dead but not forgotten. I suppose it will not be forgotten till injustice persists on this valley of tears of ours.

In the first place it should be pointed out that the modern catholic social thought has developed through scholars, councils and Popes who have engaged the “social question” of what an ideal and fair society should look like. One notices a general tendency since its inception to navigate a middle way between the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism and totalitarian state socialism.

One of the most important foundations of this thought buttressed by religion is the dignity of the human person. Each and every person has dignity and deserves to be treated with dignity and respect because we are all made in the image of God. This attitude is sometimes called the philosophy of personalism. However, against an overly individualistic and selfish perspective, every person is understood as inherently made for community. That is not too dissimilar from the ancient Greek conception of justice residing in the polis or community but what is different within a Christian perspective is that not only every single person is made in the image of God, but the whole of humanity is also made in the image of the Trinity, a perfect community. This demand for life in community is expressed in the notion of the common good. We are called, not to work merely for own interests, but the good of all people. Held in tension, these two foundational principles are the basis of Catholic Social Thought. They affirm that every human being is both sacred and social.

What these two principles look like in practice? Traditional Catholic teaching has developed a three-fold model of justice. The first level is commutative justice, which is the demand that interactions between individuals have a fundamental fairness. The second level, held in tension with the first, is distributive justice—the notion that burdens and benefits of the whole should be distributed fairly. The third is contributive or social justice—that there is a demand upon individuals and smaller communities to care for the well-being of all and build more just structures in the world.

The last model of justice is given substance by the principle of solidarity and the preferential option for the poor. This preference is not “optional”; rather we have a responsibility to choose (to “opt”) for the poor. This does not mean that God loves poor people more than the rich, but that in the midst of grave inequalities in the world, we are called to live our lives for “the least of these”—to put poor people first. Solidarity means that we are all responsible for the welfare of all of our brothers and sisters; this solidarity must be rooted in real concern for the poor and for building community in all that we do.

The significance of the principle of subsidiarity is two-fold: it gives strong moral preference for local solutions to problems where they are achievable, but it also requires that more removed forms of governance help those local communities to meet the demands of justice and the common good.

Catholic social thought has consistently stressed the dignity of work and workers. Work is not something to be eliminated, neither is it a mere commodity to be exploited, but something by which humans develop their gifts from God.

In direct response to the growing environmental crisis, catholic social thought has strongly urged our stewardship of creation, as demanded in the Scriptures. Only God, not humanity, is the true owner of all creation, and we must care for creation, not exploit it. Similarly, there has been a constant reminder of the universal destination of material goods—which asserts against overly capitalistic tendencies that there is a “social mortgage on private property”. In other words, God has entrusted us with everything on the earth for the use of all people, not just of a privileged few.

Peace may be too broad to be considered a principle, but is definitely a theme. As Pope Paul VI used to say: if you want peace work for justice. Another theme is that of participation, the idea that we must not only work toward social justice for the poor and the oppressed but with them; human rights, and development. All these themes express the implications of catholic social thought within the context of globalization.

After this schematic overview of Catholic social thought, let us imagine a modern conversation with Marx on the issue.

Interlocutor: Good morning Dr. Marx. Have you had a chance to read and assess the philosophy of Catholic Social Thought I handed you last month, and if so, did it change in any way your negative views on religion?

Marx: yes I did read the notes you handed to me, and it would be dishonest for me to assert that I was not surprised at how progressive and objective that social thought happens to be . On the other hand you have to concede that the publication of my Das Kapital some 150 years ago has given the Catholic Church and its Popes and its theologians plenty of time to read and ponder my work and attune their views about social justice to mine. Why do you think that certain Popes have been accused of advocating socialism, if not communism?

Interlocutor: You are turning the table around on me: the question was whether or not you changed your mind on religion as the opium of the people.

Marx: no, not really, I believe my analysis still stands. Take a look at the economic crisis that the whole of Western civilization is currently undergoing on both sides of the Atlantic. Look at the protests of the people in the streets of Europe and on Wall Street in America. Do you think that capitalism has changed its stripes and has stopped its exploitation of the workers and its sheer greed? If anything its lack of concern and compassion toward the poor gets worse by the year.

Interlocutor: well, I will not deny that it does appear so, but after the failure of the socialist Marxian system in the Soviet Union, you have to admit that your social analysis too was a big failure and your vision of social justice has never come to pass. It certainly did not create the workers’ paradise in the Soviet Union, if anything it created the gulags. Neither did it create the new man that you and Nietzsche envisioned in your philosophy, and it remains to be seen if it will create one in Communist China.

Marx: quite right; quite right. China today looks more like a Capitalistic country than a Communist country and it is doubtful that they will create any kind of just society based only on mere material economic considerations and the increase in consumerism based on cheap labor.

Interlocutor: but were not those the only basis of your social critique: that the material and the control of the means of production determines the structure of society?

Marx: not really. If you read my works carefully beyond slogans and clichés you will surely notice that I advocate that man should not fulfill only his material needs but also his hunger for art. I consider homo faber, or man the maker, an artist of sort; I point out that aesthetic considerations are integral part of everything man makes.

Interlocutor: in other words, not by bread alone does man live. So in a strange sort of way your aspirations for a just society are the same aspirations of Plato’s Republic or the aspirations of the human heart for justice and fairness found in the Acts of the Apostles.

Marx: indeed, the human heart needs the sustenance of justice or it will be a troubled dark heart that will create injustice and wars in the world rather than peace.

Interlocutor: but those you just expressed, if I may say so, are religious values. Are you saying that the aspiration for justice is much older than your social analysis; that this aspirations for justice expressed in the New Testament as “they loved one another and they owned everything in common,” is the real origin of socialism?

Marx: I think you just put your finger on something here even if I don’t understand it that well. I certainly never saw it in action within religion in the 19th century even if much lip service was paid to charity toward one’s neighbor. What needs to be stressed is the fact that love comes first and then the ideology of owning everything in common. If one makes the ideology the essential thing, one will be ready to kill for that ideology as it has been done in both Russia and China.

Interlocutor: I must confess that I find your words rather surprising. It appears that Marx is not a Marxist after all.

Marx: and I must now make a confession too: were I alive today and were I to read and reflect on the social teaching of the Cathoc Church and the social encyclicals of various Popes, beginning with Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII all the way to Benedict XVI, I would not be so critical of the role of religion in the social milieu. Religion will probably never be eradicated. What did the ancients call it: the noble lie to keeps the people happy and docile; that is, those who cannot do philosophy.

Interlocutor: I always suspected that about you. Your vision of the just society where everybody owns everything in common was always redolent of a Franciscan monastery to me; a place where everybody owns everything in common. But perhaps such a vision is a bit impractical; perhaps only Franciscan friars can live that way. Wouldn’t you agree?

Marx: perhaps. I am not sure. But we do agree on one thing: the aspiration of the human heart for justice is as old as human kind. I am glad that the Church has come around to seeing this.

Interlocutor: could it be that it is the other way around: that you have come around to the conclusion that ultimately your visions and aspirations were so idealistic as to be religious in nature, a sort of secular religion?

Marx: I wouldn’t agree with that, but I wouldn’t disagree either. You have given me plenty of food for thought to ruminate upon. On this side of reality that is what we do all day we imitated our Maker who reflects upon his own thoughts, as Aristotle pointed out.

Interlocutor: sounds a bit narcissistic for my taste; in any case, we who are still alive, need still to continue working and struggling to change this imperfect world and to attend to an imperfect society. Well, I must leave you, I need to go to Wall Street to join the protesters. I’ll be sure not to disappoint Fox New and pick up after myself.

Marx: happy revolution! Those capitalists and those politicians in Washington ought to have learned one thing from one of their fellow politicians,  a wise man even if he was not a socialist nor a democrat; I refer to President Lincoln, who said that “one can fool some of the people all the times, or all the people some of the times, but one cannot fool all the people all the times.”

Interlocutor: Indeed Dr. Marx. I wonder if Lincoln, your contemporary, ever had a conversation with you, imaginary or otherwise. I think you’d have liked each other even if I am not sure you would have managed to persuade each other. Nice talking to you. Adios.

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Emanuel Paparella2011-10-15 16:21:32
Typographical corrections:

3rd paragraph: if one…reads 3rd paragraph: the ancient wise Socratic dictum remains… 8th paragraph from bottom: we imitate 4th paragraph from bottom: Catholic Church

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