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The Third Annual Catholic Congress: Addresses and Papers

Albany, New York, October 25, 26, 27, A.D. 1927

Philadelphia: The Catholic Congress Committee, 1927.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2011

The Relation of the Church to Social Work
Secretary and General Director of the Charity Organization
Society, New York City, New York

FATHER HUGHSON asked me to write a paper on this subject and I declined because my opinions are not in harmony with what seems to be the commonly accepted opinions of the day. I told him that if I tried to avoid conflict with current thought what I said would not interest me, and probably no one else, and if I spoke my mind it would be an unpopular message. My objections were overruled.

Probably this invitation was extended to me because I have some experience in social work and might urge the clergy to be better informed concerning modern methods. Few clergymen are well informed. In the large cities they often do not know social resources, they often neglect the proper use of the confidential exchange, they employ workers who never heard of the exchange and who do not even know the names and functions of the more important social agencies. All this is unfortunate for those they serve, but some are skillful and informed and the seminaries are giving some instructions and opportunities for training in social work to candidates for orders.

Whatever the clergy may lack in knowledge of the methods of social work, that lack can be supplied by study, [98/99] training, and experience so far as they are by nature fitted to profit by such training. Some men seem highly gifted with charity, wisdom, and understanding, while some men can never learn how to deal with men and women, one by one.

A man may be expert and wise and successful in dealing with individuals and may be ignorant of the basic principles of social order. I regard those principles as the only foundation for a social order which shall endure. Concerning some principles of social life I am as intolerant of denial as you would be of denial that the earth is round. They seem to me axiomatic. I shall so express myself and yet I know that honest men and good men differ with me and I may love them however much I may abhor their opinions.

Concerning the application of social principles at any given time and place there is room for difference of opinion by those who agree in principle. This is the field of politics and statesmanship just as in dealing with questions of conscience we enter the field of casuistry, a study which I fear is sadly neglected by our seminaries.

I shall state some of the fallacies commonly accepted as true and endeavor to expose them:

I. Men are not all born free and equal. That is an exploded theory of the Eighteenth Century.
II. Men have no rights except such as are conferred by society.
III. The law of the jungle should be replaced by the law of Christ.
IV. I am my brother's keeper.


These fallacies are linked together and to a degree are due to careless use of words. One cannot reason clearly [99/100] unless words are defined exactly and are used always with precisely the same significance. Sometimes we should imitate Humpty Dumpty, as reported in Alice in Wonderland "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, "it means just what I choose it to mean."

It is significant of the thinking of today that "Individualist" has fallen from its high estate and is used as though it meant a selfish person. Webster defines "Individualism" as used in philosophy as "The doctrine or practice regarding the chief end of society or of moral law to be the development of individual character; the theory that society exists for the sake of its individual members." Socialism in its narrow sense means the theory of governmental control of economic activities, but I choose it to mean the opposite of individualism, namely that the individual exists for the state and a majority may properly decide what shall be done in the interest of what the majority thinks is the greatest good for the greatest number. The individual has no rights save such as the state may grant.

It is a socialist point of view that leads men to say, "Men are not all born free and equal." They think they are quoting the Declaration of Independence. They are not. So far as I know no one ever declared "Men are all born free and equal." It is obvious they are not. That which Lincoln called the standard to which all men may repair, declares that "We hold these truths to be self-evident—that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." This is to say that Almighty God gave all men equal rights to life and liberty and gave to no man or group of men the right to take away these gifts of God.

Is not this doctrine the same as that we receive from Revealed Religion in the Commandments, "Thou shalt [100/101] do no murder" and "Thou shalt not steal." These Commandments impose duties upon all men individually and collectively and confer correlative rights. These rights we call "natural rights" because as Blackstone says, "These are the eternal, immutable laws of good and evil to which the Creator Himself, in all his dispensations, conforms; and which He has enabled human beings to discover, so far as they are necessary for the conduct of human actions." St. Thomas Aquinas says that the "participation of the Eternal Law in the rational creature is called the Natural Law."

As to the binding quality of Natural Law and its superiority over positive law, Blackstone says, "This law of nature, being co-eval with mankind, and dictated by God Himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times; no human laws are of any validity if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original."

The Commandments to refrain from murder and theft do more than declare duties to respect natural rights which always existed. These rights include the right to life and liberty and the right to enjoy unmolested the fruits of one's labor. The duty to respect natural rights is imposed upon the state as well as upon the persons composing the state. The theory that the State may disregard natural rights is a socialist theory which, in effect, denies the existence of God.

By a somewhat different chain of reasoning, Herbert Spencer came to similar conclusions concerning natural rights. In Social Statics, Spencer summarizes thus: "God wills man's happiness. Man's happiness can only be produced by the exercise of his faculties. Then God wills that he should exercise his faculties. But [101/102] to exercise his faculties he must have liberty to do all that his faculties naturally impel him to do. Then God intends he should have that liberty. Therefore he has a right to that liberty." And later he says, "Thus are we brought by several routes to the same conclusion . . . that every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man."

If this principle be admitted, certain applications are obvious. One of the most important is the right to the use of the earth. In his old age Spencer was less willing to follow the principles he discovered in his youth and his book, Justice, made certain qualifications. In Social Statics he said, "Given a race of beings having like claims to pursue the objects of their desires—given a world adapted to the gratification of those desires—a world into which such beings are similarly born, and it unavoidably follows that they have equal rights to the use of this world. For if each of them 'has freedom to do all that he wills provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other' then each of them is free to use the earth for the satisfaction of his wants, provided he allows all others the same liberty."

No problem is more vital to the welfare of the human race than is that of securing the equal right to the use of the earth together with the absolute rights of all to the fruits of their labor whether of hand or brain. I commend to your thoughtful study Progress and Poverty by Henry George. Extracts from that book, selected by Professor Harry Gunnison Brown, will soon be published with a preface by John Dewey. Prof. Dewey says:

. . . "his is one of the great names among the world's social philosophers. It would require less than the fingers of the two hands to enumerate those who from Plato down rank with him.

[103] "His clear intellectual insight into social conditions, his passionate feeling for the remediable ills from which humanity suffers, find their logical conclusion in his plan for liberating labor and capital from the shackles which now bind them.

"No man, no graduate of a higher educational institution, has a right to regard himself as an educated man in social thought unless he has some firsthand acquaintance with the theoretical contribution of this great American thinker. . ."

No one has laid so firm a foundation for faith in the beneficence of God as has Henry George; no other man has so removed the obstacles to faith in the immortality of the soul.

There are many who attempt to justify various infringements of equal freedom by the example of rules for the regulation of traffic on highways or for the operation of public utilities. Upon reflection it must be obvious that traffic rules relate to the common use of common property and that public utilities are granted special privileges in the use of common property and in land to which all have equal rights, and that, moreover, they could not operate at all without the delegation of governmental power. Such rules, therefore, are required for safeguarding equal freedom.


Natural law deals with rights and correlative duties and is silent as to what shall be done when the law is violated. To secure obedience we have only experience to guide us, but we may be sure that crimes will not be suppressed if we treat lightly invasive acts which are mala in se and punish severely acts which are not wrong in themselves but only mala prohibita. For example, to [103/104] drive recklessly on the streets, our common highway, is an invasive act, an act wicked in itself and yet it is a crime but lightly punished. To throw newspapers on the streets or in the parks is an invasive act, forbidden by natural law, an act wrong in itself and yet magistrates have been known to rebuke a policeman for making an arrest for such acts. On the other hand, bringing useful goods from Canada to New York may be punished severely and so may the sale of good wine to one who wants it and gladly pays the price.

The law prohibiting the manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages is an invasive law. It is against natural law, and its evil fruits are becoming daily more apparent though they are what are predicted by those who believe that governments are bound by the same natural laws as individuals. Even if the material gains of prohibition were one hundred times as great as anyone has dared to claim, they would be as nothing compared with the damage to the moral character of the nation.


Good people frequently say the law of the jungle must be replaced by the law of Christ. I wonder whether they have any clear idea what these words mean. I suppose they mean that animals are cruel and man should be merciful, but if so they use a poor illustration. Carnivorous animals feed on other animals, but they do not kill them for amusement. All animals suffer; so does man. If there were a world without suffering it would be a world of stagnation. Suffering and vicarious suffering is necessary for development.

The law of the jungle seems to me to be the law of all life. Through countless millions of years life on this planet has been developing through the beneficent law of [104/105] pain. How could the struggle for existence have taught its lessons without pain.

Happiness consists in perfect adaptation to environment. Through all the ages of life living things have sought happiness and, in so far as they failed, have suffered pain and have been extinguished or have been so modified in body and brain as better to meet the struggle for existence.

Man is not and cannot be immune from this law of life. It is only by this beneficent law of the Creator of the Universe that man is today a human being having a knowledge of good and evil. When man came to this high estate he was given charge of his own destiny in a greater degree and in different fashion from the beasts that perish.

Usually the fifth Commandment is called the first Commandment with promise, but I think the second contains an even greater promise. First there is the statement of fact: "I will visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me." That is another way of stating the law of pain. If we fail individually or collectively to obey the law of God we entail suffering on succeeding generations. It is a law of progress. The promise follows: "I will show mercy unto thousands in them that love me and keep my Commandments."

That is an injunction for right conduct individually, but even more for conforming human law to natural law and securing the natural rights of men.


"Am I my brother's keeper?" That ironical question of Cain is a much abused quotation, but there is a lesson in it. "And the Lord said unto Cain, 'Where is Abel thy brother?' And he said, 'I know not: Am I my [105/106] brother's keeper?'" The answer, of course, was "No." If Cain had been the "keeper" of Abel, which is to say his custodian, he might perhaps have excused the murder on the ground that he knew what was good for Abel and that Abel was better off dead. The truth is that no man is another man's keeper, save keepers of prisoners.

This is no doctrine of selfishness. We are enjoined to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to succor the fatherless and widows in their affliction. This is the law of charity which suffereth long and is kind. Charity forbids oppression.

It may not be easy always to draw the line between charity and oppression. Dr. Montague Leverson, a disciple of Mill, suggested a principle to be incorporated in the Bill of Rights of the states admitted in 1890. It was this: "When the direct and probable consequences of any act affect those only who are of full age and sound mind and freely consenting thereto, such act is outside the domain of law." To put it more briefly, such an act is not an invasive act and only invasive acts should be forbidden. Stress should be laid upon the words "direct and probable." It is not possible consequences against which we may legislate, but against acts which are in and of themselves invasive.

It is conceded that there might be a twilight zone, but it is contended that in doubtful cases we should abstain from what may be oppressive. Oppression by a majority is more dangerous than by a dictator, for the dictator is curbed by regard for his own safety.


Forty years ago I thought it was the duty of the clergy to preach the rights of man. I thought the message of freedom and justice so appealing that when stated it would be accepted. I saw men suffer for that belief and [106/107] saw their ministry wrecked. Now I believe that the clergy should first have regard for their ministry to individual souls and avoid such public utterances as may lessen their usefulness for their primary priestly function. Within these limitations they should embrace such opportunities as they may have to further the rule of right. In any event, they should refrain from giving any aid and comfort to those who are seeking to assume the role of being their brothers' keepers.

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