Reading Fultin Sheen’s Treasure in Clay offers the reader many great insights. One of the best comes in the following quote:
The curious would like me to open healed wounds; the media, in particular, would relish a chapter which would pass judgment on others, particularly because, as a French author expressed it: [n]ous vivons aux temps des assassins–“we live in days of assassins”–where evil is sought more than good in order to justify a world with a bad conscience. (310)
This idea is salient on the question of social justice vs. individual justice, over which Sheen claims Vatican II was debated. Moderns have in large part discarded individual for social justice. In doing so, they can see the collective guilt of societies, but not the guilt of their own souls. To them, righteousness is something gained by being on the right side, not through individual deeds.
This philosophy is clearly at work in the hubbub over Confederate monuments, both in New Orleans, LA and Charlottesville, VA. Recently, the city government took down the Robert E. Lee statue in New Orleans. As one who has studied the life and character of Lee, I cannot but disapprove. Few Americans boast as many virtues as Lee or as many great achievements or as much patriotism. Yet, Lee, along with other Southern generals, are dubbed evil for fighting for “the slaveholding republic.” Lee stands condemned despite hating the institution of slavery and never owning slaves. (His wife came into an inheritance with slaves from her father-in-law, whose property Lee managed upon that man’s death in 1857. But, the will stipulated the freedom of these slaves within five years, which Lee fulfilled.) Concerning the war and slavery, Lee had this to say in 1870:
So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the south. So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained.
To discover the reasons for Lee resigning his commission in the U.S. Army and fighting for the South, one must look to his close ties of kinship to his fellow Southerners and his loyalty to Virginia. After resigning his commission, he stated: “Save for defense of my native state, I never desire again to draw my sword.” And, indeed, Lee did not draw his sword until after the North invaded Virginia in 1861.
At any rate, the imbalance between social and individual justice has long plagued American society. Prior to the Civil War, we see the North strongly favoring social justice, while the South neglected the social in favor of the individual. Hence, in regard to slavery, the Southerner felt responsible for his own actions towards blacks but not towards the peculiar institution itself. On the other hand, the North–as exemplified by John Brown and some of his admirers–felt all Southerners liable to death because of the five percent of the population who held slaves.
But, I do not want to focus on the ills of the North or the South–imitating the assassins of our times by covering over the virtues of heroic persons by the collective crimes of the their faction. Whether one’s heritage is of the South or the North, one can be proud of the good one’s ancestors stood for, of the virtues displayed by each side’s heroes, and of the courage shown during America’s most bloody war. Imitating the virtues of this great generation is far more useful to the Americans of today than opening old wounds in order to feel a sense of moral superiority. Tearing down the monuments of the South does not edify anyone; rather, it palliates the guilt within men’s souls for not contributing to the common good. It is far easier to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee than to imitate his virtues!