Listers, the following texts provide an in depth introduction to Catholic political thought. The works are arranged in a sapiential order, i.e., the prescribed order has an intentional didactic development, which should help the reader be introduced to the great depth of the Catholic political tradition without feeling overwhelmed and being drowned in alien jargon or concepts. Nothing is worse than being interested in a subject and either feeling lost on where to begin or wasting time on the wrong book.
The Order of the Works:
Wisdom is knowledge properly ordered, and wise men must demonstrate the virtue of prudence to properly order that knowledge. Since many men wiser than myself would organize these works differently, let me explain the prudence behind the order. The books are arranged for those who have little to no knowledge of Catholic political thought. Academicians may point to starting with St. Thomas first for his architectonic treatment or turn to reading the primary works of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. While both are legitimate introductory methods, I have catered this list to the non-academicians; thus, I found it best to start with broad and cogent primers and then move into the primary works.
Why These Works Were Selected:
The following works have been selected because they share the common theme of addressing Catholic political thought within the longstanding tradition of the Catholic Church. The works – especially those within Straussian influence – address what Spinoza entitled the theologico-political problem. The aforesaid problem has three primary areas of dialogue: between philosophy and political life, between theology and moral/political life, and between the theological and the philosophical life. The depth of this dialogue presents an arduous undertaking and the following authors – save the primary texts – have the assiduous minds necessary to the task.
Another and inseparable theme of these works is the dialogue of the ancients and moderns. In gist, modernity is seen as a willful break from ancient wisdom, and as such there is a necessity and fruitfulness in comparing the ancient and modern political thinkers. The view lends itself to a proper holistic view of political philosophy, and tends to avoid many neoconservative pitfalls.1 Listers, please enjoy these works and may they guide you deeper into living the well-ordered virtuous life of Christ. As SPL’s motto goes, The Catholic Life is the Good Life.
1. Christians as Political Animals
Marc Guerra, PhD. Ave Maria University
SPL highly recommends the Catholic political primer of Marc Guerra. The work systematically introduces the political thought of such greats as Aristotle, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas, and presents excellent insights into several modern thinkers: the Jewish thinker Leo Strauss, the astute Catholic political pundit Fr. James Schall, and Guerra’s mentor Fr. Ernest Fortin. Overall, the text presents in depth Catholic political thought in such a manner as anyone who is interested in proper politics can glean timeless principles and modern concerns.
A few quotes from the pages of Guerra’s work:
Aristotle’s Politics offered a coherent account of political life to which Christians could appeal in grappling with the thorny problems that plague that life, especially when one introduces a sovereign transpolitical community such as the Church.
Although the supernatural order of grace perfects the order of nature, it does so in a way that respects the integrity and hierarchical structure of the natural order.
What the Christian faith requires of the political order, according to Aquinas, is for the city to move men prudentially toward the common good and to the life of virtue that corresponds to their naturally given end.
Read more: Christians as Political Animals on Amazon.
2. Roman Catholic Political Philosophy
Fr. James V. Schall
Fr. Schall represents an excellent representation of Catholic political thought outside the direct influence of Leo Strauss. Fr. Schall’s political primer is an excellent and well-respected introduction to Catholic political thought that takes into account modernity and the longstanding tradition of Catholic thought.
James Schall is one of the giants of contemporary Catholic thought. This volume is essential reading not just for Catholics but for anyone interested in the nature of political philosophy as a tradition of inquiry and the vitally important question of the relationship of faith and reason.
Roman Catholic Political Philosophy will provide rewarding reading to any student, professor, or lay reader who is interested in the relationship between religion and philosophy, especially as this has developed within the Catholic tradition.
Review Of Metaphysics
Read More: Roman Catholic Political Philosophy on Amazon.
3. Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays
The Jewish political philosopher Leo Strauss is a brilliant and controversial figure. Arguably one of the most prominent and influential political philosophers of the 20th century, Strauss helped to introduce the political field to the dialogue of the ancients and moderns. With an unparalleled understanding of classical political philosophy, Strauss critiqued modernity and posited that proper fecundity within political philosophy will only occur when classical philosophy and modernity are juxtaposed.2
It is important to stress a few details about Strauss from a Catholic perspective. First, he is obviously not Catholic, and therefore many of his solutions lack the illuminating truth of Christ and his Church. More specifically, Strauss does not hold to a harmony of faith and reason; thus, Athens and Jerusalem (moreover, Rome) are held in a tension with one another, despite their similar problems with modernity.
Strauss’ influence is undeniable and from the Catholic perspective his critique of modernity in light of a unique acumen of classical political philosophy is pathbreaking and incredibly harmonious with much of Catholic thought – because both Strauss and Catholics are drawing from classical political philosophy. Again, Strauss’ weakness is his lack of Catholic belief, which leads to an absence of Medieval wisdom in his texts. More specifically than the ancient and modern’s dialogue, Strauss resurrected the aforementioned theologico-political problem, and that rebirth is still influencing the shape of modern political thought. If anything of Strauss’ is to be read, I highly recommend the essay: The Three Waves of Modernity; it is unparalleled in its historical critique of modernity, because it offers the reader a succinct infrastructure in understanding the formation of the modern world.3
Read More: Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays on Amazon.
Aristotle, trans. Carnes Lord
It would be difficult to overestimate the impact Aristotle’s Politics has had on Western political thought and Catholic political thought in particular. It should suffice to say that since St. Thomas Aquinas is the patron of all Catholic education, a special attention should be paid to the pagan philosopher’s contemplation of nature from which the Angelic Doctor drew his foundational view of nature.
In his work, Christians as Political Animals, Dr. Marc Guerra explains Aristotle’s influence. The Church, coming off St. Augustine’s political thought – which lacked a sufficient account of nature – was searching for a way to articulate the order of nature and the divine order.
This sheds light on the reason why Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics came to play such an important role in Christian medieval intellectual life and Aristotle’s Politics such an important role in the social and political life of the Christian West.
Aristotle’s Politics offered a coherent account of political life to which Christians could appeal in grappling with the thorny problems that plague life, especially when one introduces a sovereign transpolitical community such as the Church. By emphasizing the natural, as opposed to the divine, origins of the city, the Politics, at least in principle, allowed the transpolitical religion to draw sharp distinctions between political and ecclesiastical authorities.
With the help of the Politics, the Christian West was able to chart a principled middle course between the extremes of theocracy and caesaropapism.
SPL would also like to stress that not all translations are equal, and students looking to start reading Aristotle’s Politics are strongly advised to read the erudite translation of Carnes Lord.
Read More: Aristotle’s Politics, trans. Lord, on Amazon.
5. Summa Theologica, I.II.90-108
St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province
In many ways, St. Thomas’ text on Law should be read first, because he lays out the architectonic landscape for Catholic political thought. The Angelic Doctor articulates political philosophy – or Human Law – in light of the entire divinely ordered cosmos. The so-called “Dumb Ox,” explains the Four Laws: Eternal Law, Divine Law, Natural Law, and Human Law. It is characteristic of ancient classical philosophy and medieval thought to contemplate parts in light of the whole; thus, the laws of the state, i.e., the polis, is placed within an ordered cosmos, or creation.
Though St. Thomas Aquinas laws out the architectonic Catholic view of law, the difficulty in reading it first is due to two problems: the first is that the Angelic Doctor assumes his reader has been classically trained, and secondly, despite the already arduous nature of classical training, the Church is now currently suffering from either non-catechized or ill-catechized generations of the faithful.
For these reasons SPL recommends looking into the aforesaid primer of Guerra before all else, and then possibly looking into Strauss for an in depth education in ancient thought and/or turning to Aristotle’s Politics itself.
Those unfamiliar with the importance of the unique Doctor of the Church should read SPL’s List of Papal Quotes on St. Thomas Aquinas. For example:
Among the Scholastic Doctors, the chief and master of all towers Thomas Aquinas, who, as Cajetan observes, because “he most venerated the ancient doctors of the Church, in a certain way seems to have inherited the intellect of all.”
6. Values in a Time of Upheaval
Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI
For a student of Catholic political thought, a collection of politically orientated essays by the ironclad mind of Cardinal Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI – is a Godsend. The text is a compilation of essays and speeches given by the illustrious Cardinal over the span of several decades. It is a short work that lends itself to a brief but fruitful reading.
A few sapiential quotes from the now Holy Father:
Freedom preserves its dignity only as long as it retain the relationship to it ethical foundations and to its ethical task.
The first elementis the absoluteness that must be affirmed with regard to human dignity and human rights. This is antecedent to every law promulgated by the state.
The true meaning of the teaching authority of the pope is that he is the advocate of Christian memory. He does not impose something from the outside but develops and defends Christian memory.
The work is an excellent sampling of the political themes and philosophies now popular in the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI.
Read More: Values in a Time of Upheaval on Amazon.
Helpful Introductory Political Lists on SPL:
22 Definitions from Aristotle’s Politics
St. Thomas’ Introduction to Aristotle’s Politics
Political Animals: Book One of Aristotle’s Politics
Political Authority: 8 Teachings of the Catholic Church
Best Regime: 5 Thoughts from Classical Political Philosophy
- Neoconservative Pitfalls: while worthy of an entire post, it should be sufficient to state that neoconservative thought is generally born after mainstream conservative thought suffers a quick and radical liberal break. In the Church, we could point to the aftermath of Vatican II. Hence, in reaction to this new liberalism, conservatives reunite, but often with insufficient knowledge of what proper conservatism was before the break, e.g., a neoconservative could argue he is a conservative because he is against women priests or liturgical dancers, while a true conservative – taking in the whole of tradition – might suggest he is actually very liberal for taking the Eucharist while standing or receiving it in his hand. Political thought is no different. Those who engage in holistic thought embrace an “ancient and modern’s dialogue,” and see those neoconservatives who are busy touting liberty, rights, and freedom as still being on the liberal end of the spectrum. Keen observers can see this unfolding in modern Catholic political action, as Catholic quote the American Constitution and very recent documents on human dignity and freedom, but remain mute on such timeless political truths as nature, natural law, and virtue. To be clear, it is not that concepts such as freedom are wrong, but rather they are misguided when not addressed holistically. [↩]
- A History of Erudition: Allan Bloom – then a young student of Strauss – introduced Fr. Ernest Fortin to the writings of Strauss. Fr. Fortin then went on to become a prominent political thinker at Boston College, and instructed a young student of his, now Dr. Marc Guerra of Ave Maria University. [↩]
- Strauss & the Pope: Strauss’ Three Waves of Modernity essay shares some striking similarities with Pope Benedict XVI’s famous Regensburg Lecture – which lays out three stages within modernity from a theological perspective. [↩]
- Guerra, 124. [↩]