Listers in lieu of some comparison of fleeting political platforms and promises, SPL presents a collection of lists that articulates the Church’s timeless political principles. The following lists pull from USCCB documents that address particular American politics, Vatican documents that address being a Catholic citizen in a democracy, and lists that resurrect our long-neglected political tradition as taught by St. Thomas Aquinas. We invite the listers to begin their catechesis wherever they may be within their understanding of Catholic (read: proper, virtuous, and correct) politics. Whether the starting point is the brevity of the USCCB or the intellectual depths of Aquinas, just start.
What we plead with the listers to avoid is the same hackneyed American political platforms that volley the same shallow and vitriolic points back and forth that reveals nothing but the warring parties’ tribal-political affiliations. America – and arguably the entire West – is not decaying to modernist froth and flotsam because it has the wrong answers, but because it is asking the wrong questions. To wit, Western culture has become to weak to support the Gospel and almost too weak to even support reason and natural law.
SPL has reproduced the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s section on political authority in its entirety and supplemented the teachings with context and definitions from Sacred Tradition.
Does Human Society Need Political Authority?
1897. “Human society can be neither well-ordered nor prosperous unless it has some people invested with legitimate authority to preserve its institutions and to devote themselves as far as is necessary to work and care for the good of all.”
By “authority” one means the quality by virtue of which persons or institutions make laws and give orders to men and expect obedience from them.
Can a Catholic Break an Unjust Law?
1903. Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, “authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse.”
Listers, the USCCB released their Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholics Bishops of the United States and SPL has reproduced the primary points with commentary.
What If a Catholic Votes for a Candidate/Law that Furthers an Intrinsic Evil?
A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if they voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases a Catholic would by guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other importnat moral issues involving human life and dignity.
Do Catholic Politicians Have Any Special Duty?
In Sacramentum Caritatis, no. 83, Pope Benedict XVI states the follow:
Worship pleasing to God can never be a purely private matter, without consequences for our relationships with others: it demands a public witness to our faith. Evidently, this is true for all the baptized, yet it is especially incumbent upon those who, bu virtue of their social or political position, must make decisions regarding fundamental values, such as respect for human life, its defense form conception to natural death, the family built upon marriage between a man and a woman, the freedom to educate one’s children and the promotion of the common good in all its forms.
Listers, paragraphs 40-62 of the USCCB’s document on Faithful Citizenship address the supporting role of Catholic Social Teaching in Catholic political action. Catholic Social Teaching grants Catholics a philosophical and moral platform upon which they may have well-ordered political engagement:
The consistent ethic of life provides a moral framework for principled Catholic engagement in political life and, rightly understood, neither treats all issues as morally equivalent nor reduces Catholic teaching to one or two issues.
Option for the Poor and the Vulnerable
While the common good embraces all, those who are weak, vulnerable, and most in need deserve preferential concern. A basic moral test for our society is how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst.
We are one human family, whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. We are brothers; and sisters’ keepers, wherever they may be.
Solidarity includes the Scriptural call to welcome the stranger among us – including immigrants seeking work, a safe hom, education for their children, and a decent life for their families.
As Pope Paul VI taught, “If you want peace, work for justice.” (World Day of Peace Message, Jan 1, 1972)
4. 20 Statements by the Vatican on Democratic Societies
Listers, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger (2002) – now Pope Benedict XVI – released a doctrinal note responding to “some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life.” If you are not familiar, it is common for bishops to write to the CDF for clarification on certain issues. In return, the CDF answers by explaining the doctrinal position of the Church. The following is considered a note, because it seeks to articulate selected issues, not the whole of Catholic political thought.
The Well-Formed Conscience: St. Thomas More
Among these, Saint Thomas More, who was proclaimed Patron of Statesmen and Politicians, gave witness by his martyrdom to the inalienable dignity of the human conscience.Though subjected to various forms of psychological pressure, Saint Thomas More refused to compromise, never forsaking the «constant fidelity to legitimate authority and institutions which distinguished him; he taught by his life and his death that «man cannot be separated from God, nor politics from morality.
A Catholic Critique of Modern Democracy: Cultural Relativism
The following is an exemplary snapshot of the ills of modern democracy by the CDF.
A kind of cultural relativism exists today, evident in the conceptualization and defence of an ethical pluralism, which sanctions the decadence and disintegration of reason and the principles of the natural moral law. Furthermore, it is not unusual to hear the opinion expressed in the public sphere that such ethical pluralism is the very condition for democracy. As a result, citizens claim complete autonomy with regard to their moral choices, and lawmakers maintain that they are respecting this freedom of choice by enacting laws which ignore the principles of natural ethics and yield to ephemeral cultural and moral trends, as if every possible outlook on life were of equal value.
Moral Anarchy: A True Threat to the Common Good
Those who, on the basis of respect for individual conscience, would view the moral duty of Christians to act according to their conscience as something that disqualifies them from political life, denying the legitimacy of their political involvement following from their convictions about the common good, would be guilty of a form of intolerant secularism. Such a position would seek to deny not only any engagement of Christianity in public or political life, but even the possibility of natural ethics itself. Were this the case, the road would be open to moral anarchy, which would be anything but legitimate pluralism.
Religious Freedom Does Not Translate to All Religions Are Equal
Reflecting on this question, Paul VI taught that «in no way does the Council base this right to religious freedom on the fact that all religions and all teachings, including those that are erroneous, would have more or less equal value; it is based rather on the dignity of the human person, which demands that he not be subjected to external limitations which tend to constrain the conscience in its search for the true religion or in adhering to it». The teaching on freedom of conscience and on religious freedom does not therefore contradict the condemnation of indifferentism and religious relativism by Catholic doctrine; on the contrary, it is fully in accord with it.
Listers, the current modern regimes of the West tout democracy as an end all to tyranny and political strife. While democracy is arguably one of the most practical and successful regimes, it is not a magical balm that automatically assuages injustice. Democracy must be understood according to its internal guiding principles – principles that have been observed and questioned since the ancient Greeks.
Freedom Is an Ambiguous Goal
Classical political philosophy – as demonstrated by such thinkers as Aristotle – held virtue to be the guiding goal of the state. Men are political animals, the state or polis is a natural institution, and they are both guided by “good habits” or the natural virtues. While perfecting natural law by the light of the Incarnate God, the Catholic Church still holds to natural law as the basis of human societies.
Regardless of what the Church or the ancients advocate, modern democracy’s obsession with freedom is fragile in its own right. The most obvious critique is that unlike virtue or any other objective goal, freedom is a means, not an end.
Freedom as a goal is ambiguous, because it is freedom for evil as well as for good.
Due to the focus on freedom, democratic regimes are inherently concerned with the quality of their citizens.
The Link: Education, Leisure, & Wealth
The virtues are nothing more than “good habits,” but those acts that habituate individuals to the good are not subjective nor are they completely innate. Consequently, the formation of a citizen’s character requires education, and education requires leisure. If survival requires children to work the land or tend the animals, the lack of leisure equates to a lack of time for proper education.
If education is tied to leisure, then leisure is tied to one’s standard of living or general wealth. Philosophy was not born of humanity until the race had reached an age where society’s survival had become sufficient enough to allow for some leisure. However, for the children not to be able to work the land or tend the animals – and thus have the leisure to study – a certain amount of wealth is required.
Listers, the following commentary address St. Thomas’ introduction to law and lays the groundwork to understand the Angelic Doctor’s teaching of an ordered Creation. It is hard to overestimate the impact Aquinas had on the Catholic approach to law and politics, especially when considering his use of Aristotle. Aristotle’s Politics is easily in the running for one of the most influential political works in the Western world. Moreover, Aquinas’ use of Aristotle’s observations of nature – man is a political animals, the city is a natural institution, laws are discerned from nature, etc. – coupled with the grace and clarity of divine revelation enabled the Angelic Doctor to articulate law in both a natural and divine sense. To wit, Aquinas places Aristotle’s political views into a divinely ordered Creation and shows the harmony and order of the entire cosmos.
Below is a commentary that strives to break down some of the more dense thomistic jargon and present the reader with a simple preface to Aquinas’ questions over law.
How does Aquinas differ from Aristotle on law?
The notion that St. Thomas simply baptized Aristotle into the Christian faith is nothing more than a blunt caviled statement meant to sow distrust among those unfamiliar with the nuances. In book one of Aristotle’s Politics, the Philosopher describes the following political order: man as a political animal, the relationships of the household and family, the gathering of households together called villages, and the collection of villages called the city or polis. St. Thomas accepts this natural political structure, but also acknowledges a Cosmo-Polis. The notion of a cosmo-polis is only to say that man inhabits an ordered cosmos wherein God governs all of humanity and Creation. St. Thomas uses God’s self-revelation to place Aristotle’s observations of man’s natural political organization into an organized and ordered creation. In Catholic thought, the principle that grace perfects nature unfolds powerfully in thomistic teaching. Here the scope, ambiguities, and even errors based off the incredibly astute observations of nature by Aristotle are perfected according God’s revelation. Nature is not replaced, but its teachings are clarified and held in supreme confidence.
Why does St. Thomas speak of happiness and law?
In the Thomistic sense, laws are orientated toward happiness. However, like most concepts, modernity has hijacked “happiness” and beaten it into a type of self-seeking pleasure or fleeting tenuous joy. Happiness for ancients like Aristotle and scholastics like St. Thomas denotes an obedience to one’s nature, because one is most fulfilled when one embraces that which is natural and denies those things contrary to nature. In the thomistic light, happiness is an effect of right living or living the virtuous life. The connection between laws and happiness is virtue, because the natural virtues – prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude – ungird laws of reason and nature. To wit, laws exist to guide men to virtue.
What is law’s relationship to the common good?
Law deals with the Common Good not with private goods. Every Law must be orientated toward the common good of whatever particular scope for which it is legislated, e.g., Divine law pertains to the common good of the People of God, the Church, while Human laws pertain to the secular political laws of the state as ascertained through nature and reason.
Communities naturally asks the individual to lay their personal good for the Common Good. The individual citizen is part of the whole. To wit, the individual is a sub-political part of the overall state. In contrast, modernity has begin to place the individual over the common good, by making the common good bend to the supposed rights of individuals. The modern standard of justice is the individual and their rights, not the overarching good of the state.
God is the Common Good of all things – even the polis – but he may not be the proper or immediate common good of the political community. The political community is innately incapable – due to its capacity – of incorporating certain virtues, perfections, or ordering laws based off the Trinity, etc., as discussed above.
Law must only speak generally to the overall public and cannot speak particularly. For a mundane example, it would be absurd to set speed limitations on individual citizens and not simply place a overarching speed limit on the road or interstate.
Listers, SPL continues its Thomistic Catechesis on Law with presenting Summa Theologica I-II.92.1 – Whether an effect of law is to make men good? Save the one SPL Commentary section and the added title, the following quotes the Angelic Doctor’s article in full. SPL has also rearranged the article to ease the format for those not used to reading the Summa Theologica.
Are laws supposed to make men good?
To Lead Its Subjects to Virtue
And accordingly “the virtue of every subject consists in his being well subjected to his ruler,” as the Philosopher says (Polit. i). But every law aims at being obeyed by those who are subject to it. Consequently it is evident that the proper effect of law is to lead its subjects to their proper virtue: and since virtue is “that which makes its subject good,” it follows that the proper effect of law is to make those to whom it is given, good, either simply or in some particular respect.
It is a modern notion that laws make us good; however, law cannot make one good, but it is an extrinsic principle that inclines or leads citizens to the good. The Natural Virtues – Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude – are available to all men and can be acquired by all men; however, virtue is not an act but a habit. The laws of a State obedient to Natural Law exists to lead men in virtue, but cannot force men to be virtuous. Social engineering and utopian hopes are modern inventions. Moreover, the Angelic Doctor will later on in his treatise on law discuss that the State should not always legislate all virtues, because if the citizens are not themselves virtuous or educated in virtue, it will only create greater evils.
Listers, we turn now to the third part of the USCCB’s document on Faithful Citizenship. The following goals will be quoted verbatim, but the titles are added. For further reading, please check out our threads on poverty, politics, and Catholic Social Teaching.
Protect the Weakest Amongst Us: The Unborn
Address the preeminent requirement to protect the weakest in our midst—innocent unborn children—by restricting and bringing to an end the destruction of unborn children through abortion.
Ethical & Comprehensive Health Care Reform
Provide health care for the growing number of people without it, while respecting human life, human dignity, and religious freedom in our health care system.
Protect Religion’s Pursuit of the Common Good
Encourage families, community groups, economic structures, and government to work together to overcome poverty, pursue the common good, and care for creation, with full respect for religious groups and their right to address social needs in accord with their basic moral convictions.
Application of the Just War Theory
Establish and comply with moral limits on the use of military force—examining for what purposes it may be used, under what authority, and at what human cost—and work for a “responsible transition” to end the war in Iraq.
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.
Christians as Political Animals
Marc Guerra, PhD.
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.
Listers, the following is an original SPL composition by HH Ambrose summarizing the first chapter of Aristotle’s Politics and briefly tying it into Plato’s Philosopher King. Aristotelian political thought is the cornerstone of Western Civilization, especially in its articulation of natural law and man’s political nature.
In the development of political philosophy, few works have played “such an important role in the social and political life of the Christian West” as Aristotle’s Politics.
Aristotle begins with humanity’s natural political development: the two partnerships of the household. The first being the natural partnership of reproduction between male and female and the second being the relationship between the “naturally ruling and ruled.” St. Thomas Aquinas observes in his commentary on the Politics, both associations are for preservation: the former “nature aims” at “generation” and in the latter nature has aimed “at the preservation of things generated.” While Aristotle uses slavery to exemplify the latter association, the principle at work is a reciprocal relationship of survival. Aquinas comments that the master (the ruler) “by reason of his wisdom can foresee mentally” what must be done to survive, and the slave or subject (the ruled) “who abounds in bodily strength” would not be able “to survive if he were not ruled by the prudence of another.” Thus the twofold natural association of the household exists for the “needs of daily life.”