Thomism and Political Liberalism, Part 2

Are political liberalism and Catholicism friends or enemies?

(Image: Dawn Armfield |

Are political liberalism and Catholicism friends or enemies? The debate surrounding this question has been going on for a couple centuries. It was already well underway in 1832 when Pope Gregory XVI intervened in it with his encyclical Mirari vos.

In the U.S. in the past few years this debate has become rather public and intense. As a contribution to the current American debate, I am writing a three-part series on Thomism and political liberalism. In the first part, which appeared here in July, I observed that central to political liberalism is the emphasis on the freedom of the individual person. For liberal theorists, securing this freedom would appear to be the purpose of the political community or state. Standardly, this freedom is understood to be a freedom to do whatever we want so long as we don’t interfere with the freedom of others to do what they want. I called this the “freedom of others proviso” or FOP.

I also indicated that some people believe that St. Thomas Aquinas can be integrated into the tradition of political liberalism and I briefly reviewed Michael Novak’s case for this. Although I agree that Thomas holds, in some respect, the views that Novak attributes to him, they do not make him a liberal. Furthermore, they do not express the core of his political theory.

Here I am going to fill in some of the background to Thomas’s political theory and next time, in the third part, I will try roughly to outline that theory. Along the way I will comment on how Thomas’s thinking compares with political liberalism.

Nature as norm

Like his teacher Aristotle, Thomas’s moral theory – which is the doctrinal space of his political theory1 – is in large measure shaped by a consideration of human nature. Our nature “tells” us what is good for us, what we ought to pursue and, conversely, what is bad for us and what we ought to avoid.

The idea is pretty straightforward. Think about horses and tomato plants. We can all recognize that what a horse is is different from what a tomato plant is. “Nature,” as I am using the term here, is just another word for what something is. The term “essence” could also be used. Horses and tomato plants have different natures or essences. It belongs to the nature of horses to have muscles; muscles help horses to do the things they need to do to survive, to go on being horses. If they are going to work, muscles require exercise, which means that horses require exercise. Obviously, then, exercise is good for horses. But it does not belong to the nature of tomato plants to have muscles and so exercise is not a good for them. Because horses naturally have muscles, it would be bad for them to remain stationary like tomato plants.

So, the natures of things determine what’s good and bad for them, what they should pursue and avoid and, again, that is true for us too. Our nature, in this sense, is the “law” that we should live by. When Thomas talks about the “law of nature” (lex naturalis) or “natural law” this is partly what he has in mind. In part our nature is this law, but our reason, insofar as it grasps what is naturally good for us, and directs us to pursue it, belongs to natural law too.

Thomas’s account of natural law, however, does not stop there. For Thomas, our nature and our reason are created by God. Hence, he teaches that the natural law ultimately comes from God. By following the natural law – which is nothing more than living in conformity with our nature – we are following God’s will. When we act against it, we are acting against God. Thomas calls the “plan” for creation as it exists in God’s “mind” the “eternal law.” This plan not only includes our nature and purpose but the nature and purpose of everything else too. To say that the natural law comes from God is the same as saying that it is derived from the eternal law. What Thomas calls the “divine law” (lex divina) is likewise derived from the eternal law. I will come back to that in a moment.

Having a general knowledge of what’s good for us as human persons is not enough for us to live by the natural law. We also need to know how to pursue these goods appropriately and effectively in the different circumstances in which we find ourselves. Truth, for example, is a natural human good. But what do I need to do to pursue truth here and now? Suppose you know that I have told a lie and that this lie has harmed the reputation of a mutual friend. If you expose this lie, if you make the truth known, you will be harming my reputation but helping our friend’s. What should you do? Following Aristotle, Thomas will say that what we need here is prudence (prudentia). Prudence is the virtue of knowing the right thing to do in every situation. But besides prudence we need the moral virtues of justice, courage, and moderation to give our will the power to do what prudence judges to be best.

Getting back to God: revelation

Thomas realizes that there are many factors – especially sin – that prevent us not only from living by natural law but also from fully understanding what it requires of us and that hinder the development of prudence and the other virtues we need. This causes problems for our relationship with God since, as I just mentioned, natural law is an expression of God’s will for us.

The purpose of revelation, as Thomas understands it, is to lead us back to God. But if we are having a hard time understanding what our nature inclines us to do, this will hinder our return. So, revelation wisely includes a restatement of natural law. Thomas sees this above all in the Ten Commandments or Decalogue.

Thomas calls the moral teaching of revelation the “divine law.” Part of divine law is the restatement of natural law, which especially belongs to the “old law” (lex vetus), the law of the Old Testament. However, God wants more for us than what is naturally good for us. He wants us to see his beauty “face to face,” as it were. Seeing God as he is in himself, the beatific vision, is natural only to God. For us to see God in himself would demand that we be “elevated,” in a sense, beyond our nature. But if it is beyond our nature, then we have no native power to achieve it. It can only be bestowed on us as a gift, that is, as what we call “grace.”2 The other part of divine law, therefore, is the “law of grace” (lex gratiae), which comes to us through Christ. Thomas also refers to it as the “new law” (lex nova) and the “law of the Gospel” (lex Evangelii).

Contemplation: the end

Our movement toward God, whether it is natural or the result of grace, is a “return” in two different respects, because (1) God, as our creator, is our origin, and because (2) our sin has alienated us from him.

In regard to our natural movement toward God, it arises from our desire for the good. Because God is Goodness Itself, our desire for the good is ultimately aimed at him. It’s true that, as Aristotle and Thomas observe, people have different ideas about what is good or what the Good is and so we chase after all sorts of things that are not Goodness Itself and will not lead us to it. Whatever is not Goodness Itself is, at best, a means to it and a limited reflection of it. However much these limited goods might contribute to our happiness, they will not completely satisfy us. In themselves, they point back to Goodness Itself like the brightness of the moon points back to the sun.

What we long for by nature is to know Goodness Itself, not simply to stand blindly before it. People who take trips to Niagara Falls want to see the falls just as people who take trips to the Louvre for theMona Lisa want to see da Vinci’s masterpiece. So, the most happiness we can achieve naturally is to know God to the extent that our natural cognitive powers allow this.

Our supernatural desire for God, too, is a desire to know him. Jesus says in his prayer to the Father in Chapter 17 of St. John’s Gospel: “This is eternal life: knowing you, the one true God, and the one you have sent, Jesus Christ” (17:3). Thomas comments that the knowledge of God that Jesus speaks of in this prayer “begins here through faith but is perfected in the future life when we will know [God] as he is,”3 that is, in the beatific vision.

The “knowing” of God that we are talking about in both the natural and supernatural cases is an act of contemplatio or “contemplation.” For Thomists, Jordan Aumann explains, contemplation is “a type of knowledge accompanied by delight and a certain degree of reason’s wonder before the object contemplated.”4 Contemplation can be pretty pedestrian, as when I appreciate the dark gold color of the scotch in my glass, or more exalted, as when I marvel at the starry sky. But the beauty of creation can and should be a ladder we ascend to the divine.

Our lives as human persons and as Christians should have divine contemplation at their center. This is what we are ultimately ordered to by nature and by grace. That doesn’t mean that we should all pack up and move to a monastery. Most basically in means a way of life faithful Catholics already live: one of regular prayer and participation in the Church’s liturgy marked in general by an appreciative and celebratory attitude toward reality, including the reality of other people.5 As Thomas uses the term, vita contemplativa or “contemplative life” does not necessarily refer to the life of cloistered religious. As Aumann points out, it is something that we all practice – laypeople, religious, and priests – inasmuch as we engage in contemplative acts.6

Naturally, we might wonder where love of neighbor fits into this view of Christian life. This is not hard to answer. Loving others entails helping them to live a contemplative life too. Perhaps no one has expressed this better than Josef Pieper whose comments on this I think are worth quoting at length:

[W]hat about active love for our fellow men? What about selfless aid to others? What about works of mercy? Is love not purposeful in itself and therefore the ultimate fulfillment of life? Again, we cannot offer a positive “yes” to this question. One who feeds the hungry primarily wants them to eat their fill. Yet at the same time he must, if he is normal, fervently wish that no one need go hungry – wish, therefore, that there were no reason for him to offer such sustenance. In other words, the purpose of acts of charity lies not within themselves, but in the alleviation of suffering. But what about the concern for the fate of one’s fellows out of which such acts sprang? What about the inner affirmation of the existence of others which is the essence of love? Are these not meaningful in themselves? Yes and no. No, because love must necessarily aim at something other than itself. But what do I want if I love someone else? I want him to be happy. In charity, Thomas says, we love others “as companions in the sharing of beatitude.” And what is beatitude? Contemplation!7

From Pieper’s remarks we should begin to see that the whole of the vita activa or “active life” and the natural and supernatural virtues and gifts proper to it are meant to dispose us to be better contemplators and to help others in this respect too. If we have not mastered ourselves morally, contemplation will be difficult, for we will be pulled away from it by our disordered desires. “The active life,” says Thomas, “may be considered as quieting and directing the internal passions of the soul, and from this perspective the active life is a help to the contemplative, since the latter is hindered by the inordinateness of the internal passions.”8 This clarifies the meaning of the following passage from Thomas’s commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences:

The active life disposes us to the contemplative life. Thus, Isidore says in his Book on the Supreme Good that “those who progress in the active life easily ascend to the contemplative life.” And, therefore, if we do not perfect ourselves in the active life, the contemplative life will not come to be in us except in a minimal way.9

Given Thomas’s view of the relationship between the active life and divine contemplation, we should not surprised that he believes that everything in a culture should be directed toward creating the conditions favorable to divine contemplation, as this text from the Summa contra gentiles makes evident:

All other human operations seem to be ordered to [contemplation], as to an end. There is needed for the perfection of contemplation a soundness of body, to which all the products of technical skill that are necessary for life are directed. Also required are relief from the disturbances of the passions – this is achieved through the moral virtues and prudence – and relief from external disorders, to which the whole program of government in civil life is directed. And so, if they are rightly considered, all human functions may be seen to serve the contemplation of truth.10

The “truth” of which Thomas speaks here is God himself. You can see, then, that, for Thomas, Christian cultures are contemplative cultures in the sense that they accord primacy to the contemplative life.11


The above passage from the Contra gentiles makes it clear that, on the Thomistic view, not only moral life but political life too (which is, in any case, a part of moral life) is supposed to facilitate divine contemplation. Freedom to do as we please while respecting FOP is not – as it is for political liberalism – the overriding preoccupation of Thomistic political theory. To be sure, for Thomists, it is a good thing to be free to cultivate a life that has divine contemplation at its center but freedom is only a means to that.

There is, of course, a lot more to say about Thomistic political theory than Thomas says in the Contra gentiles text. Taking the present essay as background, in the third and last part of my series on Thomism and political liberalism I will try to articulate what I think are some of the key ideas of Thomistic political theory and then draw some conclusions about how it compares to liberal political theory.


1 See In I Eth., l. 1, n. 6.

2 It is important to recognize that our nature too is a gift because there is no necessity for God to create it or anything else. Grace, however, is a gift over and above our nature.

3 In Symbolum Apostolorum, pr.

4 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, vol. 46 (2a2ae. 179-182): Action and Contemplation (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), p. 103.

5 On the relationship between contemplation and festivity, see J. Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999), pp. 13-21. The description of the contemplative life I offer above is, as I say, basic. Much more could be added to it.

6 Summa theologiae, vol. 46 (2a2ae. 179-182): Action and Contemplation, pp. 85-88. See also Summa theologiae, II-II, qq. 179-182; Compendium theologiae, II, c. 9; In I Sent., d. 36, q. 1, a. 3 ad 5.

7 Happiness and Contemplation, Richard and Clara Winston trans. (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998), pp. 92-93.

8 Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 182, a. 3.

9 In III Sent. d. 35, q. 1, a. 3, qc. 3, ad 3. In the De virtutibus Thomas says that “the active life, which is perfected by moral [virtues], is like a door (ostium) to the contemplative life” (q. 1 a. 12 ad 24). On this side of the beatific vision Thomas does not necessarily think of the active and contemplative lives as being related to each other in a linear fashion, as if at some point we would achieve moral perfection and then drop the active life for the contemplative life. For each of us now, these lives are interwoven but in such a way that successful strivings in the active life make us more and more fit for the contemplative life and the latter has the has the primacy.

10 Summa contra gentiles, III, c. 37.

11 On the role of Catholic universities in the creation of contemplative cultures, see my essay “Catholic universities, contemplation, and our cultural future,” Catholic World Report, April 22, 2019.

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About Joseph G. Trabbic 15 Articles
Joseph G. Trabbic is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University. He has published in various academic journals, including Religious Studies, International Journal of Philosophy and Theology, and New Blackfriars. He is also a contributor to


  1. Personally, I think living a Catholic, virtuous, contemplative (holy) life in this society is more meritorious as it is freely chosen rather than compelled as in St. Thomas’ time.

    If we could hop in a time machine to St. Thomas’s day I think all modern Catholics (even the most rad-trad among us) would think that the thoroughly Catholic culture of the medieval ages operated as tyranny. Forced religious adherence (under pain of torture and death), complete censorship of ideas and speech, lack of due process, unchecked power of rulers, no elections etc. etc.

    We are all liberals compared to our Catholic medieval ancestors.

    • Do you honestly believe that the medieval universtiy which produced St. Thomas and St. Bonaventura had censorship of ideas! Also, how did St. Francis of Assisi (just for one) defy his own rich father if his society was so influenced by “unchecked power”; and St. Clare running off and leaving her faher’s home to put her spiritual life under the care of an eccentric preacher. We need to look at the nuances of an age to judge its level of freedom as it relates to our “unchecked freedom” (which is the point of this article). I also think we can all agree that the liberal (so-called “free”) university of our day is a much greater censor of ideas and speech than was the university founded by the medievals.

  2. After reading this and the previous article, I see the seeds of some confusion, as there is no real distinction made between the different types of liberal democracy, categorized somewhat loosely by Alexis de Tocqueville as “French”, “English”, and “American”, depending on what one means by “person” and “sovereignty of the people.” Broadly speaking, the popes have approved of the “American” type that vests sovereignty in the human person under God, criticized the “English” type that puts sovereignty in an élite, and condemned the “French” type that puts sovereignty in the collective. There needs to be more clarity on this in discussions.

    • As D.C. Schindler makes clear in his new book, “Freedom From Reality,” American liberalism is essentially Lockean, and Lockean liberalism is the most pernicious of them all. The Popes certainly include American liberalism in their condemnation. This idea that America is the “good” liberalism is whiggish ideology and old hat, more appropriate to the 80s and 90s First Things ideology, but since then, completely refuted by the likes of Schindler, MacIntyre, Hanby, Deneen, etc. Even First Things doesn’t hold to this Novak-Neuhaus-Murray-Maritain nonsense anymore.

      • Interesting, but it fails to take into account the work of Rev. John Clement Rager, who suggested that the Founding Fathers modified the English liberalism of Locke and Sidney with the political philosophy of St. Robert Bellarmine, probably through George Mason. Paradoxically, where Locke and Sidney were in error regarding the state of nature as being outside of society, Bellarmine was right, but where Bellarmine was wrong about God vesting any rights in the collective, Locke and Sidney were correct in claiming that all natural rights are vested only in the human person (“Only man, the human person, and not society in any form is endowed with reason and a morally free will” — Divini Redemptoris). The American synthesis was — according to Dr. Heinrich Rommen, a student of Fr. Heinrich Pesch and co-founder of the Königswinterkreis of which Fr. Oswald von Nell-Breuning and Fr. Gustav Gundlach consulted on Quadragesimo Anno — praised by Pope Pius IX (who used it as the basis for his “Fundamental Statute”) and subsequent popes; Leo XIII kept a special copy of the U.S. Constitution in his private apartments that he showed to favored visitors. The fact that America has departed from its own principles, as explained by William Crosskey in Politics and the Constitution in the History of the United States (1953) is not the fault of the principles, but of people changing them or manipulating them for expedience or personal benefit.

        • Thank you for your excellent remarks.

          They are far more substantial than some of the other observations made which offer false generalizations and worn clichés.

  3. Thank you Joseph Trabbic for presenting a wonderful understanding of contemplation and the active life applicable to the ordinary man featuring Josef Pieper among the very best qualified for commenting on St Thomas Aquinas.

    • And I would add Liberalism steeped in divinely ordained natural law rather than as understood today as unlimited freedom for license.

  4. Trabbic writes: “So, the natures of things determine what’s good and bad for them, what they should pursue and avoid and, again, that is true for us too. Our nature, in this sense, is the ‘law’ that we should live by. When Thomas talks about the ‘LAW OF NATURE’ (LEX NATURALIS) OR ‘NATURAL LAW this is partly what he has in mind. In part our nature is this law, but our reason, insofar as it grasps what is naturally good for us, and directs us to pursue it, BELONGS TO NATURAL LAW TOO” (Caps added).

    Okay, but instead, and after eight centuries of advance in the distinct natural sciences, is there any benefit—-for purposes of clarity—-for us to no longer conflate so much the terms “law of nature” and “natural law.”? The laws of gravity and buoyancy and the Periodic Table (laws of nature), for example, are not included in the Ten Commandments. The reverse is equally true. And even more so for the Beatitudes as compared to, say, biological food chains.

    Yes, the laws of nature are not to be violated (as under the “natural law” within the Theology of the Body), but neither are they interchangeable with what St. Paul has to say: ““When the Gentiles who have no law do by nature what the Law prescribes . . . they show the work of the Law written in their hearts” (Rom 2:14-15). With Trabbic: Thomas’ later “law of grace” (lex gratiae), the “new law” (lex nova) and the “law of the Gospel” (lex Evangelii).

    To give more buoyancy (!)to the New Evangelization in an ideologically scientistic age, might we sometimes conflateth less?

  5. Fleshing out Aquinas’s political thought is worthy and we can no doubt learn a lot from him. But I don’t think it’s going to help to frame the debate in terms of freedom to do whatever you want vs Aquinas’s vision of a social structure that values divine contemplation as its highest goal. Let us make the society aiming at this end as inviting and enticing as possible. Fine – even very good. What do you do with those who don’t want that?

    It’s going to boil down – again – to who controls the levers of power. And whether monarchy, oligarchy or democracy (usually timocracy), it’s still a matter of a State and enforcement. It’s going to be a matter of earthly Authority. Here I stand with Tolkein. The ring of power must be destroyed. We will need to allow for organic, sometimes competitive social and cultural structures that essentially vie for participants. If I am unwilling (and I am unwilling) to force someone to believe in Christ or become Catholic, then shouldn’t I be much less willing to force someone to join my social order even if think it’s ultimately good for him?

    State authority has always been used to murder and it’s got so much blood on its hand that there is no way we can let it continue. Why do we always go back to this – like a dog to it’s . . .. When give authority to a state, you create a power magnet. And we DO NOT NEED TO DO THIS ANYMORE – if we ever did.

    So in your third part, I hope you will recognize this part of the problem of something beyond liberalism. I think we are going to have to recognize it. We will need to go back to the medievals again where their were competing jurisdictions and overlapping realms of social order. But let it be informed with learnings of the past two centuries. Markets can provide for us materially and culture can regulate markets. For this we will need strong, self aware culture. This culture will be open to question but have a healthy respect for what has come before such that it can withstand even today’s scattering forces of idolized self expression. This is what I mean by the additions of the last two centuries. Culture that spans the masses including strong social mores but also markets that allow humans most generously and innovatively to share in God’s creative action and that allow families to enhance their material well being most easily. The goal of Christian Catholic society can be defined as divine contemplation, but unless we are willing to force others to partake (usually at the point of a gun), we are going to need a strategy for the middle to long term. I think markets and culture that invites by success, is the way to achieve the longer term goal.

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