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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