Thomism and Political Liberalism, Part 3

St. Thomas says that “the whole of political life seems to be ordered to contemplative happiness.” What would a life ordered to divine contemplation look like? And how would politics support it?

(Inma Ibáñez @inmaa_ic/

This is the third and last part of my discussion of Thomism and political liberalism. From the first two essays (see here and here) I think that we can conclude that one important thing that separates Thomistic and liberal political theory and makes them rival visions is their understanding of the ultimate purpose of politics. For Thomists, I have argued, politics aims at facilitating a life of divine contemplation whereas, for liberal theorists, it would seem that politics aims at securing the freedom of individual persons to live as they like, so long as they respect the freedom of others to do the same. (I have called this added condition the “freedom of others proviso” or FOP.)

In my last essay I quoted a text from St. Thomas’s Summa contra gentiles that supports what I am saying about the Thomistic understanding of politics’ purpose. But there are other places where we can find Thomas articulating this understanding of politics. In his commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, for example, Thomas says that “the whole of political life seems to be ordered to contemplative happiness.”i Commenting on this text, Josef Pieper says that from it we learn that all our activity, including our political activity, becomes “meaningless” once it becomes an end in itself. “For this means,” he adds, “converting what is by nature a servant into a master – with the inevitable result that it no longer serves any useful purpose.”ii

What would a life ordered to divine contemplation look like? I have already said something about this in the previous essay. Here I will only repeat that it is nothing exotic and that it is a way of life that faithful Catholics already practice. But how would politics support it? That’s what I want to talk about in this last essay.

Rational and social animals

Like Aristotle, Thomas sees human persons as rational animals but he also sees us (again like Aristotle) as social animals:

It must be understood that, because man is by nature a social animal, needing many things to live which he cannot get for himself if alone, he naturally is a part of a group that furnishes him help to live well.iii

Once more I am quoting from Thomas’s commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. We rely on others to take care of, or to help us to take care of, our material needs (food, shelter, clothing) and our moral and intellectual growth. We cannot survive and flourish on our own. Although we do become more self-sufficient as adults (but never completely so, not even close), that relative self-sufficiency was developed through interaction with others and begins to decline as we reach the other side of middle age.

What is most important for us is the cultivation of virtue. As I pointed out in my previous column, virtue is necessary for us if we are going to live a contemplative life. Virtue gives us the power to do what we should do toward this end and not be distracted and carried away by everything that shines and attracts us.

The crucial communities for us in our pursuit of virtue are our families, our political communities, and the Church. In his encyclical on Christian education, Divini illius magistri (1929), Pius XI calls these the “three necessary communities” (societates necessariae). Here my focus is on political communities but I am not going to leave behind the family and the Church because, for Thomas, all three need to work together.

Political communities and virtue

What I am calling the “political community” Thomas calls the civitas, which is often translated as “city” or sometimes as “state.” Thomas takes the city to be a self-sufficient community of the natural order. Because it is self-sufficient he also calls it a “perfect community” (communitas perfecta) since to be perfect is not to lack anything you need. The city is self-sufficient or perfect in the sense that, in theory, it contains all the resources that people need to survive and flourish.

But it is above all human flourishing, which requires virtue, that is the ultimate purpose of the city. Thomas explains this in his commentary on Aristotle’s Politics:

[The city] is first created for the sake of living, that is, for men to be able to find in it what they need to live; but from its existence it comes about that men not only live but that they live well, insofar as by the laws of the city the life of men is ordered to the virtues.iv

Thomas’s suggestion that the laws of the political community are meant to help us toward virtue will probably be surprising to many people. He says the same thing in the Summa theologiae:

[I]t 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.v

One reason why Thomas’s idea about law and virtue might seem strange to us is simply the influence of liberalism on our thinking about politics. In the first part of this series on Thomism and political liberalism I quoted John Locke, who says that the “end of law” is “to preserve and enlarge freedom.” This is not at all the way that Thomas thinks about the matter.

Thomas believes that, first of all, virtue is learned in the family. The political community can and should support this formation in virtue but it cannot replace it. Exactly what laws the political community would frame to promote virtue is, in Thomas’s view, mostly a matter of prudence. He thinks that laws should not be too particular because they must be general enough to cover a variety of circumstances, many of which are not foreseeable. They should also correspond to the character of the people whose lives they regulate. He urges, furthermore, that care must be taken to ensure that laws are not too oppressive. Responding in the Summa theologiae to the question about whether laws should prohibit all vice, Thomas says the following:

Human law is made for a multitude of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Thus, human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the worst vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and mainly those that hurt others and that must be prohibited if human society is to be maintained. Consequently, human law prohibits murder, theft,

And to this he adds:

The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. So, it does not impose upon the imperfect multitude the things that people do who are already virtuous, that is, abstaining from all evil. If it did impose such things, imperfect people, unable to endure these obligations, would erupt into worse evils.vii

So, it should be clear from these passages that when Thomas says that the aim of the laws of the political community is to promote virtue, he is not envisioning an impossible utopia in which everybody is legislated and policed into perfection. He is thinking of a regime where tolerance will (for the sake of virtue!) have a necessary role and where governing institutions will do what they can, in prudence, to help citizens “gradually” (gradatim), as he puts it, toward living a good life. Yes, Thomas does suppose that there could be legitimately harsh penalties for certain offenses against virtue (murder, for example) but, in the first place, that would not make him importantly different from many liberal theorists (Kant and Mill both support capital punishment) and, in the second place, he would see the wisdom in being moderate about having recourse to these means.

Thomas sees more specific direction toward virtue as something that is best handled at lower levels, in families and in friendships, for instance. It would be a very Thomistic view, then, that, when it comes to virtue, the business of a political community’s governing institutions is more to help create a “climate” that is conducive to the healthy functioning of the personal relationships where we learn and practice virtue than to give very specific indications about that practice.

Some readers of Thomas might wonder why I have so far said nothing about the “common good” (bonum commune). Doesn’t Thomas teach us that the common good is what political communities are ordered to? The term “common good” has different but related senses in Thomas’s thought. Thomas understands the virtue and contemplative life that I have been talking about as the common good of the political community. They constitute the good toward which the political community is ordered. So, in fact, I have been talking about the common good all along, just under different names.

Now because, in Thomas’s view, it is the task of the governing institutions of political communities (like all their other institutions) to promote the virtues that we need to live lives of divine contemplation, it is evident that, for him, those governing institutions are in that regard necessarily “religious.” In calling them “religious” – according to their ideal configuration – I am following Thomas’s own usage. Every act by which we subject ourselves to God, says Thomas, “belongs to religion.”viii Religion, as Thomas understands it, is a moral virtue that is a part of justice.ix By it we are disposed consistently to render to God what we owe him. And what we owe him, says Thomas, is totum quod sumus, that is, “everything we are.”x God is our creator, and without him we would literally be nothing.

Up to this point, everything I that have said in this essay touches entirely on the natural order. It has to do with what we can know by reason – or, we might say, by philosophy – and does not formally require for its confirmation any source of knowledge apart from reason. It would not require knowledge, for example, that would come through faith in a supernatural divine revelation. From a Thomistic perspective, any claim (based on a purported revelation or on some other source) that it is natural for the governing institutions of political communities to be religiously neutral or atheistic, would contradict the teaching of reason.xi This doesn’t mean that it could not be morally permissible in many or most cases, for prudential reasons (although not for reasons of principle), for those institutions to be in some respect religiously neutral, but it does mean that it would always be morally wrong for them to be atheistic since that would entail the positive promotion of vice.

Political communities and Christianity

Thomas believes that Christianity is the true religion and that its provenance is supernatural. He takes it to agree with philosophy in holding that divine contemplation is our ultimate end. And he sees the divine contemplation practiced by Christians in this life – which is an elevated version of its natural counterpart – as a beginning of the beatific vision, which we can only fully enjoy after death. But the beatific vision is also a goal beyond our natural powers, so getting there requires virtues beyond the natural ones. It requires the “theological virtues” of faith, hope, and charity along with the sacraments administered by the Church that infuse these virtues in us and keep them alive.

For Thomas, the role of the political community and its governing institutions doesn’t change significantly when it is considered from a Christian perspective. Political communities are still concerned with the promotion of virtue. But now virtue is seen as serving the Christian way of life, which includes and elevates the natural form of human flourishing and treats the present life as a pilgrimage toward supernatural bliss. In this new economy, then, the native purpose of political communities is likewise elevated. Thomas puts it succinctly in explaining the duties of a king in the De regno:

Since the beatitude of heaven is the end of living well in the present, it belongs to the office of the king to promote the good life of the multitude in such a way as to make it suitable for the attainment of heavenly beatitude. In other words, he should command those things which lead to heavenly beatitude and, as far as possible, forbid the contrary.xii

Much (if not all) of what will be commanded or forbidden will be, as we saw earlier, a matter of prudence and cannot be appropriately determined outside of specific contexts. But one thing that we do know for certain is that, with respect to the Christian faith, which would be one of “those things that lead to heavenly beatitude,” Thomas would never condone forcing non-Christians to “convert.” “Believing,” he insists, “cannot be coerced because it is a voluntary act.”xiii

The role of political communities in supporting Christianity is, of course, subordinate to the role of the Church. “Because man does not reach his end by human power,” says Thomas, “leading him to this end is not a matter for human but divine government.”xiv This divine government, he continues, is exercised by “our Lord Jesus Christ,” who appoints as his representatives “not earthly kings but priests” and especially “the high priest, the successor of Peter, his vicar, the Roman pontiff.”xv As horrible and frightening as this may sound to liberals and other moderns, Thomas teaches that the governing institutions of political communities should, therefore, take their direction in regard to the promotion of virtue from the Church! “In the law of Christ,” he declares, “kings must be subject to priests.”xvi

However, it needs to be stressed that, as Leonard Boyle notes, with such remarks Thomas is not suggesting that the Church, the potestas spiritualis or “spiritual power,” take over the job of the potestas saecularis or “worldly power.”xvii Later in the De regno (which is where the above remark comes from) Thomas makes it clear that the Church and the leaders of political communities have distinct spheres of competence. The direction given by the Church is very general and only pertains to what is essential to the Christian way of life.xviii

It is not possible to describe Thomas Aquinas as a liberal”

I quoted these words of Pierre Manent in my first essay and they may now seem like a gross understatement. If you have made your way through all three of these essays on Thomism and political liberalism and now believe that there are some pretty stark and irreconcilable differences between Thomas’s political theory and liberal political theory, I will have counted my efforts a success. I don’t wish to claim that there is no common ground between Thomism and political liberalism or that Thomists cannot appreciate some aspects of political liberalism. But I do hope that I have helped you to see just how great the divide is between the two.

I do not expect to have won any liberal theorists over to Thomism. My guess is that, if anything, I have only convinced them (if they needed convincing), that not only will they find little of value in Thomas’s political theory, it is positively dangerous. My purpose here, anyway, was not apologetic. It was merely expository.

But what should Catholics think of Thomas’s political theory? This may be the more interesting question. I am not going to answer it for you. I invite you to think about it and answer it for yourself.


i Sententia Ethic., 10, l. 11, n. 4.

ii Happiness and Contemplation (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998), p. 95.

iii Sententia Ethic., 1, l. 1, n. 4.

iv Sententia Politic., 1, l. 1 n. 23.

v ST, I-II, q. 92, a. 1.

vi ST, I-II, q. 96, a. 2.

vii ST, I-II, q. 96, a. 2, ad 2.

viii Super De Trinitate, q. 3, a. 2.

ix Super De Trinitate, q. 3, a. 2; ST, II-II, q. 81, 1-8.

x Super De Trinitate, q. 3, a. 2.

xi Leo XIII also teaches that the relationship between religion and the governing institutions of political communities is a truth that we can know by reason. See Immortale Dei, §§3, 7, 13, 16.

xii De regno, I, c. 16.

xiii Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 1, a. 6, ad 3.

xiv De regno, I, c. 15.

xv De regno, I, c. 15.

xvi De regno, I, c. 15.

xvii “The De regno and the Two Powers,” in J.R. O’Donnell, ed., Essays in Honour of Anton Charles Pegis (Toronto: PIMS, 1974), pp. 241-242.

xviii Evidently, Thomas envisions something like what today we would call a “confessional state.” I have written about this topic elsewhere (here, here, and here). The unity (with the necessary distinctions) between the political community and the Church that he calls for became a particular concern of the nineteenth century popes who were faced with the rise of liberalism and its advocacy of separation. Gregory XVI, Pius IX, and Leo XIII all articulated the Church’s teaching on this point and forcefully rejected separation. Many Catholics believe that the Second Vatican Council reversed the Church’s teaching and adopted a separationist position. They typically single out Dignitatis humanae as the key document. (For a recent argument along these lines see Robert Miller’s essay “Integralism and Catholic Doctrine” at Public Discourse). Unfortunately for these people, Dignitatis humanae tells us at the very beginning (§1) that it must be interpreted in continuity with the Church’s previous teaching on her relationship to the state. And if there is any doubt about what is meant by this statement at the beginning of the document, we only need to consult Bishop De Smedt’s official explanation of it as recorded in the Acta Synodalia, vol. IV, pt. VI, p. 719.

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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. “. . . Thomas teaches that the governing institutions of political communities should, therefore, take their direction in regard to the promotion of virtue from the Church!”
    These days I am not sure which swamp is more putrid-Washington D.C. or Rome/Vatican.

  2. Trabbic writes: “For Thomists, I have argued, politics aims at facilitating a life of divine contemplation whereas, for liberal theorists, it would seem that politics aims at securing the freedom of individual persons to live as they like, so long as they respect the freedom of others to do the same.”

    But rather than EITHER failing to facilitate “a life of divine contemplation” (equated with the common good?), OR caving to amoral logical positivism—-does the role of a possibly legitimate “political liberalism” (liberal politics?) have more to do with the public EXERCISE (rather than the “promotion”) of virtue broadly defined? And, does the natural law itself mostly leave space for prudential judgment (“liberal” in a possibly good sense, plus temperance, courage, justice)—-reminding us more of what NOT to do, rather than too-generously prescribing what to do? (“Thou shalt not…”).

    Without contesting Trabbic, there’s this from the Second Vatican Council, succinctly addressing the different “spheres of competence” of the Church and the political community—-the latter distinct but not divorced from Church’s “social teaching” (meaning social, economic, political and cultural). This from the Council about these DOMAINS, and the VOCATION of man:

    “The political community and the Church are autonomous and independent of each other in their own fields. Nevertheless, both are devoted to the personal vocation of man, though under different titles….The Church, for its part [not the political community, per se], being founded in love of the Redeemer, contributes toward the spread of justice and charity among nations and within the border of nations themselves. By preaching the truths of the Gospel and clarifying sectors of human activity through its teaching and the witness of its members, the Church respects and encourages [both] political freedom AND responsibility of the citizen” [caps added; not Locke’s version of political liberalism/liberal politics as only “freedom”] (Gaudium et Spes, n. 76).

  3. I think there may have been a poor choice of a word in translation. In the Politics, Aristotle stated that “man is by nature a POLITICAL animal” (1253a) which (admittedly) some translate as SOCIAL. Aquinas concurred. The distinction between a political animal and a merely social animal is that where social animals live in community because they have no choice and do not have an individual nature (individual characteristics/accidentals are another matter), and the community does not vary significantly among a particular type of social animal — e.g., a dog pack or a beehive is always substantially the same as all other dog packs and beehives — a political animal has both an individual and a social nature, living in consciously structured communities which puts the direct care of the common good within the grasp of every member of the community. Social animals have no choice how they live together. Political animals do.

  4. Since Thomas wrote before the rise of democratic states, his view of things is going to be bound up with the idea of the state being essentially a monarchy. It would be interesting to see how his views would change if he had lived in the era of democracies. I suspect there is a lot of fine tuning that would take place. In any event, in his work On Kingship, he does speculate about how a democratic state should be set up to serve the right purposes. And it looks very much like what our founding fathers did in setting up the U.S. government.

    There seems to be a misapprehension that John Locke was tremendously influential in the founding of the U.S. He was not all that influential, and other philosophers were much more important. But the Patrick Deneen stuff assumes Locke was the very keystone of the U.S., but he was not.

    • Yes, indeed, sources of political thought in the colonies are more interesting than is popularly believed. Sylvester J. McNamara proposes that the philosophy and wording of Declaration of Independence—-the foundation for the Constitution—-derive more from the writings of the Jesuit Robert Cardinal Bellarmine (1542-1621) than from the more-credited and late 17th-century British John Locke (American Democracy and Catholic Doctrine, International Catholic Truth Society, n.d., c. 1920).

      McNamara points to the exact wording of Jefferson’s five principles in the preamble of the Declaration (sovereignty, equality, divine and Natural Law, the right to select magistrates, and the right to change the form of government) which (he concludes) bear closer resemblance to Bellarmine than to Locke. He draws from Filmer’s Patriarcha (with a compendium of Bellarmine’s philosophy), and from Jefferson’s personal copy which remains in the Library of Congress.

      If McNamara et al are correct, then the American Constitution is accountable to deeper origins than the individualism of political liberalism. For example, the more rationalistic term “self-evident” (truths) was a late edit supplied by Benjamin Franklin, replacing Jefferson’s original “sacred and undeniable” (Paul Johnson, A History of the American People, 1999).

  5. Christians are always accused of trying to be “Taliban” Muslims in the sense of trying to “impose” a theocracy. The fact is that the Taliban is the Taliban, and THEY want a theocracy, not Christians/Catholics. They are forcing the negative Muslim face on us and forcing the positive Catholic face on them. To them and to many who are deceived, even inside the Catholic Church, Radical Muslims are now the “new” Catholics and Catholics are now the “new” radical Muslims.

    This insane, grotesque switch of identities is designed to hide the tyrannical push of socialism, communism, and their core of atheism and homosexuality, to transform the “potestas saecularis” or “worldly power,” to completely take over the job of the “potestas spiritualis” or “spiritual power”. They condemn us with accusations of dangerous “theocracy”, which Catholicism hasn’t even bothered to try even in its worst days of corrupt worldly rule when politics was the goal but not God (unless you believe the scary fairy tale of historical reconstructionism), because they are rabidly pushing for a “politicracy”, where Marxist Politics, Islam and Homosexuality are to be fanatically worshipped as the “new holy trinity”.

    Homosexuality is essential to this as it is the ultimate hybridization power uniting evil as the core and good as an appearance. Islam is essential to this as it eliminates True Faith to replace it with criminal-bound obedience and ultimate “do-ism”, the very core of blind radical activism. Marxism is the ultimate worship of the government elite and the ultimate satanic crime of creating the Devil’s Utopia on Earth. They chant again and again and again that morality can’t be legislated (but it can be PROMOTED as Aquinas explains so well), but they are constantly pushing for the legislation, promotion and forced approval of all immorality, the core and dark beating heart of radical atheism.

    We Catholics/Christians need to be more involved in politics, not necessarily as identifying with a specific political party (Jesus is our leader not politicians of any kind), not infusing politics into Christianity but TRUE Christianity into politics. The truth behind the Evil Marxist-Taliban-Homosexual False Religion must be constantly fought against and constantly exposed, as God still has very small rays of light in the frozen consciences of anti-Christian radicals. Not all will eventually listen and come to God. Jesus made that point abundantly clear (Luke 13:22-24) contradicting Universal Salvation. Heaven is not so much a reward as it is the direct consequence of totally choosing God’s Life, Truth and Light. Hell is not so much a punishment as it is the direct consequence of willfully choosing Lies, Darkness and Death. These two choices also illuminate the choices made in all political issues today. That’s why even some unbelievers are able to detect the nasty stench of Death in today’s “culture” and they choose to go to the music, movies, etc. of the past when some more of God’s Life, Truth and Light was allowed to go through, even though evil has always been present around us since Adam’s Sin in Genesis.

  6. The political community should be ordered to human happiness, which is to be found in the supernatural friendship with God, but its immediate end is political friendship, and it is on this point primarily that liberalism, which serves the state and statism, differs from Aristotelianism and arguably Thomistic political theology. It is also a first principles that is obscured in Roman Catholic social teaching, written mostly or wholly by men who have no experience living in an authentic political community.

    • The Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is not presented consistently (and is a misnomer, I propose, meaning “societal” as in social, political, cultural and economic). Also, easily misconstrued from the Documents of Vatican II, a distinction is at least intended in the use of the term “socialization” as opposed to any misreading as “socialism” (or “state and statism”).

      In the Catechism, Solidarity merits one of the seven major headings, while Subsidiarity (a linked counterpoint and constraint to any kind of Social-ism) unfortunately does not. Instead, in the Catechism we find more scattered attention to subsidiarity (1883, 1885, 1894, 2209), plus other related provisions for the Family (2204-2213), the Community (1877-1912), and citizen Participation (1913-1917). Based probably on the incomplete format in the Catechism, the USCCB brochures on “Faithful Citizenship” also omit a major heading for Subsidiarity.

      Yet, in the Vatican “Compendium of the Catholic Social Teaching” (2004), Subsidiarity does have the needed and prominent visibility as a major section.

      And, in their own writings, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both, were clear that prudential judgments in the public forum were to be made within the seemingly countervailing and never-to-be-separated foci on solidarity and subsidiarity, both. As one example in Centesimus Annus, St. John Paul II wrote of CST: “Since it is not an ideology […] in constantly reaffirming the transcendent dignity of the person, the Church’s method is always that of respect for freedom” (n. 46).

      The less intellectual and less precise writings of Pope Francis tend to be more easily exploited or even problematic, largely because cobbled together from groups of diverse advisors, rather than (still) resolved as by one steady hand into a coherent synthesis.

      Such is my opinion, as a non-specialist, on how CST has been unevenly presented.

      • Mr. Beaulieu, a quick response —

        Most of RCST is moral theology, as the Compendium itself points out. Arguably, the only content which has been revealed is what is found in Scripture concerning practical applications for Israel and Divinely-given precepts, either revealed or through the Natural Law. It is the task of moral theology to explain the ratio behind such precepts, and this would make appeal to first principles, such as community and the common good.

        Re: solidarity — this seems to have replaced the Thomistic legal justice (or the Leonine social justice), and is akin to political friendship or fraternity but is distinct from patriotism (not discussed at all in the Compendium, iirc). Political friendship is important as a first principle but there is very little awareness in RC documents as to what this entails.

        As for subsidiarity, it may be a band-aid solution to the problem of scale and the state, but it is very unlikely any state will ever adopt it as a guiding principle. The problem is the state itself, which RCST has not addressed as it is currently unable to due to its ignorance of the problem of scale (and how that is linked to the cultivation of political friendship).

        As for the patriarchate of Rome’s use of RCST, even if it is moral theology, I do not see how RCST cannot gain additional weight as authoritative because of its link to papal documents and also because of what Rome believes to be true about its authority with respect to the Church and the corresponding duties of the laity to submit to it. It would take a major act of humility for a pope to admit that his or any pope’s opinion in moral theology (much less his judgment of particular circumstances or of particular actions) carries no more weight than that of anyone else, even if he is pope, as the correct knowledge of moral theology in the former case and the virtue prudence in the latter are not divinely-guaranteed charismatic gifts given to any bishop. (With respect to the latter, the Thomisitc opinion on infused cardinal virtues is an opinion, not dogma.)

        • As for the Compendium itself, the text suffers from its weakness. Although the “meat” of the text pertains to moral theology, it is not organized in such a way that one sees the logical flow that explains the ratio of precepts through first principles. Consequently I don’t think it can be considered a good moral theology text, whether one uses the standards of the manualists or the standards that replaced the manualists. It is not surprising then that bishops who may have no adequate training in moral theology regarding political communities and rely on the Compendium may make claims that are poorly argued.

  7. Its striking that Aristotle believed the contemplative life was the highest good and that its attainment required the cultivation of the virtues. And it is equally striking is that this knowledge is accessible solely through the use of reason. A political community so constructed seems worlds apart from that which our political community pursues.

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