Aquinas, the State

Arts & Letters

Aquinas, and the State

A new book explores St. Thomas’s state theory and its implications for the liberal order of today.

St. Thomas Aquinas (Public Domain)

The Christian Structure of Politics: On the De Regno of Thomas Aquinas, by William McCormick, S.J. (The Catholic University of America Press, 2022), 272 pages.

Is there any contemporary relevance in De Regno, a thirteenth-century instructional manual on politics written by St. Thomas Aquinas for the young Norman prince of Cyprus? William McCormick believes so. Better known as On Kingship, it is the longest and only stand-alone practical treatment of politics by St. Thomas (1225-1274), yet it has attracted only sporadic interest from commentators over the centuries. The more well-known and respected scholarly works of the deepest thinker in medieval Christendom have received more attention.

McCormick believes this neglect of De Regno is unjustified. He claims that the manual offers a consistent rejection of theocracy and civil religion based on an theology of historical history found nowhere else in Thomas’s writings. While it contains a desacralization of monarchy, the Christian ruler is characterized as a minister Dei under the church. The Aristotelian concept of political naturalism, as well as the distinctions between human and divine government, is supported. These familiar features of tyranny may bring back memories of the dangers that political despotism poses. This text covers only one topic, but many important topics for the study of politics.

McCormick’s scholarly study of De Regno argues that Thomas intended to provide a pedagogical tool–not a treatise–for the “intellectual and moral edification” of a head of state. He notes that the text is an example for the practical application and use of theology. The author of The Christian Structure of Politics, a Jesuit priest and political scientist at St. Louis University, contends that the writing of De Regno was a political act by Thomas intended to win favor from the Cypriot king on behalf of his Dominican religious order whose missions were expanding into the Levant.

McCormick refutes the claim that Thomas wrote an entire book on political theology. Historical references far outnumber scriptures referring to kingship. Scripture does not praise monarchy in a uniform way, but Aristotle (on whom Thomas heavily relies) recognized legitimacy for other forms of government. Robert Kraynak is praised by the author. His scholarship identifies areas where Thomas agrees with various regimes that are based on prudential considerations. All legitimate political systems are not perfect. Why then does Thomas favor monarchy uncritically in De Regno? McCormick claims that Thomas favors monarchy uncritically in De Regno. “[H]is elevation to monarchy is not a philosophy blindspot

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Because politics is a natural activity, the king is not a minister of the church though he is a minster of God (Rom 13:1) and therefore subject to God. Thomas says that only kings can be minsters for God if they are serving the common good. He follows Aristotle by elevating the nobility of politics beyond anything St. Augustine said in The City of God, in which the government is described as nothing more than a band of robbers. Thomas’s indictment against tyranny could be seen as an admission to Augustine’s darker vision of politics. Thomas is well aware that dictators are able to use violence and fear against people in order to gain power and wealth. Thomas admits that tyrannicide is not the right response, but such insecure regimes can be overthrown. However, perfection is not possible. Every regime is imperfect. A good understanding of the human condition is a safeguard against political utopianism.

One of Christianity’s greatest achievements was the separation of church and state. Beatitude is the final spiritual ending of man. This responsibility falls on the church and not on the state. On matters of religion, writes Thomas, “kings must be subject to priests.” Thus we are to give Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s (Mk 12: 17). There is no explicit relationship between church and state prescribed in De Regno. McCormick says this allows Aquinas “to value the integrity of politics for the king but also to stress the “superiority church” regardless the political circumstances.

Gelasian dualism–named after Pope Gelasius I (d. 496)–distinguishes between the temporal and spiritual powers and gives primacy to the spiritual. McCormick argues that Aristotle is the intellectual origin of dualism, and Augustine the spiritual roots. Thomas combined both into a coherent philosophy of politics but failed to satisfy objections from younger contemporaries such as John of Paris (1255-1306) and Giles of Rome (1243-1316). These lively debates debunk the modern stereotyping of medieval Christendom being intellectually homogenous. Thomas condemns civil religion and theocracy. However, he supports material aid from the government for the church’s spiritual mission. McCormick pays little attention to these writings by Thomas. Even in De Regno, he fails to draw obvious conclusions. For example, if De Regno really is a political document intended to curry favor from a Cypriot king, we might at least expect a request for armed security for the Dominican missions in the crusader-held territories of the Middle East. What does it actually mean for a prince to defer religion to priests?

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Gelasian dualalism, as Thomas advocated it was an direct challenge to civil faith that has for millennia been in the control of temporal magistrates. McCormick is correct to observe that civil religion “is an enduring feature in human community”, but he incorrectly characterizes modern Catholic resistance as advocacy. “Crown and Altar” arrangements advanced by Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) had nothing to do with divine-right-of-kings ideology famously advocated by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) on behalf of an Anglican Stuart monarch. De Maistre was a critic of the ancien regime and its Gallican articles as much as he was of the French revolutionaries of 1789. Those four articles imposed on the French church by Louis XIV in 1682 were, in De Maistre’s words, “the most miserable rag in ecclesiastical history.” McCormick rightly describes the medieval roots of modern Gallicanism as an early attempt by the French monarchy to found a “Christian civil religion.” He further reminds us that De Regno “contains one of the most trenchant rejections of civil religion within Christianity.” On this score, De Maistre, the father of ultramontanism, was more faithful to the Thomistic tradition than a string of pontiffs who had over centuries concede their spiritual sovereignty to the state.

Gelasian dualalism, as proposed by Thomas, was an direct challenge to civil faith that had for millennia put the religious responsibility in the hands temporal magistrates.

To what degree do the early discussions matter for current political arrangements? McCormick, using Jacob Levy’s analysis, believes that Thomas’ dualism directly challenges liberal rationalism, which is increasingly dominant in modern politics. Modern contract theory is pluralistic, and the rationalism it produces does not support dualism. It is not acceptable for institutions to assert sovereignty over the state. Therefore, the church is only one example of private institutions subordinated to modern monism, which mirrors pre-Christian political arrangements. Rationalists favor the rights of conscience above institutional rights. They also apply liberal standards to intermediary groups in order to stop them becoming resistance to liberal hegemony.

A pair of recent Supreme Court cases may help illustrate the tension between an earlier 20th-century precedent, which sought to limit religious liberty under an unconstitutional and historical “wall” doctrine. This was justified by liberal rationalism today and the preference of the majority for religious pluralism as embodied within the First Amendment. The Court’s holding in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District allows voluntary religious expression on public property, while its holding in Carson v. Makin permits spending public money on parochial schools as long as the funds are distributed equitably.

McCormick argues that liberal pluralism is compatible with, though not identical to, the dualism advanced in De Regno. A Christian reconciliation with liberal pluralism can be based on the medieval desire for social pluralism. McCormick believes that the liberty of McCormick should be protected by pluralists to prevent “overweening” rationalism or statism. As long as modern liberalism has rationalism as an intrinsic characteristic, religious freedom will always be at risk. Furthermore, a weak pluralism will not protect libertas ecclesiae from the danger of rationalism. It is therefore incumbent on religious believers that they defend liberal pluralism from its evil twin, rationalism.

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The world’s power centers, particularly in the West are becoming increasingly hostile towards organized religion and Christianity specifically. This threat has made it difficult for believers in religion to find a way out of their situation. They must uphold the principle and defend religious freedom. It is the pluralistic element of modern liberalism that McCormack believes is compatible with the Catholic philosophical tradition given expression in De Regno. McCormick’s study does not cover all the dangers and pitfalls of modern liberalism. A franker discussion of the intense debates among Catholic scholars over philosophical liberalism in the years leading up to the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) would have provided an opportunity to explore this subject in greater detail. The Council’s declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, left many questions unanswered.

This debate about the threat to faith from secular Liberalism is not confined to the Catholic intellectual traditions. These philosophical objections aside, religion believers are left with few choices. It has suffered a significant loss of political power and cultural influence in the West church and must work within its ideologies. Liberal pluralism must be protected if it is to remain the sole option for religious believers. It is their responsibility to make sure that it continues to thrive by making use of all intellectual resources available to them. William McCormick’s study may help Christians, in particular, apply the insights from one of Christendom’s greatest theologians in our current political debates about how to save what is precious in liberal modernity.

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