A development in Aquinas’s thought on the constitution

One point that integralist Catholics have to consider from time to time is the proper form of the state. It is not uncommon to cite Thomas’s De regno in support of the proposition that monarchy is the best form of the state. Consider this passage from the De regno (c. 3):

Ad hoc enim cuiuslibet regentis ferri debet intentio, ut eius quod regendum suscepit salutem procuret. Gubernatoris enim est, navem contra maris pericula servando, illaesam perducere ad portum salutis. Bonum autem et salus consociatae multitudinis est ut eius unitas conservetur, quae dicitur pax, qua remota, socialis vitae perit utilitas, quinimmo multitudo dissentiens sibi ipsi sit onerosa. Hoc igitur est ad quod maxime rector multitudinis intendere debet, ut pacis unitatem procuret. Nec recte consiliatur, an pacem faciat in multitudine sibi subiecta, sicut medicus, an sanet infirmum sibi commissum. Nullus enim consiliari debet de fine quem intendere debet, sed de his quae sunt ad finem. Propterea apostolus commendata fidelis populi unitate: solliciti, inquit, sitis servare unitatem spiritus in vinculo pacis. Quanto igitur regimen efficacius fuerit ad unitatem pacis servandam, tanto erit utilius. Hoc enim utilius dicimus, quod magis perducit ad finem. Manifestum est autem quod unitatem magis efficere potest quod est per se unum, quam plures. Sicut efficacissima causa est calefactionis quod est per se calidum. Utilius igitur est regimen unius, quam plurium.

And in Phelan and Eschmann’s translation:

This question may be considered first from the viewpoint of the purpose of government. The aim of any ruler should be directed towards securing the welfare of that which he undertakes to rule. The duty of the pilot, for instance, is to preserve his ship amidst the perils of the sea. and to bring it unharmed to the port of safety. Now the welfare and safety of a multitude formed into a society lies in the preservation of its unity, which is called peace. If this is removed, the benefit of social life is lost and, moreover, the multitude in its disagreement becomes a burden to itself. The chief concern of the ruler of a multitude, therefore, is to procure the unity of peace. It is not even legitimate for him to deliberate whether he shall establish peace in the multitude subject to him, just as a physician does not deliberate whether he shall heal the sick man encharged to him, for no one should deliberate about an end which he is obliged to seek, but only about the means to attain that end. Wherefore the Apostle, having commended the unity of the faithful people, says: “Be ye careful to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” Thus, the more efficacious a government is in keeping the unity of peace, the more useful it will be. For we call that more useful which leads more directly to the end. Now it is manifest that what is itself one can more efficaciously bring about unity than several—just as the most efficacious cause of heat is that which is by its nature hot. Therefore the rule of one man is more useful than the rule of many.

(Emphasis supplied.) We have discussed previously that the unity of peace is the secular common good, and that the state must be ordered to that end. One finds Aquinas’s point intuitive: it is easier for one person to order the state to the unity of peace than for a group of people, among whom dissensions will inevitably emerge. Indeed, Aquinas makes just this argument (multitudes mean dissensions) in criticizing group rule in the De regno:

Dissensio enim, quae plurimum sequitur ex regimine plurium, contrariatur bono pacis, quod est praecipuum in multitudine sociali: quod quidem bonum per tyrannidem non tollitur, sed aliqua particularium hominum bona impediuntur, nisi fuerit excessus tyrannidis quod in totam communitatem desaeviat. Magis igitur praeoptandum est unius regimen quam multorum, quamvis ex utroque sequantur pericula.

In our trusty translation:

Group government most frequently breeds dissension. This dissension runs counter to the good of peace which is the principal social good. A tyrant, on the other hand, does not destroy this good, rather he obstructs one or the other individual interest of his subjects—unless, of course, there be an excess of tyranny and the tyrant rages against the whole community. Monarchy is therefore to be preferred to polyarchy, although either form of government might become dangerous.

In other words, rule by a group of people is in a sense more dangerous than tyranny: a tyrant might obstruct the particular goods of this or that subject or group of subjects, but, unless he is opposed to all of his subjects, he might not wound the unity of peace as badly as group rule. We admit: this argument is somewhat opaque, but it has a certain force. Thus, the danger of tyranny—a monarchy gone rotten—is not so acute as the danger of group rule when the band breaks up, as it were.

However, in the Summa Theologiae (Ia IIae q.105 a.1 co.), Aquinas makes a very different point:

circa bonam ordinationem principum in aliqua civitate vel gente, duo sunt attendenda. Quorum unum est ut omnes aliquam partem habeant in principatu, per hoc enim conservatur pax populi, et omnes talem ordinationem amant et custodiunt, ut dicitur in II Polit. Aliud est quod attenditur secundum speciem regiminis, vel ordinationis principatuum. Cuius cum sint diversae species, ut philosophus tradit, in III Polit., praecipuae tamen sunt regnum, in quo unus principatur secundum virtutem; et aristocratia, idest potestas optimorum, in qua aliqui pauci principantur secundum virtutem. Unde optima ordinatio principum est in aliqua civitate vel regno, in qua unus praeficitur secundum virtutem qui omnibus praesit; et sub ipso sunt aliqui principantes secundum virtutem; et tamen talis principatus ad omnes pertinet, tum quia ex omnibus eligi possunt, tum quia etiam ab omnibus eliguntur. Talis enim est optima politia, bene commixta ex regno, inquantum unus praeest; et aristocratia, inquantum multi principantur secundum virtutem; et ex democratia, idest potestate populi, inquantum ex popularibus possunt eligi principes, et ad populum pertinet electio principum.

In the English Dominican translation:

Two points are to be observed concerning the right ordering of rulers in a state or nation. One is that all should take some share in the government: for this form of constitution ensures peace among the people, commends itself to all, and is most enduring, as stated in Polit. ii, 6. The other point is to be observed in respect of the kinds of government, or the different ways in which the constitutions are established. For whereas these differ in kind, as the Philosopher states (Polit. iii, 5), nevertheless the first place is held by the “kingdom,” where the power of government is vested in one; and “aristocracy,” which signifies government by the best, where the power of government is vested in a few. Accordingly, the best form of government is in a state or kingdom, where one is given the power to preside over all; while under him are others having governing powers: and yet a government of this kind is shared by all, both because all are eligible to govern, and because the rules are chosen by all. For this is the best form of polity, being partly kingdom, since there is one at the head of all; partly aristocracy, in so far as a number of persons are set in authority; partly democracy, i.e. government by the people, in so far as the rulers can be chosen from the people, and the people have the right to choose their rulers.

(Emphasis supplied.) This seems to cut strongly against the points Aquinas makes in the De regno. That is, we hear in the De regno that the risks of a monarchy (i.e., a tyranny) are less dangerous than the risks of group rule (i.e., dissensions). Now, in the Summa, we hear that everyone should take part in the government, since this better preserves peace among the people.

Moreover, Aquinas, in a reply to an objection (obj. 2 / ad 2), seems to hold that a tyranny is worse than dissensions:

Ad secundum dicendum quod regnum est optimum regimen populi, si non corrumpatur. Sed propter magnam potestatem quae regi conceditur, de facili regnum degenerat in tyrannidem, nisi sit perfecta virtus eius cui talis potestas conceditur, quia non est nisi virtuosi bene ferre bonas fortunas, ut philosophus dicit, in IV Ethic. Perfecta autem virtus in paucis invenitur […]

In translation:

A kingdom is the best form of government of the people, so long as it is not corrupt. But since the power granted to a king is so great, it easily degenerates into tyranny, unless he to whom this power is given be a very virtuous man: for it is only the virtuous man that conducts himself well in the midst of prosperity, as the Philosopher observes (Ethic. iv, 3). Now perfect virtue is to be found in few […]

And in the notes to Phelan and Eschmann’s translation to the De regno, it is observed that  Aquinas’s chapter on the avoidance of tyranny (c.7) is incomplete. They suggest, following Carlyle, that if Aquinas had completed the section, he probably would have wound up at the same place as the Summa: advancing the form of a mixed polity. And this seems at least plausible in some respects. The reply to Objection 2 in Question 105 certainly suggests that Aquinas had tyranny on his mind when considering this matter. However, this argument does not address Aquinas’s point in the Summa that a democracy—even a limited democracy—is desirable to ensure the unity of peace. Certainly he is correct when he suggests that dissensions arise among groups of people, and it is inevitable that in the group of all persons in the polity (however one wishes to qualify eligibility) there will be more dissensions. One replies to this, one suspects, by arguing that the monarchical aspects of the mixed constitution will tame the dissensions threatened by the aristocratic and democratic aspects of the constitution. Perhaps this is true.

It is an interesting question, however, and one best considered through Aquinas’s various positions on the question. It is clear, we think, that Aquinas’s thought developed, perhaps even as he wrote the De regno, but certainly by the time he wrote Question 105 of the Prima Secundae Partis, from the position that monarchy is the best constitution, if a constitution with risks, to the position that a mixed constitution is the best constitution. This development is worth considering, not least because of the reasons implied in the De regno and in Question 105. It is also worth considering because grappling with Aquinas’s thought on these matters is an essential part of reclaiming the Church’s political thought and determining how best to implement that thought today.



The Shouting

Rorate Caeli reports that in the October 2016 edition of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis the Holy Father’s letter to the Buenos Aires bishops regarding their interpretation of Amoris laetitia is presented as an apostolic letter. The bishops’ interpretation is also included. And, topping off this bounty, there is a note from Cardinal Parolin, which reads:

Summus Pontifex decernit ut duo Documenta quae praecedunt edantur
per publicationem in situ electronico Vaticano et in Actis Apostolicae Sedis,
velut Magisterium authenticum.

In Rorate‘s translation:

The Supreme Pontiff decreed that the two preceding documents be promulgated through publication on the Vatican website and in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, as authentic Magisterium.

Of course, astute observers knew this was coming. Archbishop Fernandez’s essay in the CELAM theological journal relied heavily on the letter to the Buenos Aires bishops. This simply adds the icing to the cake. One wonders—though how ingenuously is another matter—how the bishops in Francis’s old diocese managed to come up with guidelines that happened to come across his desk and happened to receive a favorable reply. (Maybe Cardinal Baldisseri knows.) No matter. Did anyone have any doubt that this is how the story of Amoris laetitia would end? That is, did anyone really think Francis would really leave Familiaris consortio untouched? When the only responses to the dubia were sneering insults from the commentators in line with Santa Marta on one hand and fuzzy casuistry from the serious theologians on the other? It is, as they say in our neck of the woods, all over but the shouting.

Or is it? There are orthodox interpretations of the Buenos Aires guidelines. A very clever friend of ours has pointed out that paragraph 6 is frustratingly vague and requires interpretation. It is possible to read an orthodox interpretation into the guidelines. Here’s Matthew Hoffman’s translation:

In other, more complex circumstances, and when it is not possible to obtain a declaration of nullity, the aforementioned option may not, in fact, be feasible. Nonetheless, it is equally possible to undertake a journey of discernment. If one arrives at the recognition that, in a particular case, there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), particularly when a person judges that he would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (cf. notes 336 and 351). These in turn dispose the person to continue maturing and growing with the aid of grace.

(Emphasis supplied.) This passage, despite being now “Magisterium authenticum,” is full of perplexities. Does it apply in the United States, where almost everyone who asks can obtain a declaration of nullity? What does it mean to be “feasible” in this context? Millions of people live continently every day, and, recalling the Tridentine anathema, it seems to us that continence is always “feasible.” And, taking a step back, if the presence of children is the guiding star, have we not found a new regime crueler than anything John Paul established? Does not the middle-aged childless bigamist who found new love have to step aside for the professional who ditched his “starter wife” for a younger woman and had a couple of children? After all, the yuppie might judge “that he would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union.” And his younger wife could be put out if he suddenly got religion. Indeed, it seems as though he is the target recipient of these guidelines. But, given all the Pope’s talk of pastoral solicitude and helping the poor and the Church as a field hospital, it cannot be the Pope’s intention to encourage the practice of “starter spouses” and new families in smart suburbs. Or is it? As we say, the Buenos Aires guidelines do not clear much up. Maybe it is all over except the shouting, but there’s still plenty of shouting to be done.

Of course, the case will be judged in the court of history by future Catholics and future popes. The partisans of Santa Marta, like Archbishop Fernandez, the microblogging platform enthusiast Massimo Faggioli, and the writer Stephen Walford, have been banging the “development of doctrine” drum. Fair enough. In response to one of our columns for First Things, we received a note from a learned correspondent on a point relating to Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine. (Despite our Email Policy, we won’t reveal our correspondent’s details.) Our correspondent pointed out that Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine was written in 1845 as part of Newman’s conversion to Catholicism, though revised in 1878. One can read about this in the Apologia pro Vita Sua or Ian Ker’s biography. The Development of Christian Doctrine should be placed in its proper context. Our learned correspondent noted that, consequently, we should be cautious in proposing Newman’s tests or notes of authentic developments as a toolkit for speculative theology or a means of judging the magisterium. This is true as far as it goes, though, in response we would submit that Dei verbum formalizes, with the assent of an ecumenical council, the idea of development of doctrine without providing a clear understanding of how to separate developments from corruptions.

And this is where Newman comes in. The tests set forth in Development of Christian Doctrine might not be especially good for speculative theology; that is, one would have a hard time sketching out a theological argument on a given topic by means of the notes. However, as a method of approaching magisterial interventions—which are asserted to be developments of doctrine—you could do a lot worse than the notes in Development of Christian Doctrine. We have made this argument before. It is obvious that the proposed development contained in Amoris laetitia fails to pass several of the tests set forth by Cardinal Newman, not the least of which is whether or not the proposed development is conservative of the course of prior developments. Amoris laetitia contradicts Familiaris consortio. This is clear. If it is proposed that Familiaris consortio is itself a development of doctrine, which seems entirely plausible, then Amoris laetitia is not conservative of the course of prior developments. If we walk a little bit forward in time, and look back at this moment, we can say, without doing violence to Cardinal Newman’s intent in the Development of Christian Doctrine, that the development proposed by Francis by means of Amoris laetitia and his apostolic letter to his friends in Buenos Aires would not be an authentic development by Cardinal Newman’s lights.

Now, one may reject Newman’s approach. We have it on pretty good authority that one of the Pope’s most prominent defenders in the media has been presented with this argument and has made precisely this rejection. The response is, of course, Newman is not magisterial and, as our learned correspondent rightly pointed out, did not write the Development of Christian Doctrine as a work of speculative theology, intended to be applied to proposed developments as a means of judgment. Fair enough. Both are quite valid points. And one may go further, as we believe this prominent defender did, and argue that authentic developments are those which the pope says they are. Such an approach is simply wrong under the ecclesiology of Lumen gentium, insofar as it obliterates the teaching offices of the other bishops in the world in communion with the pope. And it is nowhere found in Dei verbum:

Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort.

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

(Emphasis supplied.) In other words, this commentator would chuck the finely wrought teachings of the Second Vatican Council in favor of a papal autocracy beyond the dreams even of Pius IX and the Vatican Council itself in Pastor aeternus. Perhaps we ask a lot of Newman, but, the fact remains that Newman is the one best situated to help the Catholic who wishes to “remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles” and to contribute to the “single common effort” of “holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith,” identified by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council.

And it is this “single common effort” that we refer to when we say that the case of Amoris laetitia will have to be judged by future Catholics.