Michael Krom begins his new book Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought, by noting that the world today “labors under darkness and . . . needs a great light.” That light is the light of Christ, made manifest in His Church. But how to bring that light to a darkened culture, especially on matters of morality, economics, and politics? Having taught a course on Thomistic Philosophy for many years at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Krom became convinced that “those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past; in particular, they should familiarize themselves with the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Church’s Angelic Doctor.”

Krom holds that this study will provide Catholics and others both the critical vocabulary and the intellectual formation necessary to think with the Church while engaging in constructive discussion with those outside the Church. And so he undertakes a threefold study of the thought of Aquinas on morality, economics, and politics, before offering a final chapter identifying where St. Thomas can enlighten our contemporary thought on matters of reproduction, sexual ethics, globalization, and care for the environment.

The threefold investigation is actually doubled; for each chapter on ethics, economics, and politics as pursued through natural reason and acquired virtue is accompanied by a chapter on the fruits of revelation in these areas, and on the virtues identified by Aquinas as infused. The infused virtues are impossible without grace; they are produced directly by and are oriented toward contemplative union with God; and ultimately, on Aquinas’s and Krom’s account, they direct all the other virtues.

The result is a rich presentation of Aquinas’s thought. The reader will learn much to his or her benefit about Aquinas from Krom. Still, I left the book not wholly convinced that a moral, economic, and political philosophy and theology of the virtues can do the work he hopes it can—that of providing practical guidance in and engaging with a confused world. After a brief overview of Krom’s book, I will attempt to make clear that concern.

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Justice and Charity begins with the claim that moral philosophy is primarily about “satisfying our natural desire for happiness.” The natures of all of God’s created beings incline toward their well-being. Humans are different primarily in that they have a providential role in their own self-direction toward the happiness to which they are by nature inclined.

What is happiness? It is the “perfection and even surpassing of our nature as knowers and lovers.” But both knowing and loving find their highest perfection in knowledge and love of God. So Krom quotes from Aquinas the conclusion of the argument: “Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence.”

“Our will seeks happiness of necessity,” writes Krom; moral error thus emerges either as a result of error about what happiness is or about how it is to be attained, or by the pursuit of lower instead of higher goods. Given the nature of happiness, the means involve love of God, love of neighbor, and an interior perfection of self that fits one most fully for that twofold love—i.e., it involves the presence of the virtues, habits that enable one to identify correctly in any situation what love of God and neighbor requires, and to pursue it willingly.

What roles are played by economic and political matters in the pursuit of the best life? Economic philosophy is the study of how to use material goods in the service of the best life. Krom clarifies and repeats that, while there is an intrinsically best—viz., a contemplative—life, what is more practically relevant to each person is the best life for him or her, a life that will frequently involve marriage, work in the world, and financial engagement with others. How are such activities to be pursued so as to manifest love of God and neighbor? The answer, in a word, is virtuously.

Krom’s account of Thomistic political theory emphasizes politics as natural rather than an artifice, and sees the purpose of the political as the cultivation of virtues essential to happiness, rather than merely the securing of material prosperity and peace. Krom believes that, given the natural sociality of human persons, politics is “the organic fulfillment” of processes natural to human life.

What then of moral, economic, and political theology, and of the role of the infused virtues? Beginning with the first, natural reason is capable of apprehending that our infinite desires are incapable of being satisfied in this life; “only union with the Divine Essence will do.” Accordingly: “The end of moral philosophy turns out to be an imperfect end, or a means to the supernatural end of the Beatific Vision.”

This in turn requires virtues made available only through grace, including the traditional theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, but also a number of infused virtues that are complementary to the acquired virtues: the four cardinal virtues have infused counterparts; and there are additionally infused secondary virtues, such as patience and perseverance.

What is the role of these virtues? Krom writes: “Just as the infused cardinal virtues allow charity to guide the four faculties of the human person to the supernatural end, so the infused secondary virtues guide the infused cardinal virtues to act under the guidance of charity in the more particular situations of daily life.”

This theme is repeated in the discussion of economic theology, which teaches us to direct our use of material goods not to earthly happiness, but to “perfect happiness.”  Here again this task is enabled by the presence of infused virtue: charity, but also infused economic prudence, justice, religion, liberality, fortitude, magnificence, temperance, and abstinence. In each case, infused virtues direct us and enable us to go beyond the demands of the law—both, it would seem, moral and positive—as we live out what Krom describes as a “vocation of love.”

Finally, political theology similarly “perfects the natural desire for justice in community, for life under human laws in service to the common good, and . . . for peace between neighbors.” Political theology must go beyond political philosophy to command full virtue, rather than simply virtuous deeds.

Once again, infused virtues are essential. The infused political virtues look to the end of building up the Church on earth. Some of these virtues are specific to members of the hierarchy: “infused regnative prudence allows a prelate to determine how and when to apply fraternal correction, charitably reproving the sinner for his own spiritual good and justly punishing him for the good of the Church as a whole.”

My summary of Krom’s book has been quick; there is more here on which to dwell, and the book is written with a rare clarity and goodness of spirit that shines through. Krom uses helpfully mundane examples—a girl playing frisbee, the purchase of a 1986 Dodge Omni, his initial reaction in Latrobe to his socially undesirable neighbors—to make his discussions of action theory, economic value and justice, and the demands of charity gripping and concrete. It is highly recommended.

Yet, as noted earlier, I remain skeptical of the focus on the virtues, and more broadly of a kind of descriptive emphasis that I find in the book.

Consider again Krom’s claims about the “natural” and “organic” nature of the political. Krom asks us to imagine a group of persons arriving in the New World, and settling together in the wilderness. In addition to determinations concerning property, these settlers will be faced with difficulties concerning the fair distribution of labor in defense of their small community, the just resolution of disputes, and the reasonable response to violations of established rules. Some form of rudimentary government is to be expected. Krom writes, “this little thought experiment conveys Aquinas’s understanding of politics as the organic fulfillment of such a natural process.”

Perhaps. But it seems more adequate to see this description as itself dependent on something more fundamental: the development of rudimentary government, and eventually law, is in the first instance, a work of reason: the agents in question, faced with practical difficulties, acknowledge the force of various practical needs as giving them reasons to act in a certain way, and they choose to so act. Or perhaps they do not; surely many human settlements have failed because their inhabitants did not so choose in accordance with reason, a possibility somewhat obscured by describing success as the fulfillment of a “natural process.”

Or consider Krom’s argument against non-marital sex.  He writes: “since sex has as its aim procreation, and since the rearing of children requires the stable bond of the parents, sex outside of marriage goes against nature.” There are three claims here: the first about the natural aim of sex, the third a claim that certain forms of sex are against nature. But the second claim seems of a different order: children—the expectable consequence of sex—require a certain social arrangement for their good to be realized. This is not a claim of what is natural or organic, but of what there is a reason for agents to do and pursue. It thus offers practical guidance, not sufficient for the entirety of the argument perhaps, but an important start.

Why does this matter? Because if our purpose is to communicate guidance, or engage with a skeptical culture, it must be in the key of offering good reasons; and describing one or another arrangement—political, familial, economic—as natural (or unnatural) does not really do that. It is, I think, both true and Thomistic to say that what is in accord with reason is thereby natural to human persons; but reasons come first, and are therefore more suitably communicated to those with whom we disagree than are claims about nature.

But, to move to the more particular complaint, the Thomistic virtue project in ethics seems also to me to be overly descriptive and insufficiently attentive to the priority of giving reasons.

In Krom’s account of the virtues, we frequently find them described as playing a directive role. Here is an example: “The cardinal virtues are so named . . . because they are those virtues on which the other virtues depend. To the cardinal virtues are ‘annexed’ such virtues as eubolia or ‘deliberating well’ (prudence), religion (justice), magnanimity (fortitude), and humility (temperance), each of which has a role in directing human action to particular situations.” Or again, “Insofar as justice is a general virtue, it directs the acts of the other moral virtues toward the common good. So, for example, while it belongs to temperance to regulate the concupiscible passions when one is at table, justice directs the acts that temperance enjoins to the good of others.”

But describing the directive role of a virtue will be useless for practice unless it is accompanied by an account of the reasons that are relevant with respect to each virtue. Otherwise, merely identifying each virtue in the taxonomy and its directive role will be too theoretical to provide guidance for an agent.

Now as it happens, Krom does often provide what I am asking for. Should one obey the law even if it inflicts injustice upon one? Yes, he says, if not doing so would be contrary to the common good. How does one assess that? One asks: will violation of the law lead others to vice? Will it jeopardize the civic order? Affirmative answers are reasons for following the law, even at some cost to oneself, and if one judges and acts reasonably, then one acts justly and manifests virtuous obedience. But this response is a testimony to the practical priority of reasons (and, ultimately, of norms and principles) over virtues, a priority parallel to that between reasons (and, ultimately, norms and principles) and nature.

When we get to the infused virtues, the problem seems even more evident. Infused virtues are not just theoretically described but, I would suggest, theoretical entities, posited to solve a difficulty. Krom quotes Aquinas: “Because such [perfect] happiness surpasses the capacity of human nature, man’s natural principles which enable him to act well according to his capacity, do not suffice to direct man to this same happiness. Hence it is necessary for man to receive from God some additional principles, whereby he may be directed to supernatural happiness.” Or, as Servais Pinckaers writes, “Some such theory seems necessary if we are to explain what the Scriptures teach concerning the way to live as followers of Christ.”

But either being “directed” to supernatural happiness is something that happens behind the scenes of the agent’s practical deliberations; or it is the case that—as with any other deliberating agent—the agent of infused virtue is “directed” by the reasons she considers both for acting and not acting in any given situation—including the reason for acting that is operative for all agents in grace, that what they do should be directed toward the glory of God.

And this is a dilemma for the project of engaging with the broader culture. For on the former option, if the action of infused virtue is something other than the following of reasons, then there is nothing much to be said about it; and even to the agent there will be a kind of opacity, as the infused virtue takes over to direct, regulate, guide, and so on.

But if the infused and even acquired virtues are merely settled dispositions—in the former case only available through grace—to follow reason, then it will be in principle possible to articulate and communicate the reasons that should be followed; and the work of taxonomizing and describing the virtues—acquired and infused—will be largely an after-the-fact work of moral psychology, not an essential work of practical ethics.

Put another way, my worry is that the infused and maybe the acquired virtues as well operate like a kind of black box when invoked in moral theory. Consider again the discussion of “infused regnative prudence” that I quoted earlier, which “enables” prelates to determine how and when to apply fraternal correction. Krom says of that virtue that it “would belong to those who hold positions of authority in the Church, especially the pope as the Vicar of Christ.”

I do not understand the claim here. Is one to assume that this infused virtue automatically accompanies the office, guiding the pope in a non-public way? If so, there will be no way to critique a pope’s actions as imprudent. On the other hand, if a pope’s judgment can be called into question, then it can only be because the relevant reasons for action are more or less publicly available even to those lacking the infused virtue(s).

The larger implication seems to me to be this: practical reasons are where the action is if one is to engage agents, the culture at large, and even popes, in moral discussion, debate, and deliberation. There is really no alternative in an ethics of virtue, acquired or infused.

This is, I’m afraid, far too brief an attempt to identify an objection to a book whose virtues I have also treated too briefly. Consider it, though, a measure of Krom’s success; he clearly articulates a vision of moral, economic, and political life with which I have much, though not complete sympathy. Getting to the bottom of both our agreements and disagreements is an essential preliminary to our mutually shared end of engagement with a culture that, we both believe, stands to benefit greatly from both the work of the Angelic Doctor and the tradition of Catholic teaching.