Aquinas’s Theology of Politics

William McCormick, SJ, has written a new and welcome interpretation of Thomas Aquinas as a political thinker. His reading of Aquinas suggests that the political common good, as an intermediary between human and divine things, is a subject for ongoing inquiry, sensitive to the exigencies of a fallen world. McCormick holds that the “pedagogy of politics” unfolds teleologically as a community—in and through common deliberation and action—comes to greater knowledge of itself and its own ends.

It is rare to find a portrait of Thomas Aquinas as a genuinely political thinker, with something practical to offer citizens plunged in the vicissitudes of human affairs. Pierre Manent describes the Thomistic tradition as “a fine example of a noble intellectual tradition that fails to establish an authentic link with actual political experience.” Debates about whether Aquinas’s account of the political common good is limited or lofty tend to remain at the level of abstract principles and ends. Indeed, often Catholic debates over church–state relations and liberal democracy similarly focus on theology and metaphysics at the cost of political thinking. And not without cause: Manent writes that under the Christian dispensation, the gap between “actions” and “words”—the exigencies of political action versus the high demands of the Sermon on the Mount—might be insurmountable.

Undaunted, William McCormick, SJ, has thrust into the gap a new and welcome interpretation of Thomas Aquinas as a political thinker. His book The Christian Structure of Politics: On the De Regno of Thomas Aquinas defends Aquinas’s treatise on kingship (De Regno) as vitally important to understanding his political thought. The text is a “political act” in itself: a medieval speculum principum (mirror of princes) intended to instruct the king of Cyprus on the nature and duties of kingship.

McCormick interprets the text “on its own terms,” sensitive to its pedagogical genre. His section-by-section exegesis is erudite yet pleasantly accessible; the tone is even conversational, as McCormick interrogates Aquinas and speculates about possible interpretations and implications, but allows the text’s meaning to emerge organically as the logic of the speculum unfolds. Once the full teaching of the De Regno is in view, McCormick situates it in medieval models of church–state relations, then turns to modern liberalism.

The Christian King

The De Regno is practical, but that is not to say it lacks theoretical principles—quite the contrary. The principles, however, can seem disjointed, which has led some scholars to dismiss the work as fragmentary and incomplete. Namely, in one section De Regno evokes an Aristotelian or Ciceronian political naturalism—including its classical regime typology, and its defense of monarchy as the best regime. Yet the “bleak picture of seemingly inevitable tyranny” in the succeeding section suggests a more Augustinian warning about human sinfulness and susceptibility to injustice. Meanwhile, the next section’s long digression on the supernatural reward of the good king is “clearly out of place,” according to one prominent editor of the text.

McCormick does not read these sections as incoherent. Rather, he perceives a “Creation-Fall-Redemption” structure, issuing in a “Thomistic political naturalism” that not only synthesizes the Aristotelian and Augustinian traditions, but “almost effortlessly transcends them.” The doctrine of Creation reinforces human reason and the integrity of politics, which originates in the needs and inclinations of created human nature. Yet unlike pre-Christian naturalism, Thomistic naturalism locates the ultimate end of human community not in earthly felicity, but in the peace of union with God. McCormick argues that Christianity thus dignifies the duty of the king—he is minister Dei, “minister of God,” guiding the body politic toward salvation—even as it limits and de-sacralizes politics in a fallen world. A wise king imitates God, but he is not God.


A Gelasianism Bound to Disappoint

McCormick links Aquinas’s political naturalism to an ends-based Gelasian model for relating spiritual and temporal authority. Heavenly beatitude is humanity’s extrinsic common end because it lies beyond the earthly city. Yet the hope of beatitude only reinforces the importance of the “intermediate” common end intrinsic to the body politic: promotion of a peaceful order of virtuous living, one conducive to beatitude. Aquinas argues that God granted care for each end to a specific type of government: priests, and especially the Roman pontiff, have the spiritual authority to govern men toward beatitude, while kings have temporal power to govern men toward natural virtue. Because the latter end is for the sake of the former, kings must be subordinate to the papacy.

McCormick’s reading of Aquinas’s Gelasianism will dissatisfy a variety of Catholic political thinkers. Aquinas’s teaching, according to McCormick, consists in a “delicate balance” between two principles: 1) dualism, or the relative integrity of both spiritual and temporal powers, and 2) the primacy of the spiritual. Observing that “variation in Christian political thought can be understood in large part as varying emphases in the Gelasian tradition,” McCormick situates Aquinas’s position between two erroneous medieval church–state models that each emphasize one principle (dualism or spiritual primacy) to the exclusion of the other. By highlighting the boundaries of Aquinas’s Gelasianism, he also offers implicit corrections to those who make similar errors today.


On one side, Aquinas’s student John of Paris, or Quidort, exaggerates dualism to the point of denying the primacy of the spiritual. Drawing a bright line between nature and grace, Quidort’s “Aristotelian” naturalism views the polity as thoroughly sufficient for its own ends (which, McCormick points out, isn’t even particularly faithful to Aristotle). Quidort likewise draws a bright line of separation between religious and political spheres. McCormick argues that this ignores Aquinas’s treatment of religion as a natural virtue of justice toward the divine; a truly just temporal order will dispose the body politic to give God his due. Not only that, but McCormick argues that by denying the spiritual any role in delimiting or defining the temporal common good, there is little to prevent a polity from lapsing into new forms of civil religion.

These points will ruffle a few Whiggish feathers. In a footnote, McCormick notes that John Courtney Murray equates Quidort’s Gelasianism with that of Aquinas. Although he says little more than that, the subsequent critique of Quidort implies that McCormick basically agrees with Edmund Waldstein’s criticism of modern American “Whig Thomism” for denying the transcendence of the political common good. Meanwhile, his warning about civil religion brings to mind recent indictments of precisely that, whether it be in the form of a “liturgy of liberalism” or “post-Protestant Gnosticism.” McCormick also describes the totalizing force of modern rationalist liberalism in terms of civil religion, as it “introduces a pre-Christian state of affairs in which religion is subordinate to the individual.”

On the other side, though, is the “political Augustinianism” of Giles of Rome, a medieval scholastic who emphasized the primacy of the spiritual to the point of denying dualism. In Giles’s view, the papacy is the repository of all power, and even the temporal power of kings is received as a delegation from the pope. McCormick argues that this position problematically “instrumentalizes politics rather than relativizes it,” stripping the political of its natural integrity and collapsing dualism into a monist theocracy. Aquinas’s king is minister Dei, not minister Ecclesiae.

McCormick’s critique of political Augustinianism warns contemporary Catholic integralists against assuming that juridical integration of the two powers is a sine qua non of Thomistic Gelasianism. McCormick actually suggests that too close an integration of Church and state risks collapsing into either theocracy or civil religion (a point he underscored in an recent article). Integralists may find themselves dissatisfied with Aquinas more from what he does not say than what he does. In the De Regno, he is silent on the question of the pope’s temporal power, and on the respective jurisdictions of the two powers. For all his talk of tyranny, Aquinas offers no indication that the pope might depose a tyrant (or exercise any coercive power, for that matter). The De Regno’s only concrete example of the primacy of the spiritual emphasizes the Church’s teaching function: the priest instructs the king in divine law, to aid him in discerning how best to promote virtue in his kingdom. McCormick’s reading of Aquinas gives the juridical integralist no foothold.

Aquinas’s Gelasianism, then, seems bound to disappoint. Of course, to say that will not ruffle McCormick’s feathers in the least: he emphasizes that the De Regno’s teaching on church–state relations is “meager” and “thin.” But for McCormick, that in itself is a crucial point.


The Pedagogy of Politics

McCormick argues that Aquinas’s decision to prescind from tired “jurisdictional turf battles between Sacerdotium and Imperium” is precisely what enables his thought to transcend the constraints of its day. It moreover points us to Aquinas the political thinker. According to McCormick, Quidort and Giles failed because they subordinated ends to institutions. Aquinas rejects such institutional rigidity:

For Aquinas in De Regno, politics cannot stop meditating on the question of human ends. Institutional relationships between the spiritual and temporal, moreover, must not be separated from that meditation, but must rather reflect it, for those institutions and their relationships grow out of human understanding of those ends.

Not only is the De Regno pedagogical in its genre, but for McCormick, politics itself is fundamentally pedagogical. The political common good, as an intermediary between human and divine things, is not a given but a subject for ongoing inquiry, sensitive to the exigencies of a fallen world. McCormick holds that the Creation-Fall-Redemption movement of the text reflects the “pedagogy of politics,” which unfolds teleologically as a community—in and through common deliberation and action—comes to greater knowledge of itself and its own ends.

The work is thus versatile and open to different political forms and regimes. As head of the body politic, the king’s task is prudential: he must set one eye on heaven, and the other on earth. He must determine the concrete ethical-political possibilities for his own community—an imperfect viator on the way—and strive to instantiate whatever common goodness is possible here and now. It is Christian prudence that lives in the gap between Manent’s “actions and words”; McCormick stresses that efforts to close the gap flatten the reality of the human condition.

In this view, the central sections on the king’s reward are also central to Aquinas’s own pedagogical project, which is to form the desires of his royal reader. Shifting the king’s sights from earthly glory to the joy of heaven, Aquinas aims to cultivate in him the Christian virtue of hope for goods beyond this world, complemented by humility and magnanimity. Duly aware of the difficulty of just rule and the ever-present danger of lapsing into tyranny, yet confident in the nobility of his duty, the king must get down to the real, hard work of politics. The heart of the De Regno is thus a theology of political action—or even a “spirituality of politics,” as McCormick puts it, animated by Christian hope.


Living in the Gap

McCormick does not just interpret Aquinas, but also tries to mine some present-day application of his work. In the last chapter he takes stock of the realistic political possibilities for Gelasian dualism under conditions of contemporary liberalism. Following Jacob Levy’s Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, McCormick identifies two discrete strains of liberalism that exist in tension with one another: rationalism and pluralism.

As mentioned, he roundly denounces the rationalist, social contractarian tradition for subjecting all things to the liberal state. But he perceives some room for imperfect Gelasian dualism under the liberal pluralist vision of society, which limits the state by protecting civic associations as vital sites of human freedom and flourishing. An inheritance from the medieval world, pluralism has resources for protecting the liberty and self-governance of the Church, and possibly even for affording special status to the Church as a historical agent with proven success in limiting the power of the state.


Here one may wonder whether Jacques Maritain, Catholic pluralist par excellence, is McCormick’s ghostwriter. (It was his use of the term “infravalent end” that clinched it for me!). I commend the book to those interested in the recent Maritainian Renaissance. Here, too, some might criticize McCormick for applying Thomistic political “pedagogy” inconsistently: though he emphasizes the king’s role as moral guide, he does not engage the argument among post-liberals that liberal institutions and practices themselves morally deform society.

That may well be true, but it misses the point. Politics is, and has always been, difficult and noble. “Mild” tyranny may very well be the enduring reality this side of paradise. Yet hope impels action. McCormick’s reading of Aquinas suggests that Catholics with souls formed by Christ in his Church can and should engage with liberal-democratic institutions, in prudent, genuinely political efforts to instantiate the common goodness available for us here and now.

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