On Catholic Political Philosophy (Part 1)

Father James Schall on Faith, Reason and Politics

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WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT. 10, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Some thinkers have attributed the rise of Western civilization to the unshackling of philosophy and the natural sciences from theology and the burden of religious claims.

Even Thomas Aquinas noted that the natural sciences and philosophy have distinct methods and require a certain degree of autonomy.

But in his new book, “Roman Catholic Political Philosophy” (Lexington Books), Father James Schall claims that philosophy, and political philosophy in particular, can only arrive at the truth it seeks if it allows itself to be open to the truths of Revelation as offered by theology.

Father Schall, professor in the department of government at Georgetown University, shared with ZENIT why Catholicism offers a distinct and necessary approach to the endeavors of the political philosopher.

Part 2 of this interview appears elsewhere in today’s dispatch.

Q: Please explain the title “Roman Catholic Political Philosophy,” since Catholicism is not a political movement.

Father Schall: The title is deliberately paradoxical, even provocative. It is, if you will, a countercultural thesis. Two different, known things are juxtaposed. They, I argue, have a relation that, if not spelled out, ends up confusing both political and revelational realities.

Since Catholicism is not a political movement, it frees political things to be political things. It does not encourage them, as so often happens in modernity, to be confused with religion or metaphysics, or become, in effect, substitutes for them.

The book is at pains to define modernity, a movement that sees no cause to explain things, including human things, other than arbitrary human will as their basis. Likewise, attention is given to science and metaphysics to distinguish them from political things.

If politics is not limited to what it is, it tends to claim to be itself the highest thing. It finds itself claiming to define and to establish the whole of the human good on its own terms.

Catholicism is not a political movement, but it is concerned with the highest things. Still it also recognizes that some regimes are better than others and understands principles by which such distinction between good and bad regimes can be established. It likewise recognizes and defends the legitimacy of the philosophical consideration of human things.

Revelation cannot deal with politics until it first knows what politics considers itself to be. Political philosophy must know what it itself is.

By “Revelation” I mean that body of articulated principles and conclusions that Catholic thought has explained in precise terms exactly what it holds about God, man and the cosmos. The origins of this knowledge are the events both in the Old and New Testaments, as they are recorded and handed down in Tradition and Scripture.

But Roman Catholicism understands itself in contrast with alternative views of the Trinity, the Incarnation, redemption and the Church. The Church is a means whereby that which is announced to mankind is to be achieved in practice.

The most succinct statement of what Catholicism holds about itself is found in the Nicene Creed; the most recent and elaborate statement is found in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church does not and cannot hold that everyone believes or understands what is presented here without grace. But it does insist that anyone can at least get the point of what it presents.

The Incarnation, for example, may be a mystery […], but anyone who takes the effort can at least understand what it claims it to be. It is part of the very essence of Catholicism constantly to specify and clarify what it means or understands about itself in the light of objections or misunderstandings from whatever source.

Indeed, a good part of what we know more clearly about Revelation was historically hammered out in controversies, many still quite alive, with those who rejected or misunderstood what Catholicism held about itself and about Revelation’s content.

Q: What is political philosophy? Why is it incomplete in itself?

Father Schall: In one sense, political philosophy exists because both Plato and Cicero wrote books called “The Republic” and “The Laws,” while Aristotle wrote “Ethics,” “Politics” and “Metaphysics.”

Though both the Old and New Testaments touch upon political things, neither — but more especially the New Testament — is directly a treatise on politics, on how to organize the city.

Indirectly, certain things in the New Testament, the “render to Caesar” and the “it is better to obey God than men,” together with giving a cup of water and the trial of Christ, have had an enormous impact on our understanding of politics. Still, it was not the direct purpose of Revelation to tell us how to organize our polities.

We could figure this political information out mostly by our own powers, by experience and reason. This knowledge is why we still read the classic authors who were not influenced by Revelation.

The more subtle question that Revelation might be said to deal with is why, if we know both how we should live and how the city should be best organized from reason, can we not live that way? Why is the history of our political lives in almost all eras and places so often an account of disorder and failing human institutions?

The answer to this question, summed up in the doctrine of the Fall, or original sin, has always been one of the roots of political realism wherein we are most careful not to expect too much of politics as such.

Philosophy is a quest for knowledge of the whole of reality insofar as this knowledge can be ascertained by human reason open to reality.

Aristotle pointed out that ethical and political questions exist in the universe as a product of human free choosing in achieving the virtues and the institutions in which virtue could be practiced. Man was by nature a political animal because he only became fully human when he set up and lived a full political life as a mortal in this world.

Politics, however, did not deny that there were things “beyond politics.” Indeed, politics existed in part so that we could order our lives to pass over into that leisurely or contemplative life in which the theoretical questions were proposed, pondered, and, to some extent, answered.

In one sense, as Leo Strauss pointed out, political philosophy is the effort of the philosopher to convince the politician to let philosophic questions be asked. That is, the politician could always kill the philosopher, which is why the trials of Socrates and Christ remain of fundamental importance for political philosophy and to which it always must return.

Political philosophy was designed to convince the politician to let higher questions be asked. On the other hand, politics was called the highest of the “practical sciences,” but not the highest science as such. It dealt with human action in this world, but not with the transcendent questions of being and destiny, without the asking and answering of which human life would be truncated and not worth living.

Q: Why not call what you are describing “Christian” political philosophy, rather than “Catholic” political philosophy? What makes Roman Catholic political philosophy distinct?

Father Schall: The most obvious answer to this question is that the understanding of politics within the various Protestant and Orthodox traditions, and often the very understanding of man and reason, have their own nuances, presuppositions and conclusions at variance with the central line of Catholic thought.

It is not my purpose here to criticize or to speak for them from within their own traditions or within my own. It is their responsibility, as it is
with other philosophies and religions, such as liberalism or Islam or Hinduism, to account for themselves before the burden of reason, a bar with which Catholicism is perfectly comfortable.

What makes Roman Catholic political philosophy distinct, I think, is precisely Catholicism’s relation to and acceptance of philosophy itself.

Q: How is Roman Catholic political philosophy different from Catholic social thought?

Father Schall: Roman Catholic social thought is a body of particular analyses and responses that the popes and the various hierarchies from the middle of the 19th century have given to central economic and political issues in which Catholics have found themselves involved.

Catholic social doctrine seeks to combine what it knows from natural law, reason, experience and Revelation so that it might address itself coherently to ongoing issues in any sort of polity in which Catholics find themselves. It seeks, too, to elaborate the general principles of these issues but it desires to leave the particular applications to the laity and citizenry.

When it comes to practical matters of politics and economics, most things such as laws and policies could be otherwise, even though we must select some reasonable way to act. This very complexity cautions us not to give more certitude to something than its subject-matter allows, as Aristotle remarked in the first book of the “Ethics.”

Roman Catholic political philosophy operates at a more fundamental level. It wants to know what is the reason that Revelation can presume to speak to reason, such that philosophy, on its own grounds, needs to pay attention to what is proposed.

Today, political philosophy is one of the few areas in which all things come together and must be sorted out. To understand political things we need to understand history, religion, ethics, science, manners, and all pertinent aspects of culture. Yet, politics looks at what is to be done but done for a good.

Revelation has long recognized that its most dangerous opponent is the city closed in on itself, using the coercive powers of the state to define reality.

This danger is why Revelation has recognized that it first must deal with politics on its own grounds, grounds which recognize that human disorder can be identified and accounted for.

Contrary to the tradition of Machiavelli, itself already criticized in Plato, politics does not just look to what man does do, but to what he ought to do. And what he ought to do can, in some basic sense, be understood by the philosophers.

This possibility is why Roman Catholicism has regularly insisted that there is such a thing as philosophy and that philosophy can both ask the right questions and propose at least some basic and correct answers. Moreover, it can at least recognize the meaning of answers coming from Revelation.

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