Prison stock photo via BHN&J;

Listers, this list is an exercise in thought addressing certain practical and theoretical questions concerning law and virtue. It roughly handles certain topical elements in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica 92.1 and without question uses the Angelic Doctor’s overall philosophy of law as its guiding light and standard. The questions drudge up various concerns, but could be taken to all share in the theme of understanding if law leads men to virtue, how those laws can practically function in a complex society with different levels of leadership and authority.

A law is “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.” St. Thomas Aquinas, ST I-II.90.4

A Thomistic Catechesis on Law Law & the Common Good: 9 Introductory Questions Think Like a Catholic: 7 Questions on the Four Laws Divine Law: 4 Reasons God Gave Us Scripture

1. Should a family turn in a criminal family member?

If a family discovers a fellow family member has committed a crime, should the family report the individual? Considering crimes such as the murder or rape, it would seem so, because the crime deals with another household. The parents have authority over the household, but the crime extends past their domestic jurisdiction. Since the family is the core sub-political part of the polis,1 concealing a crime that crosses the sub-political barrier between the families seem to again violate that barrier; hence, the two sub-political parts, the families, would appear to the greater municipal jurisdiction within the polis.

What if the murderer and victim are within the same family? Is the domestic authority of the household leader(s) sufficient? The polis can only be as virtuous as its citizens; thus, the common good of the state rests upon the virtuous nature of its citizens. In this understanding, such a heinous and vicious (Literally: of vice in opposition to virtue) act strikes at the common good of the whole polis. The domestic jurisdiction seems inadequate and disproportionate to the problem, and consequently it is left to the political authority of the polis to properly judge and punish the citizen.

Where is the line? The relationship between households and their relationship to the overall polis demands a proper and natural order. The virtue of proper order is justice, and as Aristotle states in Book One of his Politics, justice is the highest virtue of the polis or the virtue that belongs to the polis.2 If a thing is just it is right and well-ordered, because justice places all things in proper order according to reason; however, in order to properly place things in order one needs the elective habit or rather the virtue of prudence.3 Considering crimes within the household, the prudence of the leaders of the household must take into consideration the category of the action (non-violent, violent, etc.) and judge the action as either household problem or a political problem. If prudence is to play this role, then the virtue of the family leaders must be well-formed.

2. How does one be both parent and citizen?

If the parent only acts like a parent, then he will cover up actions that should be turned over to the political authorities; however, if the parent only acts as a citizen, then it will collapse the political into the household. Again, Catholicism is not a leviathan of moral laws, but rather a religion that focuses on cultivating virtue - which includes the virtue of prudence in order to address complex moral problems.4

Overall, the prudential judgments of parents is legitimate and defensible but is not always optimal.

3. Can charity be a virtue of the State?

Much ink has been spilled on this question, but the traditional answer is no. There are the Cardinal or Natural Virtues - prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude - and these are available to all humanity. The natural virtues are acquired virtues, because these virtues are developed through habit. There are also the Theological Virtues: faith, hope and charity. These virtues are not available to all men, because these are infused into the individual by the grace of God. The relationship between the two groups is that the theological virtues perfect the natural virtues. The faith, hope, and charity Catholics are given by knowing Christ and his sacraments perfects the natural good in us and raises us by grace. In fact, the relationship of the two groups of virtues reflects the overriding principles that grace perfects nature.

Why can the State not have charity? The Catholic Church is a supernatural institution, the Church, founded on the Rock - St. Peter - and given the promise that not even the gates of hell could prevail against her. The polis or State is a natural institution - as man is naturally a political animal his political bodies are natural and guided by the natural virtues - and thus limited to the natural virtues. More specifically, the polis is characterized by the virtue of justice, which is made possible by the virtue of prudence. To ask the State to assume charity is to ask something that is natural to extend past its natural capacity.

The tension is that the individuals of the State (Catholics) have a supernatural end, but the State does not.

4. How does one be both Catholic and a Citizen?

The Church Fathers spoke of Christians as having dual citizenship: the ecclesial sphere and the political sphere. The Catholic family must cultivate and educate children to be citizens in both; thus, both Church & State look to the household as a fundamental part of the respective whole.5

5. How do men know Natural Law?

St. Thomas will argue that all men by nature can know the first principles of morality, the moral quality of their actions and natural justice. To wit, the general moral precepts of nature grant man a natural inclination to what is moral and good. Man must then - as the rational animal - reflect upon these natural laws in order to further understand them and use them to form laws of the state. However, each human differs in their intelligence and differs in family life, culture and governments. All these factors can either aid or obscure and individual’s sensitivity and understanding of natural law.6

In contrast, Aristotle says that only upon reflection of the natural law are the moral precepts understood – what is just and true by nature is a task for the wisdom of the philosopher alone. St. Thomas’ claim is that all men can know the claims of natural justice - through the natural law - which is their participation in the eternal law or the Divine Wisdom.7. Still, Aquinas is not advocating an egalitarian view of reason or that natural is holistically known in the hearts of men.8

  1. City (polis): a political community characterized by social and economic differentiation, the rule of law, and republican government; the chief urban center of community - used in political philosophy to denote the political and governmental whole ↩︎

  2. Justice – the ordering of reason in operations; places all things in proper order according to reason ↩︎

  3. Prudence - the “very act of reason,” the “principal virtue,” which orders things and directs the virtues through right reasoning. ↩︎

  4. Virtue is Objective: to wit, on one end of the spectrum one could place a sort of Kantian system of moral legislation that has strict moral rule for all situations, and on the other end place a relativist moral approach where each does what is right in his own eyes. The virtues are objective habits that cultivate what is good and natural in man; thus, while prudence could lead different people to different ends, it still operates within an objective structure and must be held accountable to that structure. ↩︎

  5. The Order of the Part and Whole: Do not conflate the temporal priority and the ontological priority – in the former, the family is prior to the State/Church, however, in the latter ontological category, as Aristotle states, the whole is prior to the part, thus the Church/State is prior to the family. In the 10 Commandments, we see the education of the citizens in the positive (1) honor the Sabbath and (2) honor thy mother and father. ↩︎

  6. A few notes on Aquinas’ view on how men know natural law: According to St. Thomas, his view relieves the tension between not only the philosopher and the polis, but of humans and the polis. It is no longer the philosopher by himself attempting to understand order, but all the citizens of the polis as a whole, i.e., a Cosmo-Polis. St. Thomas’ view is predicated upon Scripture, hinging upon a doctrine of Creation – thus St. Thomas’ view of law and virtue is theological in nature. In principle, all men may know natural law, but as Vatican I states, it is exceedingly difficult to understand via original sin. Christianity claims that all men transcend the city, not just the philosopher. It is here that Christianity imports the transpolitical character of the Church and her citizens. ↩︎

  7. For more on how men know natural law: ST 93.2 ↩︎

  8. Knowledge of Natural Law: one distinction is that it takes intelligence and reason to reflect upon natural law and since those qualities differ in men, the depth at which men understand natural law will differ as well - hence, the Church has clarified much of natural law - through the help of infallible Scripture (Divine Law) - so that we, unlike the Protestants, do not have to rediscover truth each generation. Secondly, one’s family and culture plays a strong role insofar as our conscience is formed by habit and principle; thus, a child’s sensitivity to the natural law can be diminished and corrupted through external influence, e.g., seeing suicide bombing and the taking of innocent life as an honorable act. ↩︎