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April 30, 2012

Finnis on Catholic Engagement in Public Debates

As we engage in the usual election-year tussles about the Catholic Church's role in politics, this passage from John Finnis's essay "Catholic Positions in Liberal Debates" (Collected Essays of John Finnis, Vol. V: Religion and Public Reasons, pp. 113-26) incisively makes about a dozen important points in the course of a single paragraph: 

We should not be nostalgic for, and do not need to defend, the paternalism defended by Plato and Aristotle, or the religious intolerance of the mediaeval and post-mediaeval Catholic (not to mention Protestant) states. Nor should we accept other package deals, in which Catholicism might be yoked to a restorationist politics of conservatism or a liberationist politics of socialism or state capitalism, or whatever. So far as anyone can see, the Catholic Church is still near the beginning of its long journey to the end of the ages; its Augustinian, mediaeval, and subsequent experiments with harnessing state power were no more than a passing phase in which faith and benevolence were harnessed together without sufficient attention to differentiations which the faith itself suggests and, when developed, ratifies. If we make and insist upon those differentiations, we can peacefully and without even implicit threat affirm, in our own reflections and when and as appropriate in public, that the centre of human history is the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, and that the truths which his Church conveys, even in periods when it is humanly speaking as decayed, confused, and weak as it at present is, are the true centre of the culture which can and should direct political deliberation in western liberal as much as any other kind of political society. The disarray within the Roman Catholic Church is surely a substantial cause (as well as a consequence) of the disarray within these societies, even those societies which for many centuries have had no reason to think (or have made it their business not to think) of Catholics as other than virtual strangers.

Posted by Michael Moreland on April 30, 2012 at 11:18 AM in Moreland, Michael | Permalink


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Wonderful passage. But is Aquinas really paternalistic? Was he "insufficiently attentive to differentiations"? I wonder.

"Now human law is ordained for one kind of community, and the Divine law for another kind. Because human law is ordained for the civil community, implying mutual duties of man and his fellows: and men are ordained to one another by outward acts, whereby men live in communion with one another. This life in common of man with man pertains to justice, whose proper function consists in directing the human community. Wherefore human law makes precepts only about acts of justice; and if it commands acts of other virtues, this is only in so far as they assume the nature of justice, as the Philosopher explains (Ethic. v, 1).

But the community for which the Divine law is ordained, is that of men in relation to God, either in this life or in the life to come. And therefore the Divine law proposes precepts about all those matters whereby men are well ordered in their relations to God."

--ST I.II q. 100, a. 3

Posted by: Matthew Polaris | Apr 30, 2012 7:28:45 PM

And I would add to Matthew's comment that I think Aquinas interprets Aristotle ("as the Philosopher explains") rightly - i.e., that Finnis is mistakenly reading into Aristotle (and Plato) also (i.e., as well as Aquinas) an objectionable "paternalism." I think Finnis is right about the problems with "package deals," and also about the need to see how doctrine legitimately develops (has already done so and quite possibly will continue to do so) with regard to issues like religious liberty. But I don't agree with the view that has frequently been advanced by Finnis and his colleagues (e.g., Grisez) and students (e.g., Brugger) that there's anything terribly problematic about the basic conception of the relationship between person and polis or between morality and polis that we find in, say, Aristotle and Aquinas (or that the contemporary Magisterium has fundamentally rejected this conception). I think that Lawrence Dewan has replied very helpfully to Finnis on this point; I think that Dewan sufficiently demonstrates that it is the Finnis conception of politics that is more likely to lead to a society in which the dignity of the human person isn't adequately respected.

(My doctoral dissertation was [yet another] analysis of John Paul II on capital punishment - responding especially [though not only - I also replied to people on the other end of the authentically Catholic spectrum like Dulles and Long - although it seemed to me that they didn't need as lengthy a reply] to the take proposed by Bradley and Brugger - and thus looking at some of the key background in the political [as well as moral] theory of Finnis and Grisez.)

Posted by: Kevin Miller | May 1, 2012 7:44:18 PM

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