Deacon James Toner: Keys to political science
If you are not a writer, or a mathematician, or a historian, what do you recall from your high school or college classes in, say, English literature, or algebra, or American history? All the readings, lectures, problems solved or papers written and all the studying now leave you with – what impression? What is left of a course after final exams, or after 10 or 20 years? Anything?
I used to ask myself that about the college and graduate courses I presented in political science. A product of the University of Notre Dame political science department, I believed that politics is best understood, as the late Russell Kirk once put it, as "the application of ethics to the concerns of the commonwealth." In other words, one should understand that what we know as politics is the visible part of an underlying culture which, in turn, is the result of an endless contest in society between virtue and vice. Politics is the visible tip of the moral iceberg. If you desire to study politics, study also philosophy – and, I should add, moral theology.
I hoped that my students would (and do) recall my best efforts to teach that, in studying politics or serving in political life, one may generally choose either of two approaches: one may see politics as profane, or one may see politics as sacred.
The profane view is that politics is about might. The sacred view is that politics is about right. There is a corollary to the second view that politics concerns "right." Here I do not mean "right" as it is may be determined by public opinion; rather, I mean "Right" (deliberate capitalization) in terms of what is eternally good, true and beautiful.
These two views of politics are at war with each other. The profane view of politics values strength, and it is not wrong in doing so, for Right without might is confined. The sacred view of politics values virtue (precisely as St. Paul tells in Philippians 4:8), and it is not wrong in doing so, for might without Right is corrupt.
The profane view of politics wants to build the City of Man, "knowing" that there is nothing after life. The sacred view of politics wants to build the City of God, knowing that there is nothing without the Lord. The first is the politics of Babel; the second is the politics of Pentecost.
Fine. But what does that tell us in the most practical terms? What did I want my students to remember? Four things:
1. "There still remains only God to protect Man against Man. Either we will serve Him in spirit and truth or we shall enslave ourselves ceaselessly, more and more, to the monstrous idol which we have made with our own hands to our own image and likeness," said philosopher Etienne Gilson. Put simply, when we make ourselves gods, we create tyranny.
2. "With God and Jesus Christ excluded from political life, with authority derived not from God but from man, the very basis of that authority has been taken away, because the chief reason of the distinction between ruler and subject has been eliminated. The result is that human society is tottering to its fall, because it no longer has a secure and solid foundation" (Pope Pius XI, "Quas Primas"). Put simply, when we forget the First Commandment of God, the First Amendment to the Constitution will, in time, have no meaning and offer no protection.
3. "Man is not for the State; the State is for Man," noted philosopher Jacques Maritain. Put simply, when government determines right from wrong, good from evil, and virtue from vice, the State becomes "divine."
4. "Where sin has perverted the social climate, it is necessary to call for the conversion of hearts and to appeal to the grace of God. ... There is no solution to the social question apart from the Gospel" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1896). Put simply, "The root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights which no one may violate" (Blessed John Paul II, "Veritatis Splendor," 99).
Fine. Man is not God. Don't expel God from the public square. Limit the power of the State. Heed the Gospel in words and in works.
Where do we go, though, to help us form our political and ethical conscience? (Remember, they're two sides of the same coin.)
"To the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls" (CCC 2032; cf. 1902, 2246; 2044, 407, 1783).
The Church, as the Vatican II document "Gaudium et Spes" put it, "is at once the sign and the safeguard of the transcendental dimension of the human person."
We ignore this truth at our grave peril –both religiously and politically.
Deacon James H. Toner serves at Our Lady of Grace Church in Greensboro.