In Search for a Theology of Politics

In Search for a Theology of Politics

On Wednesday 24th March the next in the series of lectures was held by the St John Paul II Institute of Culture, at the Angelicum in Rome. The lecture titled “Political Theology from St Thomas Aquinas to John Paul II and Benedict XVI” was given by Prof Francois Daguet, a theologian and current leader of the St Thomas Aquinas Institute in Toulouse.

This next lecture of the John Paul II lectures series, was introduced by Father Serge-Thomas Bonino, Dean of the Department of Philosophy at Angelicum, who thanked patrons and sponsors of the Institute and announced the coming events.  He gave the floor to Dariusz Karłowicz who introduced our guest as well as the issues to be debated.

Prof Francois Daguet began by reminding us of the circumstances which gave rise to a notion of a theology of politics (political theology) and how it came about concurrently to new totalitarian political systems.  He likewise drew attention here to the polemics between Carl Schmitt and the Swedish theologian converted from Protestantism to Catholicism Erik Peterson, who once criticised the approach of political theology as a means for justifying the present order of politics by way of theology together with its methodologies, though in consequence running the risk of an objective sanctification of politics.

Daguet seeks here an understanding from a theological perspective on “how to adequately regard communal aspects of human life within the Christian theological framework”.  A theology for politics, he articulates more precisely as ‘“theology of politicalness” and understands it above all as a theology of communality.  Being furthermore a philosopher he drew connection to how late this reflection of a Christian theological orientation to politics appeared in the Church tradition.  Bearing this in mind, St Augustine had played an underestimated role in commenting on the spiritual struggle between the realm of God and the realm of the world, too often misinterpreted literally as a tension between a tangible political state and the Church.

Relevant to all discussed issues here is the historical period during which Political Augustinianism was prevalent, and the result being the attempt to impose God’s law on natural law.  This was further to shape positive law, commonly also known as statutory law.

Prof Daguet led us further to a crucial turning point, now in the thinking of St Thomas Aquinas who postulated a vision for politics founded upon an understanding of God’s own image and likeness in man.  For St Thomas something hugely relevant for the discussion of order in respect to politics, furthermore in light of our Christian revelations, was the rediscovery of Aristotle’s writings.  Observing the Thomistic approach to politics, Prof Daguet distinguishes between two important features.  Firstly, how moral goodness guarantees the ultimate shape for good order in politics, which in turn will be subject to the goodness of God.  Looking at political spheres the good of all is in his understanding a kind of fulfilment of human activeness in contribution – within which we arrive at an ultimate and unitary moral fulfilment. Though we must keep in mind, that it will always be subject to God.  As our speaker pointed out “the originality in the thought of St Thomas Aquinas results from his not doing away with the good from this earth, but rather by accepting it he assigns it to the supernatural realm of God’s grace”.  In agreement with St Thomas’s doctrine it is essential to reconcile nature with grace – and being open to this path is what can singularly guarantee people on earth true joy and happiness.

The second important feature for St Thomas Aquinas, Prof Daguet articulated as the Church and the state being summoned to work together at various levels.  He pointed out how St Thomas applied two of Aristotle’s novel approaches, one that seeks the understandings of the state that functions on earth, and the other clarifies somewhat inconsistently the relation between the Church and the state.  In neither of these cases does he equate each with the other, though in agreement with the later concept presented by the Vatican, the Church is regarded as the theological catalytic agent of societies that are secular in nature.

In the next part of his lecture, Prof Daguet focused on the influence which the theology of politics of St Thomas Aquinas has exerted.  He pointed, amongst other important moments, to a crucial watershed moment resulting from the French Revolution where the Church began to lose its strength of functioning which it had up until that point.  In the 19th century it was noted that adequate instruments were lacking which would reconcile issues of the ruling classes with secular norms and values.  What we have inherited from St Thomas Aquinas in this regard has come to be key in helping us gain perspective.

In his next area for discernment, Prof Daguet enlightened how a theology of politics had its own ‘renaissance’ of kind in the 20th century.  Several particular elements of Thomistic thinking show up sporadically in the minds of different thinkers, however rarely happening in a wholesome way.  A philosopher who took up the task of a holistic approach to understating order in politics in light of our Christian revelations, was Maritian.  All in all, Daguet sees his summaries and concepts as having little value and unrealistic in their potential to be applied, though often eagerly read and considered at first glance.

Following St Thomas Aquinas, the next significant step taken by the Church to articulate political issues was at the Second Vatican Council during which echoes of St Thomas Aquinas’s teachings were present, particularly on the topic of natural political communities in the form of family and state.  According to Prof Daguet, the council brought the ideas presented by the catholic outlook to bear to secular issues that were likewise influenced by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  Here two main tenets were identified on which these concepts were built.  The first he listed as a tightly defined autonomy of political reality and also religious, which relies upon their cooperation together while not denying the Church the possibility of assessing and opining on morality associated with various diverse cases, that stem from the political level. The second tenet distinguished here pertains to what was mentioned in Dignitatis Humanae and lays out the framework for guaranteeing the right to religious freedom by political societies within communities.

These various points lead Prof Daguet to concluding that the Second Vatican Council lends perspective on how the evolutions of societies that took place over the last two-hundred years happened in the shadow of Christian civilisation.  He further sees in this, how the Church sought to relate the societal and communal vision for politics and moreover the relations that these communities seek to accomplish.  As Daguet further elucidates in the following part of his lecture, more important and significant elements for a theology of politics were worked out by John Paul II and Benedict XVI during their pontificates.  Two main issues for consideration as to politics, which both Popes explored in their theological discourses were explained here.

The first to be dealt with was the return by John Paul II to the rediscovered Thomistic doctrines by Leon XIII with respect to natural law.  Here alongside other issues we are warned of the “threat and risk of conflating democracy with ethical relativism” that can lead to examples of theological statements derived from the need for moral order.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasises the ethical aims of living within societies and communities founded upon ideals of the common good for all, the necessity of bringing political order to bear on the realities of our spirituality, and likewise the role of grace that is absolutely essential to this in order to live in a society that doesn’t give way to evil and abusive force.  Pertaining to these principles, the Note of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 2002 organised by Joseph Ratzinger, notes and postulates a certain kind of involvement that is needed from Catholics in the political sphere, and furthermore distinguishing legitimate plurality of options for ruling as well as an illegitimate pluralism of ethical concepts that the individual person may hold.

The second issue singled out by Prof Daguet, is relevant to a theology of politics presented by both Popes during their pontificates, this being the challenge of building political order which is founded upon reasoned logic and allows for the order of the supernatural realm of God’s grace.  Benedict XVI made use of the changes from the Second Vatican Council to highlight differences in the aims of political and religious spheres.  Prof Daguet cited from fragments of the encyclical Deus Caritas Est where the Pope emeritus observes that “the responsibility of the state is bringing order to and upholding just order, and as to the Church it is life according to the rules of love and mercy”.  Further cited, were words by Ratzinger on the topic of autonomy in both spheres, and criticism of positivistic law together with the later diagnosis from Westminster advocating and proclaiming the necessity and regard for natural law.  Daguet brings further attention to the exhortation of Benedict XVI which emphasised the cooperation and working together between spheres of politics and religion, and likewise a mutual effort to perfect reasoning with religion and bring this into a more refined balance.  Prof Daguet considers the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as a mutual effort with doctrinal aim of being a bearer for catholic political theology, in the truest catholic sense.

In the last part of the lecture Father Daguet highlighted three more conclusive points.  Firstly he admits that the tradition of the Chruch which had at its disposal the works of St Thomas Aquinas, had somewhat weakly presented its ideals as far as constructive proposals for politics are concerned, and as a consequence this was indeed sorely felt in the 19th and 20th centuries.  And from this standpoint the works of John Paul II and Benedict XVI that took shape as certain ideals for political theology have come to be key and therefore duly relevant.  They are however little known, perhaps due to the sporadic approach in developing their tenets, though still in effect remaining an unfinished project which hasn’t been fully realised as yet.  As Prof Daguet underlined at this point in the lecture, the lack of a realisation or indeed a synthesis of these ideas by way of an encyclical, for instance, does not particularly aid the cause represented in the arguments put forward here.

In concluding, Prof Daguet calls on theologians to “wake up from our centuries of lethargy” in this particular respect, and to rediscover moreover renew Thomistic political theology, which would be an adequate and pertinent response to our contemporary political challenges and problems.

 We duly invite you to our next lecture from the series of John Paul II lectures, which will be titled The End for Christianity and will be held by Prof Chantal Delsol, taking place on 15th April at 2:30 PM (CET).

Hanna Nowak

 Translated by Tomasz Sosnowski