Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Politics is Grounded in Personhood

THE CHURCH'S SOCIAL DOCTRINE as it relates to the foundation and the purpose of political community, is personalist. "The human person is the foundation and purpose of political life." (Compendium, No. 384). At once, this personalist vision rejects several things. First, it rejects any materialistic--that is, non-spiritual, non-Transcendental--vision of the world. Second, it rejects any political theory that rejects the human as a person, with a particular nature (a nature which he makes not himself, but one which is "given"), and with a particular final end, and ultimate destiny (not one which he makes himself, but again one which is "given").
The political community originates in the nature of persons, whose conscience "reveals to them and enjoins them to obey" the order which God has imprinted in all his creatures: "a moral and religious order; and it is this order--and not considerations of a purely extraneous, material order--which has the greatest validity in the solution of problems relating to their lives as individuals and as members of society, and problems concerning individual States and their interrelations."
(Compendium, No. 384) (quoting Pope John XXIII, Pacem in terris, 258 and Mater et magistra, 450)

The Church's political vision clearly is founded on the natural law, on an order that is part of reality, of what is, an order which is given and is part of our creaturehood and createdness, and order which we do not make for ourselves, an order to which conscience prompts us to conform. This natural order, which is a moral one and is to be distinguished from a mere physical order, is part and parcel of God's creation, of which we are part, and it reflects the divine order. Drawing on the philosophical insights of Plato, Platonists, and Stoics, theologians put it this way: the natural law is nothing but an expression of, a participation in, the Eternal Law insofar as it relates to the human person, a rational creation.**

This natural law is, in its most fundamental expression, found in the two-fold commandment to love God and to love one's neighbor as one's self. The Golden Rule is at the heart of politics. As the Compendium expresses it:

Being open to both the Transcendent [that is the God who is "beyond" him, "outside" of him, "above" him] and to others is [man's] distinguishing trait. Only in relation to the Transcendent and to others does the human person reach the total and complete fulfillment of himself. This means that for the human person, a naturally social and political being, "social life is not something added one" but is part of an essential and indelible dimension.

(Compendium, No. 384)

Because this order is found all about us and within us, and is part of the natural order of things, it is something that we "discover," not something we "invent."* Since it is principally founded upon the use of practical reason, which of course is limited, created faculty, it should not surprise us that there may be some development in our understanding of the natural law. It should not surprise us that we may--from time to time, as individuals or even as cultures--get it wrong.

Though the order in which the natural law inheres and which it reflects is a posteriori, that is, it exists prior to, and independent of, our existence, the natural moral law is not something which we know a priori. It is something which we learn a posteriori. It is something we learn through the use of our practical reason, particularly the faculty of conscience, as it is informed with the reality that is both in us (especially our inclinations, what I have called our "intellectual feltness"), and around us (especially the existence of others of our kind as equally "intellectors of being" and "willers of good"). For this reason, the Church recognizes that this "order must be gradually discovered and developed by humanity." (Compendium, No. 384)

The fact that we "discover" the natural moral law means that there may be progressive "discovery" of it, i.e., development in our understanding of it. This development occurs not only in the individual (we learn about right or wrong as we grow and develop and confront experiences following the age of reason; hence the notion of wisdom coming with age), but also in societies as a whole as they develop in time, confront situations to which they have to adapt and from which they learn, and develop their particular mores, traditions, and customs.***

Man, a political animal, does not go about implementing this natural law on his own. To be sure the natural law ought to guide his individual acts. But it is also the basis of political life, of social life, of his life in common:

The political community, a reality inherent in mankind, exists to achieve an end otherwise unobtainable: the full growth of its members, called to cooperate steadfastly for the attainment of the common good, under the impulse of their natural inclinations toward what is true and good.

(Compendium, No. 384)

That is to say, in forming their political institutions and their social life, in coming together and cooperating for the common good, human persons are to give priority to the good over the right. In the Church's view, which is one based upon man as he is, the entire modern liberal construct--which gives priority to the right over the good--is ill-conceived.

*I use scarequotes because we may be said to "invent" the natural law in the original sense of that word. In Latin, the word invenire (from which our word "invent" obviously comes) means to "come upon," to "stumble upon," "to find," or "to discover." The modern denotation and connotation of the English word "invent," however, is to come up with something, to contrive, produce, or fabricate it, for and by one's self. The natural law is not something we "invent" in this latter sense.
**E.g., St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, IaIIae, Q. 91, a. 2.
***It should be stressed that this development is not always progressive. While generally there is progress in man's knowledge, including his knowledge of the natural law (what Yves Simon calls the "law of progressivity"), it is not something assured, and there are times where regress is possible. For example, two generations ago, contraception, abortion, premarital sex, homosexual sexual acts, and divorce and remarriage would have been recognized for what they were: moral enormities. Modernly, we view these as goods or rights. There has been a huge regress in this area. There is also a "law of regressivity."

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