Political Philosophy of the Catholic Church


Publisher: Cantagalli
Pages: 288
Price: €19,90

The relationship of politics with Christian revelation as conserved and taught by the Catholic Church is well explained in this book by James V. Schall, professor at Georgetown University, with Anglo-Saxon expressiveness and continental-type theoretical density.

The author’s interest lies in explaining how politics needs Christian Revelation in order to be itself without thereby foregoing its own specificity and actually in order to preserve it. As a result, only the vision of the Catholic Church enables politics to be true and good politics. The basic reason is that “when Grace  follows nature it’s aim is to perfect the intrinsic end of the latter, not to uproot it” (pg. 111). He explains that “without recourse to the Gospel we are not able to resolve even the problems of society” (pg. 110), because the natural virtues as well are linked to the primary aim of revelation. When problems are tackled only at their own level they are not solved: “it is improbable that justice alone can remedy the violations committed against it” (pg. 110); “If we were only to produce essential goods we probably wouldn’t be able to produce even them”” (pg. 110); “The true dramas of this age issue forth precisely from those politician-philosophers, who, motivated by their inability to identify a real transcendent good, strive to eliminate poverty by reforming society even before intervening on man” (pg. 113); monks demonstrated that “a vow of poverty produces great well-being” (pg. 114); “The origin of evil consists not in the lack of material goods. Our ancestors who fell in the Garden had practically everything” (pg. 116). In brief: “Separated from the conception of man provided by Revelation, the effort to understand ourselves in full is in itself a futile exercise” (pg. 116).

This inability to tackle problems at their own natural level without drawing from something superior denies neither the liberty nor the creativity – the use of talents or skills one might say – of human nature. On the contrary, it exalts both man and his responsibility. In the Gospel there are no indications about state welfare programmes for the poor and needy, but we do read that we must pay utmost attention to them. We are told to give water to those who suffer from thirst, but there are no instructions about how to construct a system for the purification and supply of water.  Revelation is intentionally incomplete on these points. In this manner God acknowledges a goodness in human nature, but there is no doctrine more damaging for society than the one whereby man is naturally good. Man is good and can assume responsibility for himself, but there is disorder in his soul and this disorder cannot be resolved by outside sources, by social organization. It has to be resolved from within. “If we fail to first understand our relationship with God we will not be able to keep these ambits (social and political ambits) in the right order” (pg. 122).  There are societies that have reached a high degree of technological development, but were life is experiencing unprecedented forms of degradation. On the contrary, becoming holy is possible for someone living in squalid social situations.

In the mind of James V. Schall this is the sense of the thesis regarding the divine origin of authority. In Mt 22:22 there is the excerpt about Caesar and God. In Rm 13:1-7 St. Paul says all authority comes from God. In Ac 4:5-22 we read it is necessary to obey God rather then men, and deduced from this is the fact that Caesar also owes something to God. In Jn 19:1-11 Jesus tells Pilate he would have no power if he had not received it from on high. In  Rm 13:1-7 Paul sustains that the Romans had to obey Nero.

In terms of relations among disciplines, this all means that politics is indebted to both metaphysics and theology: “It is not enough to study political things alone in order to understand politics”. The purpose of the active life is to make the contemplative life possible. Politics is the most important of the practical sciences, but in itself is not the utmost science. Things change completely with modernity. According to Leo Strauss: “Modern thought reaches its apex in the most radical historicism, that is to say by explicitly condemning the notion of eternity to oblivion. Consigning eternity to oblivion is the price modern man must pay in order to try and be the complete sovereign” (pg. 157).

Stefano Fontana


James V. Schall, Filosofia politica della Chiesa cattolica [Political Philosophy of the Catholic Church], Cantagalli, Siena 2011, pgs. 288, € 19,90.