Law and the Common Good: 9 Introductory Catholic Questions

**Listers, the following commentary address St. Thomas’ introduction to law and lays the groundwork to understand the Angelic Doctor’s teaching of an ordered Creation. **It is hard to overestimate the impact Aquinas had on the Catholic approach to law and politics, especially when considering his use of Aristotle. Aristotle’s Politics is easily in the running for one of the most influential political works in the Western world. Moreover, Aquinas’ use of Aristotle’s observations of nature – man is a political animals, the city is a natural institution, laws are discerned from nature, etc. – coupled with the grace and clarity of divine revelation enabled the Angelic Doctor to articulate law in both a natural and divine sense. To wit, Aquinas places Aristotle’s political views into a divinely ordered Creation and shows the harmony and order of the entire cosmos.

Below is a commentary that strives to break down some of the more dense thomistic jargon and present the reader with a simple preface to Aquinas’ questions over law.

SPL and Politics

  • 22 Definitions from Aristotle’s _Politics_
  • The Political Animal and the Natural State
  • Aquinas’ Introduction to Aristotle _Politics_
  • Major Concerns Regarding Modern Democracy
  • The Question of the Best Regime

1. Why does law come before grace?
The Angelic Doctor’s Summa Theologica is not an encyclopedia. The work – which had the honor of being laid upon the altar at the Council of Trent – pedagogically guides the reader through topics arranged in a sapiential order; hence, since there is a purpose of instruction behind the order of questions in the Summa, it is proper to inquire why Aquinas treats law before addressing grace.

Pedagogically man understands law first and then grace. An individual must first be aware that there is a law and must be aware of the parameters of the law. Grace cannot be articulated if the standard by which one needs grace has not been discussed. Contrary to popular understanding, grace is not an exemption from the law. Grace comes in and bolsters what the law upholds and perfects the law itself – thus there is a pedagogical and logical priority to law.

Another way of seeing the pedagogical priority of law is to speak of indebtedness. Law speaks of debt: man is first and foremost a debtor as he enters the world. The individual is in debt to his family, to the state, and to God. Understanding the depth of man’s indebtedness opens the discussion for grace.

2. What are the four laws of Creation?

St Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.

Building upon the wisdom tradition of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas articulates four laws that govern existence: Eternal, Divine, Natural and Human. While he goes into great detail over each law, a preliminary snapshot is helpful. Eternal Law is nothing more than God’s wisdom that moves all things towards their end. It is the rationale and order of all existence. Divine Law is specified as the laws which have been revealed to man through God’s self-revelation in Holy Scripture. In contrast to the revealed Divine Law, Natural Law is the inclination toward the good that rests in the hearts of all men. The tenants of Natural Law are general moral precepts that are discernable by man’s rational. Man discerns the precepts of nature – e.g., do not murder, do not steal, do not rape, etc. – and specifies them into laws of the state or Human Law.

The laws are distinct, but interrelate. While God is the Common Good, each distinct movement of law (Eternal, Divine, Natural and Human) has its own distinct common good, e.g., the Church will suffer a perversion if she is conflated with the end of the political community. While they interrelate, the end, i.e., telos, goal, aim, of each corresponding law, the common good for each distinct law must remain clear and un-conflated. The laws deal with different scopes of order. The Divine law should not be conflated with Human law or a theocratic regime could result. Certainly there are corresponding principles and areas where the spheres of law would overlap, but the delicate balance of holding them in harmony without blurring them together is why so many theologians and the Catechism of the Catholic Church has recourse to the sapiential prudence of St. Thomas Aquinas.

3. How does Aquinas differ from Aristotle on law?

Aristotle, The Louvre – via Wikicommons Sting aka Eric Gaba

The notion that St. Thomas simply baptized Aristotle into the Christian faith is nothing more than a blunt caviled statement meant to sow distrust among those unfamiliar with the nuances. In book one of Aristotle’s Politics, the Philosopher describes the following political order: man as a political animal, the relationships of the household and family, the gathering of households together called villages, and the collection of villages called the city or polis. St. Thomas accepts this natural political structure, but also acknowledges a Cosmo-Polis. The notion of a cosmo-polis is only to say that man inhabits an ordered cosmos wherein God governs all of humanity and Creation. St. Thomas uses God’s self-revelation to place Aristotle’s observations of man’s natural political organization into an organized and ordered creation. In Catholic thought, the principle that grace perfects nature unfolds powerfully in thomistic teaching. Here the scope, ambiguities, and even errors based off the incredibly astute observations of nature by Aristotle are perfected according God’s revelation. Nature is not replaced, but its teachings are clarified and held in supreme confidence.

More On Aristotle from SPL

  • St. Thomas’ Introduction to Aristotle’s Politics
  • Nature and Politics: Understanding Book One of Aristotle’s Politics
  • 22 Definitions to Aid in Understanding Aristotle’s Politics

4. What is the definition of a law?
A law may be defined as follows: “A rule and measure of acts, whereby man is induced to act or is restrained from acting,” and since the “rule and measure of human acts is reason” then “it follows that law is something pertaining to reason.” Laws are “ordained to the common good” as their end or goal.

Law forces an individual to be aware of others and of their debts, which is very different than the Modern notion of rights: an obsession with the autonomous individual, the adaptation of the individual as the standard of his or her rights, and that the only true external standard of modern rights is that the individual’s rights would remain unhindered. True law – a law rooted and formed by nature and reason – forces the individual to look outward – not inward – to his or her debts to neighbor and God.

As Law is something pertaining to reason, it is expected to be reasonable and deal with the Common Good.

5. Why does St. Thomas speak of happiness and law?
In the Thomistic sense, laws are orientated toward happiness. However, like most concepts, modernity has hijacked “happiness” and beaten it into a type of self-seeking pleasure or fleeting tenuous joy. Happiness for ancients like Aristotle and scholastics like St. Thomas denotes an obedience to one’s nature, because one is most fulfilled when one embraces that which is natural and denies those things contrary to nature. In the thomistic light, happiness is an effect of right living or living the virtuous life. The connection between laws and happiness is virtue, because the natural virtues – prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude – ungird laws of reason and nature. To wit, laws exist to guide men to virtue.

6. What is law’s relationship to the common good?

The Law by Jean-Jacques Feuchère. Stone, 1854. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

Law deals with the Common Good not with private goods. Every Law must be orientated toward the common good of whatever particular scope for which it is legislated, e.g., Divine law pertains to the common good of the People of God, the Church, while Human laws pertain to the secular political laws of the state as ascertained through nature and reason.

Communities naturally asks the individual to lay their personal good for the Common Good. The individual citizen is part of the whole. To wit, the individual is a sub-political part of the overall state. In contrast, modernity has begin to place the individual over the common good, by making the common good bend to the supposed rights of individuals. The modern standard of justice is the individual and their rights, not the overarching good of the state.

God is the Common Good of all things – even the _polis – _but he may not be the proper or immediate common good of the political community. The political community is innately incapable – due to its capacity – of incorporating certain virtues, perfections, or ordering laws based off the Trinity, etc., as discussed above.

Law must only speak generally to the overall public and cannot speak particularly. For a mundane example, it would be absurd to set speed limitations on individual citizens and not simply place a overarching speed limit on the road or interstate.

7. Who Has the Authority to Make a Law?

Power of Law at Olomouc, Czech Republic via Wikicommons, Michal Maňas

Who can make a law? “Therefore, the making of a law belongs either to the whole people or to a public personage who has care of the whole people: since in all other matters the directing of anything to the end concerns him to whom the end belongs.”

What of democracy? St. Thomas speaks of participation in the law, but its not in a democratic representation; rather he speaks of participation by people acknowledging that laws made by rulers are in for the Common Good. The idea of a universal democracy – wherein all people can vote – would be strange to Aquinas, especially given all the hesitations the ancients had about such a regime.

Notice this theory of a ruler – or who has the right to make a law – does not comport with modern universal democracy. St. Thomas points to the individual who is vested in the good of the people and bears the knowledge of the people– an intimate awareness of the workings of the community. Democracies survive due to the quality of their citizens, and that quality is contingent upon such factors as virtue, education, leisure and wealth.

Ancients and Democracy

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8. What is the law of the household?
Man is a political animal and the very first political relationships he forges are within the family. The family is the core natural institution of the state. The family itself is in some regards a microcosm of the state, but there are distinctions. The order of the household is orientated toward the political community, but “he that governs a family” can make commands, but “not such as to have properly the force of law.”

9. In summary, what is and is not a law?
Those things which fail to be a law are those which are orientated toward a private good and not the common good, are irrational and are promulgated by an invalid source. However, these three principles govern all four laws – Eternal, Divine, Natural and Human – and each individual type of law will have more specific guiding principles, e.g., all Human law – all laws of the state – must be rational specifications of Natural law, not the arbitrary will or a ruler or people.

Law: “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.”