It would be anachronistic to describe the Angelic Doctor as a liberal. He was certainly no libertarian. I am sensitive to Kevin Craycraft’s concerns about aligning the thought of Saint Thomas with the liberal tradition. His paper “Was Aquinas a Whig? St. Thomas on Regime” (Faith and Reason, Fall 1994) documents the dangers to which loose talk can lead.
I cannot follow Craycraft, however, in his insinuation that the modern liberal ideal is a lost cause, incapable of assimilation into the Catholic worldview with its realist epistemology just because the first thinkers to articulate that ideal were nominalists or skeptics. By one contingency of history Hobbes, Locke, and other Protestant empiricists retrieved and formulated an ideal consonant with a Gospel truth about the dignity of persons as divine image-bearers. They achieved that in a world awakening from the nightmare of royal absolutism, which was, by another contingency of history, all too Catholic.
Liberty is the political expression of that Gospel insight.* That is, liberty is not merely logically consistent with the insight into the dignity of persons, but also illuminating of that insight: person A may not initiate force against person B, regardless of the identities of A and B, and regardless of the fact that many Christians have initiated, or rationalized the initiation of, force against others. In my arguable, fallible view, that insight ought to govern.
(It governs my reading of Aquinas, whom I read with great admiration and reverence, but not uncritically. I cite Aquinas against Mr. Ferrara, not because I believe that whatever Aquinas wrote is ipso facto true, but because the saint cared whether a given moralistically inspired state repression might harm the common good, and Mr. Ferrara ignorantly dubs that sort of reasoning “consequentialist.” I have no problem with critically determining my proximity to and distance from the Angelic Doctor. I suspect Ferrara’s appropriation of him is less nuanced.)
On the basis of passages cited in the Dever paper (or which may be found directly in Thomas’ Summa Theologica, I-II, Question 96), however, we would argue that Thomas Aquinas was a proto-liberal. He is proto-liberal in that he maintains that the scope of human law is not total. His is a political liberty-honoring stance that presages more robust limitations of the State to be articulated in a later century. He is only proto-liberal, however, in that he argues for a much larger role for the force-monopolizing public authority than can sensibly be called "liberal" (let alone "libertarian") without fatal qualification.
Significantly, by “proto-liberalism” I do not mean merely the insistence, which unites virtually all Catholics, that the State’s reach stops at the Church’s door. No, I mean the further restriction upon the State (or whatever is functioning as the “public authority”) that it may not penalize a behavior merely because Catholic theology condemns it as immoral, that what is immoral is not ipso facto illegal.
The class of behaviors Aquinas deems morally illicit is not identical to the class of behaviors he says should be prohibited by law; and neither is the morally licit identical with the legally permissible. His interests in (a) demarcating what is destructive of interpersonal cooperation (“human intercourse”) from what is not and (b) confining the scope of the public authority to the former are arguably liberal interests, even though there were no self-described liberals in his day.
This dual interest is not any less liberal (or “proto-liberal”) because the framework of Thomas’ political thought was a Catholic cosmology (in which human cooperation is a divine intention as well as a human project). Aquinas’ restricted proto-liberal point may be a conclusion that he draws from his cosmology, but it is not to be regarded as trivial: it is common ground with those who reach that conclusion by another worldview. The conceit of liberalism (and its further elaboration, libertarianism) is, after all, that disagreement over cosmology might be regrettable, even remediable, without also being an obstacle to social peace.
Is that to be despised? Or is it to be celebrated? Do Catholics not want the Muslim, the Jew, the Buddhist, et al., to conclude, each integrally from his or her own worldview, that cooperation is the cosmologically sound option? Or until all those without Catholic faith are converted to Catholicism, are we embroiled in a long bellum omnia contra omnes, a war to the knife, in saecula saeculorum?
The anarcho-Catholic argues that the State per se (properly defined) is destructive of human intercourse and that only institutions that honor human dignity ought to administer justice. The State per se offends human dignity. Error may have no rights, but erring persons have dignity. I agree with Aquinas that there is no metaphysical coherence to the idea of having “a right to be wrong.” That truth, however, does not offer the slightest warrant to individuals calling themselves “the public authority” to rob, kidnap, imprison, enslave, or kill the one who is wrong.**
The anarcho-Catholic and the Thomist would, I argue, agree about the terms of the discussion—“Where does one draw the line between what furthers and what impedes human cooperation?”—while disagreeing about where to draw that line (or about what institutional forms the line-drawing takes). One wonders whether Mr. Ferrara accepts the terms of the discussion. While it has been more than two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is not too soon to recall that not only Catholics like Mr. Ferrara, but also totalitarians have disparaged “the classic false liberal disjunction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ morality.” You would think he’d be anxious to distinguish his non-liberalism from theirs, rather than obscure that distinction.
There may be a liberal disjunction between the private and the public and it may be false, but merely calling it false, as Mr. Ferrara does, does not make it so. (Yes, he may later offer arguments for calling it false, but then why did he not postpone the generalization until then?) Since Mr. Ferrara has use for the idea of “public” authority, he must have his own take on the public-private duality, but this was the place to be explicit about it and to assure his readers that there is a norm of privacy that he does respect.
There is no important difference that I can see between the public and the common or shared. Common to whom? Shared by whom? Why, individuals, the only agents there are. The private therefore pertains to the individual as individual. It rests on a logical contrast between the specific, concrete individual who one is and the generalized, abstract “others” with whom one interacts. There are goods that, irrespective of who each of us is an individual, we at least implicitly value and ought to explicitly. One common good is liberty, the framework of peaceful cooperation, a necessary condition of our pursuits of diverse ends and worthy object of attention, evaluation, and protection.
To Be Continued
* In future posts I will address the danger of equivocation Christians face when using the “liberty.” Unless otherwise noted, I use “liberty” in the political sense, that is, with regard to the morally licit use of interpersonal force, without prejudice to the traditional theological context of spiritual slavery to sin and liberation therefrom (eleutheria, e.g. Galatians 5:1, 5:13). The two senses are related, not opposed as “true” and “false” as Mr. Ferrara’s propaganda suggests.
** The limits of the Angelic Doctor’s proto-liberalism at this point are faced in Michael Novak’s “Aquinas and the Heretics,” First Things, December 1995, 33-38. Christendom’s fatal embrace of the State underlay Thomas’ willingness to have that public authority engage in those offenses against human dignity: a heretic’s error struck at what he thought was indispensable to human cooperation, namely, the medieval monistic State: “Once the integrity of the social fabric had been made to rest on key Christian beliefs (and the power of legitimate rulers on ecclesiastical approbation),” Novak writes, “criticisms of Christian practice that spilled over into criticism of underlying interpretations of the gospels were easily taken as acts of treason against the state. In short, by allowing Christian faith to be the consensual foundation of the political and social order, as it were the form of political life, Christendom confounded the things of Caesar with the things of God.”