Many thanks to Theopolis for hosting this conversation, and to all the participants for their challenging and thought-provoking contributions. I learned something from each one of them, and I found myself agreeing with them more than I expected—even on matters on which they thought they were disagreeing with me. I have always found the dialectical tactic “nil concede; nega parum; distingue frequenter”annoyingly evasive. Sometimes, however, it really is helpful to distinguish, rather than simply affirming or denying. So, I want to appeal to a good old Aristotelian distinction: the distinction between the four causes. Rusty Reno points out that the Catholic Church has always had a certain indifference towards political forms. There are different ways of arranging the form of a community at different times and in different places. There is no one-size-fits-all regime. I agree. But one has to distinguish the formal cause of political society from its material, efficient, and final causes. The four causes are of course relative to each other, and so flexibility about the form will imply a certain flexibility with regard to the other causes, but in different ways. I think it will be helpful to look at each cause in turn.

1. The Material Cause

Aristotle teaches us that the political community is a κοινωνία τέλειος, a complete or perfect society.[1] This means that the political community is concerned with the complete human good; human happiness, a human life that can be called “good” without qualification. The “materials” out of which such a complete society is made are the many “incomplete” societies found in it. The most important of these is certainly the family, which is a necessary society, founded in the natural law, and a prudential society, ordered to living human life as such, rather than to one particular kind of activity. But the materials of a complete society will also include communities such as villages, tribes, and larger linguistic and cultural groups. It will also include associations ordered to producing external goods, united by economic or professional interests.

The character of those groups, their customs, habits, and traditions, will to some degree limit and determine the character of the complete society that they make up. It will also, to some extent, limit the size of the complete community—the materials have to be suited to being united into one. These limits are, however, not absolute. Since all human beings have the same rational nature, they are all able to communicate with each other, and enter into the common pursuit of human ends. Unity between different communities can develop by what Alastair Roberts calls “the patient and attentive establishment and development of the bonds of communication.” I agree with Roberts that “explicit subordination to the spiritual authority of the Church” is not in itself sufficient to establishing such communication. I do, however, think that the attraction of a true common end is, finally, what is most vital to communication.

The development of larger unities through bonds of social communication is a good to which I think we human beings are naturally inclined on account of the universality of our spiritual nature. But it also has dangers. There is first a danger that greater universality will divorce us from our bodily nature, and give us an illusion of freedom from the natural. The American philosopher and poet John Francis Nieto describes this problem with reference to the contrast between the village and the city:

The village looks to the city for safety, justice and other excellences of human nature. But the city also looks ‘back’ to the village for a prior fulfillment of human nature. And this fulfillment is necessary to the health of city life. In a similar way, both the city and the village depend upon families for something that neither can provide or cultivate. The city looks to the village above all for cultivation of an understanding of nature and of man as a natural being. In the village man recognizes himself a being that rises above the nature of his body, through reason’s cultivation of the natural world, yet as one that remains a natural being in his body and its interactions with other beings of the natural world.  In the city man can realize the highest aspirations of his spiritual nature, which most of all contributes to well-being. But in cities he can also misunderstand what constitutes living well. In the village man cannot delude himself with false conceptions of his relation to the natural world. There he necessarily concerns himself with living as it concerns the human body.[2]

The more universal a community the more abstracted from nature it can become, the more distorted its images of the good life.

As human beings we are both spiritual and bodily, but we are dependent for our spiritual activity on our bodies. Knowledge comes to us through the senses, and we communicate with each other through sensible signs. Human community therefore needs bodily proximity to fully develop the kind of friendship in the common pursuit of the good that is constitutive of a complete community. The danger of a too-large community is that it will become “impersonal,” common pursuit of the good will be replaced by technologies of social control.

Part of the solution to these dangers is to be found in the principle of subsidiarity. The larger community has to support and protect smaller communities in which the kinds of virtues and friendships can be fostered that will make a greater public life possible. Part of the crisis of globalization in the present is that liberal globalism has tended to dissolve smaller communities. As Rusty Reno once put it:

We’re not dogs who are happy when warm and well fed. We’re made to exercise dominion. Authentic freedom requires opportunities to take responsibility, opportunities to govern. The crisis of our time—the growing social and economic divide—stems in part from the erosion of those opportunities.[3]

Subsidiarity would allow for a system of interlocking networks of friendship in the pursuit of hierarchically ordered common goods, in which the higher networks would depend on the lower ones, and visa versa. I continue to think that a fully world-wide empire structured in such a subsidiary way, would be a good thing.

For subsidiarity to function, however, a right order of ends has to be established. As I put it in the first piece of this conversation, “Any complete human community that does not give the one God the worship that is His due and submit itself to the spiritual authority that He has established, will inevitably tend to idolatrous totalitarianism.” I agree with Reno, however, that the way in which such submission is sought will depend on circumstances. The full recognition of the order of finality cannot be imposed all at once; human communities have to be led toward that order patiently. I am in agreement with Reno on the necessity of pursuing proximate goals of justice in our current situation, as steppingstones towards a more integral realization of justice. On certain issues this may mean siding with “nationalists” against “globalists”—for example with conservative nationalists in Poland against globalist liberals on the issues of abortion and homosexuality.

2. The Formal Cause

Aristotle teaches us that nature is a principle of motion and rest, and the motion and rest that it begins are ordered to an end.[4] Both matter and form are principles of motion and rest, but form is more such a principle than matter. It is above all the form of a thing that determines how it moves, and how it resists movement. The form of a political community is the authority that moves and directs it to the common good.[5] Because there are different ways in which such a form can be arranged, there are different possible constitutions or “regimes”—monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, and the various mixtures of those three.

As Reno points out, the Catholic Church does not demand one of these regimesas opposed to the others. In the 1892 encyclical Au milieu des sollicitudes Pope Leo XIII wrote:

By giving one’s self up to abstractions, one could at length conclude which is the best of these forms, considered in themselves; and in all truth it may be affirmed that each of them is good, provided it lead straight to its end—that is to say, to the common good for which social authority is constituted; and finally, it may be added that, from a relative point of view, such and such a form of government may be preferable because of being better adapted to the character and customs of such or such a nation. In this order of speculative ideas, Catholics, like all other citizens, are free to prefer one form of government to another precisely because no one of these social forms is, in itself, opposed to the principles of sound reason nor to the maxims of Christian doctrine.

In other words, the formal cause of a political community has to be suited both to its material cause (“the character and customs of such or such a nation”), and to its final cause (“the common good”). As far as suitability to the material cause goes, one has to take into account not only the character of the communities of which it is made, but also their size. The form of a great empire will probably have to be different from that of a small city-state.

As far as suitability to the end is concerned, the form of a political community has to be framed with reference to what is truly good for human beings, the good to which they are ordered by their Creator and Redeemer. This too imposes some limits on what kind of form is possible. As the political philosopher Felix de St. Vincent put it:

Though the Magisterium contains little abstract theorizing about the best regime, the Church clearly instructs Catholics about the proper end of politics (the common good), the proper basis of all legitimate authority (God), and the rights of the Church. On the lattermost topic, when the Church envisions those Church-State relations that properly respect her rights as a perfect society, she establishes certain parameters for acceptable political regimes.[6]

Hence, I cannot agree with Mark Tooley’s argument for a classically liberal polity which rejects “any legislated privilege for the ‘true faith’.” All political action is in fact based on a conception of the true human good. As Adrian Vermeule has argued, liberalism too promotes a “true faith,” it is just a bad faith.[7]

3. The Efficient Cause

The secondary efficient cause of political society is human institution. That is, it is human beings who through (more or less) prudent judgement of reason and (more or less) just decision of will establish human communities. The primary efficient cause of political societies is, however, God. God establishes political society both by implanting an inclination to such society in our natures (and therefore an obligation to form such societies in natural law), and also by the mysterious guidance of providence which brings forth various kinds of human societies at various times, sometimes permitting them to fall into evil, and sometimes helping them to strive toward the good.

I found Richard Bledsoe’s reading of the providential guidance of the course of human events in recent centuries highly suggestive. I would disagree about some of the details (especially the meaning that Bledsoe attaches to the Protestant Reformation), and I would agree with Peter Leithart, that the signs of the times might not be as clear as Bledsoe suggests. But I find Bledsoe’s account of the current form of the struggle between the two cities very convincing:

We are now a global world connected by cities, and the great war is the conflict between the city as The Whore of Babylon vs. the city as The New Jerusalem. This is both why gender is a new, front-line issue, and points to the central symbolism that will also give rebirth to marriage, the biotic family, and fatherhood, the breakdown of which constitute the sociological crisis of our time, and the source of almost all of our social ailments. The New Jerusalem is a glorious lady whose husband is King Jesus. The Whore of Babylon could be a male homosexual, a gender-fluid bi-sexual, a lesbian.

Quite so.

I am, however, not entirely convinced by the practical consequences that he draws from this reading of providence:

I believe the era we are in is not the era of The Benedict Option, where we as the church withdraw from the world to the desert to preserve Christian civilization. Rather, I prefer The Francis Option, with Franciscans being the first order that was specifically a city order, called to bring the Gospel to the cities of Italy and Europe. Our cities now need to be converted, transformed, from centers of humanism and secular leftism to the typology of The Bride of Christ and The New Jerusalem. Denominations will not disappear, but will be of less importance, and the city itself will be the new principle of organization of many congregational expressions within the city. Every congregation, whether Baptist, Congregational. Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic or Orthodox, will also be the church in the city, with every congregation working with every other.

I believe, rather, that we need both a Benedict Option, and a Francis Option. The Benedict Option is necessary for fostering the kind of virtues that a Francis Option will need to draw on. And I need scarcely add that I believe it imperative that “denominations” disappear into the full unity of the Catholic Church. As Vatican II put it: “All however, though in different ways, long for the one visible Church of God, a Church truly universal and set forth into the world that the world may be converted to the Gospel and so be saved, to the glory of God.”[8]

4. The Final Cause

The natural perfection of creatures is twofold: it is found first in the relations among them (order, peace), and second in the proper perfection of each (their form, virtue, and activity). These two dimensions correspond to the elements of the beauty of creation identified Pseudo-Dionysius. Order corresponds to what Pseudo-Dionysius calls harmony, consonance, or proportion (euarmostia); form and virtue and activity correspond to what he calls brightness or splendor (aglaïa).[9] The perfection of created reality consists in that twofold beauty of splendor and harmony. Created reality reflects the divine beauty in both ways: the brightness of each individual creature reflects some aspect of the creator, and the harmony between them reflects His unity. The whole purpose of created reality is to reflect the divine glory through the twofold beauty of splendor and harmony.

Human community too is ordered to that twofold beauty. As Henri Grenier puts it: “Peace as signifying the tranquility of order—i.e., well-ordered harmony among men, which obtains when each one is given his due—is the intrinsic end of civil society, whereas happiness is its extrinsic end.”[10] This point could easily be misunderstood. Grenier is not making the liberal point that society is ordered to conditions that allow men to reach happiness, rather than to happiness itself. Instead, what he means is that the perfection of man in society is twofold. It is first the personal relations among citizens/subjects with respect to the common end (which is what constitutes society and is therefore most “intrinsic”), that is: the friendship that they have in the common pursuit of the good. And second it is the virtuous activities of those citizens/subjects themselves, which are directed to the end. It is those virtuous actions that are most properly called happiness. They are the “proper work,” the ergon, of human beings—the activity that only human beings can do, done in accord with human virtue.[11] Those virtuous activities are in turn the principle of the relations that the members of a society have amongst themselves. In other words, harmony is a result of splendor.

The task of politics is to foster the greatest possible virtue in the greatest possible harmony—a harmony great not only in the consonance of voice with voice, but also in the number of voices united.

Pater Edmund Waldstein O.Cist. is a monk of the Cistercian Abbey of Stift Heiligenkreuz in Austria, adjunct lecturer in moral theology at the Abbey’s major seminary, and parish priest of Gaaden and Sulz. He studied at Thomas Aquinas College in California, at Heiligenkreuz, and at the University of Vienna. He edits, a website on Catholic Social Teaching and political philosophy.

[1] Aristotle, Politics, 1252b.

[2] John Francis Nieto, “Nature and Art in the Village,” The Josias (2017), (accessed February 17th, 2021).

[3] R.R. Reno, “Marriage Equality,” First Things, June 2014, (accessed February 17th, 2021).

[4] Aristotle, Physics, Book II, chs. 1 and 8.

[5] See: Henri Grenier, Thomistic Philosophy, vol. III, Moral Philosophy, trans. J. P. E. O’Hanley (Charlottetown: St. Dunstan’s University, 1949), §1111.

[6] Felix de St. Vincent, “Four Catholic Political Postures: Lessons from Leo XIII and Ralliement,” The Josias (2017) (accessed February 17th, 2021).

[7] See: Adrian Vermeule, “All Human Conflict Is Ultimately Theological,” Church Life Journal (2019) (accessed February 17th, 2021).

[8] Unitatis Redintegratio, §1.

[9] Cf. My forthcoming article at New Polity, “Politics as a Sketch for the Church.”

[10] Grenier, Thomistic Philosophy, vol. III, §1085.

[11] See Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, I, 7.

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