The Need for Co-Operation

This could be called a political post, but it is not a party political post. The distinction is important because there are those who argue that the Church (meaning usually clergy and religious) should never express any opinion, either as individuals or as an organization, about the way in which society functions, the laws that govern it or the values it seeks to express. I don’t subscribe to that view for the simple reason that the Church (which is more than just clergy and religious) is concerned with life on earth as much as life hereafter. Those familiar with the political thought of St Thomas Aquinas know that he called the state societas christiana. In other words, the fundamental relationship between citizens is meant to be what is implied by the word ‘society’ — friendly, companionable, mutually beneficial. Sadly, I’m not sure we can say that British society reflects that; we definitely cannot assert it of international relations.

You do not need me to list all the matters that contribute to widespread unease about where we are going either as a country or as a world. Different factors affect us in different degree, according to our personal experience or feelings of vulnerability, and there are a host of proposed solutions vying for our attention. I think, however, one need stands out above all others: the need for co-operation. At a time when many are pursuing ‘go it alone’ policies, it is increasingly clear that we cannot actually do that. We cannot solve the problem of climate change without action on a global scale. We cannot maintain the economic structures of America and Europe without reference to Asia or Africa. Perhaps most important of all, we cannot retain our own humanity without acknowledging and valuing the humanity of others.

This morning, as I glanced at the BBC headlines, I was struck by how much pain and suffering is caused by our wanting to dominate rather than co-operate. Those who live in community know how hard it can be to co-operate with others, but is there really any alternative? Do we want a world in which a few grab all there is to grab and the rest are condemned to a form of slavery? Don’t we want to live as friends to each other, despite our differences? That is not a mere rhetorical question. It is one we must ask ourselves every day because the answer we give will determine our conduct and the shape of the society — remember that word! — in which we live. For Christians, it also has an eschatalogical dimension: it should make us uncomfortable; it should make us act.

I began with Aristotle, mediated by Aquinas, but I’ll end with Plato: ‘it is no mean topic that engages us, for our subject is, how we should order our life.’ (Republic, 352.D)

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St Benedict, St Thomas and the Thought Police

How, you may ask, do I get from today’s passage of the Rule of St Benedict, RB 7. 19–23, which is about desire and corruption of the will, to St Thomas Aquinas and what I have called the thought police? It is really very simple. Today is the feastday of St Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican theologian whose work has proved so influential on Western thought. His attempt to reconcile several elements of Aristotelian philosophy with the principles of Christianity led to many disputes which have continued to our own day. At one point, Thomas was even accused of championing Averroism (an extreme form of Aristotelianism he specifically rejected). It seems that not everyone was capable of reading what he wrote in the way that he intended, and those who put a false interpretation on his words assumed he held a position he did not. A very similar situation exists today, but it is more generalised and is often an unintended consequence of the way in which the internet has opened up all kinds of speculation and discussion. We read the words others have written and interpret them according to our own ideas. Sometimes we fail to understand properly, or we put a sinister twist on them. That is when the thought police launch their attack!

I sometimes wonder whether, had Thomas lived today and done much of his writing on the internet, he would have been able to do as much as he did. I suspect a lot of his time would have been taken up with patiently trying to explain to those less gifted than himself what he had already explained. I feel quite sure he would have been accused of lack of orthodoxy and had his motives impugned. Those who scoff at truth, or, just as bad, assume they have mastered the truth, easily forget that theology is a prayerful quest for understanding. It is not an exact science. Speculation, thinking aloud we might call it, sharing ideas, arguing, are all part of the way in which we deepen our comprehension; but the final point, the aim of theological endeavour, is, surely, experience of God. As Thomas remarked to Reginald after what is generally regarded as some sort of mystical experience, ‘All I have written seems like straw to me.’

When Benedict writes about desire, he too is urging us to go beyond the material facts of our daily life to experience of God. Not our will but His is to be done. He is aware that good people are led astray not by bad things but by good (cf Proverbs 16.25). Just as those who censured St Thomas Aquinas thought they were doing a good deed, so we can be misled. Benedict’s remedy is the constant scrutiny of mind and heart, the watchfulness I touched upon yesterday. He is a practical man, writing for practical people, few of whom will have the intellectual or spiritual gifts of St Thomas. He simply tells us God is always with us and our every desire is before Him. That is both a comforting thought and a very disturbing one.

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Manners Online

Colm O’Regan is slightly irritated by the rash of chumminess which has infected online communications, especially the false intimacy characteristic of websites such as Facebook with its intrusive, ‘How are you feeling, Colm?’ (see http://bbc.in/WqYd5Q). I must confess that, by and large, it doesn’t bother me. Time was when I daresay we all had but a single name and were just Thomasina, Ricarda or Harriet to fellow members of our tribe and grunted and pointed our way through life, without adverting to any of the finer feelings. That, to me, sums up the process of shopping online; so those cheery emails which inform me that ‘Catherine! Your payment was successful!’ leave me quite happy; it’s those that say ‘Ooops! there was a problem with your card!’ that annoy.

There is, however, a whole area of life online where I think manners matter very much indeed: blogs and social media. We reveal a great deal about ourselves by the way in which we interact online. Yes, of course, we all have ‘off’ days or sometimes say things we regret or with a clumsiness we subsequently deplore and are chastened to think that those remarks are there for ever and ever. It is a challenge we have to work at: how to be ourselves, but in a genuinely social way.

Today is the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I defy you to find a single line where Jane Austen ever approves of arrogance or the wit that achieves its effect by wounding others. Today is also the feast of St Thomas Aquinas. It is said of him that, although he was often abstracted and did  not welcome interruptions, he was a true intellectual aristocrat and always answered others with politeness. St Benedict often referred to the need for courtesy in the monastery, seeing it as the outward manifestation of the humility and reverence at the heart. Centuries after Benedict and Aquinas, Chesterton defined courtesy as ‘the wedding of humility with dignity’ and declared that ‘the grace of God is in courtesy’.

I think there is something there for us all to think about, don’t you?

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The Beauty of Truth

St Dominic’s love of truth was ultimately love of a Person, Jesus Christ our Lord. That is the sticking point for many who would otherwise be quite happy to talk about the importance of the good, the true and the beautiful in their lives. (As an aside, when I was doing intellectual history under Christopher Morris, one of his frequent moans was that people plucked ideas from Plato without actually reading him. Not guilty, m’ Lud.) It is also a sticking point for those more Aristotelian types who are interested in virtue ethics. How can something as abstract as truth be personal? How can it be loved?

My own answer would run along the lines of saying that ultimate reality is to be found outside the universe rather than within its structure and function. Since that is not accessible to reason by and of itself, we must allow for the transcendent. However, in the person of Jesus that which is transcendent has become accessible to us as revelation. In him we see and hear and touch ‘the love that moves the sun and lesser stars’. For God is love. The question then is not so much whether Truth is a Person, but whether Truth is lovable as we understand loving. (I have compressed the argument of what would be a long book into a short paragraph, so do not be surprised at the leaps I take.)

How can we love Truth? St Thomas Aquinas has some fine things to say on this subject, but I think we can put things very simply by acknowledging that Christ is so vast, measureless in fact, that we can experience but never explain him. We can know his love without being able to explain it. The image of God is stamped on all creation. There is a truth in all things if we are ready to seek it, and it is infinitely lovable.

On this feast of St Dominic, when we pray for Dominicans the world over, I think we can make our own a sentence of St Thomas which expresses the hope of every Christian scholar: ‘Lord, in my zeal for the love of truth, let me not forget the truth about love.’ There is mystery in those words, and deep humility, as there is in all love.

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Thinking about Money

Last year’s post on St Thomas Aquinas concentrated on the humanity of the man but with all the talk about bankers’ bonuses, the not-so-brilliantly-timed withdrawal of charity credit cards and the gloom that fills the media whenever the subject of money comes up, I’m tempted to roll out a few of his pronouncements on money and social justice.

The trouble is, medieval economics worked differently from ours and Thomas’s concept of usury (lending in hope of gain) is also different from ours. Thus, when he condemns usury as a violation of the natural moral law, he is applying an Aristotelian understanding of ends and means to money laid out for gain. Money is not an end in itself but a means of buying goods and services. Therefore lending money in order to gain more money is unnatural and can be described as evil. Although his view of the matter came to dominate much Church thinking on the subject, there were other views (e.g. Gregory IX was more nuanced than Thomas and brought into play consideration of risk) which existed alongside and have contributed to our modern understanding of social justice. If I may be allowed a sweeping generalisation, I’d say that on the whole the Church has always been a bit suspicious of banking and financial speculation although it was creative about insurance, assignability and negotiability, concepts which were developed in the Church courts.

The best way of honouring St Thomas’s thought about money and social justice is to read what the Church says about it today. A good place to start is with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos 2419 to 2463. You can find an online version in English here. There is a useful concordance to help with searching.

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Gaddafi and the Problem of Tyranny

Watching the very public agonizing of President Obama and others over what to do about Libya set me thinking about the way in which Christian writers have attempted to deal with the problem of tyranny. That it is a problem is obvious. You have only to read Romans 13. 1-7, which seems to recommend absolute submission to earthly rulers (and has often been quoted by earthly rulers as justification for whatever they want to do) to see the dimension of the problem. People must put up with anything and everything, right?

Some Christians would certainly agree. Indeed, those of us who have vowed obedience to a religious superior know that our vow obliges us to obedience in all that is not sin. The problem comes when we and our superior disagree on what constitutes sin (folly is a sin, dear Mother) or we venture into that grey area which St Thomas Aquinas describes as “not sin, but sharing in the nature of sin.”

St Thomas gave a lot of thought to that passage from Romans. In his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (Bk2, dist.44, quest. 2, art 2), he makes a distinction between authority derived from God and authority that isn’t. In other words, rulers must fulfil certain conditions if they are to be obeyed. He provides this helpful little guide to identifying rulers whose authority is not God-given:

But, as we have already said, authority may fail to derive from God for two reasons: either because of the way in which authority has been obtained, or in consequence of the use which is made of it.

There are two ways in which the first case may occur. Either because of a defect in the person, if he is unworthy; or because of some defect in the way itself by which power was acquired, if, for example, through violence, or simony or some other illegal method. The first defect is not such as to impede the acquisition of legitimate authority; and since authority derives always, from a formal point of view, from God (and it is this which produces the duty of obedience), their subjects are always obliged to obey such superiors, however unworthy they may be. But the second defect prevents the establishment of any just authority: for whoever possesses himself of power by violence does not truly become lord or master. Therefore it is permissible, when occasion offers, for a person to reject such authority; except in the case that it subsequently became legitimate, either through public consent or through the intervention of higher authority.

With regard to the abuse of authority, this also may come about in two ways. First, when what is ordered by an authority is opposed to the object for which that authority was constituted (if, for example, some sinful action is commanded or one which is contrary to virtue, when it is precisely for the protection and fostering of virtue that authority is instituted). In such a case, not only is there no obligation to obey the authority, but one is obliged to disobey it, as did the holy martyrs who suffered death rather than obey the impious commands of tyrants. Secondly, when those who bear such authority command things which exceed the competence of such authority; as, for example, when a master demands payment from a servant which the latter is not bound to make, and other similar cases. In this instance the subject is free to obey or disobey.

Thomas goes on to argue that both passive and active resistance to tyranny are allowable. He also considers whether and under what conditions it is legitimate to kill a tyrant. With regard to the tyranny of Julius Caesar he concludes that “in such a case, one who liberates his country by killing a tyrant is to be praised and rewarded.” That is strong stuff and is the natural consequence of what he has to say about the nature of legitimate authority, how it is conferred and how it should operate. Thomas’s principal concern is for the good of the community (which reminds us he was a medieval, not a modern, man) but he was aware of what Walter Ullmann called the “ascending theme of government”, the need for the people’s consent. Only those who protect the good of the people are legitimate rulers in St Thomas’s eyes.

I find it interesting that St Thomas should write so clearly about a problem that exercises our minds today. At what point does someone cease to be a legitimate ruler, what are the limits of obedience and what is the scope of legitimate disobedience? The answer might have surprised my novice mistress.

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