In the recent “Faithful Citizenship” lecture on the foundations of Catholic political theory, Dr. Stephen Schneck (CUA politics professor and Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies) presented Thomism as an alternative to the radical positions held by groups at opposing ends of the ideological spectrum. While the two extremes disagree about particulars, according to Schneck, both “Ayn Rand conservatives” and “pro-choice liberals” are motivated by a “hyper-individualism,” which is in direct contradiction to the social teaching of the Church. If we are to believe Dr. Schneck’s premise, it seems that faithful Christians are left between a rock and a hard place in the current political landscape. Thankfully, the political philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas offers Christians an authentic alternative.
Synthesizing ecclesiology and political philosophy, St. Thomas understood the nature of a political community as being deeply Christological. Drawing from St. Paul’s imagery, St. Thomas perceived the political community as a reflection of the Mystical Body of Christ: “For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another” (Romans 12:3-5). This image of a political community as a corporate whole is in stark contrast to the Lockean image of a group of individuals that is held together solely by an externally imposed contract, rather than internal unity. The Thomistic political community is held together by solidarity among its members, a unitive desire for the wellbeing of the whole, rather than individual self-interest. In Thomistic philosophy, the object of this desire is referred to as the commonweal, or the common good.
But why place more importance on the common good than individual goods? Because, as Aristotle said and St. Thomas affirmed, we are political and social beings; the meaning of our lives transcends beyond who we are as individuals. As John Donne observed in his oft-cited Meditation XVII, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
After Dr. Schneck had concluded his lecture, a question-and-answer session followed. A young woman from the back of the lecture hall politely asked, “What can we do as individuals to combat the pervasiveness of hyper-individualism in our society?” Ironically, this question demonstrates what is at the root of the problem of hyper-individualism: we cannot cease thinking of ourselves primarily as individuals! This shift in thinking does not mean that we must give up our own individual rights; to the contrary, our solidarity with one another should engender a greater appreciation for the individual rights of a group’s collective members. In fact, it is our individual freedoms that allow us to choose how we prioritize our actions and intentions. Through our individual liberties, we are given the opportunity to look and act beyond ourselves.
During this Easter Season, may we all be reminded that through our baptism and as members of Christ’s Body, we have truly been raised with Him! (cf. Ephesians 2:6) In order to more fully participate in God’s divine economy – i.e. His comprehensive plan for Creation – may we “not think of [ourselves] more highly than [we] ought to think” (Romans 12:3), but instead humbly unite ourselves to our fellow members in the One Body of Christ.
Brett Garland is the Program Development Coordinator for the Catholic Apostolate Center.