A Thomist’s Guide to the 2020 Election

For many well intentioned Catholics, determining whom to vote for in the upcoming presidential election is a difficult decision. The Church has no official, clear criteria to aid in the decision. Yet, the fact is that Rome, the highest authority in the Church, has provided the faithful with contemporary, official teaching concerning political decisions. Pope Saint John Paul II gave us Evangelium Vitae 68-74. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published a “Doctrinal Note on the Participation of Catholics in Political Life” as well as a memorandum on “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles.” Catholics who trust in the teaching authority of the Church and look to it for direction should ground their voting decision in the logic of these documents.

In addition to the above documents, I recommend that all Catholics and people of goodwill look to the political philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas for guidance regarding which candidate to support this November. In De Regno (On Kingship) and the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas offers a compelling account of the origin, nature, and purpose of human government. His political theory contains enduring principles that can serve as the basis for our political thinking today.

Aquinas’s understanding of politics is based upon his notion of the purpose of human life. Humans yearn for happiness. The natural happiness accessible to all people in this life consists in the exercise of the intellectual and moral virtues. In order to be virtuous, a person first needs to be alive. Then, the living person needs to have morally virtuous relationships with their neighbors, and especially with their spouse and children. Finally, they need to exercise the virtue of religion by worshiping God. Life, love of neighbor, and love of God are thus the three goods which humans need to be happy in this life (ST I-II, q. 94, a. 2).

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In order to acquire these goods and live happily, people gather together and form communities (De Regno, paragraphs 4-5). Living and working alongside other people enables individuals the better to acquire the necessities of life, such as food, shelter, and clothing. Left purely to their own power, individuals would struggle to acquire even these basic goods. In addition to survival, people form a community in order to foster and exercise virtue (DR 106). Virtuous people are made happy through the concrete exercise of virtue towards their neighbors and, even more so, through the enjoyment of virtuous friendships. The virtue of individuals and friends constitutes the “common good” of the community and the ultimate end for which it exists (DR 106). The virtuous friendships formed by communal life bring “the greatest delight” to the members of the community and realize their highest potential for happiness in this life (DR 77).

In order to attain the common good of virtue, the various members of a community need the help of a unifying and directive force. This is where human government comes in. Aquinas compares the task of government to that of a ship’s pilot. The pilot’s job is to steer the vessel safely and directly to its harbor of destination (DR 103). The governor’s direction of the community is needed because individuals are often tempted to seek their private good at the expense of the common good (DR 8). Hence, “there must exist something which impels towards the common good of the many, over and above that which impels towards the particular good of each individual” (DR 9). In sum, just governors “ought to induce their subjects to virtue” (DR 28); they ensure that the various crewmen aboard the ship work to steer the vessel towards the harbor of life and virtue, rather than the harbor of sin and death.

Aquinas identifies three tasks which a governor must perform in order to direct the multitude toward the end of a happy, virtuous life. First, a governor must strive to provide his people with access to the necessities of life, such as food, water, and shelter. Such means are supplied by the natural resources of the nation as well as through trade with other nations (DR 134-142). By helping to provide his people with the necessities of life, the governor protects them against the dangers caused by their natural weaknesses and mortality. Second, a governor must discourage vice and promote virtue amongst his people by means of laws, punishments, and rewards (DR 120). Through such legislation, the king protects his people against the internal danger of their own, perverse wills. Third, a governor must defend his nation against attacks from external enemies and nations. That is, he must preside over a police force and military that are capable of defending the nation and ensuring order. Otherwise, as Aquinas puts it, “it would be useless [for the governor] to prevent internal dangers if the multitude could not be protected against external dangers” (DR 120).

In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas provides further details regarding the second, legislative task of government. He distinguishes between a just and unjust human law. In order to be just, a law promulgated and enforced by a governor must be consistent with the “natural law” (ST I-II, q. 95, a. 2). The natural law refers to moral rules which (1) are based upon the nature of the human person, (2) are common to all human beings, and (3) can be discovered by the natural reason of every person (ST I-II, q. 94). The general precepts of the natural law are contained in the Ten Commandments (ST I-II, q. 100, a. 3). The purpose of human laws is to apply the general truth contained in the Ten Commandments “to the more particular determination of certain matters” (ST I-II, q. 91, a. 3). By helping people determine how to apply the natural law in various circumstances, human law is meant to help people avoid sin and become virtuous (ST I-II, q. 95, a. 1). For example, the natural law “do not kill” is the basis of the human law “do not speed,” a law which is meant to ensure the safety of people on the road.

A human law is unjust when it requires or promotes behavior which is contrary to the natural law (ST I-II, q. 95, a. 2). The virtuous must ignore such laws (ST I-II, q. 96, a. 1). But Aquinas does not think that a government is unjust simply because it permits certain violations of the natural law. For several reasons, he claims that human law ought not attempt to prohibit every moral evil that is prohibited by the Ten Commandments. In the first place, a human law must have “coercive power” (ST I-II, q. 96, a. 5). For a law to be effective, the government needs to be able to catch and punish those who violate the law. Fear of such punishment motivates people to observe the law. Consequently, a law which can never be enforced is basically useless. For example, it would be pointless to enact a law that forbids a married man to harbor adulterous lust in his heart, even though such a sin violates the sixth commandment.

Secondly, enacting human laws against every possible violation of the natural law would fail to recognize that society consists of people with varying degrees of virtue. As a child cannot be expected to meet the same standards as an adult, so a person of little virtue cannot be expected to live in accord with the same standards of a very virtuous person (ST (I-II, q. 96, a. 2). Hence, human law must only prohibit “the most grievous vices” which the “majority” of people are capable of avoiding. Such vices consist chiefly in actions which cause direct harm to others, such as murder and theft (ST I-II, q. 96, a. 2). In this way, human law protects the fundamental rights of people, such as the right to life, without micromanaging every aspect of a person’s life.

Third, human laws must respect the fact that people develop virtue “gradually.” If human laws are too demanding upon those who lack virtue, then such people would become frustrated and “would break out into yet greater evils” (ST I-II, q. 94, a. 4, ad 2). Hence, a government may justly decide not to outlaw a grave but common vice such as drunkenness or fornication.

Fourth, human laws can only regulate “the majority of cases” (ST I-II, q. 96, a. 1). Consequently, there may be occasions when a human law which is generally just does not provide proper guidance on the application of natural law in a given circumstance. In such a case, the law should be ignored (ST I-II, q. 96, a. 6). For example, “do not speed” may be a generally reasonable law for drivers to follow. If a driver sees a tornado approaching, however, he would probably be wise to drive very fast in the opposite direction.

How can these political principles of Aquinas help to inform our choice of presidential candidates in November? In short, people should cast their vote in light of the answers to the following questions:

  1. Which candidate will more effectively enact and enforce laws that discourage grave vices such as murder and theft and, consequently, protect the right to life and foster peace in society?
  2. Which candidate will more effectively promote the economic well-being of the country, and thus the community’s capacity to acquire the basic goods of food, shelter, and clothing?
  3. Which candidate will more effectively guard society against violent threats through the formation and direction of a skilled police and military?
  4. Which candidate’s administration will more effectively foster virtue among the American people?

“Joe Biden” is not the answer to any of these questions.


[Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images]


  • Daniel Waldow

    Dr. Daniel Waldow is an assistant professor of theology at St. Francis University in Loretto, PA and the Associate Director of the Alta Via program, which is an intentional Catholic community for undergraduate students.

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