What Is ‘Roman Catholic Political Philosophy’?

A course in “Roman Catholic Political Philosophy” is rarely found in any academic institution, including those sponsored by the Church. We do find courses titled “Religion and Politics,” “Social Doctrine of the Church,” or “Church and State” — but “Roman Catholic Political Philosophy” is something different. Going back to Plato, it is common to find that most people consider philosophers and academics, not to mention clerics, to be rather foolish and naïve when it comes to dealing with the practical affairs of this world. Philosophers are notorious for studying everything else but politics; and when they do, they insist on studying them as if their object were like that of the physical sciences and not free human agents. Aristotle already warned us not to use a method that was inappropriate to the nature of the object studied.

But there are two questions combined in that title: First, what is political philosophy? And second, what is Roman Catholicism? The two are not to be confused. They are, if possible, to be related in a coherent, non-contradictory whole such that each retains its essential nature while relating to the other. Whether we like it or not, both are present in the actual human world in which we live. Philosophy, to be itself, cannot, by its own methods, exclude any consideration of what is, of what claims to be true. Roman Catholics, during their time on earth, live in the polities to which they belong or dwell in. Like everyone else, they too are “political animals,” as Aristotle said.

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From its beginnings, Roman Catholicism took for granted, as Pope Benedict XVI remarked in his Regensburg lecture, that it addressed itself first to the philosophers, not to other religions. And yet, very little about politics is found in the New Testament: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” “Be obedient to the emperor.” “We must obey God rather than men.” This relative silence could mean that politics are not particularly important, that more important things exist. In his book From Under the Rubble, Alexander Solzhenitsyn said that, “in relation to the true ends of human beings here on earth, the state structure is of secondary significance.” The New Testament could quietly affirm that politics are something human beings can find on their own from experience, or reading Plato. Aristotle had already explained much of the basic things we need to know about political things before Roman Catholicism ever appeared. Revelation is not mainly concerned with things that we can already know by our natural powers. This is the compliment it pays to reason.

In a famous essay, “What Is Political Philosophy?” Leo Strauss indicated that specifically “political” philosophy inquires not about the philosophic understanding of political things, but about the political understanding of philosophical things. Politics itself, as Aristotle said, is a practical knowledge and activity. What is it that politics needs to know about philosophy to let it be itself? The politician, if he wants, has the raw power to eliminate the philosopher or prophet. Thus, the proper question is: “Why should the philosopher be left free to philosophize in the polity?” In some sense, philosophy must also be a political good. Such a question clearly implies that philosophy, be it good philosophy in a bad regime or bad philosophy in a good regime, may be dangerous to any existing regime. From outside its immediate context, it casts doubts on the foundations of existing political regimes.

The philosopher’s insight into things is not merely political. The philosopher seeks to know the whole, all things that are, including political things. He seeks to relate one thing to another and each to the whole. He seeks to distinguish, to clarify what is true. The politician — who, as Aristotle said, is always overly busy — needs some understanding of the reality that is not just political. He needs to leave space for what does not belong to Caesar. The highest things are not Caesar’s, but those who pursue them dwell in Caesar’s lands. The reduction of all things to politics, at bottom, is tyrannical. But philosophy must itself be a good in the polity for the sake of the polity. The common good includes its good.


The politician is not wrong to be concerned about the effects of philosophy in his city. Still, Joseph Pieper writes: “[Philosophical] contemplation…preserves in the midst of human society the truth which is at one and the same time useless and the yardstick of every possible use; contemplation keeps the true end in sight” (Anthology, 123). Most decent politicians are aware that not all philosophies are the same or equally helpful. Thus, for the common good to which he is, in principle, ordained, the politician must, in his own practical way, also be concerned with the truth of philosophic things. Nothing causes more political damage than aberrant philosophy.

Fides et Ratio, in its emphasis on the validity of philosophy in its present chaotic condition, provided, indirectly, a service to the polity. Many of the most dangerous politicians in modern times have had philosophical pretentions. They wrote about them before they acted, but no one believed them in time. They sought to answer metaphysical and transcendent questions by political means.

Benedict’s Spe Salvi is most pertinent on this point. He rightly sees, as he did in his earlier book Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, that most modern ideology is an attempt to solve transcendent issues by this-worldly scientific or political means. Faith is said to be unreal unless it is political. Even though the Church does not formally endorse any particular philosophy, she is aware that not every philosophy is capable of supporting the truths of the events and their understandings on which revelation is based. Likewise, she understands that not a few philosophers prove to be incapable of getting outside their own minds to reach the world of what is.

Roman Catholicism is primarily concerned with man’s transcendent end and purpose, with how it is achieved in actual lives, in actual places, and in real time. As the early Fathers of the Church often said, believers hope to live quietly in the cities in which they dwell in this world. But martyrs in every age, including our own, give visible testimony that this desired civil peace is not always a reality. And Benedict said in Deus Caritas Est that justice will never reach the real needs of real people unless room is found within it for something beyond political justice. Charity and love are required to see the lot and needs of actual individuals, even within institutions that are supposed to be benevolent and just.


Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI commented on the similarity and difference between the deaths of Socrates and Christ. From the point of view of political philosophy, their deaths, after legal trials in relatively good polities of their time, do bring up the Platonic issue of the best regime, one in which no conflict between truth and polity exists, one in which the philosopher will not be killed. The issue is not merely utopian. In most actual regimes, even relatively decent or democratic ones, this conflict constantly must be resolved again and again. John Paul II warned several times against what he called “democratic tyrannies,” political societies that are based on nothing but the will of the majority, whatever it wills. The constant papal emphasis on the freedom of religion as the most fundamental and primary of all duties of any polity reflects, among other things, its awareness of the actual threats to life of believers in our time both from state and from religion. In this sense, we cannot avoid inquiring about the political implications of the differing religions. They are not all the same.

Politics looks to man the mortal insofar as, knowing that he will die, he is active in this world. Roman Catholicism understands that all actual men are conceived and born into this world. Each has his own duties, dramas, glories, and final end. All persons reach their transcendent end in a manner that includes their freedom and how it was used in the polities of their time, no matter what the forms they proclaim for themselves. This respect for the actual consequences of human choices is why ultimately we have two cities, not just one. Salvation is found in the worst of regimes. Great evildoers can be found in the best. Politics, as such, cannot guarantee salvation. The origin of politics, as Plato said, is in our souls.

All social disorders, John Paul remarked, are ultimately rooted in personal sin. Regimes do not obviate free will, nor do we want them to. Political philosophy eventually confronts issues that it cannot fully answer by itself, by its own methods and competency. Revelation is addressed to human reason precisely as it is most active as reason, most engaged in understanding the immediate and final nature of existing human beings. This is the import of Aquinas’s response to the question of “whether, in addition to eternal, natural, and human law, we also need divine law?” Reason will never realize what it might be capable of knowing until it earnestly seeks what it can know and realize by its own powers. The knowledge of politics includes the knowledge of its intrinsic limits. In this sense, the purpose of revelation is to free politics to be politics, and not a pseudo-religion or metaphysics.


Aristotle had remarked that, if man were the highest being, then politics is the highest science. But he did not think man was the highest being. Man transcends politics only by what is “highest in him,” as Strauss also remarked. Aristotle had said the same thing. Roman Catholicism brings to political philosophy and to the attention of the politician, who realizes the limited nature of his own and the polity’s competence, a freedom from the modern secularist claim to control all things in the name of human autonomy. This claim is based on a relativism and skepticism about man ever finding any purpose outside of his own will and its self-affirmation.

Revelation, in the Roman Catholic view, answers two basic issues that arise in political living that politics itself cannot answer. The first of these is the Platonic concern: “Is the world made in injustice?” Polities were initially set up to provide a context for justice, with courts and, yes, police and armies. But quite obviously, all the injustice occurring in the world is not punished, nor are all the virtues properly rewarded. This realization was the empirical fact that led Plato to propose the immortality of the soul. The immortality of the soul thus had political origins. This immortality made it possible that unpunished crimes and unrewarded good deeds be adequately requited.

Benedict says in Spe Salvi that the world needs judgment for it to be complete. It needs to know that justice ultimately is accomplished. Thus, the Creed’s “Christ will come to judge the living and the dead” follows from this enigma of which Plato was already aware. We are, no doubt, free to reject this aspect of justice, but we do so only by accepting the proposition that the world is unjust. This is why the second American president, John Adams, said that, for politics, hell is the most essential doctrine of religion. The point was that, without this final reckoning, we would be free to do whatever we wanted with no possible concern for punishment of the injustice of our personal and political deeds. Ultimately, hell, as it were, emphasizes the significance of each of our acts in this world. It guarantees their ultimate importance.

The immortality of the soul is a Greek philosophical doctrine. As the Holy Father points out in Jesus of Nazareth, while scriptural intimations of this doctrine can be found, the main focus is Greek. It was necessary for Plato to explain how justice was accomplished in the very person who freely did the injustice.

But Christians use this same doctrine to explain an aspect of the resurrection of the dead. If there were to be a resurrection of a particular person after death, it was necessary, lest there be a creation of a new being and hence no continuity, that something of the dead person remain in being during the period from death to resurrection. Some modern biblical scholars want to deny this existence of the soul after death. They even propose, logically, that if there is to be continuity of person, resurrection must happen immediately after death. But there is really no scriptural evidence for this. Nor is there any philosophic necessity for it. The immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body are the perfect links between reason and revelation.

What is more important about the resurrection of the body, however, is that it implies that it is the whole person who is redeemed, not merely a soul. This is the radical newness that Christ brings into the world. When it looks at the resurrection of the body, Roman Catholic political philosophy goes back to Aristotle’s discussion of friendship. It recalls that Christ said, “I have no longer called you servants, but I call you friends.” This reminder implies that the Godhead is not as distant or abstract as it seems in even the best proofs for the existence of God. Also, it reaffirms the final reality of the whole human person, body and soul. This affirmation arises out of the poignant lament in Aristotle that God seemed to lack one thing that human beings had — namely, friends.

On the side of the Godhead, following this same worry that God is lonely, God is not revealed as a monolithic being. He appears as Trinity: three persons, one God. The “otherness” in God is an otherness of Persons. With proper distinctions, we can describe it as a friendship, an intercommunion of being and good. Thus, it is no surprise that Aquinas discussed charity under the heading of friendship between God and man.

On the human side, the final good of the person is not simply a relatively happy temporal life in a city in this world. The first step in his final happiness is the restoral of his complete being. If we go back to the issue even of human friendship, we see that, at its depth, friendship longs for, desires the love of the whole person, without the destruction of the one who loves. The remarkable thing about a Roman Catholic political philosophy is its ability to relate reason and revelation in such a way that each remains what it is, while at the same time addressing the other at its strongest and highest point. Politics is limited because man transcends the world in his very end, which is that he, body and soul, along with his fellows, is given the inner life of the Godhead, if he so chooses to accept it.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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