One of the biggest problems confronting Catholics engaged in the public square today is our failure to develop a body of political thought relevant to what the German sociologist Ulrich Beck called the “second modern age.” Beck, who died last year, argued that modernity can be divided into two phases. The first, roughly coterminous with the Enlightenment and industrial capitalism, was defined by an ethos of progress premised on unquestioned faith in the ability of human beings to master nature and liberate themselves from tradition through the application of critical reason. The hallmark values of this first modern age were humanism, individualism, liberalism, and a faith in science and technology as instruments of social progress. It was a powerful worldview, but in recent decades, Beck argued, three related dynamics shattered it: first, the failure of modernity to deliver on its promises; second, the inevitable turning of modernity’s skeptical and critical impulses against both its own ideological foundations and against a number of traditional beliefs related to human nature, the family, and sexuality that had escaped the first assault of high-modern skeptical reason; and third, the emergence of a new form of globalizing capitalism that radicalized social inequality and thus undermined the first-modern faith in the progressive potential of first-modern institutions such as the free market and the limited state.
This turning heralded the advent of the second age of modernity. In effect, Beck’s second modern age represents the end of what Jürgen Habermas called the historical project of modernity. And with the passing of the historical epoch of modernity we are also witnessing the death throes of its political corollary: liberalism. In its place, an increasingly virulent form of gnosticism—famously defined by Eric Voegelin as the belief that humanity can be perfected through the intervention of a spiritual and cognitive elite possessing extraordinary insight, learning, or knowledge—is emerging as the dominant politico-cultural force of our time. While the liberal-to-gnostic transition is not yet complete, it is far enough along that we can certainly declare the classical liberalism of the mid-twentieth century dead and buried. In its place has emerged a new, hybridized form of liberal “progressivism” combining late-twentieth-century liberalism’s faith in the emancipatory power of the state with gnosticism’s faith in the malleability and perfectability of the human person.
Catholic social thought—or at least the elements of the tradition that pertain to political life—has proved wholly ill-suited to the challenges of this second modern moment and the rise of progressivism. The body of Catholic political thought that crystallized between the promulgation of the encyclical Aeterni patris in 1879 and Lumen fidei in 2013 is essentially the product of the church’s encounter with Beck’s first modern era. It addresses that era’s concerns, is grounded in its assumptions, reflects its anxieties and aspirations, and is tempered by its realities. Now that the first modern moment has passed, the political concepts and frameworks it produced can no more provide Catholics with a reliable guide to political action today than a map of nineteenth-century Europe can provide them with a reliable guide to contemporary European political geography. Indeed, to the extent that its underlying assumptions are increasingly out of step with the realities of today’s “second” modern world, Catholic political doctrine is likely to seem, in both its rhetoric and its policy prescriptions, increasingly hallucinatory.
Perhaps nowhere is this inaptness more vividly displayed than in connection with the foundational political concept of the “common good,” defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” During the middle decades of the twentieth century, Catholics and non-Catholics in the United States shared a basic understanding of the common good and the conditions necessary for human fulfillment. This consensus included a shared understanding of human nature, one grounded in immutable natural law. It entailed a widely shared view that the institution of marriage was the necessary foundation of human society, that the “little platoons” of civil society were essential to human flourishing, and that Christianity played an important role in American social life. Politically, it entailed a belief that the state should not interfere in domains reserved to the family and civil society, that Christians had a right to enter the public square as Christians, and that freedom of religion was the “first freedom” and thus entitled to robust protections.
This consonance of Catholic and non-Catholic understandings of the preconditions for human flourishing and the role of the state made it possible for the church to vigorously enter the public square in the first half of the twentieth century. Catholics could advocate for the family, traditional marriage, sexual propriety, and religious liberty on the basis of anthropological, sociological, and political assumptions that were widely accepted in the broader society. Indeed, the ultimate result of this meeting of the minds was not merely the full participation of Catholics in American public life, but the crystallization of a kind of “soft Constantinianism”—that is, an informal alliance between church and state on the basis of common assumptions and shared goals.
Fast forward to today, and it is painfully obvious that the Catholic understanding of the common good can no longer serve as the basis for robust participation in political life. The corrosive acids of the past fifty years have transformed the political environment. While the church continues to understand the common good as derived from a natural-law understanding of the human person, society, and politics, the prevailing ideology of the moment construes the common good in radically different terms. As evidenced by recent debates over gender identity, the prevailing anthropology today holds that there is no fixed human nature, but rather an almost infinitely malleable self, a human nature that can be whatever the individual wills it to be. Sociologically, the rise of the “nones” and the widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage reflects, in part at least, a withering of respect for tradition, organized religion, and any other social arrangement that might constrain the will of the sovereign individual. Politically, as recent debates over Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” and North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” indicate, the second modern moment has given us a state—increasingly supported by powerful non-state and commercial actors—dedicated to transforming or eliminating precisely those traditions and institutions that once supported and reflected an essentially Christian socio-political order, and replacing them with increasingly gnostic ones.
The full flowering of the second modern moment, then, has brought a near-complete rupture of understanding between the church and American society. This rupture has left the church promoting supposedly common goods, such as traditional marriage, that no longer resonate with American society at large—with promoting a vision of the common good that is no longer, in fact, common. As such, it no longer provides a useful framework for thinking about politics and for claiming a place in the public square. As a result, the foundations of the “civic project” of Christianity have crumbled.
OVER THE PAST decade or so, four distinct responses to this rupture have crystallized in Catholic intellectual circles. The first is what I will call “denial and doubling down.” This response not only refuses to accept the radical cultural shifts I have described, but seeks to restore the status quo that existed in the middle decades of last century. On this view—capably espoused by thinkers such as George Weigel, Robert George, and Robert Royal—the gap that has opened up between secular and Catholic notions of the common good has relatively superficial roots, reflecting a kind of cultural amnesia regarding the classical liberal principles upon which the republic was founded. This cultural amnesia is itself an artifact of the passing intellectual fad of postmodernism. To those embracing this view, the way forward requires not a new form of politics, but simply the recalling of America to its founding principles. Once this has occurred, the rupture between secular and Catholic understandings of the common good will close up, and the soft Constantianism that prevailed in the mid-twentieth century—and secured a place for Christians in the public square—will prevail once again.
What should we make of this Constantine option? While acknowledging the powerful appeal of this view to those steeped in the “Americanism” of Orestes Brownson, Archbishop John Ireland, and especially Father John Courtney Murray, I would suggest that it is simply not feasible to ground a revival of Catholic political theory in the doctrines of a bygone era. The soft Constantinianism of the middle decades of the last century is not going to be restored in an era that increasingly denies every truth, assumption, and argument upon which that accommodation rested. As even some proponents of this view are coming to realize, America is simply not going to be recalled to its roots; it is not going to abandon the increasingly pervasive and comprehensive view that people have the right to define for themselves the nature of things such as the “good life,” gender identity, or marriage, and embrace once again the essentially natural-law view of these matters that prevailed in the mid-twentieth century. The surprisingly rapid and accelerating spread of gnosticism has almost guaranteed that efforts to recall Americans both to the classical liberalism upon which the republic was founded and all its antecedent assumptions about human nature will fall on deaf ears—no matter how true the argument, no matter how carefully calibrated the grammar and vocabulary.
The second approach to the rupture between Christian and secular understandings of the common good might be called “acceptance and despair”: acceptance in that it acknowledges that an important shift has indeed taken place; despair in that it sees this shift as having ushered in a new dark age inimical to the comfortable Christianity of mid-twentieth-century America. In effect, proponents of this view argue that the intellectual DNA of liberalism has created a political culture inherently hostile to both Christianity and the Christian civic project. Since the values and virtues of contemporary secular culture have almost nothing in common with those of contemporary Christian culture, the best solution is the so-called “Benedict Option” of political disengagement and withdrawal into enclaves expressly ordered toward keeping orthodox Christianity alive in a hostile cultural environment.
While I have considerable sympathy for this option, ultimately I do not see it as a viable response to the challenges the church faces today. To begin with, it is premised on a fatally flawed historical analogy. The original Benedict option was made possible by the breakdown of the state; Benedictine monasteries emerged in the interstices of a decaying political order and were able to flourish precisely because the state was largely indifferent to them. Today we face something like the opposite—a metastasizing state that is, if anything, intent on eliminating any such interstitial spaces. It is a state decidedly not indifferent to countercultural communities seeking to live in defiance of its core cultural norms. A state truly indifferent to the internal ordering of religious enclaves would not try to tell Catholic schools whom they should hire or fire; nor would it attempt to exclude religious institutions such as universities and charities from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception exemption. Obviously, that is not the state we have today.
Perhaps more tellingly, though, the Benedict option of “radical disengagement” is based on a fundamental misreading of the current historical moment. At the core of the acceptance-and-despair response is the twofold assumption that the liberal state is a manifestation of liberal ideology, and that both still have some destructive unfolding to do. But if Ulrich Beck is correct, this assumption is problematic. One of his key claims is that the senescence of the modern project and its associated forms of liberalism is placing us on the cusp of a new period of possibility. I agree; and in my view, the likelihood that modernity and liberalism are just about finished as political projects—that they have little or no more dangerous unfolding to do—sets up the current historical moment as one of qualified opportunity rather than unqualified danger. To be sure, the danger is there. There are troubling signs that, unless a serious intellectual challenge is mounted, this new era might come to be dominated by a full-blown gnosticism every bit as inimical to Christianity as the progressivism bemoaned by proponents of the Benedict Option. But I also see this as a moment of opportunity, as a time when Christians might seize the initiative and nudge the emerging postmodern/post-liberal culture in a more positive—or at least more benign—direction. If I’m right, if this is a moment of opportunity as well as threat, now is simply not the moment to abandon the political battlefield.
A third option might be called “acceptance and assimilation.” Like the Benedict option, this one accepts that a major shift in modernity has taken place. Yet it does not despair. Rather, it advocates assimilating the progressive ideas associated with the second modern era into the Catholic tradition. In effect, proponents of this view argue that modernity and liberalism have created a milieu hostile not to Catholicism as such, but only to an ossified Catholicism that refuses to accommodate itself to contemporary realities. The goal therefore is to reform Catholicism, including Catholic political doctrine, by reconciling it to the views of the wider culture, thereby harmonizing the “loves” of both the Heavenly City and the Earthly City—and enabling the re-emergence of a true “common good.” Proponents point to the fact that over the last two millennia Catholic Christianity has assimilated all sorts of non-Christian ideas, from classical Platonic and Aristotelian thought to modern beliefs about democracy and human rights. Just as the church was revitalized through this process of assimilation in the past, so too can it be revitalized through a similar process today, especially perhaps on questions of sexual morality.
Is this a viable response to the advent of the second modern era? Maybe. It is always possible that the Holy Spirit will raise up a genius who will be able to reconcile Catholicism with progressivism in the way that Augustine did with Platonism and Aquinas with Aristotelianism. But it hasn’t happened yet. Indeed, there are troubling signs that the opposite may be happening—that progressivism may be assimilating Catholicism rather than the other way around. This, coupled with the historical fact that Catholicism has never been able to reconcile itself to any form of gnosticism whatsoever, leaves me with little confidence that such a Catholic-progressive synthesis is a practical possibility. At this point, the most I am willing to say is that, while skeptical, I remain open to the possibility.
A fourth approach, meanwhile, and the one I view as having the greatest potential, could be labeled “acceptance and adaptation.” By “acceptance” I mean coming to terms with the fact that the corrosive acids of the second modern moment have rendered agreement between church and state on the common good or final ends—or on their natural-law underpinnings—impossible. By “adaptation” I mean revising Catholic political doctrine to shape a new way of thinking about political engagement suited to the social, cultural, and political realities of our time.
WHAT WOULD SUCH A project look like? Well, to begin with it would abandon once and for all the illusion of a “common good” in the form that animates both extant Catholic political doctrine and the “new Constantinian” project. In this respect, acceptance-and-adaptation would break decisively with the Thomistic political theory that came to prominence in the church through Pope Leo XIII’s efforts to engage the modern world. Reflecting its Aristotelian roots, this tradition of political thought views the common good in terms of the shared pursuit of virtue (Aristotle’s “good life”), and reflects broad consensus regarding the fundamental nature of that life and the conditions necessary for human flourishing. But valid as this assumption may have been in Aristotle’s time (or Aquinas’s or, indeed, even as recently as John Courtney Murray’s), it is utterly invalid now. Where Aquinas’s late-medieval world was characterized by an ambient Catholic public culture, and Murray’s mid-twentieth century by a shared anthropology that harmonized church and society, our world is more like the highly pluralistic one of Augustine’s time. Then as now, radical disagreement regarding the nature of the good life precludes any consensus regarding the common good.
In place of the Thomism that has dominated Catholic political doctrine since the early twentieth century, the acceptance-and-adaptation approach would embrace the political thought of Saint Augustine. According to Augustine, all political communities necessarily include both citizens of the Heavenly City (i.e. the just and virtuous) and the Earthly City (the unjust and vicious). Possessing fundamentally opposed supreme values—one, the love of God and the things of the next world; the other, the love of man and the things of this world—these two groups share neither a common set of final purposes nor a common understanding of the “good life.” Given this irreducible pluralism of values and virtues, Augustine maintained, the “common good” in the Aristotelian or Thomistic sense is a logical impossibility. What remains possible is qualified agreement on a limited number of intermediate goods that have a “common usefulness” (communis utilitas): peace and security; the satisfaction of basic material needs; orderly social intercourse. The realization of such shared limited objectives, Augustine argued, would provide a context within which the citizens of the Heavenly City could seek communion with God, even as those of the Earthly City pursued their own worldly ends.
Such an approach to the common good—and to politics more generally—would entail reinvigorating the civic project of Christianity on Augustinian rather than Thomistic terms, following a vision of the state in which citizens agree on those limited political goods necessary for the pursuit of their divergent understandings of the good life, while refraining from promoting or imposing a particular vision of it. So what precisely would this limited Augustinian state do? What intermediate political goods would it provide? Drawing on Augustine’s writing, we can list some basics that are self-evidently useful to all citizens. To guarantee security from external attack, such a state would have to maintain a military. Orderly social intercourse would require certain political and juridical institutions: police, a judiciary, democratic political bodies, and so on. One could further imagine agreement being reached that the state should provide universal health care, or tuition-free higher education. In the words of Augustine himself, the state can provide any goods its citizens agree on, “provided that they do not impede the religion whereby the one supreme God is taught to be worshiped.”
To this end, the Augustine option would entail reinvigorating the civic institutions of the Heavenly City. This means creating parallel and self-sustaining educational, health-care, and social-service agencies and institutions in which citizens can practice their vocations for the benefit of all, yet do so in accordance with the teachings of their faith. In turn, this would require disengaging from the state when such engagement requires compromise with the fundamental moral commitments of Christianity—especially those related to the sanctity of life from conception through natural death. It would also require strong religious-liberty protections to ensure that the citizens of the Earthly City do not interfere in the internal affairs of the Heavenly one; for there is no point to policies and institutions of “common usefulness” if citizens are not free to worship and live according to their faith. This defense of religious liberty will have to be mounted in the courts, of course, but will also require vigorous political engagement. Yet political engagement, while necessary, will never be sufficient. Religious freedom will also have to be defended vigorously in the cultural sphere. To accomplish this, robust arguments for freedom of conscience and religious practice will be required—arguments that are framed in terms of a shared “grammar” or language that people of widely differing views can use to engage in meaningful dialogue. Given that the traditional grammar of natural law is simply no longer suited to the task, the challenge going forward will be to develop a new language for public argument in favor of religious freedom—one that resonates with citizens of the Earthly and Heavenly cities alike.
Conversely, the Augustine option entails a certain indifference to the internal affairs of the City of Man. Citizens of the Heavenly City must remain engaged in the shared political life of the polity—especially when it comes to those institutions of common utility. But when it comes to the internal affairs of the citizens of the Earthly City, the “prime directive” should be non-interference. Indeed, when tempted to weigh in on this or that political controversy, the guiding principle ought to be to do so if, and only if, it is necessary to ensure the health of those institutions of common utility discussed above. Following such a directive, then, it would be perfectly acceptable for citizens of the Heavenly City to engage their Earthly counterparts on issues of national defense or the propriety of a universal health-care system or tuition-free higher education. It would not be acceptable, however, to comment on alternative understandings of family or marriage as practiced exclusively within the Earthly City.
NONE OF THIS, of course, is to argue that the church should cease to proclaim the Gospel or otherwise curtail its political witness; the church has valuable moral and political truths to propose and should continue to bear public witness to those truths in both word and deed. Rather, it is to make the point that the coercive institutions of the state or the commercial markets should be used neither to impose the church’s teachings nor to restrict their proclamation.
In the end, the only viable response to the second modern moment described by Ulrich Beck—in my view, anyway—is acceptance and adaptation. There is no going back to the realities of fifty years ago; the radical disengagement of Saint Benedict is a dead end; and mere assimilation portends a gradual evanescing of the faith. Instead, we must work to shape and sustain a state focused on providing the intermediate goods necessary for the civil society of the church to flourish. Such a state, of course, would allow the citizens of the Earthly City to pursue their own vision of the good life—and the citizens of the Heavenly City might not like what that increasingly gnostic vision entails. But I would suggest this is not only the price that must be paid for the freedom of the church; it is also an expression of a viable and truly authentic form of pluralism, one suited to the realities of the postmodern/postliberal era. In light of these realities, I would argue, the Augustine option provides the only sound basis for a Catholic political theory for our time.
John R. Bowlin
ON APRIL 11, 1963, Pope John XXIII promulgated Pacem in terris. It was, according to the Catholic legal scholar Russell Hittinger, the high point in the effort initiated by Leo XIII to integrate the modern human-rights project with the Catholic natural-law tradition.
Five days later, writing from the Birmingham city jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted Augustine’s famous remark from De Libero Arbitrio: “An unjust law is no law at all.” The claim, he says, should be “put in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.” His examples were close at hand: the conditions of legally enforced racial domination and segregation that he and others were contesting. There were laws that forced black Americans to suffer undue losses to their persons, property, and dignity, while enabling their white fellow citizens to use the public offices of the state to secure private gain. There were other laws that imposed burdens on a minority without their consent and that guarantee unchecked power to a majority. And there were otherwise just laws applied unjustly, with the aim of bringing benefit to some and doing undue harm to others.
More than five decades have now passed, and this convergence of Catholics and non-Catholics on questions of justice, natural law, and the common good is now impossible, or so Andrew Latham argues. The church might continue to understand the human person and the just ordering of social and political relationships in terms of the natural law, but the “prevailing ideology of the moment” resists precisely those terms. We live in an age that professes a negative anthropology. Human beings are said to be “almost infinitely malleable,” their social relationships constrained by nothing but the sovereign will of individuals, their political arrangements increasingly determined by arbitrary state power and callous markets interests. When the church insists that these relationships and arrangements are in fact ruled and measured by natural-law norms, by the human person’s participation in God’s eternal law, the thought is dismissed by most as quaintly irrelevant, by others as dangerously perverse. The common goods that the church once promoted by appeal to human nature are no longer commonly accepted. The traditions of justice and law, powerfully expressed in King’s letter and articulated in John XXIII’s encyclical, are no longer embodied in the lives and commitments of the American people.
For Latham, the lesson is clear. The “civic project of Christianity” must find a new theoretical basis. For American Catholics, this means setting aside the Thomistic project of seeking agreement about the common good by appeal to natural law and accepting the fact that their fellow citizens endorse an “irreducible pluralism of values and virtues,” of final ends and conceptions of the good life. Instead, Catholics should accent the pursuit of intermediate goods and proximate ends: civil peace and security, basic material needs, orderly social relationships. As in Augustine’s day, these can unite an otherwise divided political community in a collection of shared projects that sustain a shared life. The disagreements that remain should be met with a combination of non-interference, disengagement, and vocal opposition: non-interference when no compromise with the fundamental moral commitments of Christianity is required, disengagement when it is, and vocal opposition when the shared projects and proximate ends of civic life are threatened.
I am a Protestant, and the Protestant churches struggle with these same realities, this same need to respond to the moral and political conditions of late modernity. I have no interest in telling my Catholic brothers and sisters how to develop a response of their own. That said, I do have two suggestions for recasting the response that Latham proposes. The first regards Aquinas, justice, and the common good. The second regards Augustine’s contribution to Christianity’s civic project. Both suggestions are brought into focus by King’s remarks in his famous letter.
First, it isn’t quite right to say that a Thomistic sense of the common good is now a “logical impossibility,” that it must be set aside in a context fractured by disagreement about first principles and final ends. For Thomas, the common good can no more be set aside than justice itself, its root and rule. Care for goods held in common comes with care for justice. The two always arrive together.
Justice regards human actions that mediate our social and political relationships—friendships, families, citizens’ organizations, ecclesial communities, and political societies. Those who care about justice care about the condition of these relationships. They want to perform right actions, actions that give to others the good they are due, because they want to set their various relationships right. This is their most basic concern. When they succeed in this, when they act justly and set a relationship right, the good shared in common is the relationship itself. It is a good they desire for those they treat justly, a good they hope to secure by means of their right action, and they hope to enjoy this good with them. In fact, they must proceed with this hope. There is no erasing themselves, no refusing this good, without denying it for the other. Indeed, relationships set right by justice are common goods par excellence: they are had and enjoyed in common or not at all.
No doubt, many of our social and political relationships are divided by disagreement about the final ends of human life and the ultimate condition of human flourishing. Some of our fellow citizens may even doubt that human beings have a shared final end, and, among those who think we do, there is disagreement about what it is and how to conceive it. (The various schools of natural-law theory bear witness to this!) And of course, Christians will insist that a shared conception of our final end is one thing, a shared participation in it quite another. The first is a consequence of wise teaching; the second a deliverance of grace, and grace comes as grace will. None of this can be denied, and yet none of it prevents us (Christians and non-Christians alike) from caring about the condition of our relationships or about the goods held in common when they are set right by just conduct.
Thomas puts the point this way. Temporal justice, he tells us, regards proximate, not final, ends. It regards the right order of those social and political relationships in which we stand, not the final end to which we might refer them. The first regards the specific reality of justice, the second its possible perfection by charity.
IF THIS IS RIGHT, then I suggest the following amendment to Latham’s proposal. Yes, the civic project of Christianity should proceed without assuming broad agreement among our fellow citizens about the moral demands of our shared humanity. Natural-law appeals cannot secure this particular common good. It’s doubtful that they ever could. At the same time, Christians should continue to care for justice and its common good, for setting their social and political relationships right. How could they not? And, crucially, caring about justice does not require agreement about the metaphysical sources and normative content of the natural law. How could it? Our relationships will quite often be divided by disagreement about precisely these matters, even as the call to treat our neighbors justly remains.
If our own theological commitments make it difficult to express our care for justice and its common goods without referring to the natural law, then I suggest we follow Dr. King’s example. He assumes that his fellow citizens share a collection of proximate ends, above all the desire to set their various social and political relationships right. And he assumes they agree in broad outline about the character of a just relationship. At the very least, he doubts that anyone will call a relationship just that includes domination, where one party is at the mercy of another, left helpless before arbitrary power and made easy for exploitation. Domination and exploitation are paradigmatic examples of injustice. King addresses his letter to white pastors who acknowledge these basic moral truths and express a vague commitment to opposing these forms of injustice while turning a blind eye to Jim Crow’s concrete examples. They are insufficiently horrified by the injustice all around them and unashamed of their desire to go slow, to oppose it incrementally.
So he engages in immanent criticism. Their lives, he tells them, do not embody their most basic moral convictions. Indeed, their refusal to oppose unjust positive laws and racist social mores casts doubt on their commitment to those convictions. When he speaks of the natural law, the point is to mark this distinction between conviction and convention and to locate it among his own theological commitments. There are moral truths that transcend local, sinful convention. These belong to God’s eternal law. The injustice of legally enforced domination and exploitation is one such example. The positive law does not tell us that domination and exploitation are unjust. Rather, their injustice reminds us that there are moral truths that rule and measure positive law. Dr. King speaks of the natural law in order to bear witness to this fact.
Jim Crow America offered untold examples of social and political relationships distorted by domination and exploitation. Later in his life, King referred to others: economic exploitation at home and colonial domination in Vietnam. In our own day, we might refer to sex trafficking, the treatment of immigrants, judicial torture, militarized policing, and to new variations on the older Jim Crow. We might also refer to the fact that vast differentials of power, wealth, and social position, combined with weak governmental institutions and strong market forces, have left far too many of our fellow citizens subject to the unaccountable power of others. Even when that power is not exercised, the threat of it leaves far too many feeling vulnerable, hopeless, and resentful. Some even fantasize about exercising arbitrary power of their own, about walling out, locking up, or expelling the scapegoats of their suffering. An unjust response, no doubt, but not an unintelligible one.
It’s against this backdrop, this contemporary unraveling, that Augustine’s wisdom comes into focus. But which Augustine? The portrait of Augustine that Latham gives us is roughly the one that Robert Markus develops in his magisterial work Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine. Markus offers us an Augustine attentive to the conflicts and divisions that afflict every social and political relationship disordered by sin. Since there is no overcoming these sources of sorrow without God’s healing grace and (ultimately) before the eschaton, and since grace comes as grace will and the eschaton is long in coming, our politics must be secular not sacred, its conflicts and divisions managed but never overcome. Markus recognizes the benefit this Augustinian vocabulary can bring to Christians who inhabit a liberal political order. It can be adapted and put to use in their civic projects and self-conceptions. It can provide theological warrants for resisting the temptation to sacralize the state or interfere in the religious lives of fellow citizens.
It’s roughly this Augustine that we find in the varieties of political Augustinianism on offer in our own day, and it’s roughly this theological vocabulary that Latham commends. While not discounting this image of Augustine or denying its importance for Christianity’s civic project, I do want to complicate it.
As far as I can tell, Augustine did not recommend anything like the liberal norm of non-interference. In part it’s because he doubted that our social and political relationships can be truthfully described without acknowledging the many ways in which they are structured by laws that restrain action, customs that form habits, authorities that command obedience, and coercion that guarantees it. Persons and powers that interfere with human life and conduct: there’s no escaping them, or reason to think that we should. But more importantly, it’s because Augustine has his attention fixed elsewhere, on the lust for domination that infects all human relationships this side of Adam’s fall. It’s this combination—the ordinary reality of interference in every human relationship and the lust for mastery disordering every human soul—that captures Augustine’s imagination and places a question mark over political society.
In his correspondence with North African magistrates, in his critique of Roman conquest, in his discussion of domestic and civil rule, and in his (somewhat surprising!) willingness to defend state action against his religious opponents, the Donatists—in each case we find Augustine asking whether the customs, commands, and laws at work in a relationship are external expressions of this internal disorder. Do they mask the arbitrary will of the powerful and their desire for mastery? Or are there reasons that warrant the constraints placed on human life and action, reasons that refer to the norms of justice and love, norms that can be used to hold power accountable?
Quite often it’s Augustine himself, in his role as bishop or pastor, who does this work of accountability. These roles give him authority to press the powerful for reasons. And quite often we find him encouraging the occupant of some other paternal office—parent, priest, or magistrate—to act in accord with its norms. When he defends state action against the Donatists, his reasons refer to the same paternal logic. They are like children who have broken a promise and lost their way. He is like a father, who longs for their return and will do what he must in order to bring them home.
HAPPILY, OUR AGE is more democratic and less willing to consider paternalistic relationships just. We distribute the authority to contest power more broadly, and we regard with suspicion those social and political relationships that resemble the relationship between parent and child. They are guilty until proven innocent.
These differences should not surprise us. Our age is not Augustine’s. What matters, and what we can learn from him nevertheless, is that domination is at work in far too many human relationships. As in his age, so in ours: power is too often distributed unequally and exercised arbitrarily. The lust to dominate, a deliverance of our deepest dislocation from God and neighbor, finds expression in precisely these circumstances. The civic project of Christianity, however we regard it, should certainly include this aspect of Augustine’s political thought. Including it does not displace Latham’s concern for living among diverse conceptions of human nature and human flourishing. But it does imply that a Thomistic call to care for justice and its common good is best answered by an Augustinian regard for domination and its lust. Martin Luther King got it right.