By Mike Ellerbrock
Ellerbrock is director of the Center for Economic Education at Virginia Tech, vicariate deacon for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, and appointed member of U.S. EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council and Virginia Governor’s Council on Environmental Justice.
Two of Christianity’s greatest thinkers (possibly the two greatest) are Saints Augustine (354-430 A.D.) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.). Regarding the foundations of church and state, they formulated competing models of their respective strengths and weaknesses, including their relationship with each other.
After his emotionally intense and dramatic conversion, Augustine was convinced that God’s greatest gift to humanity is our will, which when guided by love promotes truth and justice, the foundations of all human organizations (polis). Due to original sin, Augustine believed that the Earthly City we temporarily inhabit is forever broken and distinct from the eternal City of God, into which no one is guaranteed admission.
However, Augustine realized that the pursuit of justice is not an end in itself. Criminals act of a (perverted) sense of justice and mobster organizations adopt norms of behavior and privilege in distributing the riches:
“Take away justice, and what is government but a magnified gang of thieves? For that matter, what is a gang of thieves but a small-time government? It is a human group, following a leader, observing its own rules, splitting the booty by an agreed procedure. If this nuisance grows large by recruiting enough scoundrels, it establishes its own territory, sets up headquarters, occupies cities, subdues inhabitants, more openly calls itself a government, until its claims are confirmed … As a captured pirate cheekily explained to Alexander the Great, when asked why he terrorized at sea, “By the same right that you terrorize the world. I only have my little ship, so I am called a thief. You have a great fleet, so you are an emperor.’” (Wills, G., The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis, 2015).
With an additional millennium of hindsight and reflection, Aquinas asserted that the body politic is founded on objective, unemotional reason. God’s greatest gift to humanity is our intellect, which when properly exercised leads to a “complete, perfect society” here on Earth, exemplified by the church.
However, reliance on intellect alone can backfire. The clever devil is smarter than humans, yet lacking love, manifests only evil. Pope Leo XIII (1891) initiated a powerful era in Catholic teaching on social justice. Yet, this progressive pope praised Aquinas’ 13th century with its Scholastic focus (Thomism) on reason as the ideal “Age of Faith,” despite its brutal record of crusades and papal hegemony over secular governments (Wills). In hindsight today, much scholarship debates the virtues and legacy of the 13th century.
So, if neither our will nor reason guarantee religious or secular harmony, where are we today? In reality, we occupy a third city.
Eminent Catholic scholars John Henry Newman and John Courtney Murray bridge the gap between Augustine and Aquinas, drawing on both. The church and society are homes to mixed bags of believers, caught in the Fisherman’s “Gospel dragnet” (Augustine/Newman). Reason teaches us to learn through fruitful dialogue and constructive engagement with our opponents, where we are naïve to expect unanimity of opinion (Aquinas/Newman).
In a pluralistic world, what bonds us, in Newman’s beautiful phrase, is our “embodiment of special ideas” (Wills), particularly our American declaration that: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (Jefferson). Our collective moral impulse is to foster “the most good and least bad” (Newman).
“All” means all: unborn, other-abled, immigrants, prisoners, elderly, poor, marginalized, illiterate, genders, ethnicities, races, religions, cultures, et al.
Our own history is flawed. Modern America began with the oppression of Native citizens, subjugation of Africans, and suppression of women (Wills). Today, poor and minority communities remain more vulnerable to natural disasters, disproportionately exposed to chemical pollutants, recipients of reduced federal disaster assistance, and inequitable funding for education.
“All” means all: one special idea embodied by America is that we are no more special, nor less special, than non-Americans. We have no right to ignore the impacts of global warming abroad, accelerating loss of biodiversity, extinction of species, lack of access to clean water, extreme gaps in income, crises of refugees fleeing violence, human and drug trafficking, degrading systems of economic exploitation of many for the few, and debilitating sense of hopelessness.
Our churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples are attended by eclectic worshippers with myriad hopes, fears, and understandings of truth and mystery. Our twin pillars of church and state endure in perpetual symbiotic tension. The dynamic is healthy if we continue to embody special ideas, both old and new.