A Review of The Christian Structure of Politics: On the De Regno of Thomas Aquinas by William McCormick, Catholic University of America Press, 2022.

Three years ago, a kerfuffle over drag queen reading hour at a public library prompted an initially boisterous, and still lingering, discussion in some Christian circles over the limits of modern liberalism. This latest paroxysm of debate on Christianity and the state follows a long tradition of Christians negotiating the relationship between spiritual and temporal authority.

Enter William McCormick, S.J.’s recent book, The Christian Structure of Politics: On the De Regno of Thomas Aquinas. De Regno, McCormick writes, reveals how “politics in the Christian dispensation looks forward in hope to the City of God but does not instantiate it and, indeed, must rest content in the humility that the church and not political authority mediates the fullness of God’s grace.” Christianity has long been tempted to close this gap between a divine end and political means, but Aquinas offers a more moderate path. McCormick contends that Aquinas “offers an ethical attitude for living out this tension, a spirituality of politics…for living in the ‘gap’ between the world promised by Christian revelation and the world in which we now live.”

The first few chapters sketch out Aquinas’s perspective on political authority, kingship, and tyranny. Aquinas is a political naturalist, in the vein of Aristotle. Following classical political philosophy, he argues that humans are social and political animals who naturally live in groups. Aquinas’s account of humans is also teleological: we are ordered to an end, but as we live in groups, we require something to lead us to our end. Citing Proverbs, Aquinas writes, “Where there is no governor, the people shall be scattered.” Government is thus necessary, but it must lead the community towards a “befitting end” to be just. 

Whereas the “right and just regime” leads the community “to the common good of the multitude,” an unjust or tyrannical government works for “the private good of the ruler.” Aquinas is deeply concerned with tyranny. While he thinks political authority is natural and is favorably inclined to monarchy, he notes that kings are in danger of becoming tyrants. The king, in leading justly, may achieve a divine reward; on the other hand, “[t]he perils of tyranny…are so pervasive in part because of the attractiveness of earthly goods, which lead them away from the execution of their office and so from their divine reward.”

Within these initial chapters, though not for the only time in this book, McCormick notes that while Aquinas displays great sympathy for monarchy, he does not characterize it as the only possible just regime. His apparent preference for monarchy may, in part, be explained by his intended audience, the king of Cyprus. The key point is that Aquinas cares more for ends than institutions. How a regime guides a community towards its befitting end is a better guide to its justness than the institutions themselves.

But how ought one make sense of spiritual and temporal authority and their respective ends? Aquinas argues that “Man’s political activity does indeed have an integrity arising from his rational nature, despite the fear that sin and vice impede that activity.” Put differently, for Aquinas, “Political activity has a discrete end, namely virtue, but that end is also antecedent or intermediate to a superior end.” Political activity does not achieve man’s ultimate end, “Beatitude,” which comes from God. Nevertheless, “political activity fulfills something deeply natural in humans,” even if “this political activity does not complete or fully realize humanity.” 

Later in the book, McCormick devotes substantial attention to drawing out a Thomistic perspective on church-state relations from De Regno. Among the principles he highlights, he focuses particular attention on Aquinas’s dualistic view which held that there is a “dignity and integrity” to temporal and spiritual authority insofar as they are serving their proper ends. At the same time, he ascribes primacy to the spiritual because it serves humans’ ultimate end. Despite this primacy, Aquinas opposes monistic perspectives that would subjugate the spiritual to the temporal or vice versa. In other words, he opposes both theocracy and civil religion.

McCormick then compares Aquinas to other church-state models. He outlines the perspectives of contemporaries, John of Paris and Giles of Rome. The former emphasized dualism and the autonomy of the spiritual and temporal, while downplaying the primacy of the former. The latter did the opposite, tending to subjugate the temporal beneath the spiritual. McCormick writes that Aquinas occupies a “via media” between these perspectives.

McCormick then considers Aquinas in dialogue with modern liberalism. He divides liberalism into two strands, a rationalist and a pluralist tradition. Of the rationalist, he writes that it consists of a monistic vision that has “no room…for a nonstate actor that also exercises sovereignty.” The church, consistent with the writing of John Locke, becomes merely “one private association among many.” Any freedom or space given to the church is but “a grant of or concession from the contractarian state.” This is inconsistent with Aquinas’s perspective.

On the other hand, there is a pluralist tradition within liberalism that McCormick argues sits more comfortably, but not perfectly, with the Thomistic perspective on church-state relations. The pluralist tradition sees the church as a nonstate actor that can “limit” or “counterbalance” the state. Religious liberty may be seen as a key component of curtailing tendencies toward monism that exalt state power.

While this tradition may be more amenable to Thomism, it is not a perfect fit. There are multiple reasons, but one important one is that, as McCormick writes, the pluralist tradition has a “utilitarian” perspective on the church, in which the church is “a historically helpful partner in its campaign against rationalism.” There is no place of primacy for the spiritual power in the pluralist conception of liberalism.

McCormick’s book offers countless threads for drawing out implications of Aquinas for today, but this review will limit itself to just a few of them. First, Aquinas forces the reader to think teleologically about political institutions. Institutions ought to serve ends, not vice versa. This fosters an agnosticism toward regime type, but also provides a metric by which to judge institutions, namely, the extent to which they lead humans toward virtue.

This regime agnosticism may be uncomfortable for a modern liberal audience. Aquinas was, of course, writing for a king, and he demonstrates a great interest in monarchy vis-à-vis other institutions. Yet he is also keenly aware of the dangers of tyranny. It is worth considering whether a new Thomistic-inspired study – absent a monarchical audience – is needed to weigh the risks of tyranny inherent to different regime types.

Another thread evident in McCormick’s book is the notion that politics can be good and just, but temporal authority should never be confused with the kingdom of God. Aquinas’s dualism is a relevant corrective to strains of Christian thinking that would subjugate the temporal to the spiritual. While the spiritual leads humans to their ultimate, higher end, it should not be collapsed with the temporal in a manner that fosters theocracy or civil religion. This denies the integrity of each realm and the reality that politics is natural, even as it is not a means of salvation.

And this feeds into a final thread, that Thomism and liberalism are not hopeless enemies on matters of church and state. Of course, as McCormick argues, rationalist liberalism does not accord well with Thomism; on the other hand, the modern pluralist tradition and Aquinas’s dualism have more overlap. McCormick’s book opens fruitful avenues for engagement between Thomism and liberalism, and further dialogue is warranted.