Published in The Review of Politics, 62 (Winter, 2000), 49-76.






“Philosophy could be employed, not indeed as a principle allowing one to pass judgment on the truth or falsity of Revelation, but as a tool with which to probe its meaning and counter any attack that might be leveled against it in the name of reason.”

– Ernest Fortin, 1996.[1]


“Revelation clearly proposes certain truths which might never have been discovered by reason unaided, although they are not of themselves inaccessible to reason.  Among these truths is the notion of a free and personal God who is the Creator of the world, a truth which has been so crucial for the development of philosophical thinking, especially the philosophy of being.  There is also the reality of sin, as it appears in the light of faith, which helps to shape an adequate philosophical formulation of the problem of evil.  The notion of the person as a spiritual being is another of faith’s specific contributions: the Christian proclamation of human dignity, equality and freedom has undoubtedly  influenced modern philosophic thought.  In more recent times, there has been the discovery that history as event  – so central to Christian revelation – is important for philosophy as well.”

– John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, 1998, #76.[2]


“The emperor of the visible empire, ‘sol invictus,’ the invincible sun, has as his opponent and successor the vicar of the invisible empire, ‘servus servorum Dei,’ the servant of the servants of God.....  We never understand more than the half of things when we neglect the science of Rome.”

– Pierre Manent, The City of Man, 1998.[3]



At first sight, “among the heathen,” so to speak, if not also among believers themselves, the very idea of a “Roman Catholic political philosophy” is rather quaint, if not actually shocking.[4]  Roman Catholicism prides itself on distinction and clarity.  Aquinas, who never lets confusion reign, is central to its identification of itself.   “Grace builds on nature.”  Both can be intellectually explicated and, if necessary, defended.  Therefore, reason to be helpful to revelation must be what it is, acting reason on its proper object, on what is. 

But not just anything that calls itself “reason” is reasonable.  We must add, if it is not a tautology, “true reason.” Thus, when some philosopher, implicitly or explicitly, denies, say, the principle of contradiction, we do not, as Aristotle said, have to believe him, even less, agree with him.  We just have to watch what he does to see that implicitly he upholds in practice this basic principle.  He invariably opens the door before he walks through it; he assumes that it cannot be there and not there at the same time and in the same place.  And yes, we have to trust our senses when we see him open the door.

Philosophy and theology are both legitimate; both can establish their foundations.  The intelligible content of each is comprehensible to the other.  But they are not related to one another as reason to unreason respectively.  Revelation is a grounded claim to truth, not to irrationality.  Things can be beyond the power of particularly human reason to know without necessarily being beyond reason as such.  We are the lowest, not the highest of the intellectual beings.[5]  “Man is the best of animals ... [but] there are other things much more divine in their nature even than man,” as Aristotle put it (1141a35-b2).  Revelation addresses itself to the same reason that philosophy considers.  Indeed, the very fact that reason brings up questions, legitimate questions, it cannot fully answer on its own terms, means that it is not a complete account of all things even when it is capax omnium, even when it wants to know all things. 

Human reason does not “explain” everything.  It is “philo-sophy,” the friendship with or love, not the cause, of wisdom.  It therefore remains open to what it does not yet know, even, with Socrates, knowing that it does not know.  “It is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize” (982b13).  And they began this effort, Aristotle notices, only “when almost all the necessities of life and the things that make for comfort and recreation had been secured” (982b23-24).  The most important things are beyond comfort and necessity.  Both faith and authority in revelation rest not on themselves but on someone who does know, who does see, who does hear.

By any objective analysis, revelation appears to be much more conscious of reason than most philosophical reason is of revelation, though there is always Plato to caution us here.  Philosophy has to be proper philosophy to hear revelation.  Revelation, rather frequently, has to defend philosophy itself.  “Christian doctrine is primarily concerned with offering salvation, not with interpreting reality or human existence,” Josef Pieper has written.  “But it implies as well certain fundamental teachings on specifically philosophical matters  -- the world and existence as such.”[6]  Reason that illogically proclaims its own autonomy can, however, consciously choose to make itself into a closed system incapable of openness to what is.  Philosophy, and this is the dark side of its mystery, can choose to deny itself and still call itself “philosophy.” 

This possibility of philosophy denying itself is no doubt at the origin of St. Paul’s famous impatience with the philosophers: “Where is your wise man now, your man of learning, your own subtle debater  – limited, all of them, to this passing age?  God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish” (1 Corinthians, 1:20).  Much of modern philosophy  – which surely considers itself as “the wisdom of this world” –  can best be understood as the intellectual and logical consequences of this choice of denying to itself, frequently indeed “foolishly,” some basic element of the proper “range of reason,” to use Jacques Maritain’s phrase.[7]                       

The Bible, to be sure, is not immediately a “political” or “philosophic” tract.  It is primarily an account of a way, indeed the way, of salvation.  Yet, for philosophers, if they set their mind to it, the Bible is neither incoherent nor unintelligible; it is not lacking in its own philosophical profundity.[8] It can be read by philosophers, believed by the politicians without making either philosopher or politician any less profound or, in spite of Machiavelli, any less competent.  Theologians and believers can likewise philosophize; they have in fact done so.  The notion that philosophy and theology are two contradictory ways of life does not explain the fact that at least a few men, perhaps more than a few, are legitimately both the one and the other without confusing the one for the other.

Philosophers and believers, moreover, must, like everyone else,  live in cities in this world, even when they call Augustine’s “City of God” their true home.  They are both aware that we “have here no lasting city.”  The New Testament in particular has very little to do, directly, with politics.  In fact, it frankly acknowledges that the things of Caesar and the things of God are not the same (Matthew, 22:22-23).  Almost for the first time, we have here a revelational source affirming the validity of the state in its, the state’s, own terms.  The things of Caesar, however, still need to be explicated philosophically to show why it is “natural” that man is a “political animal.”[9]  Without the polis, he cannot flourish, cannot practice all the virtues he discovers in himself, cannot have the leisure for things beyond politics.

When Paul told Christians to be “obedient to the Emperor” (Romans, 13:1-7), the Emperor was Nero, a tyrant, as Tacitus graphically tells us in his Annals..  Paul was not, however, approving tyranny, nor denying its obvious possibility or dangers.  Nor was he an advanced Nietzschean who saw in “turning the other cheek” a sure sign of political ineptness and betrayal of worldly power.  He was rather pointing out, something already found in Aristotle, that man was by nature a political animal, but one who often revealed his own inability, or better, unwillingness to rule himself.  Interestingly, revelation seems to have more to do with our inability or unwillingness  to live the virtues than with our more successful efforts to define them.  “I would rather feel compunction than know how to define it,” as Thomas à Kempis remarked in a famous phrase in the Imitation of Christ.  Therefore, at times, indeed often, Paul acknowledged that the ruler also possess “the sword ... to punish wrong-doing.” 

Aristotle indicated much the same thing at the end of his Ethics when he spoke of the transition to The Politics (1179b31-80a4) about the need of law and coercion.  Neither philosophy nor politics, however, could quite explain why this abiding wrong-doing, this “wickedness,” as Aristotle called it (1263b23), persisted in all human polities.  This very perplexity was something to which revelation addressed itself in the account of the Fall.  There, the problem of human disorder is located not in things nor in human faculties as such but in the operation of the will, and therefore in personal choice (Genesis, 3:1-24).  The Philosopher, as Aquinas called him, did notice, without revelation, that human nature was in a kind of “bondage” (982b29).  Philosophy had questions it could not quite answer.  This “unansweredness,” as it were, was theoretically bothersome.  It caused many a good philosopher to wonder if the world was not created “in vain,” with no purpose or meaning, hardly a consoling alternative.  Paradoxically,  it was revelation’s odd answer to this enigma that charged the universe, particularly the human universe to which all else seemed ordained, with risk, drama, uncertainty, and, yes, the possibility of love and glory.  Such things are only possible if our choices make some ultimate difference, if we really do choose between right and wrong.


Evidently, there should no more be Roman Catholic politics than there should be Roman Catholic physics, however much the methods and subject matter of politics and physics, and, yes, theology, might differ.  “It is the mark of an educated man,” Aristotle tells us, “to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs” (1094b25-27). Yet, perhaps it makes a difference what our philosophy is, what our understanding of the world is before we even can have either physics or politics.[10]  A politics without a metaphysics can itself be an unacknowledged metaphysics.  Moreover, if political science is itself a valid, but limited “practical science,” elucidating a certain range of reality, the reality of free human beings in exchange about what they are and choose in this world, it cannot, without bad will, refuse to consider revelation’s insight into political things when politics does not solve its own problems in its own terms about its own subject matter.

“Although the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels have little to say about the proper attitude for Christians to adopt toward the social order and the state,” Herbert Deane has written,

certain fundamental principles are clearly established.  On a number of occasions, Jesus             warned His disciples against thinking of His kingdom as an earthly kingdom, to be established by a revolt of the Jews against Roman rule and maintained by ordinary political instruments....  Jesus not only insisted that His kingdom was not of this world and so discouraged his followers from thinking of Him as a Messiah who would be the temporal ruler of the Jewish people, but He also endeavored to draw His followers’ attention away from interest in worldly matters such as the attainment of wealth or power over other men.[11]

Roman Catholic political philosophy would, thus, agree that the ultimate destiny of each human being is not located in politics, something also found in its own way in Plato and Aristotle. 

Roman Catholic political philosophy would also recognize that in leaving politics relatively free, Christianity implied that the political order had its own worth and, indeed, its own dangers.  It accepted, in other words, the teaching in Genesis that nature, including angelic and human nature, was good in its fundamental being.  The origin of evil  -- the lack of something that ought to be present --  was neither in God nor in nature as such.  It was in a good and free faculty that could cause things to be otherwise  -- in brief, in the human free will. Hannah Arendt is right to call out attention to the fact that Augustine is the “first philosopher of the will.”[12] 

Roman Catholic political philosophy will thus always be heavily “will” oriented, even when it understands that the will is a spiritual faculty only “determined” by the good known in intellect.  It is not, in the modern sense, “pro-choice”  -- pro-whatever is chosen just because it is chosen.  But it is pro-will, pro-free-will.  When evil is chosen, it always must at the same time exist some good, some good generally placed out of the order of truth by the power of will.  It is because of this remaining good that Roman Catholic political philosophy must retain the capacity for change or conversion in all human things.  It cannot ultimately for this reason be a dogmatic pessimism or optimism.  It is realist without being Machiavellian or utopian, without denying the dire conditions that do happen or undervaluing the good that does occur in this world’s regimes.

The early Christians were primarily city dwellers, though some of the more pious ones began to flee the city’s corruption into the desert.  Cities, if left to themselves, could and did become morally unliveable.  A certain “exodus,” individual or collective, always remained a possibility to Christians from their Jewish origins.  The founding of America itself, with its Old Testament overtones among the Puritans, is not unrelated to this sentiment. The city was, however, the scene within which the positive things that Christians were commanded to do  – forgive, love, serve their neighbor, keep the commandments – were to be visibly carried out in a real, not abstract, world.  The dictates of faith and charity were expected to bear fruit in the world  -- the Good Samaritan was also a real citizen.  The accusation that Christians abandoned the world was never really based on an understanding of the  demands made of its own members.  This is why Christian metaphysics has always insisted on defending the reality, the ontological reality, of the world itself.  Augustine could thus argue that Christians were good citizens, good soldiers even.  The city was also the arena wherein Christians found themselves, in their own way, in the predicament of Socrates.  They were tried by the state for telling the truth and living as they were commanded -- something as well true in the century just closed as in the first century.[13]  Christians were often seen, however, as a-political, as not believing in the gods of the city.  When they first appeared in any numbers, they were in one of the most powerful and indeed in one of the most decent of historical states, one that, to reform itself, thought, as did someone like Diocletian, that it should demand full civic allegiance to the city’s gods.

Thus, we can ask again “what is Roman Catholic political philosophy?”  It is obviously not simply “political theology,” a description of just what Scripture may say about political things, however important this may be.  Nor is it an effort to compete with, say, Aristotle or political science about its own subject matter.  Indeed, if anything, it claims Aristotle as its own, even knowing his non-Christian origins and certain problems connected with him.  Fides et Ratio, the 1998 Encyclical of John Paul II, is not itself, as was, say, his Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) or his Centesimus Annus (1991), directly social or political in content or inspiration.  We would not call Fides et Ratio a tractate in political philosophy, however pertinent it may be to political philosophy in its own way.  Indeed, it is the peculiarity and strength of Roman Catholicism that it does not, following Scripture, have a specific political program or philosophy, something explicitly reaffirmed in Fides et Ratio (#49).  Politics, as it were, is not one of the things revealed in Scripture, but it is not taken less seriously for all that.  If we are to know political things, we must largely rely on reason and experience.  It is necessary to read the philosophers and consult the constitutions, to know how peoples succeed and fail in history.  No doubt, certain scriptural passages and teachings can and should have political meaning.  Christians were supposed to live in this world, “quietly,” if they could, as “sojourners and wayfarers” (1 Peter, 2:11). 

The fact that Scripture does not contain a systematic political teaching modeled on The Republic of Plato or The Politics of Aristotle  -- or even Hobbes or Locke or Rousseau, who in fact spend a good deal of time on Scripture –  does not imply that there is something lacking in revelation.  It rather indicates that much is to be learned from Plato and Aristotle, from the philosophers, even for the sake of Scripture.  For revelation to be revelation, philosophy must be philosophy  -- good philosophy.  Surely this is the central thesis of Fides et Ratio.  Scripture may not even imply that there is something lacking in politics, unless perhaps politics claims, as it can, something more than it is in itself.  Christ says to Pilate, “you would have no authority over me at all were it not given to you by my Father” (John, 19:11)  That is, the Roman governor has authority, but neither he nor his polity invented what authority is. 

The first step in politics is to think of its form, that is, its of limits, of what makes it to be politics and not something else.  A politics that conceives itself to have no limits is the main rival to revelation in any age, including our own, a view, ironically, already found in Scripture itself.[14]  Politics is the highest practical science, not the highest science as such, as Aristotle also noted (1141a20-22).  When it claims to be the highest science, as it often does, it claims in effect to take the place of both reason and revelation, to become itself a metaphysics defining by itself what is.  Early Christians first met politics when politicians wanted to get rid of them as being threats to the state, even, as Augustine was asked at the beginning of the City of God, of being the cause for the decline of Rome  -- a perennial theme that later became famous with Gibbon and Nietzsche.  The Augustinian answer to Rome, interestingly enough, was not to deny in principle legitimate political authority to Rome.  Rather it was to point out, in the very name of its greatest minds, Varro and Cicero, that Rome itself did not observe its own philosophic standards which themselves were quite valid..  Revelation, in other words, said to reason that it was not reasonable enough.


Fides et Ratio barely speaks of what would ordinarily be called political things.  It speaks of philosophical things, of what is revealed, of how and why there is a relation between the one and other.  Theology, in the Christian sense, does not begin with reason, though it presupposed the perambua fidei, the principles we need even to recognize that something is addressed to us.  It begins with what is revealed.  But it soon discovers that to understand and render in intelligible order what is revealed, it needs to turn to issues of human knowing, human experience, to philosophy.  “The chief purpose of theology is to provide an understanding of revelation and the content of faith” (#93).  What is characteristic of Roman Catholicism is this “understanding,” this effort to make clear and available in a coherent whole what is revealed in the myriads of narratives in Scripture.  It does not see this elaboration as a violation of the explicit words of Scripture, which it must respect as given.  It sees it as an obligation to illuminate the intelligibility that is found there.  And this endeavor does not imply that somehow God was rather sloppy in not revealing Himself in a concise form that would not require so much human theological and rational effort.  Rather it suggests that we are intended to use our minds even in revelation, or better, we are to use them better because of revelation.  If there is any objection to Roman Catholicism in its reflections on the meaning and place of political things, it cannot be on the ground that it does not take reason seriously and intend that reason, because of revelation, be more of itself, more reason. 

If, as Strauss, among others, often stress, philosophy is a “knowledge of the whole,” a knowledge rooted in the capacity of human reason, this same reason cannot arbitrarily exclude what is both understandable and claiming intelligible content, particularly when revelation has turned to philosophy precisely to explain more fully what is revealed.[15]  “It is necessary therefore that the mind of the believer acquire a natural, consistent and true knowledge of created realities  – the world and man himself –  which are also the object of divine revelation,” John Paul II writes.  “Still more, reason must be able to articulate this knowledge in concept and argument.  Speculative dogmatic theology thus presupposes and implies a philosophy of the human being, the world and, more radically, of being, which has objective truth as its foundation” (#66) 

Roman Catholic political philosophy, thus, does not think, whatever the distinction of faith and reason, that the subjects of political life (i.e., individual citizens) and those who receive revelation live in different worlds.  The “knowledge of the created universe” is also “the object of divine revelation.”  We must take the knowledge of the whole seriously.  “It may well be,” Josef Pieper has remarked, “that at the end of history the only people who will examine and ponder the root of all things and the meaning of existence, e.g. the specific object of philosophical speculation  – will be those who see with the eyes of faith.”[16]  It is not insignificant at the beginning of the 21st Century that it is the Pope who speaks of the legitimacy and necessity of philosophy.

Contrary to what we might expect, Fides et Ratio is not primarily concerned to relate philosophy to revelation.  No doubt it does this, but its main purpose is to address itself to philosophy and its modern condition.  Indeed, it argues that it is in the strongest possible interest of revelation for its own integrity that philosophy be itself.  “It is an illusion to think that faith, tied to weak reasoning, might be more penetrating; on the contrary, faith then runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition.  By the same token, reason which is unrelated to an adult faith is not prompted to turn its gaze to the newness and radicality of being” (#48).  “Weak reasoning” is not an ally of revelation.  Revelation thus does not hesitate to engage the philosophic mind and examine its own proposed validity.  This might annoy philosophers who want to claim the exclusive turf of reason for themselves.  But they cannot maintain this position if the object of the mind is not itself but what is, all that is.  Philosophy cannot pretend or prove that revelation does not exist and exist as something also directed at itself.  Christianity takes the condition of the philosophic mind seriously because it sees clearly that its own truths depend for their integrity on the validity of a philosophy that can know, and know what is.  That is, revelation defends both the mind’s own introspective powers and the fact that those powers do not simply turn on themselves but reach the world, reality, and can speak or judge the truth of things. 

“To believe it possible to know a universally valid truth is in no way to encourage intolerance; on the contrary, it is the essential condition for sincere and authentic dialogue between persons” (#92)  The notion that tolerance is the first principle of political philosophy and not a practical principle for engagement in the highest things is itself a product of philosophic modernity.   This tolerance must, at the risk of fanaticism, deny, it is said, the possibility of  “universally valid truth.”  In other words, the very claim of “universally valid truth” is said to be fanatic, and thus not worthy of examination.  This position is itself the product of philosophy that must be examined for its philosophical integrity.  It takes no genius to comprehend that if the principle of absolute tolerance is true it is, by its own definition, false.  The Pope draws out the consequence of this contradiction, namely, that it is itself intolerant to refuse to examine a philosophy that claims to be true.  Moreover, there are conditions in which this examination can and should take place  – in “sincere and authentic dialogue between persons”  – that is, the very opposite of fanaticism or intolerance.  This is something already found in Plato, of course.  That widespread discussion of reason and revelation is not taking place, on the grounds that revelation has nothing to talk about or no opening to reason, is already, as it seems to Christians, a sign of unacknowledged fanaticism.  The condition of the polity is itself the result of ideas proceeding from the lowering of the sights of virtue on which modernity was originally built.              Clearly, classical political philosophy pointed to and in a sense brought human beings to friendship which itself depended on “the sincere and authentic dialogue among persons.”  Roman Catholic political philosophy cannot be unaware that the link between reason and revelation is most graphically attested to by St.  Thomas’ use of amicitia as the natural analogate for caritas.  That is to say, tolerance at its best is a condition of manners and friendliness that enables the highest things to exist in conversation.

“The Word of God is addressed to all people, in every age and in every part of the world; and the human being is by nature a philosopher” (#64).  Interestingly enough, the Pope’s  strongest words in criticism of the failure to study philosophy in the modern words are not directed at the professors but at theologians.  “I cannot fail to note with surprise and displeasure that this lack of interest in the study of philosophy is shared by not a few theologians” #60.

[1]Ernest Fortin, “Faith and Reason in Contemporary Perspective,” Classical Christianity and the Political Order: Reflections on the Theologico-Political Problem, edited by J.  Brian Benestad (Lanham, MD.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996), 299.

[2]John Paul II, “Fides et Ratio: On the Relationship between Faith and Reason,” L’Osservatore Romano, English, 14 October 1998, #76.

[3]Pierre Manent, The City of Man, trans.  Marc A.  LePain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 206.

[4]“It is not sufficient for everyone to obey and to listen to the Divine message of the city of Righteousness, the faithful city.  In order to propagate that message among the heathen, nay, in order to understand it as clearly and as fully as is humanly possible, one must also consider to what extent man could discern the outlines of that city if left to himself, to the proper exertion of his own powers.”  Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 1.  (Italics added.)

[5]See E.  F.  Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Harper Colophon, 1977), 27-39.

[6]Josef Pieper, “Philosophy out of a Christian Existence,” Josef Pieper  – an Anthology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 165.

[7]See Jacques Maritain, The Range of Reason (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952).

[8]On the curious philosophic order in Genesis itself, see Leo Strauss, “On the Interpretation of Genesis,” in Susan Orr, Jerusalem and Athens: Reason and Revelation in the Works of Leo Strauss (Lanham, MD.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995), 209-26.

[9]The best explication of this philosophic reasonableness of political authority is still Yves Simon, A General Theory of Authority (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980), 31-49.

[10]See William Wallace, The Modeling of Nature: Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Nature in Synthesis (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996).

[11]Herbert A.  Deane, The Political and Social Ideas of St.  Augustine (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), 5.

[12]Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (New York: Harcourt, 1978), Vol.  II, 84.

[13]See Paul Marshall, Their Blood Cries Out (Dallas: Word, 1997).

[14]See Oscar Cullmann, The State in the New Testament (New York: Scribner’s, 1956), 71-85: Heinrich Schlier, “The State in the New Testament,” The Relevance of the New Testament (New York: Herder & Herder, 1968), 234-38.

[15]“Philosophy, as a quest for wisdom, is quest for universal knowledge, of the whole.”  Leo Strauss, “What Is Political Philosophy?” What Is Political Philosophy?  And Other Essays (Glencoe, IL.: The Free Press, 1959), 11.

[16]Josef Pieper, “The Possible Future of Philosophy,” ibid, 184.