Civic Democracy and Catholic Authority in Conflict? Yves Simon's Thomist Democratic Authority
Are civic democracy and Catholic authority at odds? Do the aspirations of modern democratic politics imply theological claims that are in essential conflict with Catholic claims about civic authority? Does democratic tradition cultivate a self-reliant, skeptical stance toward authority that is incompatible with a cultivation of deference to authority in orthodox Christian tradition? Are we confronted with two traditions in conflict, such that the Catholic tradition must be rendered more democratic if it is to provide support for modern democratic politics? Is an approach to theological ethics that emphasizes the church, with its authoritative teachings and offices, and its claim to be a unique means of grace as a form of Christ’s body, necessarily at odds with an approach that emphasizes the civic nation and lends support to struggles for democratic progress?
These questions are prompted by Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition, as well as D. Stephen Long’s Augustinian and Ecclesial Ethics in his characterization of the debate between two schools of theological ethics, largely Niebuhrian and civic liberal or Yoderian and ecclesial in orientation, which he labels “Augustinian” and “ecclesial.” This dissertation will present Yves Simon’s political philosophy as providing significant elements of a way forward for this discussion. Following Alasdair MacIntyre, I present Simon as an adherent of both the Catholic and the modern democratic traditions, who as a Thomist is able to provide an account of civic politics wherein liberty and authority, authority and autonomy, and Catholicism and democracy are friends instead of enemies. Simon as a Thomist is able to do this, as I present him, while rival restorationist Augustinian and Enlightenment liberal accounts tended to see such pairs as antinomic.
In chapters one and two, I begin to assess Simon’s contribution, following MacIntyre by seeking to understand him within the “complex political and moral history” out of which he emerged. In chapter one, I give an account of the tradition of Catholic social teaching Simon inherited, characterizing it as taken up by two approaches, Augustinian and Thomist, to confronting the challenge of practical atheism raised by Enlightenment liberalism. Simon took up the mantle of Leonine Thomism, in its deep criticism of liberalism’s social contract, its rejection of restorationist Augustinian views of authority, and its articulation of civic authority as a created natural good with a divine origin, a positive aspect of our social nature in service of the common good.
In chapter two, I draw out the rootedness of Simon’s political thought in the crises of the early twentieth century, showing how his critique of liberalism went along with firm support for democratic liberation, and how his developing theory of authority went hand in hand with opposition to authoritarian regimes. Here, I examine Simon’s early political essays, books, and letters to his mentor Jacques Maritain. Simon emerges as a committed Leonine neo-Thomist who placed the Thomist tradition in conversation with the democratic tradition stemming from the French and American revolutions. Simon found resources in the Thomist and democratic traditions to support a politics in which authority and liberty were not opposites, but in service of common goods in which the liberty, equality, and fraternity of persons-in-community were secured.
In chapter three, I present Simon’s mature political philosophy as a project that indicates how the Thomist preconciliar tradition of Catholic social thought can contribute to contemporary theological ethics. Simon’s ontologically realist conception of the common good helps us understand that authority is a correlative concept, that which enables a community to enjoy goods in common. Starting here, Simon is able to show that democratic aspirations for freedom and equality are better served within an authoritative community that pursues goods in common than by an Enlightenment liberal polity that does not. Moreover, it is better able to form people in the civic virtues needed for such a polity to flourish, and is capable of openness to God’s grace.
In my conclusion, I place Simon’s work into conversation with contemporary theological ethics. Simon’s Thomist acceptance of the acquired or civic virtues, his Thomist account of authority in service of the common good (rather than an Augustinian account for which authority serves as a check against sin), his vigorous defense of democratic freedom and equality joined to his defense of civic authority, and his openness to the further ends of the theological virtues, all provide helpful tools for contemporary discussion. Today’s conversation, largely Augustinian in character, can be moved forward by Thomist insights drawn from the preconciliar tradition of Catholic social teaching. Democratic freedom and equality need not be in conflict with Catholic authority. With Simon’s Thomist account of civic authority and the common good, we are enabled to pursue both the civic national and the ecclesial projects at the same time.
Catholic social teaching
Catholic social thought
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