Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Notion of Civil Rights in Society: Thomas Aquinas vs. the Marxists

The Notion of Civil Rights in Society: Thomas Aquinas vs. the Marxists

Man has a right to do what it is right for him to do. So where do we find the objectivity of this “right,” and how are man’s “rights” based off of “right?” Is there an objectivity to man or not?  The underlying principle will be whether or not there is a god.

For Thomas Aquinas, who answers yes, man’s rights will be grounded in his being the imago Dei, the image of God.  For Karl Marx and his followers, who generally answer no, man’s rights must be viewed from a materialist and utilitarian perspective.

We will begin, then, at looking at man without God.  In other words, once the “opium of the masses” is removed and man stands as the highest entity, where will man’s rights be based? If the good of the many exceeds the good of the few, then political fiat will be what determines the ground of man’s rights.  “Man” will be seen primarily as the species of man, with little regard for the rights of “men” as individuals.

“Undoubtedly,” it will be said, “religious, moral, philosophical, and juridical ideas have been modified in the course of historical development. But religion, morality, philosophy, political science, and law, constantly survived this change…There are, besides, eternal truths, such as Freedom, Justice, etc., that are common to all states of society. But Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion and all morality, instead of constituting them on a new basis; it therefore acts in contradiction to all past historical experience.”  (Marx, pg. 92)

No doubt Marx ideas are a radical change from the ancient and classical view; he says so clearly himself.  Indeed he says that his system “abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion and all morality.” The previous sentence, then, which spoke of “Freedom, Justice, etc” as eternal truths he no doubt rejects.

A rejection of a true objective Justice but one based rather on political fiat reminds us, no doubt, of Thomas Hobbes.  “For where no covenant hath preceded, there hath no right been transferred, and every man has right to everything and consequently, no action can be unjust…” (Hobbes).

Both Marx and Hobbes are, of course, materialists, and therefore, reductionists. If we are “nothing but” matter, then the greater the amount of matter, the more important it will be.  Quantity seems to be the one way for materialists to measure anything. This materialism is certainly not the only way in which Hobbes’ influence can be seen in Marx.  Both are determinists as well.  Of course, determinism can be said to be a logical derivative of their materialism.

In reality the question is ultimately defined by our understanding of the human person. If the person is mere matter or if the person is somehow ultimate (which it would be hard to see how a person can be both the same time) will be the fulcrum on which we base our hierarchy.  If merely material being, it would be hard to justify “less material” being primary over “more matter.” Quantity would rightly be seen as the primary determinant; more in the material sense would be more in every sense. If man is somehow ultimate then the mere idea of grouping man together, although important, would not thereby be superior to him. Thomas Aquinas’ view of man as ultimate places the state at the service of man. The view of Karl Marx, rather, understands man as merely a part of the bigger political picture.

Marx can therefore say “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Marx’ understanding of needs, however, should not be confused in a way that would seem to make this compatible with authentic Catholic social teaching.  Of course, liberation theology and Marxism have often crossed paths, distorting the true good of each man as primarily eternal and not temporal.

When man and his rights as an individual are properly understood, temporal needs are not neglected but are placed properly below his eternal good. For Marx, of course, there is no such good.  Therefore, Marx teaching of “each according to his ability to each according to his need” is one of utilitarianism and not one of true charity.  It is one where the state has replaced God and utility has replaced love.

If our 80 or 90 years on earth is all we have, then perhaps, like the beasts, the continuation of the species becomes primary.  For a beast or a plant, it goes beyond itself by the succession of its kind, but in no other way. Once man is reduced to nothing but matter, chemicals and atoms and neurons, the goal shifts from the eternal good of “each man” to the overall temporal good of humanity, which itself can be reduced to Mill’s greatest pleasure and least suffering. It becomes a math equation that is certainly hard even on a purely material level to quantify. J.S. Mill’s and those he influenced, which must include Marx, have ever struggled to find an agreeable “equation” to determine just when this “total good” would be reached.

Indeed, returning to a view of man as similar to a herd of cattle, the continuation of the species of cattle is primary, as each head of cattle is merely a part of the big picture, spread out over time. It may be expedient for some cattle to be put down, so that the others may thrive, lest the whole group starve, for example.  This would be necessary for the preservation of the (temporal) whole, which is superior.

But what if man is different?  What if each man is something (or rather someone) that persists and has an utmost importance in his own right (even though this “right” is a gift)?  Viewed in this way, could we really treat the community of men as the herd of cattle?  No, because each man is not for the sake of the community, but rather, the community serves the ends of man. Or rather, the community serves the ends of “men,” each as unique person, rather than “man” in the abstract.

“Since something of the glory of God shines on the face of every person, the dignity of every person before God is the basis of the dignity of man before other men.” (Guadium et Spes) This statement from the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World can be taken as a one sentence definition of the position of Thomas Aquinas on the rights of man and their metaphysical grounds.

The passage above is quoted in The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church in the chapter The Human Person and Human Rights, which rightly precedes the chapter on family and political society.  We must understand man in himself before we can understand what a rightly ordered society, which is for the purpose of man, should look like.

In the Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, St. Thomas states that

“Furthermore, no one owes anything to another except because he depends on him in some way, or receives something either from him or from someone else, on whose account he is indebted to that other person; a son is a debtor to his father, because he receives being from him; a master to his servant, because he receives from him the services he requires; and every man is a debtor to his neighbor, on God’s account, from whom we have received all good things. God, however, depends on nothing, nor does He stand in need of anything that He may receive from another, as things previously said make perfectly clear. Hence, it was from no debt of justice that God brought things into being.”

Thomas is here speaking of creation and justice, and his main point is that God did not owe, out of any justice, to create anything.  The title of this chapter is usually rendered as “How Dueness is Entailed in the Production of Things.” We see that, in creation, there will be a certain dueness of one thing to another, on account of their having been made by God. The argument itself follows the premise that “every man is a debtor to his neighbor, on God’s account, from whom we have received all good things.”

Clearly, for St. Thomas, human rights are grounded in the truth of creation.  We have rights as a gift from God, who strictly owes nothing and cannot owe anything to anyone.  In creating us, however, in His image and likeness, we are “the only creature who God created for its own sake,” and as we are not our own, but were “purchased for a price,” our rights before other men and our obligations to them stem ultimately from the fact that we belong to God.  We therefore must respect what is not our own but rather God’s, and this includes our own self, all other men, and in fact all of creation. Human rights are grounded in their being a pure gift of God, whose first gift is our existence itself.

One may, at a superficial level, try to say that Aristotle could be considered as having said that the political end was the ultimate end of man.  Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics, says that “Political science…embraces the ends of the other practical sciences. For these reasons, then, this end will be the good of man… even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worthwhile to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states.” (EN, Book I, ch.2)

In commenting on this, St. Thomas says that “we should note that he says political science is the most important, not simply, but in that division of practical sciences which are concerned with human things, the ultimate end of which political science considers. The ultimate end of the whole universe is considered in theology which is the most important without qualification.”

In fact, Aristotle certainly was of the opinion that metaphysics was in some way man’s highest good, that is, to consider the ultimate causes.  Apart from the revelation of grace, however, and without a clear teaching on the eternity of the individual human soul, it was impossible for him to know how to reconcile this.

No matter, the position of St. Thomas is clearly that man, as a creature made by and for God, is, as individual, primary.  While even Thomas Aquinas would say that the state is a perfect society, this is said, as above, “in that division of practical sciences which are concerned with human [temporal] things.” In temporal things, in fact, the community is indeed higher than the individuals.

But man is not temporal, but rather eternal, and so all temporal things must be viewed in keeping with the eternal.  This is simply in live with the teleological teachings of St. Thomas.  What man is “for” will determine how he should act, and this includes how he should act towards other men.  As human rights were viewed from a greater perspective of obligation in antiquity, for Thomas, human rights found their basis here. Men are obligated to treat other men as creatures created by and loved by God.

This returns us to our basic statement of the position of St. Thomas on the origin of man’s rights: “Since something of the glory of God shines on the face of every person, the dignity of every person before God is the basis of the dignity of man before other men.”

Political society certainly has its place for Thomas Aquinas, and when it is understood correctly, this view of the state as at the service of man, not only glorifies man, but also increases the validity and dignity of the state.  Grace does not destroy nature, but rather perfects it.  When the state’s role is properly seen as an instrument to lead man to his ultimate end, which is the beatific vision, the state itself is elevated far beyond the mundane utilitarian and materialist view of Karl Marx.

All things can be properly understood only in the context of the whole, and this whole begins with the Creator of all that exists.  Aristotle would certainly agree, and it is in his “Politics” itself that he says “The mistake lies in the beginning- as the proverb says- ‘Well begun is half done’; so an error at the beginning, though quite small, bears the same ratio to the errors in the other parts.”

I would contend that, to view man or the state with the mistake that there is no God is “an error at the beginning,” but cannot conclude that it is “quite small.”

Bibliography of Sources Referenced:

Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, 1964 reprinted Notre Dame, Indiana 1993

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Bk II at

Aristotle, The Complete Works Volume I and II, Princeton, Edited by Jonathan Barnes, NJ 1984

Peter Kreeft, Socrates Meets Marx, San Francisco, California, 2003

Jacques Maritain, Man and the State, Chicago, 1951

Jacques Maritain, The Person and the Common Good, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1966

Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848, Broadway, NY, 1964

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church USCCB Publishing, Washington, DC 2005

Contraception – “What God has joined let no man put asunder”

Is a “general openness” to life sufficient, or is each particular act one that must remain open to life?  I would say that to decide that those couples who contracept, yet claim that they can and will be open to life “when the time is right” are standing on very shaky ground.  We are not open to the possibility of life, but rather the possibility of the possibility of life.  One wonders, then, how far we can extend this multiplication of possibilities.

The mentality that says “I will be generally open to life” has remarkable similarities to the “fundamental option” morality condemned in such documents as Veritatis Splendor. If a “general or sometime” openness to life is what justifies our marital union, contrary to our condemnation on those grounds of same sex unions, then are we really living what we claim?

To use an extreme example, many rapists and murderers in prison today are serving their sentence for just one act of these violent crimes.  Rightly so, we say.  But in reality, most days, in fact, on a great majority of them, they did not commit these crimes.  Apparently, then, the murderer has and probably still has a “fundamental option” to not murder almost everyone he comes across.  He is therefore not a murderer; it is not “who he is” but merely something he did.

I doubt many will agree with this last assessment.  Of course, what we do, even once, says something of what we are.  Murder is either right or wrong, and so is contraception.  These two crimes (and that’s what both are) may or may not be the same in God’s eyes, but wrong is wrong.  Therefore, based on our previous assessment of justifying opposite gender marriages on the principle of natural law and the openness to family that includes new life, we cannot twist this to say that a “once in a while” openness is sufficient. While we need not schedule every union with our spouse with the sole purpose of trying to produce children, we cannot render it impossible because we want only part of an action that God has made whole.  We dare not tell God that we have overcome His “mistake” of making sex and new life part of the same process.

In our final analysis, it comes down to this; will we accept not only God’s plan for marital union but for the human person as such? As Pope John Paul II tells us in Veritatis Splendor:

At this point the true meaning of the natural law can be understood: it refers to man’s proper and primordial nature, the “nature of the human person”, which is the person himself in the unity of soul and body, in the unity of his spiritual and biological inclinations and of all the other specific characteristics necessary for the pursuit of his end. “The natural moral law expresses and lays down the purposes, rights and duties which are based upon the bodily and spiritual nature of the human person. Therefore this law cannot be thought of as simply a set of norms on the biological level; rather it must be defined as the rational order whereby man is called by the Creator to direct and regulate his life and actions and in particular to make use of his own body”. (VS, 50)

The Church’s teaching on contraception, although supported by revelation, needs nothing further than reason separated from the vices that would cloud it: “But as to the other precepts, the natural law can be blotted out from the human heart, either by evil persuasions, just as in speculative matters errors occur in respect of necessary conclusions; or by vicious customs and corrupt habits” (ST I II q94,a6). The condemnation of contraception is based on the very objective foundation of the human person, created in the image of God.  In fact, it goes further, as God Himself became one of us.  The Second Person of the Trinity humbled Himself to become man, accepting all that it means to be human, even unto death.  If we call ourselves Christian, we should be at least humble enough to also accept what it is to be human, and not separate those aspects of it that we can overcome for our own selfish desires.

“What God has joined let no man put asunder”

Contraception and Same Sex Unions

Is openness and real possibility of life a part of what defines marriage and each marital act, or is it
not? Natural law would tell us that it is so.  We spoke before that “what God has joined let no man put asunder,” and we may assume that “safe, effective technology” is not an argument that refutes this.

A man and a woman who are friends may genuinely love one another, but there is a special kind of love that is reserved to “one man and one woman.”  This love is consummated in the marital act, and it is called the marital act for this reason.  We have already spoken of the fact that this marital act is for the generation of new life (although not only for this). Three necessary components, then, seem to be love, a couple that this love is between, and an openness to that love being fruitful.

Like a math equation, we cannot alter just one factor and expect the rest to be the same. Two plus two plus six is ten, but two plus six is not.  Therefore, when we change the factor I am calling “openness to life,” we necessarily alter the entire equation.

This leads us to a very strong argument for same sex marriages.  If love and a couple to share the bond are the only things necessary for a true marriage, removing a real openness to life of each marital act, how then do we say, through natural law, that the two that share this bond should be man and woman?  Although not my persuasion, it is admittedly true enough that two of the same gender can have an affectionate love for one another, and that this seems to be carried over to the “marital” act. While this is personally repulsive to me, my personal feelings alone on this should not be the final argument.  This type of subjectivism leads to the answer that same sex marriage is wrong for me but right for those that prefer it.

Rather, when we say we “redefine” marriage by legalizing same sex marriage, we have to mean something beyond this.  The objective ground we have to stand on is the very true and easily demonstrable (from reason alone) fact that marriage is for the family and not simply for the two involved.  This family is brought about by the union of the two that are married.

If this possibility of life is to be included in marriage, then it involves a man and a woman, and it involves a man and woman open to life.  A contraceptive relationship is one that decides that the union of the bodies is primary, and makes it superfluous as to the gender of the two involved.  A contracepting male and female and a non-contracepting (what would this mean?) male and male or female and female fit very similar definitions: two persons joined together and enjoy one another in a physical way. This mutual masturbation may be consented utilitarianism, but it is not a marriage.

One may argue that while two of the same sex can never procure children, the man and woman could, and are simply electing not to at certain times.  But this falls short of solving the problem, for we then merely admit that some of our acts are true marital acts and some are not.

Those who watch pornography are watching people who have, for all intents and purposes, “consented” to being viewed for this purpose.  The act that follows when one watches this is therefore one more instance of mutual masturbation, and certainly, we all agree, not a marital act.  My argument here is not, of course, to convince those that see no problem with masturbation and/or pornography; a different means is necessary for that discussion.  My audience here is those who wish to preserve the traditional view of marriage, either by their religious or secular beliefs, and my stance, although supported and strengthened by the truth of Christianity, needs no divine revelation to demonstrate its point.  We either understand, on the natural level (and thus can discuss these issues with reasonable people who nevertheless do not share the view that Revelation has been given to us), that marriage involves two people that are open to life as a possibility of their union, and thus this union MUST be between a man and a woman, or we remove the part about openness to life and, in doing so, remove the necessity of it taking place between those of opposite gender.

To further address the issue of whether each particular act must be open to life, and thus whether contraception is permissible some of the time, a new discussion will be had.  I choose here to discuss it from a Christian perspective; the principles will be derived most often from the natural law, which we can all know if we put aside our “vicious customs and corrupt habits.” For “by evil persuasions, just as in speculative matters errors occur in respect of necessary conclusions;… among some men, theft, and even unnatural vices, as the Apostle states, were not esteemed sinful (ST I-II, Q. 94, Art. 6).

What we will see is that a mere “fundamental option” to do what is right (in this case, to not contracept) is insufficient, because each and every act we perform says something about and indeed defines in the act itself what we are. The Apostle John could say “do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous,” for what we do is what we are.  This is not merely a religious truth (although of course it is), but a metaphysical one: what something is defines what it does, and what it does defines what it is.