This is the second in a four-part series on St. Thomas and Catholic Social Teaching.
Just a couple of years back, a Dominican friar gave a presentation at a Theology on Tap on angels. He explained their nature, their ranks, and their place in our spiritual lives. A local news correspondent attended the lecture to dig up a story for the next day’s paper. Following the Q&A session, she approached this priest to fill out her notes with a little tête-a-tête. After a few cursory questions on the topic itself, she soon turned to what really rankled her: The Church’s moral teaching. The Bible and violence. Faith and science. The usual suspects. At first, the friar was delighted to give reasons point for point, but he soon decided it was high time to identify the more fundamental source of her antipathy. “Do you believe that Love created the universe?” Like a bomb in the middle of the bar, it resounded amidst the lagers and ales with a blunt force. She stood there stunned, and retreated from asking any more questions. And yet, while it may seem somewhat out of place at the local watering hole, this question is at the core of all that’s worthwhile, everything from beer to biblical exegesis.
Love is the muse and catalyst of all human striving. The reason why anyone chooses this over that, or even wakes up from his proverbial nap and quits the couch at all, is love. Amidst the bazaar of the world’s goods, man often finds himself tottering to and fro, bewildered and bemused by the panoply of options. And then he is struck by the goodness of something, something to which he can give his life, and the whole vision is altered. For some men it’s the first love. For others the first child. For still others, the painful realization that they’re forty and still playing video games in their parents’ basement. Love is kindled in his heart, making it a dynamo, generating power hitherto unknown. Mr. Darcy becomes affable. Sonia follows Raskolnikov to Siberia. The martyr suffers tortures.
St. Thomas resolves the whole of man’s passionate life to love. Love is the root of desire, of delight, and of hope; of hatred, of aversion, and of fear. It should come as no surprise then that love imparts an order to human life. Because we are made in the image and likeness of Love and because love is the driving force of life, it establishes the bounds of human communion and gives a pattern for our flourishing. And it holds true for every aspect of human life, from your prayer life to buying local.
St. Thomas teaches that love imparts a structure to the ties that bind us. God, who is the source of our whole being and the universal cause and destination of love, has the foremost claim on our hearts. Furthermore, St. Thomas goes on to enumerate the order of our affections after God: We love ourselves, our neighbors, our bodies, etc. He even distinguishes between the grades of love which are due to the different members of our families (Don’t worry moms . . . even St. Thomas with his antiquated biology affirms your importance in our lives). In the course of this discussion, he asks who among our neighbors we should love more. Surprisingly, he comes down on the side of those closest to us: “Even as regards the affection we ought to love one neighbor more than another. The reason is that, since the principle of love is God, and the person who loves, it must needs be that the affection of love increases in proportion to the nearness to one or the other of those principles. For … , wherever we find a principle, order depends on relation to that principle” (Summa theologiae, IIaIIae, q. 26, a. 6).
This principle of love’s order has considerable implications in practically every aspect of human communion and proves crucial for the organization of civic polity and economy alike. Because we are more closely bound to those nearer us, share more of our lives with them, and interact in a milieu of common thought, folk, work, and place, it follows that we can be expected to operate more effectively in the pursuit of common ends to the extent that this common vision is invoked. The most stable units at each level of society are those where a common love forges a common union trained on common ends. In fact, this union is often so significant as to constitute a kind of person (albeit a moral one).
From this follows one of the bedrock principles of Catholic social teaching: subsidiarity. The principle of subsidiarity holds that communal problems and decisions should be handled on the most intimate terms as are possible. A problem that can be effectively treated at the local level should not be handled by regional or federal or international bodies. By examining the principles of this claim in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, the rationale behind this time-honored practice should be evident. Love provides the impetus for communal striving, and can marshal a fantastic power when conducted within an ordered whole. By losing touch with the fundamental units (family, region, culture, land) wherein love grows organically, human interactions can descend into the frenzy of ideology. But when fostered “close-to-home,” in both economic and political spheres, love effects the union and attainment which it seeks.
Image: Alan Franklin, A Day at the Beach