This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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4.4. Basic Principles

General remarks

Having allowed the Church, as an “expert in humanity,”[1] to inform our view, establishing the family (and not the ‘individual’) as the basic unit of human society, we can now turn to those “universal principles” which it was claimed earlier that only the Church is competent to provide. On these principles, which are universal guides rather than specific cultural and political applications, we must build the remainder of our study.

[1] PP, 13.

Common good

Having acknowledged that man is social by nature, we can reasonably conclude that all aspects of social life must be related to the common good.[1] The whole is indeed greater than the part.[2] This is not to be construed as a disavowal of the individual in favor of the collective, but is rather a concern for the community, as a perfect society, that it may serve the needs of each individual, providing the conditions he requires for the full realization of his potential. The individual is not less than the community, but because he requires the community for his development, he depends upon it, and because he depends upon it he has a duty to seek its preservation. Each man is obligated to show concern for the common good, and to contribute to it as he is able. It would be flatly contradictory to operate on the premise that, although his proper fulfillment is found in society, he ought to consider his actions only in their individual aspect. There is no room in CST for the individualist mentality.[3]

It must also be mentioned that the obligation to care for the common good extends not only through space but also through time. There must be justice between generations. The Jeffersonian motto that “the land belongs only to the living” finds no echo in the Church, which demands that our immediate concerns “cannot exclude those who come after us.”[4] The earth “is on loan to each generation, which must then hand it on to the next.”[5] Through this principle we are called to practice “intergenerational solidarity.”[6]

[1] CSDC, 164.

[2] LS, 141; EG, 247.

[3] EG, 67, 78, 89, 99; OA, 23.

[4] LS, 158.

[5] Portuguese Bishops’ Conference, Responsabilidade Solidária pelo Bem Comum (15 September 2003), 20.

[6] LS, 159.

Universal destination of goods

As a direct consequence of the principle of the common good, we arrive at the universal destination of goods. In the words of the Second Vatican Council: “God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all mankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity.”[1] The earth—that first and greatest gift of nature from God to man—is the perennial source of sustenance to the human race, and because no man can do without the material goods that fulfill his basic needs (food and shelter), there exists a primordial right to use of its resources.[2]

[1] GS, 69.

[2] CCC, 2402, 2452; CSDC, 176-181; CA, 6; RN, 22.

Private property

Continuing in our logical progression, we come to private property, of which the first thing to be said is that it is a consequence of the universal destination of goods. As such it should never be imagined as something antagonistic to it or separate from it, as if the two principles operated in opposition to one another. They are mutually complementary and supportive. According to Aquinas:

“Community of goods is ascribed to the natural law, not that the natural law dictates that all things should be possessed in common and that nothing should be possessed as one’s own: but because the division of possessions is not according to the natural law, but rather arose from human agreement which belongs to positive law…Hence the ownership of possessions is not contrary to the natural law, but an addition thereto devised by human reason.”[1]

What Aquinas illustrates here is the Church’s notion of a “hierarchy of goods.” That everyone ought to have the opportunity to share in the goods of the earth is a dictate of natural law, but since the best way of achieving the widespread and responsible use of goods does not lie in communal ownership, we choose instead to implement the institution of private property. Private property is a good which is “superimposed” on top of the universal destination of goods in order to best serve it. Thus, private property must be conceived as a means of achieving an end:

“The fact that God has given the earth for the use and enjoyment of the whole human race can in no way be a bar to the owning of private property. For God has granted the earth to mankind in general, not in the sense that all without distinction can deal with it as they like, but rather that no part of it was assigned to any one in particular, and that the limits of private possession have been left to be fixed by man’s own industry, and by the laws of individual races. Moreover, the earth, even though apportioned among private owners, ceases not thereby to minister to the needs of all, inasmuch as there is not one who does not sustain life from what the land produces.”[2]

[1] ST II-II, q. 66, a. 2, ad. 1.

[2] RN, 8.

Justifications for private property according to Aquinas

Aquinas provides three concise reasons for the above, with which we would be wise to arm ourselves. First, every man is more careful to procure what is for himself alone than that which is common to many or to all. Second, human affairs are conducted more orderly if each man is charged with taking care of some particular thing himself. Third, we know that a more peaceful state is ensured to man if each one is contented with his own.[1]

[1] ST II-II, q. 66, a. 2.

The right of private property is to support the family

Because the family, rather than the individual, is the basic unit of society, then it must be acknowledged that the institution of private property is valid if and only if it benefits the family first and foremost, ensuring its stability and contributing to its development.

It is a most sacred law of nature that a father should provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten; and, similarly, it is natural that he should wish that his children, who carry on, so to speak, and continue his personality, should be by him provided with all that is needful to enable them to keep themselves decently from want and misery amid the uncertainties of this mortal life. Now, in no other way can a father effect this except by the ownership of productive property, which he can transmit to his children by inheritance.[1]

If conditions arise such that private property is somehow appropriated by individuals while families are left either without property or dependent on a few rich individuals for their survival, then it would become clear that private property was no longer serving its end, and it would open itself to just criticism.

[1] RN, 13.

The right of private property is not absolute

St. John Paul II said that “there is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them.”[1] Obviously this means that the right of private property is not absolute.[2] Indeed, Pope Francis has said that “God rejects every claim to absolute ownership.”[3] The universal destination of goods is always God’s point of departure.[4] Whenever circumstances arise in which private property comes into conflict with this principle, for example, if those who have an abundance of goods are unwilling to assist those in need, then it is quite legitimate for the State to intervene. In fact, because it is the role of the State to see to the just establishment and distribution of social goods, it would be irresponsible for it to remain silent. Far from being an offense against private property, such actions may become necessary in order to maintain the institution by protecting it from abuse. Aquinas himself went even further, saying: “All things are common property in a case of extreme necessity. Hence one who is in such dire straits may take another’s goods in order to succour himself, if he can find no one who is willing to give him something.”[5] Although such a position sounds extreme, the Catechism is in agreement.[6]

[1] Address to Indigenous and Rural People, Cuilapán, Mexico (29 January 1979), 6.

[2] LS, 93; CSDC, 177.

[3] LS, 67.

[4] LE, 14.

[5] ST II-II, q. 32, a. 7.

[6] CCC, 2408.

The preferential option for the poor

Pope Leo XIII instructed the State to show preference to social groups depending on the amount of political and economic power they were capable of wielding on their own behalf. That is to say, the State owes special attention to the weakest elements of society:

The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State.[1]

Particularly when speaking of the market, this means that it will sometimes be necessary to place stronger restraints on the actions of those with greater resources in order to ensure that the so-called “free market” remains free:

To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power. To claim economic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practise a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute.[2]

Because this responsibility is explicitly assigned to the State, we will develop this notion further when we arrive at our discussion of political society.[3]

[1] RN, 37.

[2] LS, 129.

[3] See Section VI below.

Solidarity and subsidiarity

Solidarity and subsidiarity go to form a pair of principles which, much like right and duty, should not be considered as separate or opposed, but rather as two sides of a coin which go to create a complementary harmony. Because of their correspondence, we have grouped them under the same heading. In fact, just as right destroys itself if divorced from the concept of duty, so subsidiarity and solidarity are guaranteed to destroy themselves if taken in isolation. That is why, as a general rule of thumb, we ought to be wary of any politician or reformer who claims to be a firm believer in one of these principles if he seems to neglect the other. He who does not grasp the interdependence of the pair will inevitably upset the balance of justice:

The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.”[1]

Having stressed their relation, we can proceed to discuss the unique truth represented by each.

[1] CV, 58.

Solidarity—working for the common good

St. Paul says in the Scriptures that we are one body, and that “if one member suffer anything, all the members suffer with it; or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it.”[1] The principle of solidarity is nothing more than the acknowledgement of this truth. It is not shallow sentimentalism; it is the acknowledgment of a responsibility: “[Solidarity] is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”[2] “It is precisely in this sense that Cain’s answer to the Lord’s question: ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ can be interpreted: ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ (Gen 4:9). Yes, every man is his ‘brother’s keeper’, because God entrusts us to one another.”[3] However, even though there is an undeniable aspect of obligation in the principle of solidarity, at its core it is an expression of love, because to love another is to desire their good and to be willing to act in order to secure it.[4]

[1] Cf. 1 Cor 12:12-26.

[2] SRS, 38.

[3] EV, 19.

[4] CV, 7.

Subsidiarity—enabling responsibility

Described by the popes as an effort to achieve a “graduated order”[1] and to encourage the “stratified”[2] organization of social institutions, subsidiarity promotes the teaching that man has a role to play in both private and public life, and ought to be allowed to play it insofar as he is capable of doing so.

[1] QA, 80.

[2] CV, 57.

Subsidiarity as a response to doctrinaire individualism

We must be wary of subsidiarity as abused by the libertarian ideology. It is not, as has been frequently construed, meant to be an affirmation of individualism. In fact, if we trace the development of subsidiarity in CST, we find that it was originally formulated as a response to the evils that pervasive individualism[1] had brought about:

When we speak of the reform of institutions, the State comes chiefly to mind, not as if universal well-being were to be expected from its activity, but because things have come to such a pass through the evil of what we have termed ‘individualism’ that, following upon the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds, there remain virtually only individuals and the State. This is to the great harm of the State itself; for, with a structure of social governance lost, and with the taking over of all the burdens which the wrecked associations once bore, the State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties.[2]

This passage illustrates the point that even sound principles, if pushed to an extreme limit, will sooner or later turn into their opposite. This has certainly proven true in the case of individualism, which, as we have just seen, is actually the cause of rather than the answer to the growth of the paternal State.

[1] See also: LS, 119, 162, 208, 210.

[2] QA, 78.

Subsidiarity defined

Thus, subsidiarity represents an answer to the dual problem of individualism and collectivism, meant to act as a harmonizing principle between autonomy and unity:

Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.[1]

[1] QA, 79.

Subsidiarity enables the State to act in its proper sphere

Only if the principle of subsidiarity is acted upon will States themselves be able to focus on those areas in which they are most competent:

The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands.[1]

[1] QA, 80.

Geared toward the family and intermediate associations

It is worth noting once more that CST rarely addresses men as individuals. Even when protecting his autonomy, the Church speaks in such a way that his social nature is affirmed rather than denied. Thus, the principle of subsidiarity itself is geared, not toward individuals, but toward associations, so that these small communities—the first and foremost being the family—can act responsibly without being “subsumed” by larger bodies.[1] The overarching idea is not that man ought to be more atomized, which is the tendency of individualism, but that he ought to be free to associate effectively and in a personal, responsible fashion with his peers:

“Subsidiarity is first and foremost a form of assistance to the human person via the autonomy of intermediate bodies. Such assistance is offered when individuals or groups are unable to accomplish something on their own, and it is always designed to achieve their emancipation, because it fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility. Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others. By considering reciprocity as the heart of what it is to be a human being, subsidiarity is the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state.”[2]

[1] RN, 35.

[2] CV, 57.


Arriving now at the subject of freedom and its role in the social teachings of the Church, we can begin by repeating a saying of St. John Paul II: “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”[1] Within this simple motto is a treasure-trove of meaning.

First, that freedom should not be understood merely as the arbitrary exercise of the individual’s will, but that it consists in the ability to direct one’s will toward a certain end—the good. This means that freedom is purposive, which is to say teleological. But even if we acknowledge the nature of freedom as having a specific direction, we immediately run up against another question: how is one to know which direction is right? We then come to understand how knowledge is a necessary prerequisite to the healthy exercise of freedom. We finally realize why man is the only “free” creature—because freedom requires intelligence and the choice to act in accordance with the truth gained thereby. Here lies the essence of human responsibility. Man can be free because he can seek truth, adhere to it, and act upon it.

[1] St. John Paul II’s words are worth citing in greater depth, as he is speaking in America and to Americans: “One hundred thirty years ago, President Abraham Lincoln asked whether a nation ‘conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’ could ‘long endure’. President Lincoln’s question is no less a question for the present generation of Americans. Democracy cannot be sustained without a shared commitment to certain moral truths about the human person and human community. The basic question before a democratic society is: ‘how ought we to live together?’ In seeking an answer to this question, can society exclude moral truth and moral reasoning? Can the Biblical wisdom which played such a formative part in the very founding of your country be excluded from that debate? Would not doing so mean that America’s founding documents no longer have any defining content, but are only the formal dressing of changing opinion? Would not doing so mean that tens of millions of Americans could no longer offer the contribution of their deepest convictions to the formation of public policy? Surely it is important for America that the moral truths which make freedom possible should be passed on to each new generation. Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” Homily given at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Baltimore on October 8, 1995, 7.

Purposive freedom

Freedom is neither an end nor an absolute. Its legitimacy is contingent on its vector—on how it is directed—and any formulation that divorces it from its directional aspect also destroys its validity. The Second Vatican Council put it thus:

“God willed to leave man in the power of his own counsel, so that he would seek his Creator of his own accord and would freely arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God.”[1]

In saying this we acknowledge not only that freedom has a direction, but we acknowledge also its proper goal, which is communion with God.[2] These characteristics temper the mentality, all too prevalent today, that in order to consider ourselves free we must also consider ourselves separate from the influence of our fellows. On the contrary, authentic freedom “is acquired in love, that is, in the gift of self.[3] Likewise it balances a second tendency of the same mentality, which would prefer a freedom almost without limits and which is also contrary to the Catholic understanding of the matter:

“That freedom is real but limited: its absolute and unconditional origin is not in itself, but in the life within which it is situated and which represents for it, at one and the same time, both a limitation and a possibility. Human freedom belongs to us as creatures; it is a freedom which is given as a gift, one to be received like a seed and to be cultivated responsibly.”[4]

[1] GS, 17.

[2] VS, 86.

[3] VS, 87.

[4] VS, 86.

Freedom of the will depends on intelligence

As we have already suggested, human liberty presupposes intelligence. “Liberty…belongs only to those who have the gift of reason or intelligence. Considered as to its nature, it is the faculty of choosing means fitted for the end proposed, for he is master of his actions who can choose one thing out of many.”[1] And so there can be no freedom—of will or anything else—without the human power to discern what is true and good:

“Now, since everything chosen as a means is viewed as good or useful, and since good, as such, is the proper object of our desire, it follows that freedom of choice is a property of the will, or, rather, is identical with the will in so far as it has in its action the faculty of choice. But the will cannot proceed to act until it is enlightened by the knowledge possessed by the intellect. In other words, the good wished by the will is necessarily good in so far as it is known by the intellect; and this the more, because in all voluntary acts choice is subsequent to a judgment upon the truth of the good presented, declaring to which good preference should be given. No sensible man can doubt that judgment is an act of reason, not of the will. The end, or object, both of the rational will and of its liberty is that good only which is in conformity with reason.”[2]

Thus, liberty must not be envisaged as an inborn capacity, but is more accurately described as an achieved and maintained condition which may exist to a greater or lesser degree in an individual depending on whether or not he lives within the dictates of right reason. “Such, then, being the condition of human liberty, it necessarily stands in need of light and strength to direct its actions to good and to restrain them from evil. Without this, the freedom of our will would be our ruin.”[3]

[1] LP, 5.

[2] LP, 5.

[3] LP, 7.

Freedom and truth

What has been said so far can be summarized through words of Christ: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”[1] For this reason he proclaimed to Pilate: “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.”[2] And in bearing witness to truth, he set humanity free.

Thus, John Paul II spoke correctly when he said that the “[w]orship of God and a relationship with truth are revealed in Jesus Christ as the deepest foundation of freedom.”[3] “[O]nly the freedom which submits to the Truth leads the human person to his true good. The good of the person is to be in the Truth and to do the Truth.”[4]

[1] Jn 8:32.

[2] Jn 18:37.

[3] VS, 87.

[4] St. John Paul II, Address to those taking part in the International Congress of Moral Theology (April 10, 1986), 1.

Freedom and morality

Just as freedom is always dependent on the truth, it is also inescapably connected with the question of morality, since right conduct is nothing more than action in accordance with the truth. To illustrate this connection, John Paul II frames his discussion in Veritatis Splendor around Christ’s conversation with the young rich man who asks: “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?”[1] Based on this question and Christ’s response to it, the saint explains:

The question of morality, to which Christ provides the answer, cannot prescind from the issue of freedom. Indeed, it considers that issue central, for there can be no morality without freedom: ‘It is only in freedom that man can turn to what is good’. But what sort of freedom? The Council, considering our contemporaries who ‘highly regard’ freedom and ‘assiduously pursue’ it, but who ‘often cultivate it in wrong ways as a licence to do anything they please, even evil’, speaks of ‘genuine’ freedom: ‘Genuine freedom is an outstanding manifestation of the divine image in man. For God willed to leave man ‘in the power of his own counsel’ (cf. Sir 15:14), so that he would seek his Creator of his own accord and would freely arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God’.”[2]

Elsewhere the same pontiff explains that it was through the question of morality that God taught man to take his first steps in freedom. This was accomplished in the Garden of Eden by placing before man the tree of knowledge of good and evil.[3] The command “you shall not eat” is not some sort of cruel setup, a trap set for a creature doomed to failure: it was the necessary training ground for an education in freedom, the good of which was known to be so great that it was destined to outweigh any evil that might result from its abuse.[4]

It is through this example that we learn the positive purpose of moral prohibitions, and how “God’s law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom; rather, it protects and promotes that freedom.[5]

Here St. John Paul II is arguing against the popular tendency to speak of morality and freedom as if the two were in opposition, as if for one to be cultivated the other must be destroyed. Leo XIII had dealt with the same misunderstanding long before him, and had spoken against it frequently in his battle with the Enlightenment philosophers: “Nothing more foolish can be uttered or conceived than the notion that, because man is free by nature, he is therefore exempt from law. Were this the case, it would follow that to become free we must be deprived of reason.”[6] Moral laws, far from depriving the human being of his freedom, “make him at once the possessor of a more perfect liberty.”[7]

“Man’s genuine moral autonomy in no way means the rejection but rather the acceptance of the moral law, of God’s command: ‘The Lord God gave this command to the man…’ (Gen2:16). Human freedom and God’s law meet and are called to intersect, in the sense of man’s free obedience to God and of God’s completely gratuitous benevolence towards man. Hence obedience to God is not, as some would believe, a heteronomy, as if the moral life were subject to the will of something all-powerful, absolute, ex-traneous to man and intolerant of his freedom.”[8]

[1] Mt 19:16.

[2] VS, 34.

[3] St. John Paul II, Theology of the Body (Boston: 2006), pp. 150-156.

[4] ST I, q. 2, a. 3.

[5] VS, 25.

[6] LP, 7.

[7] LP, 12.

[8] VS, 41.

Freedom and society

If human freedom is brought to fruition to a greater or lesser extent depending on the degree to which the individual acts in conformity with truth and the will of God, then we can apply the same reasoning to society as a whole:

From this it is manifest that the eternal law of God is the sole standard and rule of human liberty, not only in each individual man, but also in the community and civil society which men constitute when united. Therefore, the true liberty of human society does not consist in every man doing what he pleases, for this would simply end in turmoil and confusion, and bring on the overthrow of the State; but rather in this, that through the injunctions of the civil law all may more easily conform to the prescriptions of the eternal law.[1]

Therefore, the nature of human liberty, however it be considered, whether in individuals or in society, whether in those who command or in those who obey, supposes the necessity of obedience to some supreme and eternal law, which is no other than the authority of God, commanding good and forbidding evil. And, so far from this most just authority of God over men diminishing, or even destroying their liberty, it protects and perfects it, for the real perfection of all creatures is found in the prosecution and attainment of their respective ends; but the supreme end to which human liberty must aspire is God.[2]

[1] LP, 10.

[2] LP, 11.

Freedom, natural law, and the body

Our discussion would not be complete if we failed to take into account the body as it pertains to freedom. In the eyes of natural law, the body acts as a fundamental part of morality and the exercise of freedom, but as freedom became doctrinaire, considered more and more in terms of liberal and libertarian ideologies, the body became irrelevant—a mere vehicle for use by the person trapped within it, a piece of property owned by the self, to be used according to whim and fancy, with nothing more to tell us about right conduct. This becomes blatantly obvious in systems where freedom is viewed as absolute, at which point the body is deprived of all objective meaning and is treated as chattel or property:

A freedom which claims to be absolute ends up treating the human body as a raw datum, devoid of any meaning and moral values until freedom has shaped it in accordance with its design. Consequently, human nature and the body appear as presuppositions or preambles, materially necessary for freedom to make its choice, yet extrinsic to the person, the subject and the human act…This moral theory does not correspond to the truth about man and his freedom. It contradicts the Church’s teachings on the unity of the human person, whose rational soul is per se et essentialiter the form of his body. The spiritual and immortal soul is the principle of unity of the human being, whereby it exists as a whole — corpore et anima unus — as a person. These definitions not only point out that the body, which has been promised the resurrection, will also share in glory. They also remind us that reason and free will are linked with all the bodily and sense faculties.[1]

The body, because it has meaning, also has the ability to inform us as to the content of natural law, and as such it is never a hindrance but a created good, ready to assist man in the pursuit of the truth. Because of this it is an error to reduce morality to a spiritual and abstract thing, as if man were not both body and soul:

A doctrine which dissociates the moral act from the bodily dimensions of its exercise is contrary to the teaching of Scripture and Tradition. Such a doctrine revives, in new forms, certain ancient errors which have always been opposed by the Church, inasmuch as they reduce the human person to a ‘spiritual’ and purely formal freedom. This reduction misunderstands the moral meaning of the body and of kinds of behaviour involving it…body and soul are inseparable: in the person, in the willing agent and in the deliberate act, they stand or fall together.[2]

It is only through these precepts that the meaning of the natural law can be properly grasped:

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.[3]

The natural law does not allow for any division between freedom and nature, but rather acts as a harmonizing principle between the two.[4]

[1] VS, 48.

[2] VS, 49.

[3] DV, Introduction, 3.

[4] VS, 50.

Freedom and conscience

We are now capable of addressing the issue of the relationship between conscience and freedom. This relationship is of particular importance in our present political context, where debates frequently erupt regarding what pertains to the private judgement of the individual’s conscience, what behavior can be coerced by a social authority, and what authority is capable of decided on such things. These debates sooner or later lead to the invocation of phrases such as the “primacy of conscience,” or complaints that a particular issue is a matter for “prudential judgment.” These two concepts are distinct in themselves, but tend to become confused when converted into political slogans—but always they pertain to freedom and are invoked under the pretense of defending a valid freedom. We will discuss each of these at a later point, when we come to the subject of Catholic morality in particular,[1] but for now we should pause to mention that the conscience itself, while it must always be respected, can never be imagined as something operating arbitrarily, as if it has no limits or obligations external to itself. Its freedom must be considered in the same fashion as in the preceding sections. The proper view can be summarized in the words of John Paul II:

Although each individual has a right to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known. As Cardinal John Henry Newman, that outstanding defender of the rights of conscience, forcefully put it: ‘Conscience has rights because it has duties’.[2]

Although a lengthy discussion could be carried out with respect to what this means in practice for political and religious authorities, those points will be elaborated elsewhere. Here we will merely mention that the most important duty of the conscience is to be properly formed, and formed by that teacher who is most competent to instruct it, which is the Church:

…the authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians. This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom ‘from’ the truth but always and only freedom ‘in’ the truth, but also because the Magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith. The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it.[3]

[1] See section 4, parts 1c and 4g.

[2] VS, 34.

[3] VS, 64.


It seems prudent to close our discussion of freedom with a few observations regarding slavery. This is because, as obvious as it may seem, the prevalent misunderstanding of human liberty leads directly to a misunderstanding of its opposite extreme. For example, because of the tendency to oversimplify freedom as the absence of restraints on personal conduct, then we inevitably reduce slavery to nothing more than an excessive restriction on one’s actions. Usually once this happens, the defenders of this misunderstood freedom begin to construe every limit to freedom as a step in the direction of slavery, which is obviously not the case at all.

However, if we take into consideration what has been said above, we see first and foremost that freedom consists in action in accordance with the true and the good, and that action in contradiction to truth and goodness is only the semblance of liberty. Thus, St. Thomas Aquinas, commenting on the words of our Lord, says the following:

“Everything is that which belongs to it naturally. When, therefore, it acts through a power outside itself, it does not act of itself, but through another, that is, as a slave. But man is by nature rational. When, therefore, he acts according to reason, he acts of himself and according to his free will; and this is liberty. Whereas, when he sins, he acts in opposition to reason, is moved by another, and is the victim of foreign misapprehensions. Therefore, ‘Whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin.’ ”[1]

Leo XIII observed that even the pagans recognized this fact when they said that the wise man alone is free.[2]

Yet our study would be incomplete if we did not mention a second aspect of the Christian doctrine concerning slavery, which perhaps runs even more contrary to the modern way of thinking. Because freedom is often seen as an absolute good, then it is easy to draw the conclusion, unconsciously and automatically, that any sort of servitude is somehow subhuman and evil. But scripture and the constant teachings of the Church again offer a much different view. Since liberty lies in conformity with the good, then it is more accurate to say that slavery is only degrading to the person if he is enslaved to sin; but, on the contrary, slavery to God would amount to the highest realization of liberty.

And so we conclude with words of warning given by St. Augustine:

“In the house of the Lord, slavery is free. It is free because it serves not out of necessity, but out of charity… Charity should make you a servant, just as truth has made you free… you are at once both a servant and free: a servant, because you have become such; free, because you are loved by God your Creator; indeed, you have also been enabled to love your Creator… You are a servant of the Lord and you are a freedman of the Lord. Do not go looking for a liberation which will lead you far from the house of your liberator!”[3]

[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, On the Gospel of St. John, ch. 8, lect. 4, n. 3.

[2] LP, 6.

[3] St. Augustine, Enarratio in Psalmum XCIX, 7.


Justice is briefly defined as “the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.”[1] In more familiar terms, it is the precept that we must treat every other person as if they were persons, and not as if they were objects or pieces of furniture. It concerns our attitude and action not only toward individuals, but toward our community and other communities, and vice versa. It is, according to the Compendium, the “decisive criteria of morality” in the social sphere.[2] But so far we have only spoken generally and vaguely, and this will not help us when it comes to application and action. Therefore we must dig a bit further into the problem of justice, and consider it in the traditional fashion, as divided into four parts: commutative, distributive, legal, and social. Because justice is an intrinsically relational principle, it is divided into parts depending on the nature of the relationship in question.[3]

[1] CCC, 1807.

[2] CSDC, 201.

[3] See also: ST II-II, q. 61, a. 1; CCC, 2426; CSDC, 201; CV, 36-37.

Commutative justice

The first and most immediately apparent economic relationship is that which exists between one individual and another in daily commerce. Because this sort of justice concerns contracts between individuals and strictly follows the principle of “equality in exchange,” we call this justice commutative. Commutative justice obliges that we pay others what we owe them, fulfilling our contractual obligations to the greatest extent possible. [1]

[1] CCC, 2411.

Distributive justice

Next we come to the relationship between the community at large and the individual. When we consider this relationship from the point of view of the community, it is called distributive justice, as opposed to legal justice, which is the same relationship viewed from the other direction—from the point of view of the individual. Distributive justice regulates those things owed by the community to a participating and law-abiding member according to his contribution and need.[1] It is in accordance with distributive justice that governing officials must judge whether or not a market is operating to the benefit of each individual in a just manner, and if this is not the case then it may be legitimate to pursue justice through adjustments to market structures, as well as through mechanisms of redistribution.[2]

[1] ST II-II, q. 61, aa. 1-2.

[2] As abhorrent as the very word “redistribution” has become in certain circles, Benedict XVI invoked it no less than eight times in Caritas in Veritate (see paragraphs 32, 36, 37, 39, 42, 49).

Legal justice

Also called “contributive justice,” legal justice concerns the relationship between the individual and the community at large. Considered as such, it is the same relationship as that of distributive justice, only from the opposite point of view. It directs an individual as to what he owes the society in which he lives. The obligation to pay taxes to a government authority in order to contribute to the common good is an example of legal justice.[1]

[1] CCC, 2411.

Social justice

Last, we may speak of the most general concept of justice, which is for that reason called social. Because of its nature, this form of justice circumscribes everything else—ordering, subordinating, but never eliminating or destroying, the other forms.[1] This point of view addresses structural problems and formulates appropriate solutions at a broad level.

[1] CCC, 2426; CSDC, 201.

Ideology and the oversimplification of justice

Having delineated the various types of justice, all of which must be taken into consideration when discussing CST, we can now see that, historically speaking, the greatest offenses against justice do not come from a total rejection of justice, but rather from an emphasis on one part of justice to the exclusion of certain others. To say the same thing another way, the problem of justice has historically been one of partiality and oversimplification. This is most evident when examining the history of ideologies, which are by definition oversimplifications of reality in an attempt to solve large problems with sweeping generalizations. Capitalist ideology, for example, has a history of insisting on the importance of commutative justice (justice in exchange) while disregarding or denying validity of distributive justice.[1] Socialism, on the other hand, gives an almost exclusive emphasis to distributive justice, and consequently neglects the role of commutative justice. Capitalism and Socialism, both being market ideologies, reveal the problems inherent in naïve and simplistic worldviews which try to address all social problems in terms of just one kind of justice. This is also why the Church so often adopts the point of view of social justice: this is not because she prefers one justice to another, but because social justice involves the broadest possible view of the economic field, and is therefore capable of taking into account and ordering the other parts within it so that they can work in harmony with one another.

[1] CV, 35.