Should Politics Be Taught in Catholic Schools?

November 15, 2019
Source: District of the USA

Fr. Jonathan Loop, Principal of Immaculate Conception Academy in Post Falls, ID, discusses whether or not political philosophy has a place in Catholic education.

Dear Parents, 

Over the All Saints’ break, I was able to visit St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Dillwyn, VA. In addition to seeing some of our 2019 graduates (who are doing well), I made a point of taking a day to tour Washington, DC (a mere three hours away). I spent some time on the National Mall, with the U.S. Capitol on one side, and the White House a few blocks away.  

Sprinkled around these two structures are a number of buildings which house a few of the innumerable members of the federal bureaucracy (above is a picture of the entrance to the building housing the EPA). The buildings are palatial and thus indicate the vast power possessed by these institutions, which are part of what our current President refers to as the “swamp” of DC. This “swamp” and its behavior can easily disillusion us when we think about civic education.

Politics indeed can often seem to be nothing more than the pursuit of crass self-interest by small-minded men and women.  This is all the more true when we consider our current American political landscape.  What could be the use of studying this?

However, this represents more of a caricature of politics than political philosophy properly understood. Political philosophy, as taught by Aristotle, deals with questions of justice and moral nobility. But here we do not mean justice in the sense of being faithful to your commercial transactions, but rather identifying accurately the best way of life for man. Thus, throughout the Western philosophical tradition and Christendom, political philosophy has been understood (either explicitly or implicitly) as a vital and noble science.

Aristotle, whom St. Thomas Aquinas closely followed, argued,

Now it would seem that this supreme End [of man] must be the object of the most authoritative of the sciences—some science which is pre-eminently a master-craft. But such is manifestly the science of Politics; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences are to exist in states, therefore, the Good of man must be the end of the science of Politics.

In other words, it is politics which deals with the highest and most important aspect of man, and thus the highest reality in the visible universe.

Why can we say that?  Since man is created in the image of God, we can say he is the pinnacle of the visible universe. Thus, to understand man’s nature as well as what perfects man – i.e., his “good” (as Aristotle referred to it) properly so called – is better than considering the rest of the heavens (astronomy) and the earth (biology, geology, etc).  

We do this initially through ethics, but  since man is a social creature, we cannot fully comprehend him apart from the wider community in which he lives. Thus, when we consider man’s good, not merely as an individual, but as a part of a greater whole – here, the political community – we are dealing with one of the most noble realities possible. Indeed, it is looking at politics that we can begin to grasp man’s nature most perfectly.  It is precisely for this reason that Aristotle can say that politics is akin to a "divine work."

At the same time, political philosophy is not only an object of speculative contemplation. It is also important for the direction of our lives. On the 50th anniversary of the encyclical Rerum Novarum, in the midst of the Second World War, Pius XII explained that the “the health or disease of souls flows and depends on the regime of the society in which they live.” What he is saying is that politics exercises an enormous influence on our formation and conduct as men – more so even than the family. For, it is the political regime that shapes the family through its laws as well as through its heroes and villains; i.e., those men who are proposed as models to be emulated or shunned. It is impossible – and unhealthy – to retreat or “secede” from the wider community in which one lives; whether we will or no, our political community influences us to an extent similar to that water exercises on the fish which live in it.

Finally, the study of political philosophy is necessary in order to begin to understand the Church’s doctrine of Christ the King. Grace builds on nature, and thus we must have some sense of the true natural relations between men in order to help build truly the kingdom of God on earth. If we ignore human realities – as did the Puritans – our efforts to build a Christian society will be marked by the lack of balance described by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter.

At ICA, therefore, we do make a point of presenting at least an introduction to political philosophy in our civics class, looking both at the Church’s teaching on politics as well as American political theory - at least to understand how being American has formed our thought and emotional reactions. This class is necessary to help our young men begin to think properly about man and the common good. It is also meant to help them judge politics of the day from the perspective of true and immutable principles, rather than the prejudices of party politicians or pundits. Getting angry at the "swamp" is not a sufficient guide for Catholic political thought or action.

In Christo Sacerdote et Maria,
Fr. Jonathan Loop

Immaculate Conception Academy - - 11/15/2019