American politics: What would Aquinas say?

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American politics
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One needn’t be a big fan of Kevin McCarthy to see the California Republican’s ouster as Speaker of the House of Representatives as a significant low point in recent American politics. Unfortunately, there’s apparently more — much more — yet to come.

Consider the painful fact that a year before the election, the presidential race already shows signs of being the nastiest in living memory. Some Democrats talk seriously of using provisions of the 14th Amendment, originally aimed at office-holders of the Confederate States, to keep former president Donald Trump off the ballot. Not to be outdone, House Republicans have begun an impeachment probe with the goal of tarring President Biden.

Do I hear someone saying, “At least it can’t get any worse”? Maybe not, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The bipartisan spirit of vengeance and extremism now animating our politics threatens to turn America into the superpower version of those unhappy places where seeking high office can land you in prison.

Aquinas, kingship and the speaker contest

However you look at it, our politics stands badly in need of an infusion of decency and idealism. And a help to that can be found in St. Thomas Aquinas and his treatise on kingship. Written in the 1260s at the request of the King of Cyprus, much that it says doesn’t apply to our present situation, but parts of it deserve thoughtful, even prayerful reflection.

As, for example, this: “It pertains to the king’s office to promote the good life of the multitude in such a way as to make it suitable for the attainment of heavenly happiness … [A king] should command those things which lead to the happiness of heaven and, as far as possible, forbid the contrary.”

St. Thomas Aquinas
St. Thomas Aquinas is depicted in a painting at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington. (OSV News photo/CNS file, Nancy Wiechec)

Can you imagine a candidate saying anything remotely like that in one of the presidential debates? Neither can I. And doesn’t that shed light on our present problem?

How about a platform? Declaring that a king’s “principal concern” should be “the means by which the multitude subject to him may live well,” Aquinas says this has three elements: first, that people be “established in the unity of peace”; second, that they are “directed to acting well”; and third, that they have “a sufficient supply of the things required for proper living.” In other words: peace at home and abroad, laws that serve the common good, and a stable, prosperous economy operating to the benefit of all.

The reward for running a government?

What should a king get for doing a good job? St. Thomas notes that honor and glory are commonly considered suitable rewards for someone who does well in the top job. But not so fast, he adds: “The desire for human glory takes away the greatness of soul, which is crucial to greatness in a king.” True, a king should want glory rather than money or pleasure. But, granting that, “it is the mark of a virtuous and brave soul to despise glory as he despises life.”

“Therefore,” Aquinas writes, “since worldly honor and human glory are not sufficient reward for royal cares … it is proper that a king look to God for his reward.” This makes perfect sense, he points out, when you consider that, as Scripture says, “the king is the minister of God in governing the people.”

I wouldn’t expect to hear any of this on MSNBC and Fox. But I can’t help hoping such thinking, appropriately updated, could somehow find its way into the political mainstream during an ugly election year. Would any of our present political leaders like to give it a try?

Russell Shaw

Russell Shaw writes from Maryland.