A traditionalist approach


J. Alan Smith offers some principles for a Christian approach to the solution of political, social and economic problems

Man is the only creature known to be aware of his own existence and of the existence of the universe itself. This gives humans a very special place in creation. Each person has the power to gain some understanding of the universe and we should therefore hold each of our fellow humans in high regard throughout his life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death.

How we ought to behave

It follows that we have a duty to find out as much as we can about the world in the brief time we have. There may be duties laid upon us. If there are not, then we may perhaps have wasted our brief lives. On the other hand, if there are duties laid upon us that could have easily been discovered, then the consequences of not investigating the world could be dire.

Further, we have a life-span of up to, say, 100 years yet we are heirs to a civilization of some 3,000 years. Thus, in seeking to understand the world, we need to make full use of the work of others, without accepting it uncritically. As Sir Isaac Newton wrote: ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’

One of the facts about the universe that has been discovered by societies throughout history is the objective existence of the moral law or natural law that describes how men ought to behave, not how they do behave. A child who states, ‘That’s not fair!’ is not simply disagreeing with what has happened but is claiming, perhaps unconsciously, that there is a moral law. Some may disagree but, as Doctor Johnson put it: ‘But if he really does think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, Sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons.’

Need for human law

If all men were virtuous, morality would be enough to govern their behaviour, but, as things are, there is

a need for human law to control both the governed and the governors. This must be rooted in morality, otherwise governments would be no more than robber bands.

We are sometimes faced with a false antithesis between a secular code and the full implementation by the state of the code of a particular religion such as Shariah law. However, there is no need for the state to implement fully the code of a particular religion. The best answer is that given below by St Thomas Aquinas, taken from Summa Theologiae Ia IIae, 96, 2. Question 96 discusses the power of human law; article 2 asks ‘is it the business of human law to restrain all vice?’

Aquinas’ view

In his answer, Aquinas states: ‘Law is laid down for a great number of people, of which the majority have no high standard of morality. Therefore it does not forbid all the vices, from which upright men can keep away, but only those grave ones which the average man can avoid, and chiefly those which do harm to others and have to be stopped if human society is to be maintained, such as murder and theft and so forth.’

What is required is for one or more authorities, independent of the state, to offer interpretations of natural law to guide in the formulation of human law.

A major divide in political philosophy is between those who believe in the existence of an ultimate solution to political problems and those who do not. In general, those who believe in the existence of an ultimate solution, do so because they believe that they possess it; moreover, they believe in

its inevitability. For those of us who do not, there are four consequences of this divide.

Four consequences

We are prejudiced against change, though not totally opposed to it. Our current systems work to a greater or lesser extent, and any changes should be tested to ensure that they lead to improvement rather than deterioration.

The second Viscount Falkland summed up this fundamental principle: ‘When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.’

We prefer evolutionary change to revolutionary change. Preferably, any change should be small enough so that we may predict its likely effects and be able to reverse the change should that step prove necessary.

We believe that power should be diffused as much as possible. This is the principle of subsidiarity, best stated in the papal encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (The Social Order): ‘Just as it is wrong to withdraw from the individual and commit to a group what private enterprise and industry can accomplish, so too it is an injustice, a grave evil and a disturbance of right order, for a larger and higher association to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower societies.

Of its very nature, the true aim of all social activity should be to help members of the social body, but never to destroy or absorb them.’

We believe that there is a similar principle to Subsidiarity, which may be called Temporal Subsidiarity. It asserts that there are natural limits to the extent that we may restrict the choices available to future generations.

These points are not original but may, perhaps, comprise an original arrangement. They provide traditionalist Christians with a useful approach to the solution of political, social, and economic problems. ND

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