Great Dominicans, Good Society: Successful Acton Rome conference
Religion & Liberty Online

Great Dominicans, Good Society: Successful Acton Rome conference

On Tuesday, the Acton Institute and its Rome office concluded another very successful international conference, Freedom, Virtue and the Good Society: The Dominican Contribution.  The 380-person overflow attendance at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (the Angelicum) included participants from the Angelicum itself and other pontifical universities, various religious and missionary orders, diverse sectors of business, non-profits and political leadership, as well as representatives from diplomatic corps to the Holy See.

The Angelicum’s Dean of Social Sciences, Fr. Alejandro Crosthwaite, opens the conference.

Promoted as a “sequel” to the equally successful November 2017 conference at the nearby Pontifical Gregorian University on the Jesuit contribution to building up a free and just globalized world, this week’s conference focused on the specifically Dominican tradition in sustaining a more free, virtuous and just society.

In a press release, conference speaker and Acton’s Director of Research, Samuel Gregg, said the Institute’s Rome office had gathered “leading international scholars to enlighten us on the unique ways in which important Dominicans have contributed to the advancement of freedom, prosperity, and justice in Western societies…helping to establish modern economies, place limits on government power, (and) address the challenge of the French Revolution.”

Gregg concluded saying that while Dominicans of the past had “played key roles,  even today (they) remain unappreciated.” They boldly “unsettled the status quo of their time” to advance the Christian foundations of the free society and can still teach us a lot today as we struggle to resolve our own current crises of faith and civil society.

During her lead-off lecture, Sr. Catherine Joseph Droste, O.P., vice dean of theology at the Angelicum, spoke about the unique ways in which St. Catherine of Siena promoted a free, virtuous and just society. In her creative and original paper entitled “Catherine of Siena’s Humanism – a.k.a. A Tale of Two Cities,” Droste said the great medieval saint and Doctor of the Church demanded “virtue and growth in self-knowledge of ecclesial and political leaders, not merely for their own sake, but for the sake of those they serve.”

Further, Droste said, Catherine demanded that political leaders be “fearless rulers of your ‘own city’ and the city ‘lent to you’.”

“The soul with self-knowledge knows how to govern her own city, how to root out inordinate self-love and servile fear which endanger both cities. As (St. Catherine) writes, ‘one will badly possess the loaned city if he does not first govern and rule himself.'”

Rulers blinded by self-love, St. Catherine says, “do not attend to the universal common good, but only to their own good.”

Fr. Martin Rhonheimer, President of the Austrian Institute of Economics and Social Philosophy, in his talk “Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Idea of Limited Government,” said that when scholars discuss Aquinas’ theory of government, they “usually focus on his adaption of Aristotle’s distinction between regal and political rule and his theory of Polity as a regimen commixtum: a form of political organization mixed by monarchic, aristocratic and democratic elements.”

“From this,” Rhonheimer said, “they conclude that Aquinas fully advocated the idea of limited government. This thesis needs important qualifications in order not to miss the point of modern constitutionalism and to avoid an anachronistic reading of medieval political theories.”

Rhonheimer elaborated in conclusion, stating:

We can say that Aquinas provided some crucial building blocks for modern constitutionalism. This especially includes his idea that government must be limited by law in the sense of thereby becoming government by law so that its orientation towards the common good is guaranteed, and that this presupposed a determined constitutional arrangement in the form of a mixed constitution by monarchic, aristocratic and democratic elements. Another foundation was his theory of natural law as the standard of any human legislation, including a right to resistance. This together with many other pre-modern traditions already mentioned, was the decisive ground on which modern constitutionalism, its idea of rule of law and limited government could eventually be built when the time had come: the time of the struggle against modern absolutism in all its forms.

In terms of the lesser known 16th century Dominican Tomás de Mercado’s views of a more just commercial society  – the topic of Jay Richards’s lecture – the Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business research professor said the Renaissance Spanish Dominican and School of Salamanca scholar — wanted business persons to have a set of moral rules to follow.

Perhaps inspired by governing “rule” that guided the social organization of medieval monasteries and convents, Mercado penned Deals of Contracts of Merchants and Traders, commonly referred to as his Manual of business ethics.

In the Manual, Mercado treated the moral complexity of infinite types of commercial exchange in market economies, while reducing the ethical decision making to some clear guidelines. Richards quoted Tomás de Mercado, who explained why he wrote such a book:

I did not want in this book to be a preacher but a doctor, not rhetorical and elegant but a moral theologian, clear and brief. Thus, I do not write persuading and exhorting what is best and safer, but teaching what is lawful and unlawful [in the moral sense]. In all other areas, each is to be advised by their confessor. And since trade, although it gives occasion for wrongdoing, can, although with difficulty, be lawfully exercised my aim will be to show what intent the merchant should have in his dealings, and what means he must choose, so that he can win his life without losing the future one.

Richards went on to say: “In his view, the ordinary task of being a merchant is not so much the problem as is the merchant’s means and private intentions. Fr. Tomás’s advice for upright living is conventional. The merchant should not lie, perjure, or defraud. He should live modestly rather than ostentatiously. He should avoid greed. …. He should seek frequent access to the sacraments, including ‘hearing Mass daily,’ and, of course, confession.”

In the afternoon’s final lecture, “Henri-Dominque Lacordaire: A Dominican Faces Modernity” by Gregg, much of the moral discussion of a free and just society centered not on how politicians or business persons can be corrupted or corrected, but on how the Church’s clergy and its institutions may become run afoul of its moral mission – or at least forced to sacrifice some of their sovereignty and religious freedom to the Almighty State. This is true especially when a subsidized French Church became too comfortable with generous public benefits and payouts.

It was a persistent, incorrigible Henri-Dominque Lacordaire who re-established the Dominican order in post-revolutionary France. He wanted the Church to be completely free of the “strings attached” to State contributions which compromised their liberty to fully teach, preach or act as they wanted. Gregg told the audience:

For (this) same reason, Lacordaire believed that Catholic clergy should refuse the state salaries to which they were entitled under law. In 1830, Lacordaire argued that these salaries allowed Catholic clergy to be, “preyed upon by our enemies, by those who regard us as hypocrites or as imbeciles, and by those who are persuaded that our life depends on money.”

Continuing to explain the patron-client relationship much of the French diocesan clergy had developed with their government, Gregg defined Napoleon’s soft despot strategy with the 19th-century French Catholic Church:

At this point, it is worth noting that relations between the Church and the French State were governed during Lacordaire’s lifetime by the Concordat negotiated by Napoleon and Pius VII in 1801. The Concordat had restored the French church’s unity with Rome. It also acknowledged that questions of faith and morals were outside the State’s authority. But the Concordat also conceded great control over the Church’s institutional life to the French government. This was not a coincidence. As Napoleon reportedly remarked to his brother Lucien Bonaparte, “Skillful conquerors have not got entangled with priests. They can both contain them and use them.”

The Acton Institute’s next Rome conference will take place in the academic year 2019. Stay tuned.

Meantime, you may watch their recently concluded Rome conference in its entirety here on LiveStream.  You may also follow the conference comments and photos via the hashtag #GreatDominicans.

Michael Severance

Michael Severance earned his B.A. in philosophy and humane letters from the University of San Francisco, where he also studied at the university's St. Ignatius Institute, a great books program. He then pursued his linguistic studies in Salamanca, Spain where he obtained his Advanced Diploma in Spanish from Spain's Ministry of Education before obtaining his M.A. in Philosophy and Modern Languages from the University of Oxford. While living in Italy, Michael has worked in various professional capacities in religious journalism, public relations, marketing, fundraising, as well as property redevelopment and management. As Istituto Acton's Operations Manager, Michael is responsible for helping to organize international conferences, increase private funding, as well as expand networking opportunities and relations among European businesses, media and religious communities, while managing the day-to-day operations of the Rome office.