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  • Politics for a Pilgrim Church: A Thomistic Theory of Civic Virtue by Thomas J. Bushlack
  • Thomas W. Smith
Politics for a Pilgrim Church: A Thomistic Theory of Civic Virtue. By Thomas J. Bushlack. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. Pp. viii + 271. $35.00 (paper). ISBN: 978-0-8028-7090-2.

Politics for a Pilgrim Church is an ambitious and wide-ranging book that poses important questions and makes clear claims. The author's goal is to retrieve Aquinas's notion of the common good to help infuse contemporary life with "the political practices of a pilgrim church" (4). For Bushlack, this would foster a unique public witness that would issue in a renewed appreciation of liberal regimes and a more dialogic mode of public action than we have recently seen from a variety of politically engaged Christians. The book has two main parts. In part 1, Bushlack examines the work of Aquinas in order to reconstruct his account of civic virtue. "In Part II, [he moves] into the modern context and [begins] to construct an account of Thomistic civic virtue for the church and liberal societies today" (27).

In the first chapter, Bushlack traces a history of the forces that have shaped the modern Catholic Church's teachings about the relationship between church and state. He makes a distinction between "more doctrinaire forms of liberalism" (65) that were aggressively secular and therefore hostile to religion and more moderate forms that were not. Over time, the Church moved away from its judgment against modern democracy because it came to see how it was reacting to doctrinaire liberalism. Relying in part on Émile Perreau-Saussine's magnificent Catholicism and Democracy, Bushlack argues that Vatican II endorsed "political liberalism as the political solution most in keeping with its teaching on natural rights and the civil and legal separation of church and state" (62). The tendency to elide better and worse forms of liberalism persists, however. Bushlack argues that Catholic neo-conservatives employ a criticism of doctrinaire liberalism to endorse free markets, individual autonomy, and an "uncritical use of violence" (63). On the Catholic left, he finds that the equation of moderate and doctrinaire liberalism moves in a different direction. It issues in a rejection of the legitimacy of the modern nation-state and a plea for solidarity in alternative local communities. Bushlack argues that we can return to Aquinas's notion of civic virtue for an alternative to both critiques of contemporary liberal democracies, responding to their deficiencies with a more robust sense of the common good.

In Chapter 2, he examines Aquinas's account of justice to articulate the latter's account of civic virtue. Bushlack rejects a thin conception of the common good according to which it is an aggregation of individual goods or the sum of opportunities available to citizens. He argues that, for Aquinas, there is a substantive common good in political communities. This can be informed by the Christian "desire to act for the good of others and to enhance" common life (108). However, he rejects the idea that this means that Christians know more about the human good than their fellow citizens (ibid.). Christians can direct their civic virtue towards a higher end in a way that is [End Page 282] "distinctive . . . without claiming epistemic superiority over non-Christians" (ibid.).

Chapter 3 seeks to develop Aquinas's account of the relationship between the passions and justice. Here Bushlack argues "that well-ordered passions are an essential component of civic virtue" (109) and "that there is a distinctive kind of civic virtue that is expected from those who hold positions of political authority" (122). Yet he also wants to avoid the "political paternalism" implicit in the claim that we must rely on the wisdom of statesmen to make the natural law manifest. He associates this "elitism" with John Courtney Murray (124). All citizens must "participate in the kind of public deliberation that the possession of political prudence makes possible" (125). He wants his approach to be "more republican-democratic and less elitist," and so he turns to the task of "developing a modern, constructive account of civic virtue" in the second part of the...


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