Heinrich Rommen was among the most important political thinkers of the twentieth century. Yet most people, including most scholars, have never heard of him. This is because Rommen was an explicitly Catholic thinker whose work was a sustained rejection of the prevailing ideology of the era. Where most political thinkers of his age—and ours—argue over how best to shape and put into action “the will of the people” (however defined), Rommen sought to think through how political institutions might serve the common good. And that common good, Rommen consistently showed, had less to do with grand ideological programs than with maintaining “an order of tranquility, justice, and peace.”
These thoughts come to mind because Rommen’s magnum opus, The State in Catholic Thought, finally has been brought back into print. While I had something to do with bringing this about (I sit on the advisory board of Cluny Media, the publisher, and wrote the introduction), I have no compunction about celebrating the event because of the importance of the book, the author, and the political philosophy it so well embodies. The form of political philosophy once could be called simply natural law thought, but today that would be confusing because so many on the statist left have adopted a corrupt version of natural law as their chosen form of political justification. It might be termed Catholic political philosophy, except that it shares essential characteristics with Calvinist and other forms of Christian thought. Rommen’s thinking might best, I think, be termed Christian pluralism to indicate its insistence on the variety of institutions and associations that make up any good life, institutions with which the state must cooperate to maintain an order of tranquility, justice, and peace in the manner and to the extent possible in this life.
How does Rommen’s thought, and Christian pluralism more generally, differ from most modern political philosophy? First, Rommen begins by acknowledging the importance of human nature, rather than seeking to change or empty it through ideological tools. Thus, for example, the prominent liberal philosopher John Rawls describes the formation of a “just” regime as taking place behind a mythical “veil of ignorance.” Rawls’s contention is that people will seek to be “fair” to the extent that they are ignorant of their interests, their attachments, and their capabilities, as well as their race and gender. Rommen, meanwhile, not only accepts but builds on the person’s character as an inherently relational being. We do not come together into society seeking to achieve or prevent particular advantages, in Rommen’s view. Rather, we exist, primordially, as parts of associations (most especially families) and participate in larger societies on the basis of characteristics, goals, and norms rooted in these organic communities.
A second, related difference between Rommen’s thought and that of modern liberal thinkers: where those such as Rawls would build society as a means of achieving some particular goal (generally of an ideological cast) Rommen recognizes that a nation is a “community of communities.” And this means that the state’s primary goal is to mediate among more local associations, rather than to transform them in its own image. Keeping the peace, maintaining decent social relations, and providing an order in which people’s reasonable expectations are protected against those who would break their promises or take advantage of customary usages are primary goals of the state, not forcing society into a predetermined shape.
Our social nature gives rise to what Rommen described as “a plurality of social forms and . . . co-operative spheres that . . . serve independent ends in the order of the common good.” These forms either grow directly from our social nature or “are produced by the initiative of free persons for the more perfect realization of their ends and purposes.” They are not formed by the state. And this means that these associations are not merely administrative units that carry out the will of the state. They are “original entities and original social organizations” with their own rights, responsibilities, and roles in any good life.
The case is quite different for thinkers, such as Rawls, who believe that justice or some other abstract goal demands that associations be governed on universal, state-enforced principles. Rawls uses, for example, the “maximin” principle as the measure of a society’s justice, arguing that society’s “basic structure is just throughout when the advantages of the more fortunate promote the well-being of the least fortunate, that is, when a decrease in their advantages would make the least fortunate even worse off than they are. The basic structure is perfectly just when the prospects of the least fortunate are as great as they can be.” This Rawlsian principle derives from his determination that society be shaped in all its aspects by the drive for “justice as fairness,” meaning, essentially, material equality.
This rather childish view of justice is particularly debilitating. But any abstract principle, including individual liberty or antidiscrimination, might just as well be used by the state to transform society. If this principle—instead of the flourishing of actual persons within self-governing communities—is considered primary, the result is a society dominated by that state. State actors will use their power and authority to make society conform to their vision of the good.
A third area of important difference concerns attitudes toward power. The understanding that power tends to corrupt did not originate with Lord Acton. It is an essential part of Christian pluralism. From early on, Christian thinkers have recognized that secular rulers must be guided by spiritual thought and institutions, at the same time that these forces must themselves be primarily concerned with the person’s spiritual needs. Thus, the “two swords” theory resulted in, among other things, the insistence of popes during the early Middle Ages on naming their own bishops and so maintaining a jurisdiction and administrative machinery separate from that of secular rulers.
This separate jurisdiction allowed for the checking of royal power. Its logic leads Rommen to argue that the state should as much as possible avoid direct rule over people’s lives. According to Rommen, “man lives for his final transcendent destiny” not merely in and through the state but as part of “family, home, neighborhood, town, homeland,” and a variety of “vocational, profession, educational and religious institutions.” The state must protect these associations, not subsume them in itself and use them for its own ends. It must recognize that these associations have their own specific ends which, like themselves, are “irreplaceable.”
Rommen recognized the complexity of human life and society, as well as the requirements of human flourishing. He also recognized each person’s need to pursue his good through a variety of relationships and vocations. Combined, these insights helped him formulate a conception of the state that rooted its dignity in its proper function—that of protecting and maintaining peace, order, and justice among the largely self-governing associations in which people naturally pursue good lives.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.