The Common Good of Constitutional Democracy: Essays in Political Philosophy and on Catholic Social Teaching

By Walker, Greg | Journal of Markets & Morality, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

The Common Good of Constitutional Democracy: Essays in Political Philosophy and on Catholic Social Teaching


Walker, Greg, Journal of Markets & Morality


The Common Good of Constitutional Democracy: Essays in Political Philosophy and on Catholic Social Teaching

Martin Rhonheimer

William F. Murphy, Jr. (Translator)

Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2013 (560 pages)

Martin Rhonheimer, professor of ethics and political philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, is best known in Anglophone circles as a Catholic philosopher engaged in some of the more interesting debates about the natural moral law, Thomistic action theory, and applied ethics. Collections of his essays and two monographs in these fields have been published by the Catholic University of America Press and Fordham University Press since 2000. The Common Good of Constitutional Democracy is the first work in Rhonheimer's oeuvre published in English that squarely addresses central issues in political theory. Almost all of the essays presented in the book had been previously published, but only five of the fourteen essays have appeared in English before.

Rhonheimer sets out his stall clearly in his opening chapter, "Why Is Political Philosophy Necessary?" This essay, along with the third chapter, "The Democratic Constitutional State and the Common Good," and chapter 14, "Christianity and Secularity," sets out his methodological stance for the whole collection of essays by outlining an approach that refreshingly takes political ethics to be distinct but not separable from other aspects of practical philosophy. So well-conceived are these reflections on method, I would venture to suggest that some (or all) of these core essays should be required reading in academic programs focusing on political theology or political theory from a Catholic orientation. The method Rhonheimer employs in virtually all of the essays is both philosophical and theological in that his reflections on political life include not only the deliverances of natural reason as he sees them but also an interpretation of the corpus of magisterial social teaching (which is itself theological in nature).

Unlike John Finnis--who in my view does not fully engage with John Rawls's under-standing of political liberalism deeply and seriously enough--Rhonheimer takes care to critically appraise Rawls's later writings in chapters 7 and 8 of the work. Rhonheimer sees much in Rawls that is at least consistent with his own position on political life but seriously faults Rawls for allegedly failing to see the importance of the traditional (opposite sex) marital family as the key, essentially reproductive unit within a political society. These exegetically balanced chapters are a helpful corrective to those thinkers who read Rawls as a radical secularist or as a proponent of a reductive and impoverished brand of liberalism.

Some may be struck by the candor of Rhonheimer's rejection, in some of the essays, of papal political absolutism in the medieval age and his partial appreciation for secular political thinkers such as Hobbes and Bodin who reacted against the Church's earthly power at that time. Though Rhonheimer is careful to present a balanced picture of the rights and wrongs of the political and ecclesial situation in that era, he sees the advent of modern political theory, with its focus on state sovereignty and secular positive law, as a real advance on the (distorted) "political" Augustinianism of the early medieval period. Some traditionalist Catholics in two minds about the Church's "catching up with modernity" in the Second Vatican Council may question Rhonheimer's approach here, though I would hold that Rhonheimer's position is generally well-argued and defensible.

As a Swiss German Catholic, Rhonheimer's final essay on political economy ("The Role of the State in the Economy") is unsurprisingly closer to the "social market" approach of the post-war Christian democratic tradition than the economic liberalism of Milton Friedman (or committed free-market Catholic thinkers such as George Wiegel for that matter). …

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