Monday, November 30, 2015

What Would Aquinas Do? — The Refugee Crisis


On FaceBook recently someone asked what St. Thomas Aquinas would say about the refugee situation.  Opinion among the respondents seemed divided between those who insisted that every country must take in as many refugees as could present themselves for entry, and those who said that no country should be forced to take anyone in.

Thomas Aquinas
This is not an easy question.  Looking at the demands of justice and charity as Aquinas analyzed them, however, we can come up with an answer that we think might be along the lines of what the “Angelic Doctor” might have said.

For reference, we go to the individual who, probably more than most, is responsible for the modern rebirth of “Thomist thought,” as the analytical framework of Aquinas is called.  This is Pope Leo XIII, who in 1879 issued the encyclical Æterni Patris, “On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy” . . . which more accurately could have been titled, “On Saint Thomas Aquinas.”

Based in part on his revival of Aquinas’s “scholastic philosophy,” in 1891 Leo issued Rerum Novarum, “On Capital and Labor.”  The encyclical was a direct response to the problems caused by the rapid spread of socialism.  It explained in terms consistent with the thought of Aquinas why socialism was wrong, and capitalism wasn’t right.

As regards the refugee crisis, the pope explained the roles and limits of charity and justice.  Specifically,

Pope Leo XIII
“Private ownership, as we have seen, is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right, especially as members of society, is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary. ‘It is lawful,’ says St. Thomas Aquinas, ‘for a man to hold private property; and it is also necessary for the carrying on of human existence.’ But if the question be asked: How must one's possessions be used? — the Church replies without hesitation in the words of the same holy Doctor: ‘Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need. Whence the Apostle with, “Command the rich of this world . . . to offer with no stint, to apportion largely.”’ [Summa theologiae, IIa-IIae, q. lxvi, art. 2, Answer] True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, ‘for no one ought to live other than becomingly.’ [Ibid., q. xxxii, a. 6, Answer] But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one's standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. ‘Of that which remaineth, give alms.’ [Luke 11:41.] It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity — a duty not enforced by human law. But the laws and judgments of men must yield place to the laws and judgments of Christ the true God, who in many ways urges on His followers the practice of almsgiving — ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’; [Acts 20:35.] and who will count a kindness done or refused to the poor as done or refused to Himself — ‘As long as you did it to one of My least brethren you did it to Me.’ [Matt. 25:40.] To sum up, then, what has been said: Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God’s providence, for the benefit of others.” (Rerum Novarum, § 22.)

Now, we’re not going to explain why this passage is not an endorsement of socialism in all but name.  We’ve done that many times on this blog, and Leo XIII and other popes stated to the point of redundancy that the supernatural duty of charity does not and cannot override or replace the natural right of private property, e.g., “It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity — a duty not enforced by human law.” (Ibid.)  Those who attempt to force a socialist interpretation on this and other passages in any of the social encyclicals violate the first principle of reason — the law of contradiction — as well as articles of the Catholic faith.  The “extreme cases” the pope referred to are those that threaten the common good with social chaos or even dissolution, not the individual good of any specific person or group, and that thereby justify State action to preserve order.

With this as our guide (for Leo XIII cited Aquinas in his argument), we would assume that Aquinas would say that refugees are to be taken in and cared for . . . once people have met their and their dependents’ reasonable needs, and have also made adequate provision for the needy already in their own country.  Further, given the concern for the common good that should be a consideration in all of our actions, both individual and social, taking in and caring for refugees must not thereby materially harm the common good by, e.g., overloading the social welfare system or allowing in hostile elements, such as terrorists.

Did Rome fall . . . or just fall apart?
Apart from the threat of terrorism, it is the “health” of the social welfare systems in Europe and the United States that should be of greatest concern.  With the example of Greece before them, the European countries would appear to be fully justified in worrying whether the influx of so many people will materially damage or even destroy the institutions of the social order — the common good.  After all, if there is reasonable cause to believe that taking in so many people will result in little or no effective help being given to anyone, then it would be worse than useless to allow refugees to come in.

For example, the so-called “Barbarian Invasions” of the late Roman Empire were not invasions as we would think of them.  Rather, they were massive movements of people (mostly Germanic) wanting to move into the Empire to enjoy its presumed benefits. As far as the people of the day were concerned, Rome never “fell,” but continued with devolved power.  Thus Clovis the Frank, who united the tribes of Gaul (thereby turning it into “France”) in the late 5th and early 6th centuries, issued coins with the title Augustus.  He thereby claimed the “regnum” of the west . . . to which Justinian and other Byzantine rulers rather strongly objected, since they claimed it.

The bottom line is that, dealing with it strictly as a refugee problem is clearly not adequate. It can completely overload, possibly destroy the social welfare and political system of a country and yield no beneficial result.  The problem must be addressed at its source, which means taking effective action against ISIS — and a military response, while it may be immediately necessary, does nothing to halt the flow of refugees, take care of them, or offer even a short term solution.

That is what we will address next week in the second part of this posting.

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