The article below was first delivered as a paper Social Infrastructure: A Christian Theological View of the Role of Government on 30 January 2018 at The Benedict XVI Centre, St Mary’s University, Twickenham.
There are three main normative questions we can ask about politics (understanding ‘politics’ in its main contemporary sense: decision-making for a whole, geographically-defined community by means of enforceable law, together with all the activities directed towards that – elections, lobbying, opposition, scheming, etc.).
The first question asks ‘what?’ What is the proper purpose, and thereby the role, of political authority? In short, what should government do? This paper is about this question.
The second asks ‘why?’ and the third ‘how?’. Why are we obliged to accept political authority and generally to obey its decisions (the problem of political obligation)? How should the institutions of government be constituted (the question of constitutional form)?
I distinguish these three in order to focus on the first of them sharply: what is the proper role of government?
To this first question we can find a number of answers in both the Christian tradition and in modern secular political thought. The handout (reproduced below as an Appendix) briefly summarises on side 1 several of those answers. These are here as background, to give some context, but we won’t be going through them now. (Having them accessible in this way might be helpful in discussion later.)
As will become clear, what I’ll argue is set against the background specifically of Catholic Social Teaching. In longer historical perspective, I see St Thomas Aquinas’s understanding in which law, enforced as needed, disciplines people in good habits to the end of their virtue as vulnerable to critique for being authoritarian. While this paper does not itself make this line of critique, the position for which I’ll argue differs from that.
John Milbank and Adrian Pabst’s book, The Politics of Virtue, is (as its very title conveys) deeply indebted to Aquinas. It seems to me there are open and interesting questions whether it is vulnerable to a similar critique and also how it has similarities to and differences from the position I’ll briefly outline. A further large question is how this position is related to the liberal political tradition, two prominent articulations of which are mentioned near the bottom of side 1 of the handout.
Let’s start with an analogy.
Think about this seminar today. On one hand, think about the venue, the chairs, the lighting, the transport network thanks to which we are here; our conditions of living: food and water, good enough health to come, freedom to come – all these (and other things) constitute the preconditions of actually holding the event. Together they form, we could say, an infrastructure that establishes the very possibility of the event taking place.
On the other hand, think about what is now happening – or just beginning to happen. People are actually here, in order to engage with each other: to speak and to listen, to converse. The presentations need to be more or less coherent. Responses need to be to the point, and so on. In short, communication needs to take place. These things form the good itself, the inherently social or common good of the conversation that will happen among us.
The infrastructure is only the necessary condition for this social good. Hence this good itself can be distinguished from the infrastructure that has to be in place for it to be possible. Here is a distinction between two modes or levels of agency: on one hand, establishment of the infrastructure and, on the other hand, the action together that constitutes the social good or common good of the seminar itself.
Hold that analogy in mind and the basic shape of the argument I’ll now outline should become fairly clear.
2. The common good
The term ‘the common good’ can be a starting point. This concept has had a very prominent place in Christian answers to the question of the role of political authority. It remains significant especially in Catholic Social Teaching, one text in which says, “the common good is the reason that . . . political authority exists”.
Central to the concept of the common good, in its main historical meaning (which goes back to Aristotle), is a claim about humanness. Through manifold kinds of activities – we can think of working life, public affairs, leisure, etc. – human well-being is found in participation in the life of society. As we participate, we simultaneously generate and benefit from society’s overall good – its common good. The human good is, this means, inherently or irreducibly common. It is like the good of a concert, a football match or a great feast of celebration – it can exist only as all participate in a shared action in which we both produce and enjoy it.
This claim about humanness is certainly controversial. For example, it is contrary to individualistic views, using this term for those according to which you or I could enjoy the good life irrespective of whether our neighbour also does. But now is not the moment to explore these controversies. 
While real human societies of course fall short of such a vision of the common good, this concept gives an end towards which to act. The same CST text says, “The goal of life in society is… the historically attainable common good”.
Yet the documents of CST are not especially clear on the relationship between the common good and the specific role of political authority. This is what the paper aim to clarify. Moreover, the roots in biblical and theological sources of positions that CST affirms are sometimes not as plain as they might be (despite the evident turn to Scripture since Vatican II). Recognising this, the paper’s argument connects the New Testament with what we find in CST.
3. Politics and the Christian gospel
In one way, the Christian gospel is not about politics – a potentially highly misleading statement! I mean that the gospel as such is not about making things happen by the ordinary means of political power, enforceable law.
How can we describe the Christian gospel? By the coming to Israel and all the world of God’s Son, by his becoming human, namely the Jew Jesus of Nazareth, the reign of God has been renewed and begun to be made real in this age. It is a reign in which peace and justice replace violence and oppression. Those people who came to faith that Jesus is the Christ and repented of sin found in their new common life astonishing signs of blessing.
But this did not happen by the standard means of political power. On the contrary, God’s reign came by his Son being the servant of the people in a way that repudiated such means. Moreover Jesus called his followers to a life together that manifested the same kind of service. How was this possible? In short (and by way of quoting St Paul), by the Spirit of God’s Son (Gal. 4:6): to “live by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16) is to live in the way of Jesus.
This way of summarizing the Christian gospel is extremely brief, but it will do, I hope, for today. (There is a longer summary in the chapter in Spencer and Chaplin.)
In light of this, we must say: for Christians to take hold of the ordinary instruments of political power in order to try to bring about what the gospel requires would be totally contradictory to the gospel. In this sense, the gospel is not about politics.
But, as numerous writers have pointed out recently, the New Testament’s ways of articulating the gospel were in blatantly political language. When Jesus came into Galilee announcing that God’s reign was at hand, both Jews and Romans would have heard a political message. Israel’s God was again becoming king! ‘Gospel’, evangelion, was the news trumpeted across the Roman Empire to mark military victory. And so on: messiah – an anointed royal figure; lord (kyrios) – the one in authority, not least Caesar; church (ekklesia) – in one meaning a gathering of Roman citizens who worked for the community’s welfare.
The Christian gospel was all about a kind of reign or rule, a way of being a people, a city, that was an alternative to the then dominant Israelite, Greek and Roman forms. The church was a public or outward body under a distinct rule, in short a polity.
The gospel is not about politics. The gospel is political. The second is true even though the way of Jesus involved repudiation of the ordinary, coercive means of politics.
(The paradox that produces the apparent contradiction is that the Christian polity was so radically alternative that the more it was faithful to its founder the sooner it could appear not political at all. This strange polity shows the need for a different conception, according to which politics is about how people live together and the common good this generates, even without definition by geographical boundaries or coercive enforcement of a ‘law of the land’. Yet this different conception cannot simply displace the other: we have two meanings of one word – nothing unusual about that – and the initial one will remain useful.)
Where does this take us? Among writers who emphasise that the gospel’s language and practice are political, not all appear to see – think of Stanley Hauerwas and some influenced by him – that, from the perspective of church as polity, Christians may and must address another agenda too, about Christian participation in political society in the standard sense of this word given at the start. This includes addressing theologically the three questions distinguished there.
5. ‘Government as social infrastructure’
We come to the main argument: in light of the gospel, what is the role of political authority?
I referred to St Paul’s call to ‘live by the Spirit’. In Romans 12 Paul presents an extraordinary vision of what this means for the Christians in Rome. But does the new life ‘in Christ’ mean they need to see no place for worldly authority? His emphatic answer is no. Chapter 13 begins, ‘Every person must be subject to the ruling authorities [KJV: ‘the powers that be’]. There is no authority, you see, except from God . . .’
Paul’s purpose in Romans 13 is relatively limited – this is not developed political theory – yet we can identify from Romans, read as a whole, some clear pointers to a Christian theological understanding of government. It is as though Paul is saying: ‘The main thing you need to grasp, to appreciate, is all that God has done in his Son, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. The whole letter has been about this. But you need to realize that the same God is acting in another, more mundane way: through the Roman authorities.’
Portrayed here are two related but distinct ways in which God acts for the world. The first is ‘life by the Spirit’ (Gal. 3-6 and Rom. 12), which is equally the way of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. The second is temporal or secular rule (Rom. 13), which does depend on the ordinary means of political power, on possible resort to what in Paul’s day was ‘the sword’.
We may distinguish these complementary ways as primary/direct and secondary/indirect. By looking at how these are related, we find a route to describing the role of political authority.
God’s primary agency for bringing into being good relations among people, the good society, the common good, is the way of human living which the community ‘in Christ’ is supposed to make real. If political authority were to usurp that ‘primary agency’ and so to seek directly to bring into being the common good by means of law enforced by ‘the sword’, this would be wholly contradictory to God’s way revealed in the gospel.
What, then, is left for political authority to do? We need to conceive of any role for government as secondary or indirect in relation to the common good. What does this mean? Recall here the analogy of today’s event. On one hand, there is the communication that forms the event itself, an inherently social or common good. On the other, there is the set of conditions or infrastructure making it possible.
The Christian polity is the primary way by which the God revealed in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit wishes to bring into being good relations among people, and so the common good.
But if, secondarily, we can identify social preconditions of this – conditions which don’t themselves constitute the full temporal common good that God intends, but which have to be in place if there is to be the very possibility of this existing for anyone – the role of government in the secular polity must be to establish and sustain them for all. (As this is to be for all, it must be regardless of, among other things, religious profession, ethnicity and economic status.)
In light of the gospel, what is left for political authority to achieve? The formal answer is: to secure the social conditions necessary for the possibility of the common good.
This is a straightforward argument. It doesn’t take much further thought to see that it is to do with non-abstract and often urgent human needs: food, somewhere people can live, access to healthcare, at least some education, some freedom to form views on such claims as the Christian gospel and that ‘there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet’, water supply, power, roads, sewage systems. In referring to these very concrete goods, I mean only to convey a sense of this idea of the conditions of the possibility of the common good.
Of course, each of those areas of possible political practice would need to be considered directly and in appropriate detail to establish what would fall within a description of those conditions.
The concept of ‘infrastructure’ I brought in earlier can label this view of the role of political authority. We need a ‘social infrastructure’ that secures for us equally such outward conditions. It is for government to establish these conditions for all equally.
Yet what is required for the flourishing or fulfilment of each and all goes a long way beyond this: it is the common agency of simultaneous generation and enjoyment of the common good.
In light of the New Testament, here in brief is a Christian theological account of the role of political authority and, inherently, of the limits to that role.
Using a different term, here in embryo is a substantive account of political justice. Governments’ responsibility ‘to render what is due’, to do justice, is to establish and sustain the ‘social infrastructure’ that is necessary for the possibility of anyone enjoying the common good. We could address what this should mean for major areas of public policy – the economy, home affairs, ecological protection, social policy, etc.
This is to describe the role of political authority in a way that corresponds with some statements in Catholic Social Teaching, notably:
Political power . . . must have as its aim the achievement of the common good. While respecting the legitimate liberties of individuals, families and subsidiary groups, it acts in such a way as to create, effectively and for the well-being of all, the conditions required for attaining humanity’s true and complete good.
Yet the argument also shows how the Christian gospel itself, as we discover it in the New Testament, lies behind this view of the role of political authority. It brings out a connection between this aspect of contemporary CST and biblical sources.
5. Social infrastructure’ in practice
What kinds of government action will be needed in practice to establish and sustain the social infrastructure? Uncontroversially, a first kind is remedial, a way of remedying some of the effects of human sin: stopping people committing wrongs that prevent the possibility of others’ participation in the common good. Obvious examples include murder, assault, rape and theft. Governments must use law to end and prevent such sins of commission.
A second, parallel aspect of what governments must do is in response to sins of omission. To have the possibility of participating in the common good, people need access to a range of basic goods such as food, water, healthcare and income in old age.
To the extent to which people provide and share such goods in the ordinary contexts of family life, local communities and exchanges in markets, as they should, no government action to ensure people have them is necessary.
But many in the world lack such goods, basically because of others’ sins of omission, complacent non-response to those in need. To the extent that this is so, the preconditions of the possibility of the common good are not in place. So government must act in ways that ensure that people have access to such goods (whether by direct provision or by enabling non-state agencies to do that). This second kind of action is also remedial.
A third kind of practical action is not remedial but is directive to the common good. Think here of rail networks, sewage systems or city parks. To the extent that there are certain things that the ‘social infrastructure’ positively requires which, by their nature, can only be either this way or that within any geographical community – a park or rail station has to be here and not there – they are within government’s role to determine. This is the directive or coordinating aspect of government’s role. Human sin might make this more difficult, but it is not what makes it necessary.
Recognition of this directive role points to a warning. ‘Government as social infrastructure’ justifies only such coordination as is needed to establish the preconditions for the common good. This is in great contrast to statist forms of government, whether ‘old’ socialism on the left or Italian and Spanish fascism on the right, in which there was no clear sense of limit and, instead, an assumption that state action could directly bring about the good society.
In relation to each of the above three kinds of government action, the concept of social infrastructure gives a criterion for discerning what is within its role and what is not.
In the book chapter that this paper summarises, what ‘government as social infrastructure’ means in practice is supplemented in two ways, which limited time means I can’t include here. First, I seek to show how this position can be articulated robustly in terms of protection of human rights (in line with the papal encyclical Pacem in Terris, 1963). Second, I outline what it means concretely for one area of public policy, namely the economy and business.
In concluding I want to make some bold suggestions – at least for the sake of argument– about why this way of answering the question of the role of government is significant.
Part of the appeal of ‘government as social infrastructure’ is its generality, which makes it highly fertile for policy thinking. In this it is comparable with, for example, John Stuart Mill’s harm principle or John Rawls’s two principles of justice. Of course, unlike these two positions, it is explicitly a Christian understanding. The argument for it arises from the gospel. Therefore it makes no claim to neutrality in relation to different philosophical or religious stances.
Beyond that, it squares a number of circles (or at least can do if articulated more fully):
In relation to socialism, it includes a powerfully egalitarian dimension – in principle, the social infrastructure is to be beneficial for all equally – while also bringing a basis for principled limitation of the state’s role.
In relation to traditional conservatism, it gives a basis (although this short paper has not brought this out) for valuing institutions, including not least those we inherit, as part of the needed infrastructure, while bringing to this a conception of justice that may necessitate radical challenge to oppressive social orders.
In relation to liberalism, ‘social infrastructure’ means, as noted, a limited role for the state and one that requires robust protection of human rights, including basic liberties, while resting explicitly on a vision of the human good as found in the common good.
Last, but by no means least when we are thinking in the context of the Christian tradition, here is a politics of the common good, such as we find in the Thomist Catholic strand of this, but without the defence of use of political power, enforced law, to discipline citizens morally so that they are formed in the virtues. Especially in this respect, ‘government as social infrastructure’ shows how the Christian gospel gives rise to a non-authoritarian politics of the common good.
Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray are among the thinkers of the past century who may be read as having sought exactly such a politics. What I have outlined is indebted to both (in different ways). But the argument here is different from what we find in either and it at least points towards how to square a circle that neither of them quite did.
© Nicholas Townsend
Nicholas Townsend is Visiting Scholar, at Sarum College in its Centre for Human Flourishing. He is also writer/editor for the VPlater Project on Catholic Social Teaching based at Newman University, Birmingham. He is also reviews editor for the journal Studies in Christian Ethics. Nick is former Director of the Politics and Theology Programme at Sarum College and Tutor in Christian Doctrine and Ethics / Director of Studies at the South East Institute for Theological Education and University of Kent. He has been Head of Office for a Member of Parliament and has worked in the private sector. He lives in Devon.
Download handout provided to accompany the lecture.
Two responses were given to the paper:
- Professor Philip Booth Dean of Faculty – Education, Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. Download pdf.
- Jenny Sinclair Founder-Director, Together for the Common Good. Download pdf.
- This paper presents in summary (with some additional material) the argument of ‘Government and Social Infrastructure’, chap. 5 in Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin (eds), God and Government (SPCK, 2009) (pp. 108-133).
- With the modern secular answers that the handout lists in the background, we can helpfully clarify the question of government’s role by looking at its current context. The central political debate of the twentieth century – one revived since the 2008 financial crisis – focused on it in relation to one area of policy, the economy. To what extent is it government’s role to direct economic activity or should this be left to free markets? A legacy of that is that people tend to see the wider question through the lens of this issue. But it arises in different ways in each major area of public policy – criminal and civil justice, ecological protection, social security, healthcare, education, to list a few. To come to a general answer through just one policy area runs a great risk of leading to highly inappropriate policy-making in others. People in politics need a general, ‘macro’ view of what government is to do so that they can deliberate well in each policy area. Otherwise they will not have good reasons for deciding what to advocate.
- John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2016)
- Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 2004, accessible at www.vatican.va), #168 Although by no means absent from other Christian traditions, the concept of the common good has recently been given renewed prominence in some others. See e.g. Jim Wallis, The (Un)Common Good: How The Gospel Brings Hope To A World Divided (Brazos, 2014) and Church of England Bishops, Who is My Neighbour? (Church House Publishing, 2015).
- This way of putting it is post-Aristotelian as Aristotle did not see ‘work’ as more than instrumentally valuable to the end of the good life.
- This way of explaining the common good draws on Charles Taylor, ‘Irreducibly Social Goods’, in Taylor, Philosophical Arguments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).
- It denies, therefore, that society is only an arena for dealing instrumentally with others to gain means to achieve private ends. Rather, like a great celebration, society is an irreducibly common good, in living within which we can each find the human good.
- This is to affirm a position that can be called ‘communitarian’ – a term liable to strike fear and scepticism into some liberal readers. They will, understandably, hear echoes of authoritarian uses of power to attempt to bring about community goals that many citizens do not endorse. But, as I show in a section in ‘Government and Social Infrastructure’ not included in this paper, the politics of the common good to be described here requires full protection of each person’s human rights (see pp. 124-125).
- Compendium, #168 According to CST, all have responsibility to act for the common good. Our participation in business, family life and the arts, for example, can and should engender it – although for business people or musicians to give proper attention to their own activities can be sufficient for these to contribute to the common good. Governments, however, have to focus on its requirements directly.
- This is despite the ‘principle of subsidiarity’ (Compendium, ##185–8), which there is not space to bring into this discussion. On the lack of clarity I refer to, see further n. 16 below.
- Not all of the authors of seven chapters presented under the promising heading ‘Constructive Political Theology’ in Peter Scott and William Cavanaugh (eds), The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), could be identified with ‘the Hauerwas school’, although broadly the Companion can be. Some of those chapters are excellent – yet none of them directly addresses any of those three questions.
- We may understand ‘the common good’ theologically in terms of both the Hebrew Scriptures’ word shalom and ‘the reign of God’ of the New Testament. The ultimate or perfected common good is the same as the final reign of God, a connection which comes out clearly in Augustine of Hippo’s famous use of the biblical metaphor of ‘city of God’. In the end this will be the ‘new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven’, when God’s reign will be complete (Rev. 21). Similarly, the penultimate or temporal common good is nothing other than the reign of God being made real now. Certainly the world as we know it is pervasively corrupted by sin and distorted by suffering. Yet to the extent that people live in ways that manifest among us the diverse goods that God graciously gives, they live within God’s reign and contribute to the temporal common good. I shall mainly use the term ‘the common good’ in the rest of the paper. In line with what is standard in CST, I shall mean this in its temporal sense, the ‘historically attainable common good’ (as quoted earlier). Of course, CST remains clear that such unqualified reference implies no downplaying of the recognition that what is in view is not the final city of God. See Compendium, #170.
- W. Pilgrim, Uneasy Neighbors: Church and State in the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), p. 8. Tom Wright summarizes what Paul is getting at in Rom. 13 as follows: ‘He has just said, strongly and repeatedly, that private vengeance is absolutely forbidden for Christians. But this doesn’t mean on one hand, that God doesn’t care about evil, or, on the other, that God wants society to collapse into a chaos where the bullies and the power-brokers do what they like and get away with it . . . That is almost all that Paul is saying . . .’, Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 2 (London: SPCK, 2004), p. 85.
- Although I refer to ecological protection in this paragraph, limited space means that the paper does not articulate what needs to be said about non-human nature. Ecological sustainability for its own sake (that is, not just as a resource for humans) is a basic prerequisite of the common good, and my use of ‘social infrastructure’ presumes that throughout. While clumsier, ‘eco-social infrastructure’ would capture the needed sense better.
- Octogesima Adveniens (1971), #46. See further e.g. US Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice for All, 1986, #122; this is accessible at <www.osjspm.org>.
- Moreover the argument gives enough clarity to overcome an apparent confusion in CST. Whereas most of its documents present the common good as the end of human life in society, that is, the highest temporal good there can be (cf. Compendium, #168), one frequently quoted definition gives a different impression. This is that the common good is ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily’ (Compendium, #164, citing Gaudium et Spes, #26; there are a few other similar statements, e.g. in Mater et Magistra of 1961). Here the common good is not described as the end, but as a state of preparation for it, a set of circumstances necessary if it is to be possible. This seems confusing because it begs the question: what is the end beyond the common good, viewed as a set of ‘social conditions’, which it serves? However, this difficulty can be overcome if we see that statement as giving a fair description, not of the common good as such, but of the specific role of political authority in acting for it. When government deliberates and acts, it must have the common good explicitly in view, but the role of political authority can only ever be indirect, secondary, in relation to it. The argument outlined in the main text enables us not only to connect New Testament sources with CST but also to resolve this apparent tension in the latter.
- See also N. Townsend, ‘Transcending the Long Twentieth Century: Why We Should and How We Can Move to a Post-Capitalist Market Economy’ in Jeremy Kidwell & Sean Doherty (eds), Theology and Economics: A Christian Vision of the Common Good (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) pp. 199-218.
- In a way that remains a matter of contention, Maritain – concerned to ensure that the contrast of Christian understanding from then current totalitarianisms was clear – opened up an ontological distance between each person and the common good. In line with Charles De Koninck’s contemporary critique of Maritain’s position in this respect, others have argued convincingly, I think, that it represented a deep and mistaken departure from Thomist Christian understanding of the common good. For one way into this debate, see Jeffery L. Nicholas, ‘The Common Good, Rights, and Catholic Social Thought: Prolegomena to Any Future Account of Common Goods’, in Solidarity: The Journal of Catholic Social Thought and Secular Ethics, 5:1, accessible at: http://researchonline.nd.edu.au/solidarity/vol5/iss1/4. In relation to John Courtney Murray, while his influence on Dignitatis Humanae was decisive, he argued (in a 1967 article published only in Latin in an internal Vatican journal until an English translation appeared in 1993) that neither Dignitatis Humanae itself nor the work of any Catholic theologian (including his own) amounted to a convincing defence of its affirmation of a human right to religious freedom (this is the gist of what he expressed less directly). See Murray, ‘Arguments for the Human Right to Religious Freedom’, in Murray, Religious Liberty: Catholic Struggles with Pluralism, ed. J. Leon Hooper (Louisville, KY: WJKP, 1993), pp. 229-244. In the final page of this article, Murray points to the need to go to “the Christian freedom proclaimed in Scripture, especially by St Paul” (p. 242) to ground a Christian defence of religious freedom, and therefore (I add) a non-authoritarian politics of the common good. This reference is an influence on the argument this paper seeks to make.
Virtual Plater website – an free resource with modules for online study forming the basis of a Post-Graduate Certificate in Catholic Social Teaching offered by Newman University, Birmingham
Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society – an international hub for research and engagement activities in the area of religion and the social sciences (primarily economics, sociology, and political science).