Thomas J. BUSHLACK. Politics For A Pilgrim Church: A Thomistic Theory of Civic Virtue. Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015. Pp. 279. $35 pb. ISBN: 978-0-8028-7090-2. Reviewed by Ann SWANER, Barry University, Miami Shores, FL 33161.


The purpose of this book is to develop a Thomistic theory of civic virtue (“a firm and stable disposition to direct the acts of the virtues toward the common good of one’s society”) applicable and useful to a pilgrim church in the liberal, democratic societies of the twenty-first century. In the process Thomas Bushlack analyzes medieval and modern understandings of virtue, the common good, and natural law. In the Introduction Bushlack presents an overview of an ecclesiology implicit in Thomas Aquinas’s theology and consistent with Vatican II’s theology of the “pilgrim church” in which the Christian must live with the paradoxical dual commitment to the common good in this world and to the transcendent goal of the Kingdom of God.

Chapter One provides a historical introduction to civic virtue and suggests reasons that civic virtue has been underdeveloped in contemporary Catholic moral, political, and social thought, to the detriment of our social discourse. He makes a helpful distinction among three tendencies in the interpretation of Catholic social thought: neoconservatives (including Michael Novak and George Weigel) who distrust state power and prefer the forces of self-interest and unencumbered markets; advocates for withdrawal from the mechanisms of the modern nation-state (including Michael Baxter and William Cavanaugh); and liberals (including David Hollenbach)who see the state as necessary for securing justice but whose temptation is to place liberal politics before Christian and ecclesial identity. After critiquing each of these tendencies Bushlack concludes that “a coherent and systematically developed language for seeking the common good remains a visible lacuna in much contemporary Catholic social thought.”(43) He argues that a Thomistic account of civic virtue provides resources to fill that lacuna. Bushlack here also traces the development of the relationship of the Catholic Church with the modern nation states since the French Revolution, especially as regards liberalism. He argues that while the church has rejected “doctrinaire” liberalism, especially at Vatican I, but continuing today, it has, at least since Leo XIII, been sympathetic to moderate liberalism’s focus on universal human rights.

In Part I (chapters two and three) Bushlack examines Thomas’s treatment of general justice in its thirteenth century context and explores and extends the connections between civic virtue, the passions, prudence, and natural law. He notes that the task Aquinas and his contemporaries faced in the thirteenth century, to “carve out a space for civic virtue vis-à-vis the political community”(71), is the opposite of the twenty-first challenge to “extend the political to reconnect it to the transcendent, while simultaneously recognizing and respecting the autonomy and integrity of the political.” (71)

Part II (chapters four through six) moves to the modern period to place the account of civic virtue developed in Part I in dialogue with modern discussions of natural law and political philosophy – liberalism and classical republicanism. Bushlack engages with contemporary scholarship on Henri de Lubac’s thesis on the relationship of nature and grace and its significance for Catholic social and political thought. He concludes that “a Thomistic construal of natural law requires maintaining a stronger distinction between nature and grace than de Lubac’s collapsing of this distinction tends to allow. Doing so provides a theoretical foundation for appreciating the necessity of creating and maintaining public spaces within which Christians can engage in dialogue with others while still drawing on our fundamental theological principles and beliefs ….” (164) Maintaining this distinction between nature and grace avoids the temptation to Christian epistemic superiority and elitism as well as any forms of semi-Jansenism or semi-Pelagianism.

In dialogue with liberalism Bushlack focuses on the work of John Rawls and William Galston. He agrees with Rawl’s notion of an “overlapping consensus” providing common ground as a starting point for public discussion about the common good but disagrees with him about the “priority of the right over the good.” Bushlack values Galston’s articulation of the goods of liberalism. He concludes, “A theological account of civic virtue can make use of Rawl’s overlapping consensus and Galston’s articulation of the goods of liberalism, while continuing to insist that a cognitive conception of the common good and the will to defend it are essential for cultivating the kind of civic virtue that will best support the goods pursued within liberal, democratic societies.” (168-9)

While liberalism stresses the freedom and autonomy of the individual, classical republicanism upholds a stronger sense of the common good. In discussing this tradition Bushlack draws on the thought of Philip Pettit and Eric MacGilvray. Pettit expands the liberal notion of freedom as non-interference to freedom from “arbitrary forms of coercion from other persons, groups, and/or social forces such as the market.” (186) MacGilvray’s analysis of the market suggests that its language of freedom is “potentially even more corrosive to freedom and civic virtue than the communist or socialist threats of the twentieth century.” (189) The republican notion of freedom demands more of the state in the protection of the common good.

In Chapter Six Bushlack tackles the culture wars. He follows sociologist and Christian James Davison Hunter’s account of how we have arrived at the current political and cultural gridlock and agrees with his judgment that “the predominant forms of Christian engagement in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are not only ineffective and necessarily doomed to failure, but also incongruent with the primary task of the church to witness to the gospel.” (199) Bushlack draws on Aristotle’s Rhetoric to extend Thomas’s theory of civic virtue to provide linguistic and moral reasoning skills to pursue a public discussion of the common good. He argues that “reason (logos), character (ethos), and passionate commitment (pathos) may be put to use in the practice of civic virtue to build trust, cultivate civic friendship, and facilitate a process of collective deliberation in the pursuit of just practical solutions to political dilemmas.” (251) Finally, Bushlack offers examples of groups who are practicing the kind of positive witness and constructive rhetoric that he is advocating: lay apostolates such as Catholic Action, the community of Sant’Egidio, and the Focolare Movement.

This book is exceptionally well-written and clear in its explanations. Anyone frustrated with the seemingly interminable political gridlock and culture war rhetoric of our time may find some direction here for finding a better way.