Chapter One St Thomas and the Police

If only we could read Thomas Aquinas without encountering some other of his readers — especially the police.

"The police" refers literally or figuratively. Figuratively we use the term to describe self-appointed guardians of social norms, as in "the decency police" or "the style police." Literally we use it to refer to the forces that keep internal order — municipal or state officers, the army on civic duty, and every other monitor or enforcer with the power of approved violence. Here I have both meanings in mind, beginning with the literal. It is a remarkable fact about Thomas Aquinas's texts that they have been quoted so regularly by the police of various regimes — by papal or local inquisitors, of course, but also in service of Franco's victory in Spain or of the Argentine security forces during the 1970s and 1980s.

Here is a single case. In 1971, the Argentine writer Carlos Alberto Sacheri published and widely distributed his broadside, The Clandestine Church.1 Sacheri had been a student of the eminent Thomist Charles de Koninck at Laval in Québec, but in this book his aim was not academic. He accused prominent priests associated with liberationist groups of direct links to Communist cells, and he called for action against them by the state and the Catholic church.2 The book became famous — infamous — as justification for more brutal repression. Sacheri himself was assassinated in reprisal during December 1974. The year following his death, a series of his essays was published under the title, The Natural Order.3 This collection has a

1 Carlos Sacheri, La Iglesia clandestina (Buenos Aires: Ediciones del Cruzamante, 197G). The book is a collection of journalistic pieces originally published during 1969 (p. 7).

2 Sacheri, Iglesia clandestina, pp. 93—98 (on the Communist connections of Ramondetti, Borzani, Paoli, and Viscovich) and pp. 136—14G (on "conclusions" and the call for action, noting the mentions of the "social order" and the final invocation of "Christ the King").

3 Sacheri, El orden natural (Buenos Aires: Instituto de Promoción Social Argentina, 1975).

eulogy-prologue by the Archbishop of Paraná that opens with an epigram from Aquinas (p. v).4 In the body of the posthumous book, Sacheri cites Aquinas to establish "the origin and function of authority" from the notion of the common good.5 Thomas appears again to underwrite the critique of liberal democracy, to restrict any right of revolution, and to subordinate state to papacy.6 In context, given Sacheri's martyrdom, Aquinas must seem to endorse the increasingly violent reaction of the Argentine authorities, civil and religious, against real or imagined revolutionaries.

More often Thomas has been the darling of figurative "police," of the forces of one or another orthodoxy who have wanted his authority. Thomas has been an authority within his own Dominican order since shortly after his death.7 He has been favored at the papal court at least since his canonization. He has towered over the Catholic church of the Counter-Reformation from its creation at the Council of Trent until its attempted redirection at the second Vatican Council. If his authority waxed and waned during those centuries, if it varied by religious order and by academic field, Thomas was still the common doctor to such an extent that his opponents too had to speak something of his language. Hence the Thomas industry. Hence the sad fact that the largest readership for Thomas has most often been coerced. Thomism as policy hands Thomas to the figurative police.8

This official past confronts most readers of Thomas before they reach his texts. A lucky few may begin to read him without having heard about his authority — though I know of no edition of Thomas that doesn't register it in some way. Many more readers will reach Thomas's texts after they hear of his authority — and perhaps only under its impulse. However one arrives at these texts, the old fondness for them among the police, once discovered,

4 The front matter also reproduces an earlier letter from the nunciature in Buenos Aires, which quotes in turn an approving letter from the Vatican's Secretariat of State (p. viii), both significant to the book's framing.

5 Sacheri, El orden natural, parenthetical back reference on p. 154 to the chapter that begins on p. 149 with references to the exposition of Aristotle's Politics and the Summa theologiae.

6 Sacheri, El orden natural, pp. 178—179, 181—184,185—186, respectively. The passage quoted from "De regime principum" 1.14 is in fact not by Thomas Aquinas. For the system of citing works by Aquinas, see "Abbreviations and Editions."

7 See most recently Elizabeth Lowe, The Contested Theological Authority of Thomas Aquinas: The Controversies between Hervaeus Natalis and Durandus of St Pour^ain (New York and London: Routledge, 2003).

8 The word "police," as Foucault insisted, is cognate with "policy." Indeed, in eighteenth-century German Polizeiwissenschaft meant not the methods of a particular agency, but comprehensive state regulation. See Michel Foucault, course summary for "Security, Territory, and Population" [1976—1977], in Foucault, Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: New Press, 1997), pp. 70-71.

may push a reader to pose sharp questions. If these texts are good teaching, how could they give rise to such a violent posterity? Is there something in them that aids or abets the police?

In this introduction, I consider responses to such sharp questions, but chiefly in order to make the questions sharper still. My timeline is odd. First I tell a story backward, from the present to the early modern period. Then I tell another story forward, from the death of Thomas to the early modern period. By that point you will have gathered that I am not interested in narrating a continuous Thomism. Rather the opposite: I break through continuous narratives to make room for the sharp questions about Thomas's authority. The questions do not fall neatly onto a timeline because they require a curious simultaneity, the simultaneity of a rhetorical structure and its remembered receptions. On the one hand, I suspect that what makes Thomas most attractive to contemporary police is not something in him, but rather the circumstances of his having already been abused for the purposes of coercion. On the other hand, I want to pursue the sharp question, whether something in Thomas might have solicited the attention of the police — or failed to prevent it. Behind both suspicion and provocation lies the confidence that Thomas's books lead us to think about theology and power.

For as long as possible, I will set aside another sort of narration as well: the chronicle of when Thomas's texts authorized particular acts of physical violence. It would be a grim task — and a long one — to list assaults committed after invoking Thomas. Of course, the list would not establish a causal relation of readings to crimes. As Sacheri's assassination shows, hatred of official Thomism can be used as easily as official Thomism itself to authorize killing. Leaving aside the chronicle of crimes, I ask how Thomas's texts have been made to support constructions of textual authority and whether his authorship can be blamed for them. Authorship, I say, thinking of Kierkegaard's pseudonyms as fictitious authors known through the operation of texts attributed to them. I am interested in Thomas Aquinas as the author of texts whose "intentions," if we want to retain that word, are discerned by looking to their rhetorical features. I am not interested in authorial psychology; I am interested in rhetorical force, in how the voices of theology become the summons of the police.

0 0

Responses

  • KERSTIN BECKENBAUER
    Who does st thomas aquinas site as his authority?
    8 years ago

Post a comment