The editor of volume of the Summa on the virtues offers this superb and even lovely summary of the centrality of justice in Thomas’s conception of community. God is the source of all communal goods, since “each individual participates because physical, moral, spiritual, cultural values are derived from the causality of God, both direct and participated.” Communities are maintained by the virtues that are allied to justice, but this is no secular order: “Ultimately, it is a sacred work, for it looks to the sacred order, one deriving from God. Only in the recognition, not only of God’s supreme and absolute lordship, but of the fact of his communicating a share in his dominion that makes others our superiors and so constitutes the human community, can the community by preserved.” That is to say, a community of virtue depends on “the virtue of religion.”

For Thomas, social order is necessarily hierarchical, but he “adds warmth and illumination” by insisting that “those who are sources of our being or betterment” are like fathers: “there is a graduated participation in the fatherhood of God that is honoured by all the virtues of veneration.” This implies practices of honor and respect are “indispensable to the society of man.”

Community comes to perfection when the order of justice is infused with piety: “for then it is not God’s fatherhood simply as lord that suffuses all the acts of the just man, but the fatherhood of God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, a fatherhood no only of lordship but of love.”

This is a majestic social model, but it is one that Thomas builds on the basis of debt: “there is an order of true justice, an order where there is some form of real indebtedness, the honouring of which makes the community of man possible, a community in which men can possess and peaceably enjoy the goods of human existence.” That is a discordant note that seems to run counter to Paul’s “Owe no man anything.”

Articles by Peter J. Leithart