The Faith that Does Prudence: Contemporary Catholic Social Ethics and the Appropriation of the Ethics of Aquinas

Brian Michael Reedy, SJ


One of the most important contemporary issues within the Society of Jesus is the way in which contemporary evangelization impacts social evolution and social structures.  Under the umbrella term of “social justice” the Society is committed to the analysis of and changing of the social and economic structures that impact human lives, so that the values of the Gospel can be actualized within the human family.  Understanding what Aquinas has to say about the issues involved in social justice is important for two reasons.  First, the theological and ethical language of the Society, and the Catholic Church in general, draws deeply from the Thomistic tradition.  Second, there is a vigorous resurgence of attempts to reappropriate Aquinas’ ethical theory according to contemporary sensibilities.  For all those interested in promoting social justice within a Catholic framework it is important to understand how the issues related to social justice relate to Aquinas’ theological project. Although Aquinas does provide a theoretical framework in which the issues of social justice can be addressed, he provides a different rubric.  The contemporary convictions of radical equality and individual rights belong to the Thomistic domain of theoretical reasoning through wisdom.  The critique and evaluation of social structures according to contemporary economic theories and sensibilities belongs to the Thomistic domain of practical reasoning through prudence.  The commitment to the preferential option for the poor belongs to the Thomistic virtue of charity.  In Aquinas’ language, the faith that does justice is, because it acts in a critical and constructive fashion, more accurately a faith that acts prudently.

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