Justice and Charity
An Introduction to Aquinas's Moral, Economic, and Political Thought
- ISBN: 9781540962249
- Published By: Baker Academic
- Published: July 2020
Despite the profound connectivity that modern technology has brought to our world, it often feels as though people are more divided than ever. Differences and disagreements have regularly translated into hate and violence, and an uneasy tension hangs over the question of what it means to love our neighbor. In his introductory chapter to Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought, Michael Krom puts it this way: “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles” (2).
The desire to navigate these conflicts faithfully is precisely what keeps Saint Thomas Aquinas so relevant to a broad audience today. A shepherd through the complexities of this world, Aquinas has long proven his worth as an intellectual giant of the Church. It is no wonder that the Code of Canon Law (Can. 252, §3) commends him to any student of dogmatic theology and that Pope Francis has defended his flagship apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, as reflecting “the morality of the great Thomas” (3).
Nonetheless, students wishing to learn more about the moral, economic, and political thought of the Church’s Angelic Doctor face an immediate challenge: where to begin? So much has been written both by and about Aquinas that finding a contemporary introductory resource that enhances one’s knowledge and provides guidance on how to engage with the saint’s writings responsibly and critically can be a genuine challenge.
It is to this end that Krom’s book makes arguably its most important contribution. Portraying Aquinas as “a guide to living justly and charitably in the face of whatever controversies we may encounter” (4), Krom writes with a teacher’s heart as he unfolds the essentials of Thomistic thought to his audience. Justice and Charity is an insightful and readable introduction to Aquinas, his work, and his application to the contemporary world.
Our faithful desire to eradicate hostile and dehumanizing division is rooted, in essence, in our desire to be truly happy and to see others happy as well. Krom demonstrates that, for Aquinas, this desire for true happiness is necessarily dependent upon the infusion of virtue into our individual lives and the communities of which we are part: a transformation only possible through grace, mercy, a concern for the common good, and participation in the sacramental life. By choosing to start with human happiness, Krom brings a lightness to the work which he amplifies throughout with humor, relatable examples, and an embedded sense of joy that is apparent to any reader. This is refreshing, especially given that many turn to Aquinas for help in navigating weighty, dense, and complex matters.
Krom understands the virtues of justice and charity as essential starting points from which one must understand Aquinas. “Justice seeks to establish a right relationship between people” (80), while charity reminds us that this right relationship is characterized by selflessness and a willingness to prioritize the common good. From this conclusion flows Krom’s treatment of Aquinas as a defender of virtue ethics.
Justice and Charity positions Aquinas not merely as an influential medieval clergyman and scholar but also as a voice that is increasingly relevant to contemporary theological discourse, with a particular focus on his ability to help articulate and explain the Catholic Social Tradition (CST). Krom appreciates the difficulty of doing this, reminding readers to “bear in mind that it is hard enough to understand Aquinas’s teachings on their own terms, much less determine how they would bear on questions he himself did not ask” (177). While the work does advocate “updating” Aquinas (that is to say, applying his theological approach to modern questions), he does not suppose that Aquinas’ theological conclusions would deviate very far from established Catholic doctrine on often-controversial topics, such as abortion or human sexuality.
While these topics are discussed with sensitivity and care, many readers are still likely to find the presentation at odds with their lived experiences, such as in a section which implies that some members of the LGBTQ+ community “experience this passion” (same-sex attraction) “as a result of previous choices” (192). Here and elsewhere, Justice and Charity would have benefitted from the inclusion of the diverse voices of Catholic ethicists and theologians who have offered critiques of these perspectives as well as a more consistent application of modern science in its ethical assessments. As an introductory work, this would have enhanced and broadened readers’ awareness of how Aquinas’ thought has been applied to contemporary ethical issues and would have offered more insight into how Aquinas—ever the Aristotelian—may have assessed these issues in their fullness. As the author acknowledges early in the book, “the right thing to do in any situation will depend on a variety of unique circumstances” (13).
Each section of Justice and Charity includes suggested background reading—typically a selection from Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. This approach enables students to better understand and contextualize Krom’s analysis and helps readers build confidence in their ability to engage with Aquinas’ vast canon responsibly. While Justice and Charity offers a limited biographical sketch of Aquinas’ life and context, it provides helpful bibliographies for readers to find additional material. In a significant way, Justice and Charity is not merely an introduction to Aquinas, but also a compass by which students can better navigate the expansive field that is Thomism.
Justice and Charity achieves its goal of serving as a helpful and insightful introductory text on the moral, economic, and political thought of Thomas Aquinas. The book is concise and readable, well-researched, and smartly organized. Krom’s book would be a useful starting point for a student looking better to understand the thought and application of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
Ian Clark is a PhD candidate in theological ethics at The University of Aberdeen.Ian A. ClarkDate Of Review:May 31, 2023