Review of Heinrich A. Rommen: The State in Catholic Thought

Review of The State in Catholic Thought: A Treatise in Political Philosophy, by Heinrich A. Rommen, Social Research, Vol. 13, No. 2 (June 1946).  Reprinted in What Is Political Philosophy?


Anyone who wishes to judge impartially of the legitimacy or the prospects of the great design of modern man to erect the City of Man on what appear to him to be the ruins of the City of God must familiarize himself with the teachings, and especially the political teachings, of the Catholic church, which is certainly the most powerful antagonist of that modern design. There are people who believe that they can dispose of the Catholic protest by pointing to the apparent opportunism of the policy of the Vatican. It is one of the merits of Dr. Rommen’s book that it states without ambiguity the inflexible principles that the Catholic church has maintained throughout the ages by means of a most flexible policy.

An essential characteristic of Catholic thought about the state is that its emphasis on the different elements which it claims to reconcile, in a higher unity, changes with the change of circumstances.  Rommen’s book is an interesting example of the abandonment by Catholic thought of the romanticist, legitimist or monarchist tendency with which it was allied as long as the fight against the philosophic principles of 1789 was its primary polemic preoccupation, and of its return to the more democratic views of late scholasticism.  Particularly valuable is Rommen’s account of the intra-Catholic controversy between the adherents of the less democratic designation theory and those of the more democratic translation theory of the origin of political authority (Chapters1 9 and 20). In his presentation the only residue of what may loosely be called the romanticist view is his use of the term “organic,” which in his work means hardly more, however, than that political society is not simply and essentially egalitarian….

Today it is something of a surprise to come across a book on political fundamentals which is more than an open or disguised apology for democracy, and at least attempts to give an openminded and at the same time uncynical account of political principles.  In this connection one must recommend especially Rommen’s exposition of the scope of political philosophy (pp. 33 if. and 49 if.).