Angels and the Social Teaching of the Church, A Small Connection?

By Fr. Basil Cole, O.P.

St. Thomas is called the angelic doctor due, in part, to his extraordinary speculation on the nature of angels, how they think and act. He, together with tradition, teaches that they are countless because God in his goodness wanted to manifest his perfections in imitation of his unlimited good and beauty. Angelic being is purely spiritual whereas humans are both spiritual and material. All were were created as a universe of being. Matter is subordinate to spirit in differing ways, whereas angels are at the service of God, assisting him and ministering to the bodily spirits, ourselves. Humankind is also at the service of God, to each other and, to a certain extent, managers of material being. Each strata of being is meant to give glory to God, from whom all good created things have freely come about by his omnipotence. Unfortunately, some purely spiritual beings willingly left the ranks of their members by refusing to give themselves to God out of pride in their excellence. Humans also have failed originally by Adam and Eve through pride by disobeying God. We, their wounded offspring, also sin from the unbridled desire for the pleasures of the flesh, the unregulated desire for created things and the disordered desire for personal excellence and fame.

Guido_Reni_031In the case of the angels, due to their purely spiritual nature, they could with great intensity beyond our imagination reject God’s offer of a supernatural love so totally that they could not return and ask for mercy from God. With humans, due to our feeble intelligence,  weakness of will and unregulated emotions, we do not make such definitive decisions. Therefore, we humans can be easily forgiven of sins by God many times if we have sincere sorrow for our sins. Our wills, the source of sin, are “fickle” or changeable, which is also a reason why we need to daily keep the spirit of vigilance over self through the virtue of repentance.

St. Thomas is of the opinion that more perfect beings (angels) who imitate his infinite goodness were created in greater abundance because this reflects even more his nature as infinite. But when he created angels, he did so not to constitute them as a total world of their own, but part of the whole universe of created being. Thomas then concludes: “For the total good of the universe consists in the interrelationship of things; and no part is complete and perfect in isolation from the whole” (ST 61, 3). From this citation, we learn something about the social teaching of the Church, namely, no society on its own can find its perfection in isolation from others.

Beginning with Leo XIII’s call for society to pay a just living wage for the good of family life, we slowly see the Papal Magisterium coming to the idea that since human beings have the same ultimate end invited by God and are like and unlike angels created in his image. We are a family and need to interact with other nations, beginning with the cell of society (the natural family), interacting with other families in the neighborhoods of society. Then, it is necessary for countries to assist one another to grow in material and even spiritual welfare. Extreme poverty of any neighboring nation is a neighbor in need and so must be cared for. If there are many nations like this (third and fourth worlds), then it is necessary for more wealthy nations to come to their aid without necessarily doing everything for them like a nanny does for a child. In other words, individuals and nations are on the same journey objectively speaking with the same identical human nature with differing cultural and linguistic contexts (Laudato Si’, 117).

When we look for an important principle to wade through the social teaching about these matters, we discover an important concept that flows from a universe created for an “interrelationship” of part to part, part to whole, and whole to part,” namely, the universal destination of created goods:

2402 In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits.[186 Cf. Gen 1:26-29. ] The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. However, the earth is divided up among men to assure the security of their lives, endangered by poverty and threatened by violence. The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men.

2403 The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.

Two important concepts emerge from these texts, namely, we are all both individuals and governments, stewards of material goods with the right to own things, not as complete owners. All parts of the world and universe belong ultimately to God. Human beings are meant to wisely order material goods and resources for the sake of helping people flourish materially and spiritually. Since we are bodily spirits, humans everywhere have legitimate needs for food, drink, clothes, housing, medicine, education and the like. An avaricious or greedy spirit individually and nationally (the root of the capital vices according to St. Paul [ITim. 6:10] as interpreted by St. Thomas Aquinas (ST II-II 118, 2)) will desire and take these things in excess, without regard for others, as in personal hoarding or monopolistic corporations, which intensifies the suffering of the poor.

Likewise, relying on the Catechism, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church will further articulate some consequences of the universal destination of goods:

174. The principle of the universal destination of goods is an invitation to develop an economic vision inspired by moral values that permit people not to lose sight of the origin or purpose of these goods, so as to bring about a world of fairness and solidarity, in which the creation of wealth can take on a positive function. Wealth, in effect, presents this possibility in the many different forms in which it can find expression as the result of a process of production that works with the available technological and economic resources, both natural and derived. This result is guided by resourcefulness, planning and labour, and used as a means for promoting the well-being of all men and all peoples and for preventing their exclusion and exploitation.

Thinking of and willing the common good of a family, a nation together in union with other nations, and like divine charity itself, (the supernational form and inspiration of all the virtues), this sense of solidarity should be the consequence of accepting this truth about the universal destination of material goods, because we are all designed to have the same final destination with God forever.

Father Basil Cole, O.P. is currently a Professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Father is also author of Music and Morals, The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood and coauthor of Christian Totality; Theology of Consecrated Life. A native San Franciscan, Father has been a prior in the Western province of the Dominicans, a parish missionary and retreat master, and invited professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Angelicum in Rome.
Articles by Fr. Cole: