Against Political Iconoclasm

By Nathaniel Gotcher


There are many Catholics today who deny the necessity of promoting a Catholic political order. This denial is manifest in two strains of thought that sometimes coincide. The first is the idea that political order is amoral and pragmatic. It is primarily concerned with the material prosperity and security necessary for each person to pursue their goals. It may not legislate morality except insofar as it is clear that a given action harms another person by inhibiting their goals.  The teaching of moral virtue above and beyond this is properly in the scope of ecclesiastical structures and individual families—in other words, moral formation belongs to the Church and the Family, not the State. The second idea is that political order itself is immoral and corrupt. Even the pragmatic concern for prosperity and security is tinged with the wickedness of men in power. Instead, religious institutions and private philanthropy ought to be in charge of the distribution of material goods so that the practice of charity renders the State unnecessary and frees us from the bondage of worldly political order.

What unites both strains of thought is a sort of political iconoclasm. Iconoclasts hold that any representation of God (or nature) in art is either idolatry or blasphemy, either the worship of false gods or a false worship of the true God. To political iconoclasts, any attempt to fashion a political order according to Christian principles will either lead to a worship of the state (idolatry) or a corruption of Christianity (blasphemy). This is because they misunderstand the nature of politics and the relationship of nature and grace that informs the Catholic understanding of all human activity. While nature is indeed subject to corruption, the reality of the Incarnation means that nature is perfectible by grace. Christ’s redemptive act cascades down from the Cross into every dry rivulet of human activity, including politics.

God’s Image and Human Nature

In the creation account in the book of Genesis, we read: “Then God said: let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Gen. 1:26).  But what is this image, this likeness? What is human nature? According to Catholic dogma, God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the act of self-contemplation, God generates the Image of Himself, the Word that perfectly expresses Who He is and is Spoken to Himself. Understanding Himself, He knows Himself and loves Himself. In the abundance of this love, God conceived all things in his mind and spoke His Word to bring them into existence, creating all things in heaven and on earth and below the earth. Everything that is made came to be through the Word, and everything therefore bears the mark of God’s mind. Because of this, all creation reflects and reveals God in some way. God desired that this revelation be received and so created man in His image, with a mind capable of contemplating Him through His revelations. This is the foundation of the Christian understanding of human nature.

Human nature reflects God’s image through the faculty of reason. The single faculty of reason is used in three modes: artistic reason, practical reason, and contemplative reason. Reason is the ability to know order, and the three modes of reasoning correspond to the three kinds of order that it knows.

Artistic reason consists in man’s ability to imitate and perfect nature, to shape and order the material world toward some good, reflecting God’s own creative activity. This is realized through the reasoned making of artifacts and the guiding of the operations of nature. Man uses artistic reason to cultivate vegetation, make furniture and buildings, cure diseases, cook and prepare food, depict nature through drawing or sculpture, create musical harmonies, and guide his body in dance and sport. While each art has its own end (the artifact that is made or the perfected operation), artistic reason illuminates our understanding of nature by the reasoned ordering of things and reveals the image of God as creator present in humanity.

Practical reason (prudence) is the ability to guide human activity toward some good by the development of virtue. In contrast to artistic reason, which shapes and orders nature external to man, practical reason is concerned with the internal ordering of the human soul. By reflecting on the goods toward which we act, we can understand the relationship of these goods to each other, distinguishing us from animals. While artistic reason understands the useful and pleasant goods of the arts, practical reason understands the moral goods to which our behavior is ordered. This reflects God’s own perfect goodness, which defines all His activity.  Because we can communicate with each other about these goods and support each other in virtue, it is natural for us to form societies in which to practice virtue.  

Contemplative reason is the ability to understand God through His creative activity, the order of reality.   Because we were made to contemplate God, we call this man’s “final end” or purpose. The Church holds that it is possible to know something about God through natural reason by reflecting on what man perceives through his senses. By our own power (that is, in the order of nature), this understanding of God is indirect because it is discerned through His creation. But God in his wisdom desires to reveal himself more directly so that we might know Him more perfectly and not through a reflection. By our own power this is impossible, but by God’s intervention this “supernatural” contemplation can be achieved. This “supernatural” final end is the fulfillment of God’s plan for human nature.

Human nature is made in the Image of God because of man’s rational soul. And human reason is artistic, political, and philosophical, reflecting God’s Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. These modes of reasoning have an order among themselves whereby the lower modes are understood more completely in the higher modes. Thus it is through practical reason that we can understand how art contributes to the development of a just and virtuous society, and it is through contemplative reason that we can understand how the political life contributes to man’s final end, the contemplation of God.  Art allows an insight into the human soul and so supports and finds its fulfillment in politics. Political life allows for the flourishing of the soul in community, the greatest natural reality by which we can contemplate God. This indirect contemplation is perfected and elevated by grace toward the final end of man, the direct contemplation of God in the Beatific Vision. By this account, both art and political life are natural and ordered not only to man’s earthly happiness, but also to our heavenly destiny.

The Fall and the Corruption of Nature

Human nature, however, became subject to corruption through sin. St. Athanasius teaches that creation is corruptible by nature, but God made man in His image to transcend this corruption. Man’s fall was a rejection of the image of God within him and an embrace of natural corruption, which ultimately meant death. Before death, however, the threefold reasoning of human nature was obscured. By misunderstanding God’s revelation through nature, man lost sight of his final end. He began to worship false gods, attributing to creatures what was proper to the creator. Without clarity about his final end, he began to lose the moral habits that form the human soul. Human political arrangements became fraught with the libido dominandi, the lust for power, and material prosperity became society’s end. The representation of creation and the divine in art became grotesque and confused. Man, at war with God, found himself at war with creation and indeed his own nature.

But what God has joined, man may not divide. God’s image remained imprinted upon human nature, though badly damaged, and man was still capable of recognizing and pursuing his natural final end. In pagan cultures, the idea that some personal being created the universe and was owed worship remained intact, though their conception of this being was flawed. Pagan societies were organized around the worship of this being (and the other powers of nature), reflecting in some poor way the virtuous organization of society for the contemplation of the true God. Art served the religious rituals around which society was organized. Human nature could not escape the Image of God, no matter how blind it was.

Even in the blindness, some societies developed inklings of true artistic, practical, and contemplative reason. In particular, the Greek philosophical tradition pierced through the haze of natural corruption and presented to the world a clearer picture of art, virtue, and natural contemplation. Even with this philosophic light, Greek culture and its Roman successor were not free from natural corruption. Dante does not place even Aristotle and Plato in Paradise, but rather in Limbo, which, though a place of natural contemplation of God, is in Hell.

But God, in his wisdom, did not abandon man to his fallen nature. Within the chaos of false religion, God chose to reveal himself directly and form a society based on true contemplation so that the path to supernatural contemplation could be restored. His chosen people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were the recipients of this revelation through various covenants. To counteract the deception of fallen human nature, God gave them prophets to reveal the truth of His place in their lives. He gave them a moral and ritual law to form the basis of their society and art. The revelation of God to Israel was written down in scripture, and the Word of God became the central focus of this religion.

The Incarnation and the Restoration of the Image

In order to complete the restoration of the image of God in human nature, the Word of God “was made flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14). The Incarnation is the central claim of Christianity. Knowing that His image was obscured in human nature, God chose to reveal himself perfectly to us precisely through human nature. The Word of God that was spoken to create all things, the Image of God that formed the basis for human nature and was generated by God’s self-contemplation, the very Son of God revealed Himself definitively by entering his creation, taking on human nature to remake human nature. In the Incarnation, God completed the work of “making man in our own image according to our likeness.” This act of God to perfect human nature is what we call grace and is the only path to perfect and direct contemplation of God, the Beatific Vision, our final end.

Grace perfects all of human nature. Not only is contemplative reason restored, but practical and artistic reason as well. The philosophical, political, and artistic tradition of the pagans, once dangerous, could now be illuminated by grace. The prime mover of Aristotle was shown to be the Triune God in whose image we are made. The common life of virtue in a city was shown to be a foreshadowing of the New Jerusalem, the City of God. The beauty of proportion in the human figure and in human artifacts was shown to be the shadow of God’s own perfection revealed in the Word made flesh.  

The Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ, gave us His Universal Church so that we could participate in the Incarnation and receive this grace. It is only by the action of Christ through his Church that nature is perfected by grace and in particular through the sacramental life. Christ uses water, oil, bread, and wine to enact the life of grace in man. Baptism is not merely a natural symbol of a supernatural washing, it is precisely through the natural washing that the supernatural grace is given. In the same way, anointing in Confirmation and eating in Holy Communion are not merely a natural anointing and eating but the way in which we receive supernatural health and nourishment.The sacraments give us a first taste of our final end, the attainment of human perfection.

The grace of the sacramental life then transforms us to see not only water, oil, bread, and wine as fulfilled in the final contemplation of God, but the rest of creation as well. In the new sacramental order of nature, gold and silver are made into fitting vessels for Christ’s Body in the Eucharist. Stone, wood, metal, and glass are used to build God’s Temple here on earth, a vision of God’s people gathered to worship Him in heaven. Every human art is illuminated by grace and the natural ordering of artistic reason takes on a supernatural character. The representation of God in worship is no longer an idol but an icon.

The various iconoclastic movements since the Incarnation have been a denial of the restoration of nature. The iconoclasts feared nature, so long a deceiver, but there is no deception when we have seen God’s body. Nature is not to be feared but perfected through the grace available to us through Christ’s Incarnation. The Church rightly condemns iconoclasm as an affront to the Incarnate Word, but if this is true of our artistic reason by which we represent God and His creation through art, how much more so of our practical reason by which the very order of our lives is ordered according to the image of God?

Restoring the Nature of Politics

The highest use of our practical reason is the practice of politics, the ordering of a “complete” society toward a shared life of peace. This requires justice, that each have what he needs to live in harmony with every other person. This harmony, the common good, is brought to completion through communal religion, giving God his due which is the purpose toward which all human activity on earth is to be directed. God intended man to live in communities where each receives what he ought to have, and all human activity was ordered toward ensuring this so that everyone might contemplate God. The need for a just ordering of society is not precipitated by the fall but is a part of human nature as such. God’s own Trinitarian life is one of a multiplicity of persons in perfect unity of being. Man, made in His image, must himself be ordered to a unity of persons. Political order, therefore, is natural to man.

In order to practice politics, our practical reason must be able to understand what is just and the proper ordering of the hierarchy of goods. This is precisely what the corruption of human nature in the fall obscured. The sensual pleasures, like the objects closest to us in a dimly lit room, are the most immediately evident goods. In a fallen world, they take on undue importance, against the goods of physical and spiritual well-being. The light of nature is often strong enough to see the goods of physical well-being, but without sufficient light, these are understood as being opposed to nobler goods, such as friendship and truth. These noble goods can be perceived through reason, but it requires the development of virtues, intellectual habits that light our way to higher goods. But since our practical reason, the understanding of intrinsic human activity, is itself corrupted by the fall, these intellectual habits, even where highly developed, are prone to failure.

Political Iconoclasm is the belief that anything more than a fallen political order is impossible in this world and that it is at best a necessary evil and at worst an evil to be overcome. Wishing to reduce this evil, political iconoclasts either attempt to limit political ordering to the absolutely necessary for society to avoid chaos, or they wish to do away with political order altogether. The Church is seen as the society of grace, parallel to the society of nature. The Church can form individual Christians by grace but grace merely protects the Christian from the influence of the fallen society of nature. It has no direct interaction with the political life. To the political iconoclast, the individual person, as the locus of virtue and receiver of grace, is a better safeguard of justice than a fallen political order. Either fallen political nature must be tolerated for pragmatic reasons, or it must be totally replaced by the Church.

But if political order is natural to man, and the common good is the highest good, then the restoration of politics through grace is the proper context of the salvation of souls, which is the highest law. The purpose of grace is to transform all of human nature. The sacramental life can not only guide the soul of the individual to more closely conform to God’s image, it can also shape the political life of societies so that God’s place in society is clearer. It is not only our artistic reason and therefore art that is reordered to our supernatural end. Our practical reason that guides how we live is transformed so that we, in society, no longer act in corruption but in imitation of Christ.

Before the Incarnation, the Israelites were forbidden graven images, but they were also warned against serving an earthly king, that is, forming a political order in imitation of those societies that surrounded them. Not only would such a king become a tyrant because of the corruption of nature, but God’s own kingship, the true order of nature over His people would be obscured. Since Christ’s Incarnation, the nature of God’s kingship has been revealed, and earthly political rule can be seen in this context instead of as a power in its own right. While the work of grace is not fully complete before Christ’s Second Coming, and corruption will always be partially present in every human endeavor, man’s political nature informed by grace is the closest earthly society can come to properly reflecting God’s image. It is therefore absolutely necessary that Catholics promote a political order that gives the Church and its sacramental life, our source of grace, its proper place as the guiding institution, in short, the soul of society. It is not merely one of many voluntary associations that limit the corruption of political nature through the promotion of natural virtue. If we depend on our nature to save our nature, we are worse than lost. God has given us His Word to enlighten our politics as well as our art. Let us not destroy his gift through a misguided political iconoclasm.

Header Image: The Demolition of Cheapside Cross