Victor Cathrein SJ on society, social activity, and the partition of society

by Gerardus Maiella

We present today a rather short text on society, taken from an influential manual, the Philosophia moralis of Victor Cathrein, SJ, which went through twenty-one editions. To our knowledge, this work is an abridged Latin recension of his larger two-volume work in German, Moralphilosophie, which may be found here and here. The present translation is taken from Philosophia moralis, IIa pars, lib. II, cap. 1, a. 1-3.



426. We have hitherto considered man according to individual relations; now we shall treat of the same as a member of society. And because natural society is principally twofold, domestic and civil, we shall consider both separately in chapter 2 and 3, the general notions about society having been set forth in chapter 1. In chapter 4, finally, we shall set down the question concerning the relations of diverse civil societies among themselves, that is, of international law.





(Zallinger, Institut. nat. n. 166. Meyer, Institut. iuris nat. I, n. 347.)

427. 1. A society is a moral and stable union of many, working in harmony by their acts toward some common end.

It is called a) a moral union, i.e. of that sort which is effected by spiritual bonds, from which hence there is excluded not only the aggregation of irrational beings, as a crowd of apes, but also a multitude of men brought together into one place and not united except by an external bond, e.g. a multitude of men congregated for market day. For a true society it is required, that its members know the common end, and are secured by mutual duties and rights in an order for willing this end, and, with united powers, attaining it.

b) stable, because a transitory union which is for a momentary end, or which is to be dissolved, its singular endeavor having been completed, is not properly called a society.

428. 2. From these things, it is clear that the material element of society is the multitude, but the formal element is the moral union itself. This moral union is effected by a twofold principle:

a) a common end, which specifies the society and of itself is already capable of effecting, to a certain degree, unity of minds and wills. Nevertheless, for a constant and ordered union in cooperating, taking into account the liberty of men and the diversity of judgments and powers, of itself a common end alone does not suffice, but there is required in addition

b) some element in the real order, which primarily consists in a mutual obligation in respect of the same end. There is further required some principle, which constantly and efficaciously directs free will to the common end, namely authority, which is a necessary element of society and may be defined: the right of obliging members of society, so that they might cooperate by their acts for the common good.

In any society, authority, as the principle of social union, cannot but be one, and ought to inhere in some real subject, and indeed by exclusive right. This subject is called a superior. By reason of social union, society brings forth the similitude of a person, or it institutes a new person—not indeed physical, but moral—which has its own being and activity proper to itself.

429. Scholion. It is customary to ask in this place, whether authority is the form (substantial) of society, or whether only a property necessarily consequent from the essence of society. Note first, that this question is not concerned with the metaphysical form of society, but with a form as it were physical. For the metaphysical form of society is the moral union through duties and rights in respect of the same end, as is clear from the given definition. It seems that it ought to be responded, that authority is not the form of society, but a property necessarily consequent upon the essence of the same.

It is proved. The essence of a thing is not able to be conceived as perfect, before the form of the same is present. But society is already able to be conceived of as perfect according to its essence, at least by reason prior to authority being present. Therefore authority is not the form of society.

Proof of the minor. a) If I should imagine four men to oblige themselves in writing to pursue some end by their common powers, by this very fact, the society is already perfect according to essence, even if they should think nothing of authority. Therefore authority is not of the essence of society, and therefore neither is it the form of the same. For it is repugnant that there be conceived a thing without form. b) If I should ask, why authority is necessary, it ought to be responded: because without it, society would not be able to attain its end. Therefore the essence of society is prior by reason to authority, and is the ratio of the same. But the essence of a thing is not able to be prior by reason to its form. c) That does not pertain to the essence of society, which is determined by this same essence. But authority is determined by the very essence of society. For authority is not determined immediately by the end of society, but by the nature of society; for it is of such a kind and of such a quantity, insofar as the nature of society requires such and so much. d) In at least one society, authority is not the physical form; therefore neither in the others. Proof of the antecedent. Matrimony in very fact is a true society, or stable union of two persons in respect of the same end; in this society, furthermore, authority is not the form. For this society, according to its essence, is constituted immediately through a contract, which of itself conveys equal offices and rights of commutative justice to both entering into the contract. Thereon the authority of the husband results from the nature of this society, for without such authority, the conjugal society would not be able to achieve its end.



430. The acts which proceed from some society, as from a moral person, properly are called social. These acts, therefore, suppose society constituted fully in its being, since to-act presupposes to-be. Yet more broadly, acts which do not indeed proceed from society, but are concerned with it, and constitute it, are able to be called social. But the principle of these acts is not society, but the will of those who constitute society. Wherefore it is clear, that the right of social authority ought not to be confounded with the right of constituting society.

Now in the social act properly so called, these elements may be found according to an analogy of the human act: principle, end, norm (Meyer, Instit. iuris nat. I, n. 367 sqq.).

1. The internal principle of social acts ought to be distinguished twofold: the principle quod (that which) and the principle quo (that by which). The principle quod is the society itself. The primary principle quo is the superior as such, to whom, according to the analogy in an individual man, there responds will and reason as the first mover of human acts. The secondary principle quo is the social body itself, or the subjects, just as in the individual man the principle quo are the diverse faculties.

That a social act might be truly such, and human, it is required that it proceed from its principle with knowledge of the end. But knowledge and direct intention of the social end is necessary to the superior alone, but for the subjects per se, knowledge and indirect intention suffice, with which they know and will in common that to which they are immediately directed by the social authority. For by this do they in fact cooperate for the common good.

Acts of society primarily are imputed to the superior as the primary principle quo, but to the subjects according to a measure of participation and moral cooperation for an act commanded by the superior.

2. The end of a social act is the same as the end of society, namely the common good, to be pursued with united powers. But the common good is not some abstract good, but is of the same sort in which all the members of society in some way participate, so far as it is possible. What is more, this common good, in respect of society, ought to be proportionate to the nature of society, and thus ought to be per se external, since social cooperation is not able to be had concerning things merely internal. Yet, by this, the due subordination of external goods to goods of a higher order is not excluded. For the external common good, which constitutes the immediate end of society, ought to be subordinated to the internal good of all the members, and to their final end, from which it is evident, that no society is able to be an end in itself, nor is an act able to be commanded by the public authority, which is opposed to the final end of man.

431. From the things which have been said, there is inferred:

a) the difference between superior and lord, between subject and servant, between social authority and lordship. For a superior is only able to oblige others to the common good, but the lord (by reason of his dominion) is able to oblige others to his own private good;

b) merely human authority is not able to command acts purely internal, because per se they neither convey to the external common good, nor are able to be judged by human social authority. But if an external act, justly commanded, is unable rightly to be posed without something internal, subjects are obliged even to this—but not directly by the social authority, but by the natural law.

432. 3. The norm of rectitude of a social act is the nature of society itself. And if, therefore, this norm is kept in mind—if, further, the true common good is intended, and not a merely apparent one, a social act is unable not to be rightly ordered.



433. Society is distinguished into:

1. Natural (necessary) and free, namely, as it is considered according to its species, or arises by natural necessity and force of law, or by free convention of men. I said: according to its species, and not considered only according to genus. For, in order that a society might be natural, it does not suffice, that nature generally should incline to attain a sure end by means of social co-operation; but it is required, that it should incline toward forming society in a certain and determinate mode, such that this society is determined in its species through its nature, or in some way has, as it were, a definite constitution from its nature.

2. Simple and composite, as it coalesces from other smaller societies, or not.

3. Complete and incomplete, and that either intrinsically or extrinsically. A society is called intrinsically complete, which has for its end all the goods of man in at least some grade, according to the whole extension; — intrinsically incomplete, which has a part only for a particular end, as e.g. some literary society. Intrinsically complete societies are the domestic and civil sort, which pursue the social perfection of man in its totality, although they different among themselves in their proximate end, insofar as they proximately attain that end under a diverse aspect, and by diverse means.

That society is extrinsically complete which is intrinsically complete and simultaneously sui iuris, or is not subject to an alien power, at least directly. This society is also called supreme (souverain). Civil society alone is of such a kind. For the family, by its nature, evolves into civil society, but societies which are internally incomplete, if you except the Church, necessarily require a higher society, to which they inhere as parts.

4. Perfect and imperfect. A society is able to be called perfect from a twofold reason; 1) because it is ordered to the perfect sufficiency of human life and suffices in itself for this end, and in this sense it is the same as a society intrinsically and extrinsically complete; 2) because it possesses in itself and per se (in actuality or in power) the necessary means for achieving its end, and, at least directly, does not depend upon other societies: in this sense, both the State (civitas) and the Church are perfect societies, and all those remaining are imperfect.