Tuesday, October 12, 2004


In Quodlibetal Question 2.6.1, Aquinas has an interesting discussion of whether it is a sin to seek a "ruling office." The Latin here is "praelatio," which suggests that he primarily has in mind ecclesiastical office; but Sandra Edwards in her translation simply translates it "ruling office." This Latin dictionary notes three medieval meanings for praelatio: "actio praeferendi," "dominatio," "praelatorum ordo." The word, in other words, can mean either ecclesiastical office in particular or any position of authority. It's unclear what is intended here. The question as a whole is just on sin, and the easiest interpretation would be 'ruling office'; but the next question is particularly on whether preachers should desire earthly rewards. I am undecided; I'll summarize the argument, and you can tell me what you think. He notes first two arguments that it is a sin:

1. Something that we only have after the Fall would seem to be sinful. It doesn't seem, though, that there were any praelationes in Eden; rather, it was a result of disobedience (cf. Genesis 3:16).

2. We should only desire things that pertain to the glory of heaven. However, it is a common view that in heaven there will be no such praelationes. So it would seem that seeking praelatio would be a perverse desire.

He then notes an argument that it is not a sin:

3. Scripture requires that we honor those who rule well (cf. 1 Tim. 5:17). But it is not a sin to seek a position that is honored because of virtue. So it needn't be a sin to seek praelatio.

He then gives his own answer, which boils down to this:

Augustine solves this question in City of God 19, where he says that praelatio, without which people cannot be governed, is not something it is appropriate to seek, even if it is administered appropriately, because who seeks praelatio is either proud or unjust. It is unjust for someone to want more honor unless he is worthy of it, but it is pride and presumption for someone to consider himself more worthy for praelatio than those who would be subject to him. Thus no one should succeed to praelatio through their own desire, but only through God's judgment (cf. Hebrews 5:4). Everyone, however, may desire to be worthy of praelatio, or desire opera boni prelati (which would be most easily translated, "the good works of a prelate"). This answers (3).

For (1) and (2) he notes that they are bad arguments: we are permitted to desire things that did not exist in our state of innocence, and we are permitted to desire things that will not exist in our state of glory. For instance, we are permitted to desire to be subject to one another as Paul says we should; we are permitted to desire to repent; etc. Also, praelatio did, in a sense, exist in the state of innocence, and will, in a sense, exist in the state of glory, to the end of governance and rule, but not to the end of compelling people to serve.

Some of this appears to take praelatio in the narrower sense; the City of God passage, for instance is about bishops. On the other hand, it can also be read as a more general claim about all sorts of positions of power, using the episcopacy as an example. (1) and (2) appear to take the more general sense, as does the reply to them. It would be difficult to apply the narrower interpretation to these cases. Aquinas's own answer can be read either way, but should we translate opera boni praelati as "the good works of the prelate" or "the good works of one who is preferred"? The Hebrews passage suggests the narrower interpretation, because it is on the priesthood, as does the 1 Timothy passage in (3), which is about the elders who govern the church. Does anyone have suggestions?

(UPDATE 10/14: The best English translation of 'praelatio' would be 'preferment', now that I think of it. But this doesn't actually clarify anything because the English admits of the same ambiguity. It's possible that Aquinas is just not sufficiently clear. I hesitate to admit that, though, because whenever anyone else has claimed Aquinas wasn't sufficiently clear on a point it has generally been the case that they were missing something fairly obvious. Even good Homer nods; but trying to catch out Aquinas in an equivocation is like trying to catch out Leibniz in a simple logical fallacy. It's possible, but you had better be able to put forward a good argument. If anyone has thoughts on the above argument, I'm still interested.)

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