Acclaimed Scholar Russell Hittinger Examines the Nature of Societies

January 30, 2012

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Renowned scholar and author Russell Hittinger delivered the annual St. Thomas Aquinas lecture to the students and faculty of Christendom College on January 27. The talk, which examined the nature of societies and marriage, was entitled, Are Societies Made Unto the Image and Likeness of God? A Thomistic Response to a Disputed Issue.

Since 1996, Hittinger is the incumbent of the William K. Warren Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa, where he is also a research professor in the School of Law.  Specializing in issues of philosophy, theology, and law, he is a former Christendom College professor and has taught at Fordham University and at the Catholic University of America, among other schools. His books and articles have appeared in the University of Notre Dame Press, Oxford University Press, Columbia University Press, Fordham University Press, the Review of Metaphysics, the Review of Politics, and several law journals.

In his lecture, Hittinger delved into the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, Pope Leo XIII, and other popes to illustrate how the image of God is reflected in a society. He said that in order for a society to bear the image of God there needs to be unity.

“For where there is no unity, there is nothing to bear the image not even dimly and from afar,” he said.

Unity in society is created by a shared common good. This common good separates societies from other forms of interaction between people. For example, a crowd walking through a piazza may share the same location, but they are not a society, for they are not united by a shared objective or common good.

Hittinger then went on to make a distinction between a partnership and a society. A partnership can share a common objective or good, but the good is divisible and ultimately for the sake of the individuals.  For example, a business partnership, which seeks to make a profit, distributes the goods earned between the partners. Further, if the good is not achieved, the purpose of partnership and often the partnership itself ceases to exist.

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The objectives of a society are goods that cannot be distributed—goods that can only be shared in common. For example, the Church shares a common good, which cannot be distributed.  Hittinger turned to marriage as another important illustration of persons or a society that share an indivisible end or good.

“Marriage is not merely a consent to the joining of bodies with a reproductive end in view,” he explained. “Rather, marriage is a consent to the union itself upon which ensue these ends… Marriage is not some union with free-floating ends, but ends brought about through a specific mode of union.”

During the question and answer period, Hittinger warned students to be careful how they argued in defense of marriage when encountering the same-sex marriage movement. Christians should not use the material ends of marriage in their argument.

“You've got to be very careful because those things can be detached,” he said. “So it can become like a partnership. We will merge exercise machines, TIAA-CREF accounts, and agree to have child. That is not necessarily marriage.”

This thought provoking lecture can be downloaded at Christendom on iTunes U.

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