The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics

Volume 21, 2001

Jean Porter
Pages 275-299

Natural Equality
Freedom, Authority and Obedience in Two Medieval Thinkers

The middle ages is commonly seen as an age of inequality, when society was structured by fixed social hierarchies. However, beginning in the late eleventh century and continuing through the thirteenth century, widespread economic and cultural changes, together with a revival of spiritual intensity and widespread concern for religious reforms, transformed the dominant structures of Western European society. These changes did not immediately transform Europe into an egalitarian society, but they did give new saliency to ancient Christian ideals of equality, particularly among scholastic theologians and canon lawyers of the period. In this paper, I focus on the virtue of obedience and its limits as one entrée into the scholastic concept of natural equality, further restricting myself to a comparison of Bonaventure and Aquinas on this topic. I will argue that while both theologians value the virtue of obedience highly, both also place clear limits on the obligation of obedience, limits which point beyond themselves (explicitly, in Aquinas' case, but clearly in Bonaventure's case) to a norm of natural equality which constrains the exercise of authority.