Reflecting on the Catholic View of Good and Just Government

The 2016 presidential election in the United States presents an occasion for us to reflect upon the Catholic view on what constitutes a good and just government.

In order to understand the Catholic perspective, we must first ask the question: what is the nature and origin of the government? The traditional magisterium of the Church has taught that governments get their authority not simply from the will of the people, but rather from God. The reason for this is best explained by Pope Leo XIII in his 1885 encyclical Immortale Dei. He did not see government authority in the merely contractual terms in which it was presented during the Enlightenment – namely, that the people over whom a government practices authority allow the government to make use of this authority, and in turn the government promises to use this authority to protect the rights of the people. Rather, Leo analyzed the nature and origin of governments primarily in terms of human nature. Humans are by their nature social creatures, and this element of our nature is what lays the basis for our desire to form relationships and exist in groups.

The formation of societies is thus a result of human nature. The existence of governments is a natural offshoot of the formation of societies, since people erect governments to ensure a state of cohesion and stability within society.

Since the formation of societies, and thus the formation of governments, is the result of human nature, and human nature is constituted the way it is because of the Divine will, the existence of governments is the result of God’s providence granting that authority to those in power. Yet, because their authority comes from a higher power – namely, God – there are thus certain limits on the authority of the government.

The first restriction is the simple fact that those in power do not have absolute authority. Absolute power belongs to God alone, whose governance extends to all parts of creation. Pope Leo XIII thus wrote:

Hence, it follows that all public power must proceed from God. For God alone is the true and supreme Lord of the world. Everything, without exception, must be subject to Him, and must serve him, so that whosoever holds the right to govern holds it from one sole and single source, namely, God, the sovereign Ruler of all. ‘There is no power but from God’ (cf. Romans 13:1).” (Immortale Dei #3)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms this. The existence of governments stems from human nature. And the authority of the government must, in order to fulfill its proper ends, be ordered towards the common good. As it is written in paragraph 1898 of the Catechism, “[e]very human community needs an authority to govern it. The foundation of such authority lies in human nature. It is necessary for the unity of the state. Its role is to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society.”

Thus, the Catholic Church, unlike hardline conservatives and certain libertarian thinkers, does not have an overly narrow view on the authority of the government, and unlike libertarians of the anarchist school, we do believe that there is a morally and socially legitimate place for government. But, unlike many modern-day American liberals, we do not have an overly expansive view on the nature of the government. We do believe that there are certain things outside the purview of the government, such as domestic affairs.

It is the primary role of such institutions as the Church and the family – which the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes as the “original cell of social life” (CCC #2207), from which the larger society comes forth – to deal with the more intimate aspects of human life. This does not mean that the influence of the Church or the family is or should be restricted to private affairs; rather, there is a certain limit to the government’s authority, and where the power of the civil authorities leaves off, the authority of familial and ecclesial authorities is to be followed as the norm. Even the authority of the family, the Church, or other similar institutions can stretch only so far without infringing upon free will. It is for this reason that St. Thomas Aquinas believed that human law has certain limits to what parts of human behavior it can regulate, but the Divine law can regulate every aspect of human behavior, since it is the only law that can regulate human behavior without infringing upon free will (Summa Theologicæ, I-II, Q. 91, A. 4, respondeo).

Now, since the authority of the government is to be ordered toward the common good, individual laws made by the government are to be made with a view aimed at nourishing and promoting human flourishing. Human flourishing, in the Catholic, and larger Christian, tradition is often interpreted in terms of moral development, the most final end of which is union with God. Yet how does the government do this? Aquinas asserts that the government is meant to provide a context within which humans can be led to virtuous behavior but cannot force men to become virtuous. Therefore, he concluded, “The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly but gradually” (Summa Theologicae, I-II, Q. 96, A. 2, Reply to Objection 2). Yet Aquinas later goes on to say that the government cannot outlaw all vices and make binding all laws without infringing upon human free will; thus, the government can licitly refrain from punishing certain vices that only Divine Providence has the authority to punish (cf. Summa Theologicae, I-II Q. 96, A 2, sed contra).

This explains why the Scottish-born Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, in his work The Natural Law as Subversive: The Case of Aquinas, wrote that in the eyes of Aquinas, the government can serve as a tool to help promote the growth of virtue among a populace, yet it is not the sole tool in this process and has certain limits placed on its authority. As McIntyre wrote, “Aquinas disagrees with both later puritans and with later liberals. Like those puritans and unlike those liberals he understands law as an instrument for our moral education. But, like those liberals and unlike those puritans, he is against making law by itself an attempt to suppress all vice.”

The fact that the government’s authority stretches only to certain limits does not absolve it of the responsibility to help promote the moral growth of the people. If a law fails to attain this end, it is an unjust law. An unjust law is not only to be considered a “bad” law – moreover, it does not have any bearing as a law to begin with. As St. Augustine puts it in his Problem of Free Choice, “[i]t seems to me that an unjust law is no law at all.” As Aquinas noted, one has a moral obligation to obey just laws, but one has both a right and a duty to disobey unjust laws: “[l]aws framed by men are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience from the eternal law from whence they are derived, according to Proverbs 8:15, ‘By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things.’” Unjust laws, he writes, “do not bind conscience.”

Aquinas does make an important distinction: laws that are unjust by way of violating other aspects of human law, but do not intrinsically contradict the Divine law, should be disobeyed, except to avoid scandal. But with laws that are unjust due to them being a violation of the Divine law, one can never obey under any circumstances. To support this, he quotes from Acts of the Apostles, chapter 5, verse 29, in which the 12 apostles were told by local Jewish authorities to desist from spreading the Gospel message, and St. Peter, speaking on behalf of the others, responds, “We ought to obey God rather than man” (cf. Summa Theologicæ I-II, Q. 96, A. 4).  This is not to place human authority at odds with the authority of God, yet we should pledge our allegiance to earthly authority only insofar as that authority acts in conformity with what is objective morally right, and ultimately with the will of God.

As MacIntyre wrote, Aquinas’s opinion on the law placed him at odds with the notion of the Divine-right monarchies that became prevalent in the late medieval and early modern period. But this obligation to be on guard against unjust laws and unjust actions taken by leaders did not subside with the rise of modern liberal democracies. In fact, since the people now have an increased say in government affairs, the people have an increased obligation to ensure that government leaders continue to act in accordance with what is objectively morally right. This means obeying and promoting just commands from our leaders and actively resisting unjust commands.

Jaroslav Pelikan, commenting on the political dynamics and relations that existed between early Christians and the Roman authorities, once wrote, “Because Jesus was King, Christians could be provisionally loyal to Caesar; but because Jesus was King, they could not give Caesar the measure of loyalty that the beast Caesars demanded, and perhaps even needed, for the Roman empire to be, as Vergil had said it would be, imperium sine fine, ‘the empire without end.’” What this demonstrates is an important lesson that the earliest Christians learned, and that remained in the general consciousness of the Catholic Church ever since then: that the powers of this world are not permanent. They are not the end of human life, but rather a means to a further end that is permanent – namely, our salvation. The existence of governments is morally licit, yet the leaders of tribes, nations, and empires must order their actions and decisions toward the promotion of the common good of all humanity, meaning the development of virtue and the attainment of salvation.

This is the standard by which we are to judge the actions and decisions of our country.

In the years to come, as the dust settles on the Obama years, we can hopefully look upon and judge his actions and decisions through the perspective of Catholic views on justice with greater clarity. As America enters the era of the Trump administration, we need to just as vigorously, and with an equal amount of clarity, examine, critique, promote, and resist his policies where necessary.

Disagreement with President Trump should not serve as an obstacle to one submitting to morally just and politically sound policies, nor should support of President Trump’s policies serve as an obstacle to critiquing his genuinely unsound political policies. We as Catholics should pray that he makes just and morally sound decisions as president. We should look to the words of one of the earliest Church Fathers, St. Clement of Rome, himself a follower of both St. Peter and St. Paul, according to early Christian sources. Writing to the Church in Corinth in the late 1st century A.D., he said in a doxology toward the end of the letter:

And grant that we may be obedient to your almighty and glorious name, and to our rulers and governors on earth. You, Master, gave them imperial power through Your majestic and indescribable might, so that we, recognizing it was You who gave them the glory and the honor, might submit to them, and in no way oppose your will. … For it is you, Master, the heavenly King of eternity, who have the sons of men glory and honor and authority over the earth’s people. Direct their plans, O Lord, in accord with what is good and pleasing to You, so that they may administer the authority you have given to them with peace, considerateness, and reverence, and so win Your mercy.

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