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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.

19 thoughts on “Reflecting on the Catholic View of Good and Just Government”

  1. I had expected this article to expand into Reflecting on the Catholic View of Good and Just Government as it pertains to the One Holy Catholic & Apostolic Church & was sadly let down. We are somewhat immune to secular governments of all shades of political leanings to turn their back on God but we do not expect the Supreme Pontiff of the CC to do so, i.e. if he truly has a direct line to the Almighty, which we have always been taught he had. The present incumbent’s direct line seems to be directed downwards rather than upwards. I pray that God Himself will change its direction before His sheep are so totally led astray that their souls are lost forever & provide us with a new & caring shepherd to restore order once again.

    • I didn’t think it was about the government of the CC. According to secular standards, the Pope is the last absolute monarch on earth.

      Also, since the resignation of PB, we’re supposed to have an “expanded papacy” with one “contemplative” and one “active”, it’s no longer a “monarchy” (mono = one, archos = rule; I.e. one ruler).
      Maybe that’s one of the factors in the resignation of PB, since one of the purposes of Freemasonry is to overthrow throne and altar. Cf. Behind the Lodge Door by Paul Fisher.

      • Margaret,


        The Pope is not an Absolute Monarch. I do believe this was
        one objection that was raised at VI when discussing Papal Infallibility and was
        answered. The Pope is bound by his office to according to Benedict XVI “The
        Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the
        contrary: the Pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his
        Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself
        and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to
        adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism.” The Pope is bound by
        Christ and his Church on what he can and cannot do. There is only one absolute
        Monarch and that is Christ the King.

        Note: Not even to secular standards since his actions are


          • Sankt Athanasion,


            Yes, but he is still bound by the laws of the Church and Christ. Let’s just says if any Pope passed a law for the Vatican City State that declared abortion was legal in the city-state what would happen? Would he not than be declared a heretic and then deposed? I would say the he is also bound in his temporal sphere since his temporal laws for the city-state cannot contradict the laws of Christ and his Church.


        • Yes The Pope is bound to tradition, but he is also an absolute monarch in relation to governance. He cannot invent new dogmas and teachings, or cast aside dogmas and traditions, but he is a monarch when it comes to the governance of the Church and the bishops.

          • Asbury Fox,


            No, I don’t think his is an absolute monarch in relation to governance of the Church either. I would still think there are things he cannot do or rules he must follow, because humans are not meant to be absolute monarchs. I’m not saying he isn’t a monarch, I’m saying that he is not an absolute monarch. Meaning that he is not a law unto himself and cannot just do what he wills. Even though the Pope is the highest visible authority on Earth, he is still not a law unto himself he still has things he cannot do. This means he is not an absolute monarch. An absolute monarch would be Henry VIII after his divorce and refusing to have an authority above himself, before that he was not since there was things he could not do. Humans are meant to be bound by natural law that is why they are not meant to be absolute monarchs.


    • Good morning Ana,

      That “direct line” to God of the Roman Pontiff that you speak of, is as it can only ever be, a gift which is both freely given and completely undeserved. As we know with certitude that all good things come from God, as Goodness is one of the infinite divine attributes of God, as a “gift” it simply must be “received”. When a gift is rejected we all understand its uselessness to the person it was given to, whatever that gift may be. If the Pope chooses to reject the gift of the “direct line” as you refer to it, then God simply cannot force it upon him. God, as you know, is Love Himself, as Deus Caritas Est. Love can only give in truth, never take, and as God gives of His Love in the perfect and infinite understanding, He at once cannot ever take one iota of anything from His miserable human creatures, as to take one iota of anything from them, is simply not to love them perfectly and infinitely and Love is Who God Is. Pure and total and perfect and infinite love, as Love Himself, is pure giving, never taking.

      The charism of infallibility is an edict of God, a demand of God if you will, that He in His infinite Wisdom created as part of the nature of His Holy Roman Church. That gift is of the essence of His Church and therefore does not require our reception of it, as it is deemed part of the very nature of His Mystical Body and Bride, His Church. That helps us understand why the charism of infallibility is a very precise and pristinely clarified, finite, aspect of the Chair of Saint Peter, and in It, whom rests the Vicar of Christ. As an analogy, our hands have a particular purpose in their function and use as a finite part of our physical bodies. Our hands simply do not do what our feet do, and visa versa, for instance. Also, although our hands are a gift to us from God, as they are a part of our very nature whose Architect is Divine, we do not have to freely receive them. I pray this helps. In caritas.

  2. Pope Leo XIII wrote in either Immortale Dei or Diturnum (sorry, I have to paraphrase here) that the purpose of government is to ensure that the prescriptions of human law conform to the Divine law in order to make it easier for people to get to heaven.

  3. If you need more time to evaluate the legacy and actions of Obama, you have a problem. As to Trump, he has surrounded himself with Catholics, moved to protect unborn life, and prepares to appoint judges who support innocent human life. All the crying from Catholic bishops because they might loose their government resettlement money is disgusting. If you want to judge by the 2000 year magisterium of the Church, SO FAR, Trump has been more Catholic than the Pope.

    • You say very well what I was going to write and I thank you for saving me the effort. I can only add that, concerning the “resettlement” programs you mention, it is discouraging to see the USCCB swing into high gear today to protect them. They are of very dubious worth and, in my eyes, fit a bit too neatly into transparent plans for political dominance by the Democrat Party. Even considering that, I could credit better the sincerity of the bishops collectively if they had protested more the 8 years of lawlessness foisted on us by Barack Obama and company. Instead, they chose to remain silent or issued perfunctory statements barely manifesting any disagreement with the president and his party. So now I choose to ignore the bishops’ hollow words and bad advice, and, as you note, to applaud steps taken to date by Mr. Trump to shut down Planned Parenthood. I applaud equally his attempts to regain control of our southern border and to clean up the thoroughly corrupt federal government.

      • The USC C(D)B is getting millions from the Feds. It has made many Jusasbishops. What about the pro-life March. Mostly crickets. Pro-life don’t pay so well. I reluctantly reach the conclusion no government money for any religious organization (although the problem is deeper than that).

        • Millions, oh no! Try billions, as in 1.6 Billion in US federal government contracts to Catholic Charities (and that was from a 2015 article according to a Washington Post). Google “Christian charities and refugee resettlement” and weep.

          And on the other side of the coin, apparently we (as in Department of Homeland Security) are paying the Muslim refugees (Islamic schools in the US) not to kill us. 10 million dollars in grant money to counter radical Islamic terrorism. Read ZeroHedge from today 2/13/17.

          What could 1.6 billion dollars plus 10 million dollars buy in terms of tackling homelessness and veterans issues? substance abuse, mental health and healthcare? infrastructure maintenance, improvements and updates? This is simply madness.

          And yes, Donald Trump as President of the USA is more Catholic and Christian than Jorge Bergoglio as well as more Catholic and Christian than many of the US Bishops.

  4. And we have to remember the doctrine of the social kingship of Christ— that all states that obtain an overwhelmingly Catholic populace must declare Catholicism the religion of the state and base it’s laws on the true Faith. Even Dignitatis Humanae teaches this, albeit in only two vague sentences.

  5. The real government problem is with the Catholic Church itself which has betrayed it’s mission of salvation since Vatican II. Now, with Pope Francis, the Church appears to be in the process of reducing it’s moral doctrine to individual feelings and opinion. The Church, in effect, is becoming the enemy of Christ. My God help us all. Our Lady of Fatima pray for us.


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