Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Church on the Authority of Civil Rulers

In 1881, in the midst of attacks of the nation-states on the Catholic Church, Pope Leo XIII (reigned 1878-1903) issued the encyclical Diuturnum on the authority of civil governments. In it, he lays down the source and the scope of that authority. Far from being an anarchistic document or demanding the establishment of a theocracy, Pope Leo XIII indicated that a legitimate government with legitimate laws has the right to be obeyed. However, that government does not have absolute authority over every aspect of life. There are paths which a government might be tempted to take but, if they make that decision, their authority vanishes. His encyclical, Diuturnum, says:

15. The one only reason which men have for not obeying is when anything is demanded of them which is openly repugnant to the natural or the divine law, for it is equally unlawful to command to do anything in which the law of nature or the will of God is violated. If, therefore, it should happen to any one to be compelled to prefer one or the other, viz., to disregard either the commands of God or those of rulers, he must obey Jesus Christ, who commands us to “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” and must reply courageously after the example of the Apostles: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” And yet there is no reason why those who so behave themselves should be accused of refusing obedience; for, if the will of rulers is oppsed to the will and the laws of God, they themselves exceed the bounds of their own power and pervert justice; nor can their authority then be valid, which, when there is no justice, is null.


 Claudia Carlen, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1878–1903 (Ypsilanti, MI: Pierian Press, 1990), 54.

The point is, governments are ruled by persons, and people are sinners by their nature. So those who legislate or rule can make bad decisions which go against what God commands and how He designed the universe to function. When they cross that line, the faithful Catholic has the obligation to say “No” to the state, even if there are consequences. The obedience to God comes first. This is ultimately why the Church has been forced to speak against our government—against the contraception mandate, against the redefinition of marriage, against abortion and many other unjust actions.

Governments, being ruled by  and ruling over sinners, have a strong resistance to being corrected when they do go against Divine or natural law. The most common solution is to try to make the Church appear to be an enemy of good because she refuses to go along with the government’s attempt to redefine good and evil. She is accused of “imposing her views” on others. She is charged with being intolerant to some group of the population, and of course the legal practices of previous centuries are cited as if the Church invented and forced them on an unwilling world.

Take the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, which is being sued on account of their refusal to comply with the contraception mandate and refusal to use a proxy to comply with this mandate. Many people attack them for refusing to just go along and fill out the paperwork authorizing an insurance company to issue contraception coverage separately. But Catholics simply cannot choose to do evil and they cannot authorize someone to act on their behalf to do evil. So, in this case, a person or group which believes that this government mandate goes against the laws of God cannot take part in this without putting themselves in opposition to God.

The non-Catholic or the lax Catholic might not care, might not think God cares. But even if one rejects the Catholic moral teaching, the Constitution does not give the state the right to determine which religious beliefs are important and which religious beliefs can be ignored. The only limitations the state can pose on the practice of religion is the limitation based on protecting the public good (this is why the arguments citing hypothetical religions practicing human sacrifice or white supremacy are red herrings).

Given that the Little Sisters of the Poor have been in existence since 1839 and serve in 31 countries caring for the poor and dying elderly and this only became a problem for the government during the last seven years, one can argue that the religious practices of this religious order has not violated any public good. The only thing it violates is the ideological preferences of the government—and the Catholic teaching on these issues existed long before Europeans ever encountered the lands that now bear the name of America.

To try to compare the religious practice of Catholics in rejecting contraception as evil to the acceptance of slavery by some Christians in the United States is also a red herring. The Catholic moral teaching condemns the notion that one may treat another human being as less than human. Those Catholics who were guilty of racism were not following Church teaching. They were following the vicious custom of 16th to 20th century America (it’s similar to how Catholics today can practice the vicious customs supporting abortion as a “right” even though the Church condemns it as intrinsically evil).

So what we have is a standoff. On one side, we have a philosophy of government that believes it can dictate to practitioners of a religion which one of their beliefs they can follow and what constitutes a violation of that religion. On the other side, we have a Church that professes to be the Church established by Christ and given the authority to bind and to loose in His name. From the perspective of the informed Catholic, this is no contest. The Church has the authority and the responsibility to make known what behaviors are in keeping with or in opposition to God’s law—even if those who are in opposition are the rulers of the earth.

But the Church does not intervene in such cases because she wishes to veto anything that is new. She instead seeks to carry out her mission to evangelize the whole world and encourage them to turn back to Christ. As Leo XIII also said in Diuturnum:

26. The Church of Christ, indeed, cannot be an object of suspicion to rulers, nor of hatred to the people; for it urges rulers to follow justice, and in nothing to decline from their duty; while at the same time it strengthens and in many ways supports their authority. All things that are of a civil nature the Church acknowledges and declares to be under the power and authority of the ruler; and in things whereof for different reasons the decision belongs both to the sacred and to the civil power, the Church wishes that there should be harmony between the two so that injurious contests may be avoided. As to what regards the people, the Church has been established for the salvation of all men and has ever loved them as a mother. For it is the Church which by the exercise of her charity has given gentleness to the minds of men, kindness to their manners, and justice to their laws. Never opposed to honest liberty, the Church has always detested a tyrant’s rule. This custom which the Church has ever had of deserving well of mankind is notably expressed by St. Augustine when he says that “the Church teaches kings to study the welfare of their people, and people to submit to their kings, showing what is due to all: and that to all is due charity and to no one injustice.”


 Claudia Carlen, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1878–1903 (Ypsilanti, MI: Pierian Press, 1990), 56–57.

That means Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are among those to whom the Church is reaching out to to encourage them to turn to God and accept Him. They are not exempt from hearing the teaching of the Church and they are not beyond the pale of being reached out to. They may refuse to listen, and they may hate us for refusing to compromise. But that neither changes the teaching nor the mission of the Church.

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