With the myriad political philosophies that circulate today, a thoughtful analyst can become confused, and legitimately so. Thus, any contribution to the debate that elucidates the basic principles of Catholic social teaching is an invaluable beacon of light amid the darkness.
It could be argued that the most basic question regarding society and politics revolves around authority. Understanding from whence it comes, what are its limits and even when it can, and must, be resisted is a necessary foundation for anyone who hopes to navigate the stormy waters of political discourse.
This article does not pretend to exhaust this enormous subject, but rather to give some basic ideas about what the Church teaches in this regard. It should be seen as a starting point that will hopefully whet the readers’ appetites to delve more deeply into the matter and study it on their own.
With this in mind, any discussion concerning authority must begin with an understanding of its source. At first glance, it would seem that no man has a right to tell another what he should or should not do. This stems from the fact that all men are essentially free and equal by nature.
That is not to deny that men are unequal in their abilities and talents, nor in the honors they deserve. Rather, it affirms that all men share the same human nature. In this, and this alone, they are equal.
This means that all men have an intellect and a will and are capable of receiving graces and corresponding to them. That is why a beggar has the same potential to sanctify himself as a king.
Thus, men must be treated equally with regard to those rights they have because they are human. Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira illustrated this in a 1993 speech he gave for the launching of his book, Nobility and Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pope Pius XII. In it, he said:
“In a nutshell, the limits of inequality are found in human nature. Man, being intelligent and free by nature, has a common dignity that makes him king of the universe. From this perspective, all men are equal, and anything that infringes in any way upon his fundamental and innate dignity, or his natural and radical equality, belittles, offends and mutilates it.
“Thus, every man is equal in the right to life and the fruits of his labor. He is equally entitled to constitute a family and exercise authority over it. He deserves a salary sufficient to provide that family dignified, secure housing, an adequate, healthy diet, resources to guarantee his children a proper education and so on. Obviously, the children should only be allowed to work when they are old enough to have acquired the rudiments of education.
“Thus, in what all men are entitled by the simple fact of being human, they are equal.”1
This means that from a purely natural perspective, man is free and no man has the right to command another. So, the source of human authority must be founded on something extrinsic to human nature.
This is why the Church teaches that all authority on earth comes from God, Himself. This was affirmed by the Divine Savoir when, addressing Pontius Pilate, He said: “Thou shouldst not have any power against me, unless it were given thee from above.” (Saint John 19:11)
However, saying that all authority comes from God is a touchy issue. It does not mean that every decision a leader makes represents what God wants.
This is clear from the same scripture passage quoted above. Our Lord affirmed that Pontius Pilate’s authority came from God, and yet Pilate used that authority to allow the greatest crime of history to be perpetrated. So, leaders can, and at times do, use their God-given authority to go against His desires.
When this happens in a grave way concerning a grave issue, the people have the right, and sometimes the obligation, to resist them. This is true of a president, a king or even a pope.
While this may seem obvious, it is important to remember because, historically, a grave error was spread throughout different parts of Europe, but especially in Protestant England, known as the Divine Right of Kings. An article in the Catholic Encyclopedia defines this false notion in the following terms:
“According to the theory of Divine right the king was the Divinely constituted vicegerent of Jesus Christ on earth; he was responsible to God alone for his acts; in the name of God he governed his subjects in both spiritual and temporal matters.”2
In other words, this error stated that since the king’s authority came from God and he spoke in His name concerning all matters. If this were true, a king could never be resisted or deposed. The Church never condoned this position.
However, if this is an error, what exactly does it mean to say that all authority comes from God?
It is derived from the fact that God made man to live in society and not as a solitary individual. This differentiates him from certain members of the animal kingdom. For example, snow leopards are solitary creatures. Once separated from its mother, a cub will live the rest of its life alone, only seeing other members of its species once a year during mating season. Its solitude is highlighted by the fact that a male snow leopard can have a territory as large as 80 square miles.
This is not the way God made man. Man instinctively has an insatiable drive to live with other men, form societies and interact socially. That is why one of the worst punishments for a prisoner is solitary confinement in which he is cut off from contact with other men. In fact, complete isolation will often lead to bouts of madness that can include mental confusion, depression, anxiety, paranoia and even hallucinations.
Thus, man naturally has a need to live in society and interact with other men. This is according to man’s instincts; it is according to nature. However, it is also true that authority is essential for man to live in society. Indeed, without it there would be anarchy and chaos.
If God is the author of nature, He is the reason why men have the instinct to live in society and since authority is an essential element of society it means that God indirectly mandates that some men have authority over others. Thus, God is the author of earthly authority and all authority comes from Him.
This was the argument that Saint Thomas Aquinas made.3 It was accepted by Pope Leo XIII and repeated in the encyclical Immortale Dei in which the Pontiff wrote:
“Man’s natural instinct moves him to live in civil society, for he cannot, if dwelling apart, provide himself with the necessary requirements of life, nor procure the means of developing his mental and moral faculties. Hence it is divinely ordained that he should lead his life, be it family, social, or civil, with his fellow-men, amongst whom alone his several wants can be adequately supplied. But as no society can hold together unless someone be over all, directing all to strive earnestly for the common good, every civilized community must have a ruling authority, and this authority, no less than society itself, has its source in nature, and has consequently God for its author. 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.”4
This reality is consoling. It means that when one obeys a legitimate authority, he obeys God, Himself. However, it also means those with authority have the obligation to promote God’s Will, for it must be wrong to receive authority from God and use that very authority to promote anything other than what He desires.
Nevertheless, there are times in which this is exactly what happens. When it does, how should one react?
The answer is found in Chapter 5 of the Acts of the Apostles. In it, Saint Luke recounts how the Apostles went to Jerusalem to preach. When they reached the Holy City, the inhabitants placed their sick in beds in the street. Saint Peter walked in front of them and mere contact with his shadow healed them!
Seeing this, the Sadducees were greatly troubled. They saw in the nascent Church the power to completely overthrow their position. So, they had the Apostles imprisoned and forbade them from teaching in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
That evening, God miraculously freed them and the next morning they were found again preaching in the Temple in Our Lord’s name. Once more, the Sadducees seized them and this time accused them of disobedience.
Saint Peter knew that their commands were contrary to God’s Will. He knew that his God-given mission was to convert the world. This had been revealed to him shortly after the Resurrection when Our Lord told him: “All power is given to me in heaven and in earth. Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” (Saint Matthew 28:18-20)
Thus, there was a clear contradiction between the will of earthly superiors and God’s mandate. Confronted with this, Saint Peter replied: “We ought to obey God, rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)
In this way, Saint Peter expressed an important principle that must govern man’s behavior in relation to authority. It is that God’s authority supersedes that of man.
In other words, without denying that the Sadducees held true authority in Jerusalem, he affirmed the existence of a higher Power to Whom he would be faithful. Furthermore, because no authority can be imagined that is higher than God, there is no one who should be obeyed in contradiction to God’s Will.
Thus, a faithful Catholic’s duty lies in the recognition of two principles:
1. All authority comes from God and, thus, God normally makes His Will known on earth through the commands of legitimate authority figures here on earth.
- However, since earthly authorities are capable of contradicting God’s Will, man’s duty also lies in resisting earthly authority when it is in clear contradiction to God’s desires concerning a grave matter. When this happens, one should apply the words of Saint Peter. “We ought to obey God, rather than men.”
It is important to note that this resistance does not imply that one is justified in disobedience to the legitimate commands of the authority figure who has been resisted.
For example, if a parent forbids a child from following his vocation, the child is justified in disobeying the parent regarding this issue. However, this does not mean that the child can refuse to take out the trash when told to do so by the parents.
Proper order demands that a faithful Catholic obey authority in everything possible for as long as that authority is legitimate. Thus he is faithful to God in all things.
This is a difficult path, but a very beautiful one. It is the path that Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira immortalized in face of errant Church authority in 1975.
Then, the Vatican established an official position of détente in relation to Communism. Rather than continue to confront it as a grave evil threatening mankind, it would take a frighteningly tolerant position. At the time, the Secretary of the Vatican’s Council for Public Affairs, Archbishop Agostino Casaroli, demonstrated this.
After returning from a trip to Cuba, the Archbishop claimed that Catholics on the island prison were respected for their beliefs, had no problem with the government and were happy under the communist regime.
His words represented a policy that violated the express will of God, as revealed in countless Papal condemnations against Communism promulgated for decades. Faced with this contradiction, Professor Corrêa de Oliveira penned a public position paper titled: The Vatican Policy of Détente with Communist Governments – Should the TFPs Stand Down? Or Should They Resist? The document is a stunning example of respect, intransigence and balance in face of authority that has placed itself in contradiction with God’s Will.
After demonstrating that Pope Paul VI’s policy of détente was in clear violation of the obligations of any faithful Catholic in face of Communist aggression, he said:
“The bond of obedience to the successor of Peter, which we will never break, which we love in the most profound depths of our soul, and to which we tribute our highest love, this bond we kiss at the very moment in which, overwhelmed with sorrow, we affirm our position. And on our knees, gazing with veneration at the figure of His Holiness Paul VI, we express all our fidelity to him.
“In this filial act, we say to the Pastor of Pastors: Our soul is yours, our life is yours. Order us to do whatever you wish. Only do not order us to do nothing in the face of the assailing Red wolf. To this, our conscience is opposed.”
This quote is a perfect balance of respect for authority and resistance to error. In it, Professor Corrêa de Oliveira showed utmost respect for the authority of the Pontiff, yet remained faithful to the edict of the first Pope, Saint Peter. He obeyed God, rather than men.
2. Catholic Encyclopedia, 1917 edition, article on :”Civil Allegiance,” last accessed November 5, 2019, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03794b.htm.
3. Cf., Ibid, article on “Civil Authority,” (last accessed November 5, 2019,) http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02137c.htm.
4. Pope Leo XIII, Immortale Dei, paragraph #3, (last accessed November 5, 2019,) http://w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_01111885_immortale-dei.html.