Political Authority's Divine Origin

Christian revelation brought nothing new into the world when it suggested that political authority came directly from God. The idea that God's authority stood behind the authority of the ruler was assumed in ancient Judaism, which saw the establishment of regal authority as a manifestation of the wisdom with which God ordered creation ("By me kings reign", Proverbs 8:15); other civilizations of the Levant had similar notions, often sacralizing the authority of the state to such a degree that the boundary between god and ruler was blurred. With the Romans and Greeks, it was not so much the person of the ruler but the laws of the state that were divine, and both civilizations venerated mythical or divine law-givers such as Romulus, Numa and Lycurgus, signifying that the right ordering of the state was a gift from the gods. Thus divine authority gave legitimacy to political authority, in such a way that a man who revolted against political authority was revolting against the very order established by the gods themselves. Disobedience to the political authorities was not only a crime, but a sin, because of the close connection between divine law and human law.

In this article, we will examine some common themes of what we might term the "theology of the state" in Catholic Tradition.

Good Authority, or Authority qua Authority?

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is essential to point out as a first principle that this authority comes from God regardless of whether it is exercised well or not. God may use the wisdom and justice of a righteous ruler to bless His people, but even under a wicked ruler, the authority inherent in the institution of the state comes from God. It was to Pontius Pilate that Christ said, "You would have no power over me had it not been given you from above" (John 19:11), and St. Paul's famous discourse on the necessity of Christian's rendering obedience to the government in Romans 13 was written during the reign of the megalomaniac Nero. Paul's forceful words leave no room for doubt. "There is no power but from God: and those that are, are ordained of God. Therefore he that resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God" (Rom. 13:1-2). It is not simply good government that derives its authority from God, but government as such. The fact of government is prior to any particular exercise of government.

"From God" in What Sense?

In what sense is political authority said to be "from God", to use St. Paul's expression? We must establish two principles here: (a) man's ordering towards the other; i.e., his "social nature", and (b) the necessity of government as inferred from man's social nature.

It was Aristotle who noted that man is a social animal. Aquinas says that man's social ordination is discernible on purely natural grounds: "
It is natural for man, more than for any other animal, to be a social and political animal, to live in a group. This is clearly a necessity of man’s nature. For all other animals, nature has prepared food, hair as a covering, teeth, horns, claws as means of defense or at least speed in flight, while man alone was made without any natural provisions for these things. Instead of all these, man was endowed with reason, by the use of which he could procure all these things for himself by the work of his hands. Now, one man alone is not able to procure them all for himself, for one man could not sufficiently provide for life, unassisted. It is therefore natural that man should live in the society of many" [1].

Christian revelation perfects Aristotle's observation by rooting it in the great plan of God, who calls man to communion with other men and with Himself. The Second Vatican Council teaches: "
God did not create man as a solitary, for from the beginning "male and female he created them" (Gen. 1:27). Their companionship produces the primary form of interpersonal communion. For by his innermost nature man is a social being, and unless he relates himself to others he can neither live nor develop his potential...man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself" [2].

So man is created by God ordered towards other men, and this fact is evident from natural observation in that no man has everything he needs to live solitary; some sort of human society is necessary, and this is willed by God and part of His original plan for mankind.

To the second point, that a governing authority is inferred from this social ordering of mankind, Aquinas writes:

If, then, it is natural for man to live in the society of many, it is necessary that there exist among men some means by which the group may be governed. For where there are many men together and each one is looking after his own interest, the multitude would be broken up and scattered unless there were also an agency to take care of what appertains to the commonweal. In like manner, the body of a man or any other animal would disintegrate unless there were a general ruling force within the body which watches over the common good of all members. With this in mind, Solomon says [Eccl. 4:9]: “Where there is no governor, the people shall fall" [3].

What we are speaking of here is the fact of government as a natural institution by which society is ordered for the common good. This institution is of divine origin and is a necessary expression of man's social nature. This means that government would still be present even if man had never sinned, although it would be organized on principles of charity and would not require any coercive powers. Therefore, as St. Paul says, "He who resisteth the power resiseth the ordinance of God", since to oppose the governing authorities is to set oneself against the very power that God has instilled in human society for regulating the affairs of men towards the common good.

Legitimacy of Acts of Government

Government, like matrimony, is a natural institution. Since it is designed by God and inherent in human nature, it has its own boundaries and acts proper to it. Like matrimony, men who govern participate with God in the institution, but they do not govern with absolute autonomy. While Christian revelation did not do away with the fundamental concept of the divine origin of government, it did make two important distinctions, (a) government, though deriving its authority from God, is distinct from the Church. The state and the Church have distinct but related ends, the former to the temporal welfare of man, the latter to his eternal beatitude (b) because even the temporal actions of man must be directed towards his eternal end, an act of government maintains legitimacy only so long as it does not conflict with God's law or obstruct man from fulfilling the divine law.

To the first point, we must note that in pagan antiquity, there was no real distinction between religion and the state. All religions were localized to a particular nation, tribe or city, and the cult of the gods was bound up with the cult of the state - this was true in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Rome, everywhere. It was Christ who first introduced a distinction between the sacerdotium and and regnum when He said, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and God what is God's" (Mark 12:17). In the early centuries of Christianity, during the latter Roman Empire, the Church had to strive to remain independent of the attempts of the emperors to dominate it. Thus St. Athanasius of Alexandria remonstrates against imperial incursions into episcopal autonomy:

"When was such a thing heard of before from the beginning of the world? When did a judgment of the Church receive its validity from the Emperor? or rather when was his decree ever recognized by the Church? There have been many Councils held heretofore; and many judgments passed by the Church; but the Fathers never sought the consent of the Emperor thereto, nor did the Emperor busy himself with the affairs of the Church. The Apostle Paul had friends among them of Cæsar’s household, and in his Epistle to the Philippians he sent salutations from them; but he never took them as his associates in Ecclesiastical judgments." [4]

The Church and the State both have the good of man as their end, but the Church concerns itself with man's ultimate good whereas the State is ordered towards his temporal good. Nevertheless, since part of man's temporal good is the freedom to pursue his eternal good unhindered, the actions of the State are judged as right or wrong to the degree that they encourage or discourage a man in his ability to attain eternal life. Therefore, though each institution has its own ends proper to it, the ends of the Church are greater than the ends of the State, and the State must ultimately conform its laws to the laws of God as understood by the Church. This means the Church is superior to the State and can pass judgments on its actions, even declaring them illegitimate in certain cases. Pope Innocent III famously explained the relation between the "two swords" of Church and State in a letter written in the year 1198:

Just as the founder of the universe established two great lights in the firmament of heaven, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night, so too He set two great dignities in the firmament of the universal church..., the greater one to rule the day, that is, souls, and the lesser to rule the night, that is, bodies. These dignities are the papal authority and the royal power. Now just as the moon derives its light from the sun and is indeed lower than it in quantity and quality, in position and in power, so too the royal power derives the splendor of its dignity from the pontifical authority" [5]

To the second point, even though the temporal administration of affairs is distinct from the Church's jurisdiction, there is no aspect of man's life that  is free from moral consideration. This is because man is a fundamentally moral agent; he does not just do things, he does them for a reason, and he is capable of freely choosing what he does and why. St. Pius X teaches that even the manner in which a Christian administers the affairs of his temporal affairs must be ordered towards his eternal good:

"No matter what the Christian does, even in the realm of temporal goods, he cannot ignore the supernatural good. Rather, according to the dictates of Christian philosophy, he must order all things to the ultimate end, namely, the Highest Good. All his actions, insofar as they are morally either good or bad (that is to say, whether they agree or disagree with the natural and divine law), are subject to the judgment and judicial office of the Church." [6]

Every law of the State does not concern the supernatural good in an immediate sense, but any law that positively  obstructs man from fulfilling his duties to God becomes illegitimate by that very fact. St. Thomas Aquinas’ definition of law is “a certain dictate of reason (rationis ordinatio) for the common good, made by him who has the care of the community and promulgated” [7]. If the law interferes with man's pursuit of his eternal good, then it cannot be a "dictate of reason" nor for the common good; thus, such a law loses its legitimacy. Or, to use the famous maxim of St. Augustine, "An unjust law is no law at all." [8] This is an important point to stress: Catholic teaching does not say that a man may break unjust laws at his discretion; it does say that unjust laws are not really laws at all and hence have no binding power on man's conscience or actions. A law that contradicts or opposes the divine law cannot be in accord with right reason, and hence is not truly a law. Such laws have no legitimacy in the eyes of God or the Church. We render to Caesar what is Caesar, but when Caesar demands what is God's, Caesar must be resisted. "We must obey God rather than men" (acts 5:29).

Particular Resistance vs. General Resistance

However, while specific acts of a government may be illegitimate and may demand non-compliance or even resistance, there is no mandate for resistance to the State as such. Take this example. Christians in the first centuries steadfastly refused to offer sacrifices to the emperor and the gods of Rome, often suffering death rather than participate in pagan rites. The reason is obvious; these pagan rites honored false gods and were abhorrent to worship of the true God, and hence no Christian could participate in them. Yet, despite the fact that Christians routinely disobeyed Roman law in this point, St. Paul could still say, "This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor" (Rom. 13:6-7); likewise, St. Peter tells us, "Be ye subject therefore to every human creature for God's sake: whether it be to the king as excelling; Or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of the good: For so is the will of God, that by doing well you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men" (1 Pet. 2:13-15).

Given the fact that Christians were categorically refusing to obey imperial edicts in sacrificing to the gods whilst at the same time proclaiming that all laws ought to be obeyed, it would be easy to charge them with hypocrisy if not for the point enunciated above: the particular laws the Christians refused to obey were not legitimate laws in the first place. Hence, it is not that Christians obeyed all laws except those they disagreed with; rather, they obey all legitimate laws and refuse to obey edicts that contradict divine law and thus are not laws at all. This means that, in a Christian framework, a particular law can never be presumed to be just simply because a legitimate authority promulgates it. Legitimate authority can promulgate illegitimate laws, and inasmuch as any particular law is illegitimate, it is no law at all and need not be obeyed.

But neither does the fact that a particular law is illegitimate mean that an entire government loses its legitimacy. Rome is a perfect example. The fact that Rome is attempting to enforce unjust laws does not give Christians authority to disregard Roman law in its entirety, much less to revolt against it. This is why Christian Tradition states that particular resistance may be offered to specific unjust laws, but there is no mandate of general resistance against an entire government in general. This is why Paul and Peter still exhort Christians to offer obedience, submission and revenue to their pagan governors instead of telling them to revolt against them.

This is because the acts proper to government are always legitimate, except in extraordinary circumstances. The fact that Roman laws to sacrifice are unjust does not mean Roman taxation is unjust. The fact that a government has regrettably begun to promulgate unjust laws does not thereby free a Christian to disregard all law. Those acts of government which are proper to government as such (paying taxes, obeying authorities, participating in the political process) are always legitimate, because they are bound up with the government as such. To even speak of a State is to presume the existence of those acts and structures that allow the State to exist. There is no mandate in Catholic Tradition for general resistance against government as such. [9] This is why, despite the illegitimacy of abortion laws in the United States, it is still not permissible to wage a general war of insurrection against the United States based on an objection to particular unjust laws.

Let us compare this to the line of thought set forth in the Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States."

Obviously we have seen that governments do not derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, but from God. Furthermore, Jefferson seems to suggest that a cumulative weight of individual offenses can become so great as to justify a general revolution, and that it lies within the power of the people to decide when this point has been reached and to effect this change themselves.

This may seem in accord with the principles we have already discussed, until we remember that the grievances Jefferson is citing that constitute "absolute tyranny" were questions about taxation, tariffs, and administration, many of which were only strongly opposed by a small elite in Boston. Then we see that these hardly constitute the sort of grave violations of natural and divine law envisioned by Aquinas. A particular policy of taxation may be unpopular, but taxation itself is not unjust, and a revolution over the question of taxation is still less unjust, much less matters of colonial administration in territories that rightfully belonged to Great Britain and had their charters from the Crown.

Thus, for Jefferson, the question is not whether particular laws of Britain are immoral, unjust and ought to be resisted, but whether the cumulative amount of just laws Britain has passed are "intolerable" to a certain category of the populace, and if so, whether the populace wishes to overthrow the entire government on these grounds. Instead of resistance to particular illegitimate laws, Jefferson advocates general resistance based on the unpopularity of legitimate laws.

Next time, we will examine the question of how the divine authority of the State is to be understood in democratic societies, where people elect their government, as well as the relation of Church to State in a Catholic commonwealth.


[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, De Regno, Book I, I:5
[2] Gaudium et Spes 12, 24
[3] Aquinas, De Regno, Book I, I:7-8
[4] History of the Arians, 52; NPNF2-4
Innocent III, Letter to the prefect Acerbius and the nobles of Tuscany, 1198
[6] Pope St. Pius X, Singulari Quadam, 3
[7] St. Thomas Aquinas,
ST. IaIIae, Q.90, art.4
[8] St. Augustine, On Free Choice Of The Will, Book 1, § 5
[9] The Catechism says that general revolution against a government is only permitted unless all the following conditions are met: 1) there is certain, grave, and prolonged violation of fundamental rights; 2) all other means of redress have been exhausted; 3) such resistance will not provoke worse disorders; 4) there is well-founded hope of success; and 5) it is impossible reasonably to foresee any better solution. (CCC 2243)