Catholics and the Revolutionary State

To what extent should Catholics support an essentially evil government?

The question is unaccustomed. The Church views government as natural and necessary, and normally favors obedience even to tyrannical governments as long as the specific command is not at odds with divine or natural law. That’s why Paul told Christians to honor and obey Nero’s government.

Times change and so does government. In Paul’s time its concerns were far more limited than today. The Roman state wanted to maintain public order and its own position, but had no interest in remaking social and moral reality. Nero’s vagaries are said to have included wedding other men, Caligula’s included a plan to make his horse consul. Even if those stories are true, the emperors didn’t demand that the whole Roman world accept such practices as normal.

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Rome’s systematic injustices usually had a practical reason. The Roman games were cruel, but they kept the populace quiet. Slavery is against natural law, but the Romans couldn’t be expected to do away with an institution everywhere accepted. And official opposition to Christianity had more to do with public order than hatred of Christ. It was a novel and largely secret movement that condemned the gods officially honored, so it seemed a danger to the state.

So it was hard to view Roman law and government as fundamentally evil. Their basic purpose was to stabilize and regulate the existing social order, so their workings were largely consistent with unforced popular understandings and therefore natural law. They felt no call to transform the former or get rid of the latter, and it is hard to imagine a fundamentally better system given the possibilities and understandings of the time.

Modern government is a different matter. In its totalitarian form it squarely presents the issue of essentially evil government. Such a government expresses the modern tendency to construct ever-expanding systems of purely human origin that end by leaving no room for God or natural law. So it insists that Christianity, if permitted to exist at all, transform itself in its image.

How do we respond to it? The Catechism tells us that

Regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good of the nations on which they have been imposed… Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned.

So modern totalitarian governments are not legitimate regimes to which, in principle, obedience is due. Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia are obvious examples.

But our own government? The comparison seems ridiculous. How can so mild a government be totalitarian? And aren’t its supporters at least somewhat sincere when they say they want to facilitate choice for everyone? But totalitarianism has less to do with brutal government than total government inspired by a vision at odds with human nature, and present-day Western governments increasingly tend in that direction.

The problem is that the systematic attempt to put choice first ends in contradiction. It means rejecting natural law and any concept of the common good based on human nature, replacing them with a conception of human rights and public order based on open-ended will, and insisting on applying the ever-ramifying demands of that conception ever more forcibly not only to law but to social attitudes and practices generally. The demand for equal freedom thus ends in an ever more comprehensive system of control not oriented toward any higher good but designed to keep anyone’s conception of higher goods from affecting other people.

The result is that Christian or natural law support for a principle now counts against its legitimacy. It makes it part of a system—traditional Christian morality and so on—that is considered oppressive because it places limitations on choice not based on choice itself. Even lending verbal support to such a principle is viewed as a threat to the rights of others. That is why in America the public role of Christianity is becoming ever more constricted, and in much of the West it can actually be illegal to present a natural law view of certain sexual matters.

Western governments, as they pursue their proclaimed mission, thus put themselves increasingly at odds with natural law, just public order, and such fundamental rights as religious liberty and the right to marriage as a publicly recognized fundamental institution. These tendencies make it reasonable to ask the extent to which they are legitimate governments to whom obedience is due, or illegitimate systems of compulsion devoted to essentially destructive ends.

The issue is obfuscated by their self-presentation as open and democratic. Dissidents, it is said, can raise their concerns with the people, and if they think the people have chosen badly they can try to persuade them better.

Such aspects of the current regime are exaggerated. A diverse technological society of 325 million that is increasingly integrated into a global political and economic order is not going to be run democratically or through broad-based public discussion. It’s going to be run by networks of full-time professionals and the institutions that employ them. These inevitably become conscious of their common interests and act together to promote policies and ideological perspectives that advance those interests and defuse or fend off conflicting popular concerns.

A major part of that effort, of course, is channeling discussion and defining its limits in such a way that a system formally based on democracy will not allow the people to choose the wrong answers. In America we have seen for decades how that works with regard to social issues like abortion, and we now see it with regard to the Trump phenomenon.

So it seems that the current system is becoming less and less legitimate. Some laws, like traffic regulations and laws against stealing, remain legitimate and should be obeyed as a matter of conscience. Others, like laws and programs intended radically to transform understandings of the family and the sexes, are not legitimate. Here the proper response becomes a matter of prudence. Some people, for example, suggest foot-dragging, minimal compliance, and exploitation of every possible loophole. The approach President Obama and others have taken regarding immigration law might provide a model.

Certainly we shouldn’t support laws and programs that push forward the wrong kind of social change. The point is somewhat confused by “social justice“ concerns. The Catechism tells us that

Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation.

In a society like ours, in which comprehensive system and engineered solutions are thought to define rationality, that provision is thought to require a comprehensive apparatus to supervise social relations and supply everyone with basic needs like healthcare.

In fact, such a system is at odds with the Catholic understanding of social justice. Individuals and associations need freedom and independent responsibility if they are to fulfill their nature and vocation, and such a system denies that to them. Beyond that, it inevitably destroys religious and moral tradition, which presume freedom and responsibility and guide their exercise. That is why public education has become a system of training and indoctrination that disrupts religious and moral tradition for the sake of turning out compliant employees, clients, and consumers. It is also why government systems of medical care, which are designed to help make human life predictable and manageable, make abortion and death panels integral to their operations. How can Catholics support such things?

So our support for health, education, and welfare must take some form other than support for state systems that serve intrinsically destructive goals. Catholic tradition, of course, provides models. And so it goes with other issues. In all cases the key must be maintenance of a critical distance from secular initiatives, and when necessary an emphasis on providing an alternative rather than joining a common effort based on anti-Catholic and anti-human goals.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a painting of the execution of Louis XVI.


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