Pacem In Terris 46-47: Relations Between Individuals and the Public Authorities

What is the status of a citizen, especially a believer, with regard to her or his legal government and associated authorities? Pope John cites the Golden Mouth, as well as Pope Leo XIII:

46. Human society can be neither well-ordered nor prosperous without the presence of those who, invested with legal authority, preserve its institutions and do all that is necessary to sponsor actively the interests of all its members. And they derive their authority from God, for, as St. Paul teaches, “there is no power but from God”.(Rom. 13:1-6)

In his commentary on this passage, St. John Chrysostom writes: “What are you saying? Is every ruler appointed by God? No, that is not what I mean, he says, for I am not now talking about individual rulers, but about authority as such. My contention is that the existence of a ruling authority—the fact that some should command and others obey, and that all things not come about as the result of blind chance—this is a provision of divine wisdom.”(In Epist. ad Rom. c. 13, vv. 1-2, homil. XXIII; PG 60. 615)

God has created (people) social by nature, and a society cannot “hold together unless someone is in command to give effective direction and unity of purpose. Hence every civilized community must have a ruling authority, and this authority, no less than society itself, has its source in nature, and consequently has God for its author.”( Leo XIII’s encyclical epistle Immortale Dei, Acta Leonis XIII, V, 1885, p. 120)

A Christian’s first presumption is that civil authority is good. Its purpose is to attend to all of its members. Not just some of them.

However, civil authority is not individually appointed by God. Human authority is never absolute–and this is true for believer and non-believer alike:

47. But it must not be imagined that authority knows no bounds. Since its starting point is the permission to govern in accordance with right reason, there is no escaping the conclusion that it derives its binding force from the moral order, which in turn has God as its origin and end.

Hence, to quote Pope Pius XII, “The absolute order of living beings, and the very purpose of man—an autonomous being, the subject of duties and inviolable rights, and the origin and purpose of human society—have a direct bearing upon the State as a necessary community endowed with authority. Divest it of this authority, and it is nothing, it is lifeless…. But right reason, and above all Christian faith, make it clear that such an order can have no other origin but in God, a personal God, our Creator. Hence it is from Him that State officials derive their dignity, for they share to some extent in the authority of God Himself.”( Cf. Pius XII’s broadcast message, Christmas 1944, AAS 37 (1945) 15)

There’s a lot to reflect upon here. how do we deal with the difficulties of immorality of those in authority? How can a Church with its own damaged moral credibility preach effectively in the public square? How can we lay people make appropriate headway, when often our own bishops do not respond to our moral arguments? And what happens when we live in a world in which authority is outed as flawed, immoral, and corrupt? Is it time for people to grow discouraged and disheartened? I suspect that a 21st century follow-up to Pacem in Terris would need to address this. I know I would be interested to hear the response with somewhat more depth than what I read from the US bishops these days.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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