Jacques Maritain Center : Elements of Moral Theology


The state is a community of men living together for earthly ends, under one law and one government, whose function is to execute the law and defend the society against assaults from within, sedition, privy conspiracy and rebellion; treason and war from without.

The Divine law respecting the state is given, Rom. xiii. 1-7; Matt. xxii. 21.

(I.) Its rights are: (1) In the person of its duly constituted representatives, to be obeyed within its due limits. Herein its sanction is Divine, and obedience is part of the Gospel law.

But difficulty at once arises in determining those limits; the higher the functions of the state are placed the greater the difficulty. (See Dan. ii. 44.) In general, however, these limits are (a) The moral law, the law of Christ, which is superior; and (b) the Catholic Church, as guardian of religion and morals, which, in her sphere, has a superior law. If any part of that church intrude on the secular sphere, per contra, the state is supreme.

(Cases: The Roman Catholic communion; the Mormons.)

(c) Personal rights or family rights, of both which the state is the appointed guardian. If the state touch these, its ordinance is null.

(2) The state has eminent domain over the lives and property of its citizens. For personal rights would be iaoperative without the protection and order of civil society. Both life and property, accordingly, are demanded in case of extreme need. Its law commonly accepts a man's last will and testament, but may annul them.

(3) The state has the right to make war in national defence, and to put down sedition by force. Therefore it has the right to use the lives and property of its citizens for this purpose.

Herein is clear proof that the state is an entity, and not a mere aggregate of individuals. For acts are done by men which, if privately done, would be robbery and murder (Whewell, v. § 837).

(4) The state has the right to punish, even with loss of life, for public and private wrongs (Rom. xiii. 4). For it has the right to do what is necessary for its existence (Qu. : The right to punish injury done to one's self, as a member of the state?), and is bound to protect its citizens.

(5) It has the right of contract under the laws of commutative justice; and

(6) In general, of all acts necessary to its preservation or its well-being. Such are to impose taxes (Rom. xiii. 6, 7), including tariffs; to require the education of its children (Qu.: To try to educate them itself?); to regulate or repress, by fine or other punishment, public vices which injure its social life (lotteries, gambling, drinking-saloons), even when these are not direct violations of the moral law.

(II.) The obligations and duties of the state correspond to its rights.

Through the ministry of those who are voters, and their representatives in executive, legislative, and judicial power, it is bound (a) to preserve itself in well-being, through national defence against enemies without and within, and for this end to provide and sustain an efficient army and police; (b) to uphold aud enforce the laws impartially with respect to all, high and low; (c) to make just laws for the purposes of its own existence. Hence arise the duties of civil station, in governors, legislators, judges, officers of the army, etc.

The special virtue of the state, therefore, and of those who represent it, is justice, both distributive, commutative, and retributive.

Further than this, the question has difficulty, because first must be decided what is the function of the state. Is it more than to protect the lives, liberty, property of its citizens, as a social police, leaving all other moral, intellectual, religions, and charitable functions to the voluntary association of its people? If so, we escape, to a large degree, the clashing of different means for similar ends. Is that government the best which governs least? The tendency just now is altogether in the opposite direction. (Bennett law in Wisconsin.)

Or has the state moral duties; e.g., to promote purity and good living by repressing obscene publications, lotteries, etc.; to promote science by observatories, etc.; intelligence by universities, etc.; humanity by putting down the slave-trade, cruelty to animals, towards Indians; hospitals, asylums, poor-houses, etc.; education, however imperfect, by public schools? Or are all these the province of voluntary associations on the part of those only who approve, and agree in the means for promoting these objects?

If the former, we are logically led into the religious sphere, and a conflict of church and state ensues. Besides, that cannot be duty which cannot be well done.

Or, thirdly, while providing primarily for its own preservation and the social well-being of its members, may the state -- i.e., governors, judges, legislators -- be indirectly influenced by moral considerations, without making them the primary object of action; e.g., not enforcing immoral contracts, bets, etc.; choosing for necessary taxation what injures the moral standing of the people; providing schools for those not otherwise taught; aiding parochial schools, etc.?

Notice, also, that many laws -- e.g., marriage laws, punishments of crime, etc. -- are indirectly auxiliaries to the moral education of the people, stamping with the reprobation of society what are also sins. Emanating from the conscience of a people who are generally Christian in their training, if not in their lives, they stamp with public reprobation vices which civilization, as such, cannot check. It did not in Greece or Rome; on the contrary, they grew with that civilization as they did in the renaissance of it.

Duties to the state correspond to the duties of the state, and need not be further developed. Respect, obedience, support, defence are implied, and these as Christian obligation. The state has divine right. What rights, is a debatable question (Whewell, § 881).

Sins against the state are, (1) sedition; if secret, privy conspiracy; if open force, rebellion; like schism, setting up a rival power against that which has Divine right. (2) Fraud, in depriving it of its just dues. (3) Treason (Whewell, § 883), in this nation, "giving aid and comfort" to its enemies. What has been said in Part III. of obligations to authorities can here, mutalis mutandis, he applied once more. But our space forbids more than this brief allusion to topics which, like so many previously introduced, can only receive a cursory glance in these first Elements of Moral Theology.


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