JMC : The State and the Church / by Ryan and Millar

3. The Moral Origin of Civil Authority{1}

by Louis Cardinal Billot, S.J.

THE statement that political authority is immediately from the people, can be understood in two ways: Either from the people, as it were, abdicating and transferring by a donation or contract that authority to those who preside over the commonwealth; or from the people, creating organic law in virtue of which authority is embodied in such or such a governmental form, and given to such or such a possessor. The difference between these two ways may be illustrated by an example taken from the law of property. I may receive dominion over a thing from another person, as the rightful possessor who now makes mine that which was his, as if Titius would donate to me his field; or from another, as from the immediate author of a law by which dominion is acquired, as if, in virtue of prescription enacted by the civil legislator, I begin to be the owner of a piece of land which before did not belong to me. That magistrates derive their power proximately from the people, is explained by most of the older scholastics according to the analogy of the former example. But we think that we should base the explanation rather on the second example. However, these points concern only the deeper understanding of the doctrine, and maybe this is a dispute more about words than things. In any case, forms of government and titles to exercise power, and power itself, as existing in its determinate possessors, are not immediately from God, but only through the medium of human consent, that is, the consent of the community.

An objection to the foregoing statement has been brought forward from the words of the Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Diuturnum Illud: "It is important to bear in mind that those who are to preside over the commonwealth can in some cases be selected by the will and judgment of the multitude, without any opposition on the part of Catholic teaching. By this selection indeed the sovereign is designated, but the rights of sovereignty are not conferred: authority is not delegated, but the person who is to exercise it is designated." We reply that these words merely set forth the pure and simple doctrine of faith against the pernicious innovation with which very many were infatuated in the sixteenth century, and which in the eighteenth century led to the monstrous error of the Social Contract. What the Pope denies is that the popular choice ever confers the rights of sovereignty in the sense of those who oppose Catholic doctrine; that is, in the sense that the right of sovereignty in itself comes from the people, after the manner of an instrumental power which flows from a supreme commissioner to one commissioned. In a word, the Pope denies what has been unanimously denied at all times by Catholic theologians. And the Pope agrees with the theologians likewise in his positive affirmations. Since authority in itself is constituted not by human but by divine natural right, there is nothing left for human will or action but the determination and designation of the ruler. . . . . . Through this designation the people become the proximate cause, not indeed of power as such, but of the conjunction of power with such a person, according to such or such a measure, and such or such conditions. Hence the Pope's statement does not remove from the community the power that is truly constitutive of government. . . .

Other objections are made by recent authors who hold that the power of sovereigns is derived immediately from God. One of these maintains that society cannot confer authority, since there is no constituted society prior to the institution of a government. I reply: At the moment before the institution of a government there exists a society constituted, not indeed ultimately and in perfect actuality, yet in potentiality, whenever there exists a determinate multitude of men assembled to help one another for a political end. Nor are the means wanting to produce the effect. Unless we fancy that civil societies have been immediately instituted by nature, we must recognize the existence of some constituting power in the community, in the first stage of political society. Before the institution of a government, therefore, there is already at hand a social power, not indeed for governing that society, but for constituting sovereignty from which the governing power is derived. . . .

According to the second objection, if political power is from God in any way whatsoever, it must be from God in some determinate and concrete subject or possessor. My reply is that political sovereignty, in so far as it is from God, exists immediately in a concrete subject or possessor, namely, in the community itself, by which it is afterwards retained, or is transferred to one monarch, or to a select group. Moreover, the power of jurisdiction is not to be likened entirely to physical forms which do not exist except in some determinate subject. If this were true, the Papal power would be extinct in the interval between the death of a Pope and the election of his successor. . . . If you ask where is political power, as immediately instituted by God? I reply: In the law of nature, or in the ordinance of the divine reason, which is manifested by human nature and written in the human mind. But this general ordinance must be determinated by men. Hence the actual holder of political authority, holds it by human law as its proximate source; but political authority as such does not come from men; they merely determine the form in which it will be actualized, and the person or persons by whom it will be exercised.

The third objection is that this doctrine of popular determination of government and selection of the ruler, provides a foundation for sedition and rebellion against the monarch. In reply, I would point out that there is no doctrine which cannot be abused. Yet no doctrine ought to be condemned for that reason alone. The view that authority is conferred by God immediately upon the ruler has likewise been abused, and it is hard to tell which abuse has been the greater or the more detestable. It is certain that the regalists have been led to conclude that kings as such may claim supreme indifference or irresponsibility, whence they extended the powers of civil society even over religion. . . . All that we can do is to abstract altogether from abuses, and to seek only what truly follows from principles. There is no foundation for rebellion in any doctrine which asserts the divine precept of obedience to constituted authority. This precept is neither taken away nor lessened by our doctrine. From the fact that the ruler does not derive his authority immediately from God, it does not follow that the precept of obeying constituted authority is destroyed or weakened.

Nor does it follow that one government can be deposed and another instantly substituted at the whim of the multitude. . . . A will which does not follow the order of reason neither has nor can have validity. However, let us not conjure up imaginary suppositions which have no place in our actual world. Let us remember that changes of government, whether licit or illicit, are humanly unavoidable, and that this instability can never be eradicated by any force or any theory. The practical question is, which of the two doctrines that we are considering is more conducive to the peace and prosperity of the commonwealth? Is it our doctrine? or is it forsooth that other doctrine which is based on a preposterous conception of legitimacy and which would recognize in dynasties of kings a right as immovable as in the succession of the Pope to the Apostolic See? Let us consider this question at somewhat greater length.

The right of sovereignty is unlike the right of property, inasmuch as it is by nature ordained not for the benefit of him who holds it, but for the benefit of society. Hence if at any time the public good requires a new form of government and a new designation of rulers, no pre-existing right of any person or any family can validly prohibit this change. The right to create the new legitimate government inheres in the community habitually or potentially. However, it ought not to be used rashly and whimsically, but only when its use is demanded by the common good and social tranquillity.

The question may be asked, when is the demand of social necessity evidently verified? For answer we do not need to go far away, nor to take refuge in metaphysics. The necessity of constituting a new government exists whenever the preceding government has been destroyed, and there has been introduced a new government which cannot be abolished without detriment to peace. In such a situation, the new government is legitimate, even though the preceding one was destroyed by iniquitous rebellion, for the only pertinent question concerns what is here and now required by the supreme law of the common good. By this supreme criterion it is evident that the community has the same right to constitute a new sovereignty as it had at the beginning of its political existence. Generally speaking, every civil government is to be held legitimate from the moment when it has been constituted and accepted and regularly exercised.

This conclusion is confirmed by the ancient and immemorial practice of the Church. She has always recognized as legitimate governments of whatsoever origin, once they had been constituted and had been confirmed by the consent of peoples. . . . This perpetual practice and discipline of the Church has been illustrated by a doctrinal declaration of Pope Leo XIII in that memorable Encyclical to the French, Au Milieu des Sollicitudes:

However, here it must be carefully observed that whatever be the form of civil power in a nation, it cannot be considered so definitive as to have the right to remain immutable, even though such were the intention of those who, in the beginning, determined it. . . . Only the Church of Jesus Christ has been able to preserve, and surely will preserve unto the consummation of time, her form of government. Founded by Him who was, who is, and who will be forever, she has received from Him, since her very origin, all that she requires for the pursuing of her divine mission across the changeable ocean of human affairs. And, far from wishing to transform her essential constitution, she has not the power even to relinquish the conditions of true liberty and sovereign independence with which Providence has endowed her in the general interest of souls. . . . But, in regard to purely human societies, it is an oft-repeated historical fact that time, that great transformer of all things here below, operates great changes in their political institutions. On some occasions it limits itself to modifying something in the form of the established government; or, again, it will go so far as to substitute other forms for the primitive ones -- forms totally different, even as regards the mode of transmitting sovereign power.

And how are these political changes of which we speak produced? They sometimes follow in the wake of violent crises, too often of a bloody character, in the midst of which pre-existing governments totally disappear; then anarchy holds sway, and soon public order is shaken to its very foundations and finally overthrown. From that time onward a social need obtrudes itself upon the nation; it must provide for itself without delay. Is it not its privilege -- or, better still, its duty -- to defend itself against a state of affairs troubling it so deeply, and to re-establish public peace in the tranquillity or order? Now, this social need justifies the creation and the existence of new governments, whatever form they take; since, in the hypothesis wherein we reason, these new governments are a requisite to public order, all public order being impossible without a government. Thence it follows that, in similar junctures, all the novelty is limited to the political form of civil power, or to its mode of transmission; it in no wise affects the power considered in itself. This continues to be immutable and worthy of respect, as, considered in its nature, it is constituted to provide for the common good, the supreme end which gives human society its origin. To put it otherwise, in all hypotheses, civil power, considered as such, is from God, always from God: "For there is no power but from God."

Consequently, when new governments representing this immutable power are constituted, their acceptance is not only permissible but even obligatory, being imposed by the need of the social good which has made and which upholds them. This is all the more imperative because an insurrection stirs up hatred among citizens, provokes civil war, and may throw a nation into chaos and anarchy, and this great duty of respect and dependence will endure as long as the exigencies of the common good shall demand it, since this good is, after God, the first and last law in society.

{1} The paragraphs of this chapter are a free translation of the greater part of Propositions III and IV, section 1, question 12, chapter 3, De Ecclesia Christi.

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