There are many political fault lines that run through American society, perhaps more today than any point in recent history. We can all probably name a few of the ideological, cultural, and religious lines, but there is one in particular that I wish to explore with you today: divisions over whether or not, and to what extent, it is legitimate to resist the government. By resist, or rebel, I mean a refusal to comply with laws, though in the future it may mean something else entirely.
When “left” and “right” are set aside, what appears to separate the “mainstream” from “extremism” is the position they take on this vital question.
Naturally, in a country with revolutionary origins, whose founding document establishes the right of the people to overthrow governments that break their end of the social contract, talk of resistance or rebellion in general cannot be dismissed as insane, though some undoubtedly try to argue along those lines. There is also a broad political consensus in the mainstream that civil disobedience against overt racial injustice is legitimate; few Republicans these days have anything other than praise for the aging heroes of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
If rebellion in general is usually not dismissed as insane, those with motives both pure and corrupt will instead argue that rebellion under the present circumstances is not justified. Things are not “that bad” right now, as they were back when the supposedly legitimate rebellion took place. Some make this argument perpetually, in order to defend a status quo in which they have a stake. Others make it until it becomes too late to change anything through resistance.
Still others will legitimize various forms of resistance that are rooted in, and have as their aim the realization of, their own ideological agenda while delegitimizing the very same methods and tactics of those who have a different ideological agenda. Finally there are pragmatists with respect to political strategy – such as myself – who might counsel in a given circumstance that resistance will be ineffective, while acknowledging the legitimacy of the desire to resist.
Today the tea party movement has emerged as the vanguard of popular resistance to the agenda of the federal government. Quite naturally, those who believe that the government is doing God’s work are frightened by the appearance of this movement and will do all in their power to either co-opt or discredit it. A while back I noted some Catholic responses to the tea party, and offered my own take on it.
Whereas before, however, I had my mind on more immediate concerns, now is a good time to step back and rediscover what the Catholic attitude towards resistance to government is, what the tradition teaches, and how it applies today. I will be focusing on two encyclicals by Pope Leo XIII: Immortale Dei (ID), and Libertas.
First: what is the purpose of government? We discover this in section 3 of ID. For Leo, a state governed by what he calls “Christian philosophy” would recognize, first, the fundamentally social nature of man. Because it is impossible for any individual to survive physically, let alone develop culturally or morally, outside of society, “it is divinely ordained that he should lead his life – be it family, or civil – with his fellow men.”
Society, however, cannot function without a common power to rule over all. Thus an authority must be established over it. In contrast to many secular theories of government, Leo insists that “this authority, no less than society itself, has its source in nature, and has, consequently, God for its Author.”
Governments are not legitimized, in other words, by tautologies. They are accountable still to higher powers. Quoting the Book of Wisdom, Leo reminds the rulers of the world who rule unjustly that “the mighty shall be mightly tormented” by God (6:7). He goes onto establish, quoting Romans 13, that men are to be subject to legitimate authorities (5).
What form this authority takes is ultimately for the people themselves to decide, for as Leo writes in ID: “The right to rule is not necessarily, however, bound up with any special mode of government.” This means, among other things, that there is nothing wrong with our republican form of government guaranteed by the US Constitution (Art. IV Sec. 4). (4) After reaffirming this point again much later in the encyclical, arguing that virtually any form of government is acceptable if it acknowledges God’s authority, Leo continues:
Neither is it blameworthy in itself, in any manner, for the people to have a share greater or less, in the government: for at certain times, and under certain laws, such participation may not only be of benefit to the citizens, but may even be of obligation. (36)
Not only, then, it is legitimate for the people to have a greater share in the government, but “at certain times” it “may even be of obligation.” Of course one might interpret this in a very lukewarm sense, i.e. in the same sense that say, President Obama invokes when he talks about “community service” or some other trendy concept.
But in the context of Leo’s corpus, clearly “participation” is not limited to pro-government, pro-status quo activities. Indeed, we find that “at certain times”, an entirely different posture is required. In Libertas, Pope Leo writes:
But where the power to command is wanting, or where a law is enacted contrary to reason, or to the eternal law, or to some ordinance of God, obedience is unlawful, lest, while obeying man, we become disobedient to God. Thus, an effectual barrier being opposed to tyranny, the authority in the State will not have all its own way, but the interests and rights of all will be safeguarded – the rights of individuals, of domestic society, and of all the members of the commonwealth; all being free to live according to law and right reason; and in this, as We have shown, true liberty really consists. (13)
What strikes me as I read this quote is the broad range of conditions under which “obedience is unlawful.” In addition to what we might expect, such as a law that is contrary to “some ordinance of God”, the establishment of a law that is “contrary to reason, or to the eternal law” also suffices as a condition for resistance.
There is another dimension to this issue as well: what I see as a false equivalence, the attempt to place two political positions in the same category that in fact belong to entirely different categories. Catholic supporters of what I can only describe as “big government” solutions to social problems often invoke the “common good” as a justification not only for their support, but also for yours. That is to say, to reject the policies that they support is to oppose “the common good”, and by extension, the Church and her teachings. In today’s context, this is applied to the tea party, which agitates for small government, reduced spending, lower taxes, etc.
But Leo established the utter falsity of this claim, and let all politically-aware Catholics take careful note:
But in matters merely political, as, for instance, the best form of government, and this or that system of administration, a difference of opinion is lawful. Those, therefore, whose piety is in other respects known, and whose minds are ready to accept in all obedience the decrees of the apostolic see, cannot in justice be accounted as bad men because they disagree as to subjects We have mentioned; and still graver wrong will be done them, if – as We have more than once perceived with regret – they are accused of violating, or of wavering in, the Catholic faith. (ID, 48, emphasis added)
Provided that a person genuinely believes their policy to be supporting the common good, and not a selfish declaration of individualism, they certainly don’t deserve to be cast out of Catholic political discourse. Nor, for that matter, do people who sincerely believe that more government involvement or spending is the answer, provided they aren’t naked collectivists.
Honesty compels us to distinguish, first, non-negotiable from negotiable political issues (as the Church has clearly done); secondly, to assess which of two or more positions on a negotiable issue is aligned with right reason. If the Catholics in the tea party (of which they are 30%) oppose policies they find unreasonable, this is not to say that every Catholic must, of course – but it is to say that they are a) doing no less than their duty per Libertas 13, and b) would be gravely wronged if their Catholicism was impugned for it per ID 48. For my part, I don’t insist that all Catholics embrace Distributism on pain of being considered a bad Catholic; I only ask them to listen to the Papal teaching.
Let us finally consider the bishops. As Leo makes clear, it is obedience to the decrees of the apostolic see – which the bishops are charged with faithfully implementing – to which Catholics must be obedient. We are not obliged to follow any bishop off a cliff, either theologically or politically. If a law is proposed, or enacted, that some Catholics have good and sound reasons to oppose or reject, what their bishops say should be considered thoughtfully but by no means considered binding.