Sunday, March 21, 2010

Political Authority

In a class on Catholic Social Teaching we have been reading an immensely frustrating piece of work called The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, penned by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. I don't know precisely what magisterial weight this Council has, but I'm guessing (and hoping) that it's "slim to none".

Last Wednesday we came to paragraphs 393-395, under the heading, "The Foundation of Political Authority."

393. The Church has always considered different ways of understanding authority, taking care to defend and propose a model of authority that is founded on the social nature of the person. "Since God made men social by nature, and since no society can hold together unless some one be over all, directing all to strive earnestly for the common good, every civilized community must have a ruling authority, and this authority, no less than society itself, has its source in nature, and has, consequently, God for its author" [Pope John XXIII, Pacem in terris, 46 (1963).] ....

394. Political authority must guarantee an ordered and upright community life without usurping the free activity of individuals and groups but disciplining and orienting this freedom, by respecting and defending the independence of the individual and social subjects, for the attainment of the common good...

395. The subject of political authority is the people considered in its entirety as those who have sovereignty. In various forms, this people transfers the exercise of sovereignty to those whom it freely elects as its representatives, but it preserves the prerogative to assert this sovereignty in evaluating the work of those charged with governing and also in replacing them when they do not fulfil their functions satisfactorily. Although this right is operative in every State and in every kind of political regime, a democratic form of government, due to its procedures for verification, allows and guarantees its fullest application. [cf. Pope John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 46 (1991).] The mere consent of the people is not, however, sufficient for considering "just" the ways in which political authority is exercised.

My summary: The Compendium asserts that political authority moves like this: God - people - rulers. Now, read Pope St. Pius X's condemnation of Sillonism, in Notre Charge Apostolique (1910):

[Pius X:] The Sillon places public authority primarily in the people, from whom it then flows into the government in such a manner, however, that it continues to reside in the people. But Leo XIII absolutely condemned this doctrine in his Encyclical Diuturnum Illud on political government in which he said:

[Leo XIII:] "Modern writers in great numbers, following in the footsteps of those who called themselves philosophers in the last century, declare that all power comes from the people; consequently those who exercise power in society do not exercise it from their own authority, but from an authority delegated to them by the people and on the condition that it can be revoked by the will of the people from whom they hold it. Quite contrary is the sentiment of Catholics who hold that the right of government derives from God as its natural and necessary principle."

[Pius X:] Admittedly, the Sillon holds that authority - which first places in the people - descends from God, but in such a way: "as to return from below upwards, whilst in the organization of the Church power descends from above downwards." But besides its being abnormal for the delegation of power to ascend, since it is in its nature to descend, Leo XIII refuted in advance this attempt to reconcile Catholic Doctrine with the error of philosophism. For, he continues:

[Leo XIII:] "It is necessary to remark here that those who preside over the government of public affairs may indeed, in certain cases, be chosen by the will and judgment of the multitude without repugnance or opposition to Catholic doctrine. But whilst this choice marks out the ruler, it does not confer upon him the authority to govern; it does not delegate the power, it designates the person who will be invested with it."

[Pius X:] For the rest, if the people remain the holders of power, what becomes of authority? A shadow, a myth; there is no more law properly so-called, no more obedience. The Sillon acknowledges this: indeed, since it demands that threefold political, economic, and intellectual emancipation in the name of human dignity, the Future City in the formation of which it is engaged will have no masters and no servants. All citizens will be free; all comrades, all kings. A command, a precept would be viewed as an attack upon their freedom; subordination to any form of superiority would be a diminishment of the human person, and obedience a disgrace. Is it in this manner, Venerable Brethren, that the traditional doctrine of the Church represents social relations, even in the most perfect society? Has not every community of people, dependent and unequal by nature, need of an authority to direct their activity towards the common good and to enforce its laws? And if perverse individuals are to be found in a community (and there always are), should not authority be all the stronger as the selfishness of the wicked is more threatening? Further, - unless one greatly deceives oneself in the conception of liberty - can it be said with an atom of reason that authority and liberty are incompatible? Can one teach that obedience is contrary to human dignity and that the ideal would be to replace it by "accepted authority"? Did not St. Paul the Apostle foresee human society in all its possible stages of development when he bade the faithful to be subject to every authority? Does obedience to men as the legitimate representatives of God, that is to say in the final analysis, obedience to God, degrade Man and reduce him to a level unworthy of himself? Is the religious life which is based on obedience, contrary to the ideal of human nature? Were the Saints - the most obedient men, just slaves and degenerates? Finally, can you imagine social conditions in which Jesus Christ, if He returned to earth, would not give an example of obedience and, further, would no longer say: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's" ?

My summary: Pius X, citing the doctrine of Leo XIII, condemns the Sillonist assertion that political authority moves like this: God - people - rulers.

Has the Compendium re-introduced the condemned doctrine of the Sillonists? Or am I missing something? If I'm not, then I'd love to know what happens to the asserted superiority of the democratic form of government, since paragraph 395 bases this assertion on the aforesaid condemned doctrine.


Anselm said...

Update: in the class this morning, an attempt was made to reconcile the Compendium with Leo XIII and Pius X: they condemned the idea that the people "confer" power on the rulers
or "delegate" power to the rulers, whereas the Compendium says that they "transfer" power to the rulers. Somehow I'm still not convinced.

Alexander said...

That's sad to hear Anselm. Is this going to be another mental gymnastics routine that we are so used to using when confronting with modern documents? Why can't they just say "they made a mistake?”

JuliB said...

Wow - what a coincidence. I decided that I was going to figure out what social justice really means, worrying that the phrase has been co-opted.

I decided to start with Quad. Anno since it was available for purchase (Leo's encyclical was out of stock). Without realizing any potential ties, I also purchased St. P's Sillon.

Did you start with Quad. and Rerum? I can't imagine starting with anything more recent. In addition, these "newer" docs are almost unreadable having been written by committee. I love the older, more straightforward writing.

Just from my VERY limited reading so far, I think my original concern that "social justice" has been co-opted may be true.

Anselm said...

No, we started straight off with the compendium, I had to look up the older stuff on my own.

I'm also more interested in the political aspect of Social Teaching than the economic aspect, although they are often linked.

The economic encyclicals are famous, especially:
Rerum novarum (1891)
Quadragesimo anno (1931)
Centesimus annus (1991).

For the political issues start with:
Gregory XVI, Mirari vos;

Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors and Quanta Cura;

Leo XIII, Diuturnum Illud, and especially, especially important are Immortale Dei and Libertas Praestantissimum;

Pius X, Vehementer nos, Une fois encore, Notre Charge Apostolique;

Pius XI, Quas primas, and Divini redemptoris;

Pius XII, Summi pontificatus

That is surely not a complete list, but merely the important ones that I've discovered so far.

You're right about the "committee" quality of these modern texts, too; they really are almost incomprehensible. And imagine, Vatican II wanted to make the faith easier to understand...

Ben said...

I'm not sure I agree with St. Pius X on this. He seems to say the opposite of St. Robert Bellarmine and of Cardinal Billot. Though a royalist of Action Francaise stripe, the latter said, "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".


Boniface said...


I am going to do a post on this in the near future, though I would say at the outset that Pius X outranks the other two and his opinion appeared in an authoritative document.