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September 29, 2004

Roman Catholic Encyclicals on Church and State

At the end of my post, "The Just Wage-- A Christian Approach to the Market" I wrote,

It is worth keeping in mind that Rerum Novarum comes from the era in which the Roman Catholic Church was uncomfortable not just with free markets but with other modern things such as secular governments and elected governments . See my old post ofAugust 2003 , which I ought to update some day (it doesn't talk about elections vs. monarchies, on which seeIMMORTALE DEI (1885), just about whether church and state should be separate). Anyone citing papal encyclicals of that era in support of government regulation had better be ready to support other encyclicals less appealing to the modern mind.

Those old papal encyclicals on politics are actually worth looking at. ....

...For one thing, they show why voters used to be apprehensive about having a Roman Catholic as President, back in 1928 with Al Smith or 1960 with John Kennedy. It wasn't mere prejudice; it was the fear that Smith or Kennedy might actually take Church doctrine seriously and consider it their duty to use the power of government to suppress other denominations and religions. This was a bit of a joke even in Kennedy's time, and certainly nobody worries about Kerry doing that.

For another, it is worth taking the old Catholic ideas seriously. They are heresy in our modern American tradition (though not for Puritans), but they are ideas we moderns need to consider and refute. In particular, I find the last document I quote-- the 1885 Immortale Dei-- well written and challenging. These ideas are, in fact, similar to what Islamists believe now, and if we can understand Pius IX we will be better able to understand Bin Laden. I do not mean this at all pejoratively; though Bin Laden's methods are evil, his idea of a reformed and worldwide Islam rule is not ridiculous in theory, no more than Pius's ideal of a worldwide Roman Catholic rule, and both are as likely (or unlikely) to be attained by peaceful persuasion as by violence.

Anyway, here are some selections from old Popes. The Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX (1864) condemned a large number of propositions, some political, including

55. The Church ought to be separated from the State , and the State from the Church.-- Allocution "Acerbissimum," Sept. 27, 1852.


77. In the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship .--Allocution "Nemo vestrum," July 26, 1855.

78. Hence it has been wisely decided by law, in some Catholic countries, that persons coming to reside therein shall enjoy the public exercise of their own peculiar worship. --Allocution "Acerbissimum," Sept. 27, 1852.

The encyclical QUANTA CURA (Condemning Current Errors) (1864) says:

And, against the doctrine of Scripture, of the Church, and of the Holy Fathers, they do not hesitate to assert that "that is the best condition of civil society, in which no duty is recognized, as attached to the civil power, of restraining by enacted penalties, offenders against the Catholic religion, except so far as public peace may require. " From which totally false idea of social government they do not fear to foster that erroneous opinion, most fatal in its effects on the Catholic Church and the salvation of souls, called by Our Predecessor, Gregory XVI, an "insanity," viz., that "liberty of conscience and worship is each man's personal right , which ought to be legally proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society; and that a right resides in the citizens to an absolute liberty, which should be restrained by no authority whether ecclesiastical or civil, whereby they may be able openly and publicly to manifest and declare any of their ideas whatever, either by word of mouth, by the press, or in any other way."

IMMORTALE DEI (1885) says

18. In political affairs, and all matters civil, the laws aim at securing the common good, and are not framed according to the delusive caprices and opinions of the mass of the people, but by truth and by justice; the ruling powers are invested with a sacredness more than human, and are withheld from deviating from the path of duty, and from overstepping the bounds of rightful authority; and the obedience is not the servitude of man to man, but submission to the will of God, exercising His sovereignty through the medium of men. Now, this being recognized as undeniable, it is felt that the high office of rulers should be held in respect; that public authority should be constantly and faithfully obeyed; that no act of sedition should be committed; and that the civic order of the commonwealth should be maintained as sacred.

23. But that harmful and deplorable passion for innovation which was aroused in the sixteenth century threw first of all into confusion the Christian religion, and next, by natural sequence, invaded the precincts of philosophy, whence it spread amongst all classes of society. From this source, as from a fountain- head, burst forth all those later tenets of unbridled license which, in the midst of the terrible upheavals of the last century, were wildly conceived and boldly proclaimed as the principles and foundation of that new conception of law which was not merely previously unknown, but was at variance on many points with not only the Christian, but even the natural law.

24. Amongst these principles the main one lays down that as all men are alike by race and nature, so in like manner all are equal in the control of their life; that each one is so far his own master as to be in no sense under the rule of any other individual; that each is free to think on every subject just as he may choose, and to do whatever he may like to do; that no man has any right to rule over other men. In a society grounded upon such maxims all government is nothing more nor less than the will of the people, and the people, being under the power of itself alone, is alone its own ruler. It does choose, nevertheless, some to whose charge it may commit itself, but in such wise that it makes over to them not the right so much as the business of governing, to be exercised, however, in its name.

25. The authority of God is passed over in silence, just as if there were no God; or as if He cared nothing for human society ; or as if men, whether in their individual capacity or bound together in social relations, owed nothing to God; or as if there could be a government of which the whole origin and power and authority did not reside in God Himself. Thus, as is evident, a State becomes nothing but a multitude which is its own master and ruler. And since the people is declared to contain within itself the spring-head of all rights and of all power, it follows that the State does not consider itself bound by any kind of duty toward God. Moreover. it believes that it is not obliged to make public profession of any religion; or to inquire which of the very many religions is the only one true; or to prefer one religion to all the rest; or to show to any form of religion special favor; but, on the contrary, is bound to grant equal rights to every creed, so that public order may not be disturbed by any particular form of religious belief.

26. And it is a part of this theory that all questions that concern religion are to be referred to private judgment; that every one is to be free to follow whatever religion he prefers, or none at all if he disapprove of all. From this the following consequences logically flow: that the judgment of each one's conscience is independent of all law; that the most unrestrained opinions may be openly expressed as to the practice or omission of divine worship; and that every one has unbounded license to think whatever he chooses and to publish abroad whatever he thinks.


31. The sovereignty of the people, however, and this without any reference to God, is held to reside in the multitude; which is doubtless a doctrine exceedingly well calculated to flatter and to inflame many passions, but which lacks all reasonable proof, and all power of insuring public safety and preserving order. Indeed, from the prevalence of this teaching, things have come to such a pass that may hold as an axiom of civil jurisprudence that seditions may be rightfully fostered. For the opinion prevails that princes are nothing more than delegates chosen to carry out the will of the people; whence it necessarily follows that all things are as changeable as the will of the people, so that risk of public disturbance is ever hanging over our heads.


By the words and decrees just cited, if judged dispassionately, no one of the several forms of government is in itself condemned, inasmuch as none of them contains anything contrary to Catholic doctrine, and all of them are capable, if wisely and justly managed, to insure the welfare of the State. 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.

Note that Immortale Dei, despite its stinging criticism of the idea of popular rule, does allow that elected governments are not bad per se. Rather, it is an attack on the notion that if the people want something, they should get what they want, a notion which even the modern liberal has abandoned (in favor of a liberal Supreme Court blocking the popular will). The constructive part of the argument goes logically from the premise that God cares about human society to say that if we care what God wants then we will want a polity that reflects His desires. Then follows what I think is the weakest step-- that God wants a polity which suppresses bad religous teaching.

Posted by erasmuse at September 29, 2004 10:02 PM

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