Some Americans hold that Christians should be high-tech crusaders against our foes overseas, but should flee like swallows from an eagle when it comes to rebellion against the U.S. Government. The doctrine of non-resistance to usurpation of power and to oppressive government runs fatally afoul of history, however, and contradicts the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas.
“A tyrannical regime is not just because it is not directed to the common good…. Consequently there is no sedition in disconcerting such a regime, unless … (the cure should be worse than the malady). Indeed it is the tyrant rather that is guilty of sedition, since he provokes discord and sedition among his subjects even as he seeks to assure his dominance.” (Summa Theologica , II 42)
“Obedience to secular rulers is obligatory insofar as the order of justice requires us to obey. Consequently, when any governor holds power not justly but rather by means of usurpation, or he issues unjust ordinances, then we have no duty to obey; except perchance to avoid scandal or peril.” (Summa Theologica , 2a2ae, question 104, article 6, 3rd reply)
Furthermore, in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (at 1028, cf. 1022), Aquinas argues that under the divine order it is wrong to submit to a lower authority in opposition to a higher authority, as a duke is not obeyed against a king. This means that the Federal Government “not be obeyed in opposition to” the higher power, i.e. the U.S. Constitution.
Under God the written Constitution is our king, (U.S. Constitution, Article VI). Therefore, where federal or local officials contradict the law above them, the “supreme Law of the Land,” they forfeit the right to submission from below. The flagrancy of this contradiction with respect to the Free Exercise of Religion Clause has alone filled volumes. A key objective of a counterrevolution, then, should be to reinforce the written Constitution and restore the scepter to our lex rex .
For Catholics confused by conflicting theological claims regarding revolution (or counterrevolution), the authority of ad hoc papal pronouncements from a bygone era cannot legitimately be opposed to the timeless, overarching theology of the Catholic Church. Vatican II, in its “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” Gaudium et Spes 74, states that in defending civic rights against abuse of political authority, citizens can “adopt a variety of concrete solutions” in the structure or organization of a polity, “according to the character of different peoples and their historic development.”
In other words, historical changes might justify strategies against political oppression that an old papal encyclical found unjustifiable. Encyclicals are pastoral letters written to the Church for her good at a given time. When conditions change a later Pope may alter the guidance given to an earlier generation – as Pope Paul VI affirmed the possibility of change re the encyclicals of Pius XII.
In 1881, Pope Leo XIII wrote his encyclical, Diuturnum , during a time of rabid anti-clerical insurgencies. In this context (only ten years after the Paris Commune) we can best understand the Holy Father’s appeal for popular submission to political authority, and against joining insurrectionary movements. The peril in Aquinas’ qualifiers (quoted above) did indeed apply. By 1909, however, times had changed, and Leo’s successor, Pius X, chose to beatify Joan of Arc. The Maid of Orleans is hardly the archetype for an oppressed citizenry’s patient submissiveness.
About a decade later, Pope Benedict XV, selected the year 1920 for Joan’s canonization. The timing is significant. The Irish Revolution was in full surge against the government that had ruled Ireland for centuries. Also in 1920, the world was attentively watching the “Whites” battle the “Reds” during the Russian Civil War – armed insurrection on a colossal scale by Christians against pagan rulers. Apparently Benedict doubted whether the Irish or Russian insurgencies posed the level of peril referred to in Diuturnum . Even the day chosen to canonize St. Joan, May 16, 1920, carried a symbolism which could not have escaped the Vatican. Surely it was no coincidence that by the liturgical calendar then in use, May 16th happened to be the feast of St. John of Nepomuk , martyred during the investiture struggle with King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia. Executed in 1393 for resisting the king’s orders, St John had stated that “only the one who rules properly deserves the name of king .” Combined with Benedict’s refusal to condemn either the Irish or Russian resistance movements, the declaration of sainthood for Jeanne d’Arc indicates that the papacy in 1920 took quite a different view of contemporary political conditions, and how citizens might rightly respond, than did Leo’s pronouncement four decades earlier.