What Should Catholics Think About Revolution?

The 2008 election was, to many Catholics and other social conservatives, a defeat of significance. Barak Obama’s election, as well as the Democratic takeover of the congressional houses, represented to many a stunning success of secular humanism and a defeat of the pro-life values that form the core of much Catholic support for the Republican Party. The fact that so few people seemed to care that Obama’s election promised the continuation of Supreme Court support for Roe v. Wad e for the next twenty to thirty years only added salt to the wound. High emotions, then, dominate as Catholics look to articulate or listen for a political philosophy relevant to our particular situation: a philosophy that can offer a robust alternative to secular humanism and its “progressive” agenda.

At the same time, a largely leaderless Republican Party has itself experienced a period of soul-searching. Perhaps as a credit to the novel Constitutional Puritanism of Ron Paul, a new wave of political rhetoric that hearkens back to just before the American Revolutionary War has gained a following. At first, this movement looked to be no more than a scattering of “Tea Party” protests across the country. However, as news breaks of massive federal deficits and a Democratic government seemingly content to ram through new spending, including an unpopular “reform” of healthcare, many people feel as though something about our current administration has to change. Something has gone wrong, enough is enough, and perhaps if we retrace our steps back to the original documents on which our political structure is based, we may find a solution. If this is the direction popular sentiment is headed, books like political pundit Glenn Beck’s Common Sense (which, as the subtitle acknowledges, is “Inspired by Thomas Paine”) and Ron Paul’s own The Revolution: A Manifesto may represent a political movement with potential for growth. In addition to merely calling for a sort of Constitutional Originalism, it seems to me that there is something a little ominous in this pre-Revolutionary rhetoric. In particular, it seems to suggest the possibility (or even the merit) of a violent overthrow of the United States government if no more peaceful means for substantial change can be employed. If so, what should Catholics think about this?

Pope Pius IX looks to have quashed revolutionary sentiments entirely in rejecting the thought that “It is lawful to withhold obedience to legitimate rulers, indeed even to rebel.” This was listed as one of many modern errors in his famous Syllabus . In Etsi multa luctuosa , Pope Pius IX further explained that the Church teaches that the faithful should “inviolably keep [obedience] to the supreme princes and their laws insofar as they are secular” however the Church “has restricted this fear of princes to evil works, plainly excluding the same [fear of punishment] from the observance of the divine law”. That is to say, rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s involves obedience to the secular laws of the land insofar as they do not violate our more fundamental obligation to give to God what is God’s. If the State calls us to sin, we may not obey. In all other respects, we are to submit to those who rule over us.

In response, one who would seek to defend the legitimacy of rebellion might draw upon the qualifier “legitimate” –- arguing that it is wrong to disobey or even to rebel against legitimate authority, but it is an open question whether our current government is indeed legitimate (or will continue to be so in the future). The Revolutionary War that gave birth to this nation was justified along similar lines. The founders argued in the Declaration of Independence that people posses a ‘right to revolution’ in certain circumstances. Thus,


“[T]o secure these rights [of Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness], Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government […].”

As the power to legitimately rule a people derives from the consent of the people, so the thinking goes, then it is perfectly legitimate for these same people to deny consent when the government deprives people of their rights. If the ruler continues to hold office after the consent of the governed has been denied and even defends his position with force, the argument continues, then he is no better than a usurper of power and can be justly taken out of a position of authority by the people, in whom all power ultimately resides.

This pattern of argument must be rejected by the faithful Catholic. In his encyclical Diuturnum , Pope Leo XIII writes plainly:

“Indeed, very many men of more recent times, walking in the footsteps of those who in a former age assumed to themselves the name of philosophers, say that all power comes from the people; so that those who exercise it in the State do so not as their own, but as delegated to them by the people, and that, by this rule, it can be revoked by the will of the very people by whom it was delegated. But from these, Catholics dissent, who affirm that the right to rule is from God, as from a natural and necessary principle.”

Pope Leo XIII continues that democracy is a legitimate means to select such a ruler, provided certain conditions are satisfied, but once a leader is justly selected power is not derived from below, so to speak, but is granted to him by God. Consequently, Pope Leo argues, the ruler

“will by that very reason immediately acquire a dignity greater than human […] Whence it will behoove citizens to submit themselves and to be obedient to rulers, as to God, not so much through fear of punishment as through respect for their majesty; nor for the sake of pleasing, but through conscience, as doing their duty. And by this means authority will remain far more firmly seated in its place. For the citizens, perceiving the force of this duty, would necessarily avoid dishonesty and contumacy, because they must be persuaded that they who resist State authority resist the divine will; that they who refuse honor to rulers refuse it to God Himself.”

The entire encyclical is worth reading in full, but these selections should put to a definitive end any idea among Catholics that a repeat of our revolutionary war may be justified. This becomes even clearer when we take seriously the fact that our initial Revolutionary War was illegitimate and cooperation with it immoral; although patriotic feelings often cloud this plain fact, the “social contract” justification for revolutionary war espoused in the Declaration of Independence was seriously flawed. The bloodshed that followed from it was blood shed in a deplorably immoral way. Any thought of repeating this war must be vehemently rejected among Catholics as engaging in serious sin.

It is admittedly very difficult to acknowledge, but Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress (as well as the justices on the Supreme Court) have power because God has granted power to them. Not only should they not be challenged insofar as they have power, but (as Pope Leo explained) they should in fact be esteemed and honored: possessing a dignity and majesty that is not merely human, but comes from God. I pray all Catholics are reminded of these facts as anger over the deficit and healthcare “reform” bill mounts, and the revolutionary rhetoric continues to heat up. We are called to respect and honor those who rule over us, and to submit to them unless they command us to sin.

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