Insurrection is an old word derived from Latin. Webster defines it as “an act or instance of rising in revolt, rebellion or resistance against civil authority or an established government.” Insurrection is nearly synonymous with the word insurgency, and neither term implies that the revolt or resistance must resort to violent means. In other words if government should usurp power, or exercise its longstanding power oppressively, insurgents can rise up — legally and/or peacefully, or as a last resort having recourse to the sword. The motive would be to exercise the prerogatives of the people, as per the Declaration of Independence .
[I]t is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards
for their future security.
Christians have occasionally argued that, especially in its early stages, the American Revolution ran contrary to Sacred Scripture (esp. Romans 13). For example, Gene Fisher and Glen Chambers, The Revolution Myth (Grenville, South Carolina: Bob Jones University Press, 1981) is a study of the Prohibitory Act , with the theme that until December 22, 1775 (eight months after Lexington & Concord) Americans remained in the sort of rebellion forbidden in Romans 13.
But careful Catholic thought takes account of the Almighty’s intervention in history and how the Church solicits Divine Providence. Might not what the continental congress had to say a few months after Yorktown, Annuit Coeptis (He has favored our cause), articulate God’s truth more closely than the theological notion that divine disfavor, even eternal damnation, is the sure consequence of resisting “legitimate rulers” who have descended into tyranny?
Consider whether in the most recent quarter century, the evident blessing bestowed upon prayerful Pilipino, Polish and East Timorese patriots offers us object lessons. In East Timor, a guerilla operation led by Portuguese speaking Catholics began in 1975, when the world’s largest Islamic nation, Indonesia, occupied the former colony of Portugal militarily, annexing it politically in 1976. Under the leadership of Bishop Carlos Belo , the support of the Catholic Church was indispensable in the fight for independence, achieved in 2002 after a long and bloody struggle.
Meanwhile in the Philippines, the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown in 1986, in the “People Power Revolution.” Here the Catholic Church, under the direction of Cardinal Jaime Sin , played an instrumental part in making this insurrection not only successful but also non-violent.
In Central Europe, in the blessed “revolution of 1989,” the process of liquidating the Soviet Empire began with Poland. A native son, Pope John Paul II, played a key role in overthrowing the “lawfully constituted authorities,” namely the Communist Party leadership headed by President Wojciech Jaruzelski. No one should be very surprised that it was during John Paul’s papacy that the Church indicated five preconditions for “Armed resistance to oppression by political authority” [Catechism of the Catholic Church , sect. 2243 (1994)]. Conditional is as unlike forbidden as charging a toll differs from closing the bridge.
Among the five catechetical preconditions, one applies in a special way to the United States, “all other means of redress have been exhausted.” In 1776, our Founding Fathers exhausted their last option when the King and the British Parliament rejected our overtures for reconciliation by means of compromise. Faced with the choice between resistance or abject submission to usurpation and oppression, they made their stand at Lexington and at the Concord Bridge, where they “fired the shot heard round the world.”
Some 3½ centuries earlier, St. Joan of Arc had fought against a similar occupation of her country by the English. She too had exhausted her peaceful options, as she testified at her trial: “…but as to the English, the peace they need is that they may go away to their own country, to England…. First, I begged them to make peace; and it was only in case they would not make peace that I was ready to fight.”
A millennium previous to the exploits of the Maid of Orleans, Constantine and his fellow Christians had revolted against the pagan government of Rome. In 303 with Christians numbering perhaps ten percent of the population in the Empire, though with a disproportionate influence , the Emperor Diocletian presided over the tenth and most terrible wave of persecution the Roman government had inflicted on followers of the Savior. It was designed to reverse conversions and crush the flourishing religion at every level of society. Diocletian’s policy was reminiscent of the Hellenization program against Jewish society in the days before the Maccabean revolt; except that initially the Maccabees fought back with guerilla tactics, whereas under Constantine Christian forces fought a great pitched battle at the Milvian Bridge, 312 AD.
This bellicose approach was dictated by the lack of any peaceful alternative. “Pray and obey and everything will be ok” was not what nearly three centuries of persecution had taught pious citizens of Rome to see as realistic. Moreover, in Constantine’s day they enjoyed no constitutional option like ours in America, for rule of law did not extent to the top of Rome’s political pyramid, not even in theory. Official state doctrine proclaimed the divinity of the roman emperor. No earthly law could bind his regime. The only ordinance that might depose the divine emperor was military force.
In contrast to imperial Rome, where warlords styled Caesars held sway, in the USA the “supreme law of the land” is the Constitution. By its fifth Article, the written Constitution authorizes the people to conduct an insurgency legally and peacefully through a “convention for proposing Amendments.” A concerted effort for just such an insurgency — an “Insurrection of Suede ” — is also part and parcel of the aforesaid catechetical precondition.
Thus, our moral obligation is this: Exhaust the convention option before escalating the insurgency in the spirit of the Continental Army of our forefathers.