On Insurrection: A Roman Catholic View

In the article, “What Catholics Should Think About Revolution ” (CE , August 29), and in subsequent postings in the lively comments section, the author argues that until the Holy Father designates a regime as illegitimate, we the people cannot resist the government without sinning against God. This notion contradicts the preeminence of the laity in civil affairs. Waiting for the Vatican to take the lead in politics is not pre-Vatican II, but pre-Council of Trent. It echoes the era of Innocent III when the people would await a papal interdict as the best hope of ridding themselves of oppressive government.

It is distressing to read pro-statist interpretations of Romans 13. The approach reminds me of Reich Bishop Ludwig Muller and his German Christian Movement, 1933-37. They also insisted on Romans 13 as mandating submission to the Third Reich. Ludwig Muller’s dreadful theology stood in stark contrast to Protestants like Dietrich Bonhoffer, and Catholics like Cardinal Clement von Galen of Westphalia, who resisted the Nazi regime with a will. At great personal risk they trusted in God’s mercy — little fearing damnation for daring to defy the tyrant.

Also cited wrongly to support the statist political view is Diuturnum , written by Leo XIII in 1881. At section 15, however, Pope Leo notes: “if the will of rulers is opposed to the will and the laws of God, they themselves exceed the bounds of their own power and pervert justice; nor can their authority then be valid, which, when there is no justice, is null.” Clearly, Leo is no statist. He does include a passionate plea against sedition, but he is writing for his time. Naturally he associates insurrections of his day with “…horrors, to wit, communism, socialism, nihilism, hideous deformities of the civil society of men and almost its ruin…, things neither unknown nor very remote from us.” (sect. 23)

Nor, certainly, does the last Pope of the 19th century seek to reach generations into the future to contradict what would be the Catechism of the Catholic Church ; nor to quench the spirit of 21st century citizens who might seek to restore America the Beautiful under God and the written Constitution.

In addition to the Catechism , section 2243 , I recommend the two books of Maccabees in the Bible, sacred inspiration indeed for counterrevolution against the imposition of paganism via a ruling regime. Also, the reader might look to the Rev. Jonathan Mayhew’s epochal sermon, preached in Boston in 1750, and cited by John Adams in its oft reprinted form, as the “spark which ignited the American Revolution.” I quote this renowned homily at length in my online book, Treatise on Twelve Lights.

Rev. Mayhew analyzes Romans 13, verse by verse. Among his observations:

“…Here the apostle (St. Paul, Romans 13 ) argues the duty of a cheerful and conscientious submission to civil government, … as the design of it was to punish evildoers, …. But how does what he here says, prove the duty of a cheerful and conscientious subjection to those who forfeit the character of rulers? to those who encourage the bad, and discourage the good? The argument here used no more proves it to be a sin to resist such rulers, than it does, to resist the devil, that he may flee from us….

“Thus, upon a careful review of the apostle’s reasoning in this passage, (Romans 13:3-4) it appears that his arguments to enforce submission, are of such a nature, as to conclude only in favor of submission to such rulers as he himself describes; i.e., such as rule for the good of society, which is the only end of their institution. Common tyrants, and public oppressors, are not entitled to obedience from their subjects, by virtue of any thing here laid down by the inspired apostle….

Catholics concerned about Romans 13 might notice how frequently our altars bear the imprint of the chi rho , the insignia which Constantine inscribed on his Roman soldiers’ shields at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge , 312 AD. I recommend G.P. Baker, Constantine the Great and the Christian Revolution (1930) . As Baker describes it (p. vii), “…in self-defense the Christians resorted to the only possible means of avoiding their fate. That is to say, they brought about a revolution and themselves seized power. This is their own statement.” Constantine’s Edict of Milan the following year, marked a salutary turning point in salvation history, well worthy of honoring in our churches.

But Constantine and his followers had no constitutional option, or legal alternative to abject submission. As Americans, the Article V “convention for proposing Amendments” is legal and still available. This political path is a hopeful avenue. Confidence in a road map bequeathed to us by the Framers is far better than focusing on a fear of God’s wrath, if (having someday exhausted this provision as well) we opt to follow in the footsteps of George Washington and the continental army.

The Roman Catholic course is a new “appeal to heaven ” for our beleaguered country, that we may find a peaceful way to effect a radical turnabout. And if that fails, we can pray that God’s providence will be with us as in 1776. May we solicit the assistance of the same God described in Holy Scripture (Sirach 2:18): “Equal to his majesty is the mercy that he shows.”


writer, retired history teacher, practicing cradle Catholic, lecturer for Knights of Columbus, council 1379. Knight of the Month, October 2008, February 2009.

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  • momof5kids

    This has been a fascinating series of articles and comments. As a homeschooling mom with kids very interested in politics and history this was timely and a great learning tool for us. We have read the articles and comments and had some great discussions on what this all means.
    Recently, my 12 year old became so excited about all that is going on that he started a website for kids to get them involved in the political process. http://www.kidzhaveavoice.com He and some other local kids are forming a youth group to find ways that they can make a difference locally as well. This all has tied into his work. Thank you for continuing the lesson.
    We need to keep praying and working towards what God would have and that is a society and government which honors Him with our actions and laws.

  • m7wij

    At the risk of sounding too judgemental, I would have to conclude that Dietrich Bonhofer is much closer to sainthood than Brain Besong is to understanding Catholic theology. Let me quote Blessed Mother Teresa: “Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.”

    Moreover, what Blessed Mother Teresa observed in Calcuta applies in the United States today, just the same: “Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.”

    Providing for the Fortune 500 companies profitting from the B.O. bail-out is not helping the “Unwanted”, the “Unloved,” the “Uncared for” who are growing in number, and who are threatened with further poverty and less care in the currently proposed health care plan, so ineptly dubbed “Obamacare.” One need only examine the : 1) increasing disparity between the haves, like the current president and his family, and the have-nots; 2) financial debacle of the bail-outs; 3) exhorbitant cotst to every man, woman and child in the United states of obamacare; and 4) increasing national debt to result from the health care revision; and 5) other reckless spending under Obama. In this context it is difficult to imagine just how those most dependent upon the central government will find hope in the proposed change! While Obama thinks like a revolutionary, he may be the first president to create the conditions referred to by Thomas Jefferson!

    God bless us, everyone one!

  • wootie88

    Mr. Struble,
    In terms of the risk factor, which do you think poses more peril for our country; letting events take their course, or convening a constitutional convention?

  • That’s a bit like asking whether it’s more dangerous to let a sailing ship stay the course with jagged reefs dead ahead, or to try a tacking maneuver with an untested mast. If the mast breaks, you’re still headed for the reefs, but if the mast holds then there is hope. Consider, furthermore, the decision you should make if no firm evidence exists that the mast is likely to break.

    Similarly, an Article V Convention is untested at the national level since 1787. Yet this procedure offers hope of effecting a radical turnabout. And there is no hard evidence to suggest that it is sure to fail, and therefore not worth so much as a try.

    Politics, as Albert Einstein once noted, is more complicated than physics. Things can go wrong, and success is uncertain. But what is quite certain is that if we the people continue pinning our hopes on a broken system, it will only squander our energies and dash reformist hopes. This course will further frustrate and exasperate our citizenry; meanwhile the ship of state will continue along the postmodernist course until the Republic is irretrievably on the rocks.

  • wootie88

    You seem so sure that the present course requires, as
    you put it, a “radical turnabout.” Have you considered that the
    country might not be as bad off as you suppose?

  • The condition of the country does not call for panic. Yet our situation is indeed desperate.

    Postmodernism, like a colossal squid with many tentacles, is squeezing the beauty out of society, dimming our country’s once radiant spirit. We see the results everywhere – in schools, in sports, in the mass media, in the workplace, in finance, in health, in the environment, in government, and even in the Church.

    Pope John-Paul popularized the term, culture of death. Death is, I believe, pretty serious.

  • Brian Besong

    Mr. Struble, you have misrepresented my views. I did not state that the (or even a) necessary condition for legitimate rebellion was the “Holy Father [designating] a regime as illegitimate.” However, this should be plain to anyone who reads my article and the subsequent comments.

    The other thing that should be plain is that Church does not think highly of rebellion in most cases; usurping the power of legitimate rulers is seen to be serious sin. Though you quote Diuturnum as if it offers you an advantage, when read in context it is quite clear Pope Leo does not think a leader is illegitimate when he commits an unjust act. Rather, when he writes “if the will of rulers is opposed to the will and the laws of God, they themselves exceed the bounds of their own power and pervert justice; nor can their authority then be valid, which, when there is no justice, is null” this means what other Popes have made quite clear: our obligation to submit to leaders does not imply that we have an obligation to sin when and if they so command us. In these cases, we should not sin because in these cases the ruler has overstepped the power that has been given to them. This does not imply that power of that ruler suddenly vanishes (or else, perhaps, David was not a legitimate King and Absolom’s rebellion was legitimate). My article makes this nuance to the Church’s teaching quite clear.

    Ultimately, I am comforted in this debate by the fact that if I have misunderstood the Church’s views, then I can be educated regarding them by my local Bishop. This applies not only to more abstract details about the “right of rebellion” (condemned as heresy by Pope Pius), but also to the more concrete details like: Is the present government illegitimate, and does it behoove Catholics to attack it? I hope the idea of learning one’s faith from the local bishop is not unique. Consequently, I urge anyone and everyone who thinks that rebellion against our present government may have merit to write your local bishop and pose this view as a question to him. I have every confidence that the views stated in my article will be vindicated: We have a legitimate government, and because of that, this government deserves esteem and honor as its power is given to it by God. If your bishop writes back saying otherwise, then I will be happily corrected. Otherwise, we are acting as Protestants squabbling ad infinitum over textual evidence for and against our own personal opinions. This is silly, for God has given us a system for authoritative teaching. All of us should have recourse to this system, and not to the internet, in order to validate the orthodoxy of our views.

  • Dear Brian Besong,
    If I misunderstood or misstated your views, please accept my apologies.

    I’m very interested to know what your local bishop says about your views. If your bishop prefers yours to mine, then perhaps I should check with my own local bishop. And what about the numerous commentators on our articles, and their respective local bishops? Suppose there is no consensus?

    This Sunday I had a discussion with a favorite Irish priest, Fr. Thomas O’Callighan, who told me about the meeting between the Irish bishops and Pope Leo XIII at the Vatican in, I believe, c.1888. Pope Leo pleaded with them to stop breaking his heart by siding with Irish insurgents against the British occupation.

    However, by the time of the ferocious Irish revolution of 1919-1921, Pope Benedict XV took a neutral stand in the Irish/English struggle. Benedict resisted the urging of the bishops in England who wanted the Holy Father to condemn the Irish uprising. It should come as no surprise that the Irish clergy saw developments in quite a different light than did the English clergy.

    In the end the Irish achieved their independence through the very process which you, citing Leo’s encyclical, Diuturnum (1881), feel obliged to condemn. God blessed the Irish with a measure of success, notwithstanding their many rebellions against their English oppressors over the centuries. Where does Divine Providence enter into your calculations in condemning not only the American Revolution, but (I presume) the Irish Revolution?

  • Brian Besong

    Mr. Struble,

    All Catholics are obliged to follow the faith as taught by their own local bishop in union with all the bishops, under the authority of the Pope. This submission to higher authority is no less true in spiritual matters than it is in secular matters. Hence, with regard to faith and morals I submit to the Church; with regards to secular matters I submit to the State. This is uncontroversial, I hope.

    The controversy arises at two points, which I will pose as questions: (1) When does a State government cease to legitimately exist? and (2) What is owed to a State government?

    The article I wrote before assumed the obvious: Our current government comprises a legitimate State authority (‘State’ used in the broad sense of the word). I did not think it necessary to defend this assumption, though if it were rewritten I would include some small defense. The subsequent, latter question is what I wrote about: What is owed, by a conscientious Catholic, to the State? The Catholic teaching is respect and honor: recognition of majesty given to it by God, in His granting of power from above. You do not seem to disagree with this point stated abstractly, it is the application of this point to our current government that seems to make you uneasy. I believe the reason for this is that you think that our current government does not really rule over a sovereign State and that it does not have real power (as outlined by Pope Leo). Thus, our current government (not forming the leadership of a State) does not deserve what is properly owed to States by Catholics.

    The burden of proof, however, is most certainly on the one who makes such a claim, as our President (and congress and the courts) seems to be no less validly our President than any before him. President Obama has been treated as a legitimate ruler by all levels of the Church, including our Pope who congratulated his ascent to power. This is surprising if he is not actually a legitimate ruler; hence, the burden of proof is on you to show (with some degree of authority) that our current government is not really the leadership in charge of a sovereign state. The support of any local American Bishop would be a strong vote of confidence for your position, whether this Bishop is from your diocese or any other. However, not only are you unlikely to find support at the level of Bishops, but you are almost equally unlikely to find moral support among the vast majority of the clergy at any level. This is, I think, because the position you advocate is radical in a negative sense of the word; the position seems to be one motivated more out of frustration with the world and with our corrupt government than anything else. I cannot know your motivations, of course, I can only know that your position is not on the lips of any in the Church who have been given the position of authority in teaching of faith and morals. That is problematic.

    This point shows how necessary moral guidance is regarding the first question in controversy: When does a State cease to be a State? The Church has not given any clear teaching on this question, insofar as I am aware. The closest thing we have in this regard is the teaching of the Catechism that Catholics may conscientiously rebel against a group with pseudo-power under a very limited set of circumstances. In the comments section of my article, I alluded to the fact that these conditions for rebellion could form the basis for knowing when a power has ceased to rule; thus, whenever the conditions are not satisfied, a power legitimately rules over a State and cannot be violently opposed by those under its authority. Consequently, it deserves all the esteem and honor due to it as a legitimate State, per the Church teaching I outlined in my essay. So far this seems to be the most plausible route a Catholic could take in trying to look for Church teaching on this issue. Additionally, I have not seen you really address this issue directly (trying to offer other sources for Catholic teaching, answering this question). Instead it seems you presume, without defense, the view that this State is illegitimate because it is immoral. No Church teaching, however, says that rulers (to have legitimate power) must be unceasingly moral. We should not follow them into their immorality, and that goes without saying; but, we should submit to them in all other respects except for violations of faith and morality. Thus, perhaps, we should disobey the orders of David (were we in such a position) to kill Uriah the Hittite; in other respects, however, we should submit to his authority and most certainly not rebel against him, as his son Absolom did.

    In my estimation, the only way you can validly advance your position is by showing that Church clearly teaches that this current government no longer validly rules (or would not in the near future). Having a local Bishop defend this position would be a boon, but I would settle for clear principles advocated by the Church that directly entail the illegitimacy of today’s US government. Since I am fairly confident you cannot show either clear principles or garner the advocacy of a local Bishop, then I think the safe default assumption is the legitimacy of today’s US government. After all, as I have said, the Pope’s congratulations is fairly surprising if Barack Obama is a usurper of legitimate power; the burden of proof is thus on you to show that is the case, and that our Pope was ignorant on the matter. With this default assumption, all the things in my previous article follow directly: President Obama, as well as all of our government, deserve the respect and esteem (indeed the majesty) due to them as a valid government. Any Catholic who gives them less than this does so in violation of a properly formed conscience, sinning in violation of God’s command.

  • Mary Kochan

    Brian, who are the rulers of our state? You seem to consider the president and congress to be the rulers over the people. Please show me where, according to the documents that establish our form of government, the president and congress are said to be our “rulers” or are given the authority “to rule”?

  • Mary Kochan,

    I don’t think Brian Besong is going to be able to provide an adequate answer to your challenge, because he cannot show where our founding documents say that the president and congress are our “rulers,” or are given the authority “to rule.” The preeminent document is the U.S. Constitution, and it begins with the words “we the people.” It does not begin with “we the rulers,” or “we the Congress,” or “we the Justices of the Supreme Court.” On the contrary, when “we the people” established the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Branches, we envisioned them as populated by “public servants.” Ben Franklin said it best when he ranked officers of the Federal Government as inferior in political status to the merest American citizen.

    Therefore, as Mr. Besong seems to envision them, “rulers” are not authorized in the United States. Note also that the Constitution forbids titles of nobility. The spirit of our founding documents stands in opposition to the sort of plutocratic oligarchy, or elite in-group in Washington, D.C., that Mr. Besong thinks is deserving of our “esteem and honor.”

  • Brian,
    I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, and assume your sincerity when you say, “I would settle for clear principles advocated by the Church….”

    Taking you at your word, let me quote the “Angelic Doctor” of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. His teachings are lauded at length by Leo XIII in his third encyclical, Aeterni Patris (1879). At sect. 21, Leo states: “It is our will, which We hereby enjoin upon you, that ye follow the teaching of Blessed Thomas as the true and Catholic doctrine and that ye labor with all your force to profit by the same.” Leo adds the testimony of earlier Roman Pontiffs to the authority of St. Thomas, and then quotes what he terms, “the crowning testimony of Innocent VI” re the authority of Thomas Aquinas: “‘His teaching above that of others, the canonical writings alone excepted, enjoys such a precision of language, an order of matters, a truth of conclusions, that those who hold to it are never found swerving from the path of truth, and he who dare assail it will always be suspected of error.’” Finally, at section 22, Leo cites several Church Councils re the authority of Aquinas, including Leon, Vienna, Florence, and Vatican I. Finally, notes Leo, “But the chief and special glory of Thomas, one which he has shared with none of the Catholic Doctors, is that the Fathers of (the Council of) Trent made it part of the order of conclave to lay upon the altar, together with sacred Scripture and the decrees of the supreme Pontiffs, the ‘Summa’ of Thomas Aquinas, whence to seek counsel, reason, and inspiration.”

    And so, Brian, as per the encyclical, Aeterni Patris, of your much esteemed Leo XIII, may I respectfully invite you to submit to the following principles of the Roman Catholic Church, as articulated by 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)

  • Brian Besong

    Questions about why we should think American rulers have the sort of power I’ve described were posed by Mr. Struble in the comments section of my article, and I believe I answered them adequately. I’ll try to give a fuller explanation of what I said there: According to Pope Leo in Diuturnum, political power is (to use some philosophical jargon) “univocal.” That is, there is only one sort of political power and it is held by degrees, or else not held at all. Those who hold it to any degree are rulers, in proportion to the power that they posses. Consequently, the only real difference between a Constitutionally limited King and a Constitutionally limited President is in the name.

    The objection that Mr. Struble raised in the previous comment section was similar to the one that Mary raises now. In brief: Our Constitution disagrees with the Pope’s view, thus what the Pope says does not apply to our political system.

    I think it best to answer this objection by way of analogy. Some feminist theorists believe that the nature of femininity is socially constructed, and insofar as a person believes themselves exempt from the social construct imposed on them (by society), they are in fact free of it and can construct the essence of their femininity depending on their desires. Thus, if a woman believes she will be totally satisfied (insofar as her femininity is concerned) by working full time and either leaving her children in the care of strangers or else not having any kids, though in a lifelong marriage, then the only thing to make this desire less than fully satisfactory is the imposition of society’s disapproval.

    I don’t think anyone here would disagree that the thing which makes women who choose things like this less than fully satisfied is not the imposition of society’s guilt trip, but rather, reality: these choices violate the nature of the woman, and will be dissatisfying regardless of what society says about it.

    The objection from the Constitution is similar to the objection of the feminist theorist: political power, so the objector says, is whatever we make of it. If we desire that an elected official is no more than a meager public servant who derives his power from the people, and we codify this desire in our foundational political documents, then that is how things will be. The faithful Catholic replies to the contrary: the reality of political power disagrees, and we can know this by faith if we have had our reason clouded by the persuasive statements to the contrary prevalent in our contemporary political climate. For, so says the faithful Catholic, political power (like femininity) is of a single nature, and no matter how much one desires to “opt-out” of such a system, reality finds a way to impose itself. Hence, the Constitution, and the theories it is motivated by, are inconsequential grounds for objecting to the theory of political power taught by the Magisterium. We find in our governmental leaders political power – that goes without saying – and likewise the nature of that political power is singular, as described by Pope Leo, regardless of what the Constitution says in attempting to avoid giving anyone (or any group) the sort of power held by all political leaders in the past. The Constitution’s attempt to avoid accepting the nature of political power in this system of government is as silly as the feminist’s attempt to avoiding accepting the nature of femininity in her own life as a female. Reality crashes in: God only gives one sort of power to people on this earth, and though it can be held by degrees it must be held to some degree or no power is possessed at all (this, again, comes from Diuturnum). Since we know our rulers do have power, then we can know by extension that they have the only kind of political power there is: the power that comes from God. Since they have that sort of political power, they deserve all the majesty due to them as inheritors of God’s bestowal of power to them. This includes our President, our Congress, as well as the various other officials throughout our government.

    I think that objection is sufficiently answered. Now about “clear principles”: I don’t see any. As I’ve said before, the Church does not have clear teaching about when a State ceases to have power. The best way to construct such a teaching is to say that if a State cannot be rebelled against, according to the conditions set forth in the Catechism, then it is a legitimately ruling State. Thus, because our government cannot be rebelled against at the present according to these conditions, then it is a legitimately ruling State.

    Mr. Struble, you tried to provide clear principles. I appreciate the attempt. The problem is that no clear principles (other than the ones I keep repeating) about when a State ceases to exist can be found in your quotation from St. Thomas. We are told simply that a tyrannical regime can be rebelled against. Well, how does St. Thomas define such a regime? After all, without such a definition, we have no way of knowing whether or not he would think our government is in fact a tyrannical regime; that is, without St. Thomas’ definition here, we have no clear principles for concrete application of his statement. To my knowledge, he gives no definition in this context, or elsewhere. Moreover, St. Thomas’ principles for which governments can be rebelled against do not supersede those in the Catechism (being, after all, no more than the principles given by perhaps the Church’s greatest private theologian – but not the Magisterium itself). The teachings of the universal Magisterium are clearly of greater interest, and as you pointed out in the first comment of my article, Mr. Struble, the conditions for just rebellion exceed merely the fact that a government is tyrannical (which I take to be the first condition listed in the Catechism). Just rebellion also requires a number of other things. Now these Catechism conditions I think are the only real basis for forming an idea (and thus clear principles) of what the Church tells us about when a State ceases to be legitimately ruling. St. Thomas Aquinas has been of no aid here, unfortunate to your side of the debate, both because what he says does not supersede the Catechism, and because we do not have a definition of what he means by “a tyrannical regime.”

    Without these clear principles, I would suggest you are back to square one, as I stated it in my previous comment: the only way you can validly advance your position is by showing that Church clearly teaches that this current government no longer validly rules (or would not in the near future). Having a local Bishop defend this position would be a boon, but I would settle for clear principles advocated by the Church that directly entail the illegitimacy of today’s US government. Since I am fairly confident you cannot show either clear principles or garner the advocacy of a local Bishop, then I think the safe default assumption is the legitimacy of today’s US government. After all, as I have said, the Pope’s congratulations is fairly surprising if Barack Obama is a usurper of legitimate power; the burden of proof is thus on you to show that is the case, and that our Pope was ignorant on the matter. With this default assumption, all the things in my previous article follow directly: President Obama, as well as all of our government, deserve the respect and esteem (indeed the majesty) due to them as a valid government. Any Catholic who gives them less than this does so in violation of a properly formed conscience, sinning in violation of God’s command.

  • Mary Kochan

    Brian, you wrote: “According to Pope Leo in Diuturnum, political power is (to use some philosophical jargon) “univocal.” That is, there is only one sort of political power and it is held by degrees, or else not held at all. Those who hold it to any degree are rulers, in proportion to the power that they posses. Consequently, the only real difference between a Constitutionally limited King and a Constitutionally limited President is in the name.”

    1. Who holds political power in the United States? (You seem to be saying that only the president and congress hold political power.)

    2. Your comparison between a constitutional monarchy and our form of government is wa-a-y off when you posit the king as the holder of political power analogous to the president. There is a position similar to that of our president in a constitutional monarchy, but it is NOT the king. You want to take another shot at that one?

  • Brian Besong


    You asked: “Who holds political power in the United States?”

    It would take much time to compile a list of every position in the United States with political power, but it is not in principle difficult to make such a list: The president, the congress, the justices of the Supreme Court, the governors, state congresses, judges in the courts around the country; the list could go on. Since the list can be so long, I have been using the President (or the President and the other representatives of the three branches of the Federal government) as shorthand for the set of those who have political power at the moment.

    You also say “Your comparison between a constitutional monarchy and our form of government is wa-a-y off when you posit the king as the holder of political power analogous to the president. There is a position similar to that of our president in a constitutional monarchy, but it is NOT the king. You want to take another shot at that one?”

    I don’t think I communicated my analogy very well. What I have been saying is that power is of a single variety; the only difference is in the degree to which it is held. So, let us imagine we could quantify political power into abstract units (strange as that might seem, I think it will illustrate the point I am trying to make). Suppose, say, a governor has 4 units of political power. We could suppose, in contrast, that the President has 8 units; perhaps Congress collectively has 12 units (I suppose it depends on what one thinks about the weighting of power between the branches of the Federal government). Regardless, what I was saying is that there is no difference between a “President” who holds 8 units of political power and a “King” who holds 8 units of political power. The only difference is in name. You and Mr. Struble seem to either be objecting (1) That the sort of units of power the King may hold are of a different variety altogether from the units the President may hold (thus there is a sort of apples and oranges comparison between the units of political power – a point I addressed in my last comment); or (2) that the Constitution limits the political power any president can hold. Perhaps, regarding the latter objection, we can imagine that the Constitution limits the political power of a President to 8 units: that is the maximum which a President can hold and still be faithful to the Constitution (a “Constitutionally-mandated cap” for power, you might say). Supposing this to be true, what I am saying is that it doesn’t matter whether there is a cap or no cap, both because having any power at all (even .00001 units) comes from God, according to Pope Leo, and thus accords a person with majesty deserving of honor and esteem; but also, because the Constitution is not of binding significance. God can easily grant a President power beyond the Constitutionally-mandated cap, because God is not bound by what we say about the limits of power. Thus, a President could conceivably have 50 or more units of political power, whereas a King in a neighboring state may have only 2 units, and his Prime Minister have 6. How power is distributed by God is not as significant as the recognition that *all* power IS distributed by God: those in power deserve respect and esteem, regardless of title or prevailing human opinion that power beyond a certain unit count (e.g. our Constitutionally-mandated cap) is bad. This, of course, does not negate our role as active Catholic citizens who try to enact justice in our land, but it limits the means by which this justice can come about. Rebellion, except in rare circumstances, is not one of the means Catholics should keep on the table.

  • Mary Kochan

    You communicated your analogy well; the problem is with the analogy. In your response, you made the more correct analogy. The president is more analogous to the prime minister than to a king. In a representational government, whether a Constitutional monarchy, parlimentarian, or republic like ours, the political power rests with the people. Of course this is the old Lockean argument that I am making versus the Divine Right of Kings position that you seem to be taking.

    WE THE PEOPLE derive power from God and the government is the representative of that people. I agree with the respect and esteem you argue for, but disagree as to the distribution of same. The Church rightly deals with, accepts representatives from, congratulates, etc. our president BECAUSE he is lawfully president AND therefor the representative of the people, unless and until he is shown not to be lawful or his lawful term is up or he is lawfully removed.

    We are a government of laws, not men. Every man is under the law. The idea that God may give a president more “political power” as you call it, than warranted by the Constitution is just semantics. A president or other official who exceeds his constitutional power, violates the oath he took before God to uphold and defend the Constitution and is ipso facto illegitimate, whether or not what he does rises to the level of the kind of oppressive tyranny that provokes violent rebellion.

    Action taken to remove him is not rebellion unless it is unconstitutional itself. For example, if the House attempted both to bring the articles of impeachment and to try the case, they would be acting unconstitutionally, because the power to try the case rests with the Senate. It is easy to see that the house acting unconstitutionally would be an act of rebellion against he government, because it is an act of rebellion against the Constitution. What you need to understand is that by exceeding his Constitutional powers a president himself is in rebellion against the Constitution.

  • Brian Besong


    The point you are making would be valid if we took the Constitution’s views over that of the Pope’s. Of course, we don’t do that. Simply, the idea that power resides in “the people” is explicitly reject by Pope Leo as false, and heretical for Catholics to hold. That is true regardless of what the Constitition or Declaration of Independence says – and in many ways, we can see Pope Leo’s encyclical as a rejection of the theory of government found in these (the “social contract theory” of Locke, Hobbes, and others). Lockean arguments are thus no better than Marxist arguments; each thinker, and the conclusions they adopt, is flawed. We must reject them as faithful Catholics. We can still be loyal citizens, just citizens who recognize that our governmental system is based on false premises. Many of those false premises are the basis for why even otherwise faithful Catholics keep rejecting the positions I am advocating: We must esteem and respect all those in power (i.e. Government officials) because they have power from God and NOT from us. Democracy seems to confuse many on this point. Just because we elect a person does not mean that person is given power by us. He is given power by God after the selection processes is completed. Once in power, that power no longer is contingent on “the people” any more than God’s will in giving power is contingent on “the people.” The ruler is lifted above the people, in a certain sense, by God. And being higher than the people because of God-granted power, he deserves the majesty due to God’s bestowal.

    The idea that a president becomes illegitimate when God gives him more power is simply flawed. We have already been talking about how the Church has no clear teaching on when a governmental power ceases to be in power (or, more abstractly, when a State government ceases to be a State government). The theory I have been advancing is that the conditions for just rebellion given in the Catechism represent sufficient conditions for a government ceasing to have power: whenever it is just to rebel, the group against which rebellion occurs (a former government, in all cases) is no longer a government with legitimate power. Now you say that the Constitution is really where power lies; yet Pope Leo explains it is to *people* that God entrusts power (not to “the people” writ large, but to persons). Consequently, a President violating the Constitution is not in rebellion. He might have broken a law, but it is an open question whether or not he is even subject to his own country’s laws in the same way that an ordinary citizen is, or if the nature of God-given political power is such that one with political power has power insofar as he is capable of making laws. Perhaps both, but these questions are better settled without social contract theories, and in full knowledge of what the Church teaches. It is almost certainly untrue that a ruler ceases to have power and can be legitimately deposed *simply* when he exceeds his power. After all, the Catechism does not list this as the only condition for just rebellion, and moreover (to use an example I keep bringing up), this would mean that Absolom was right to rebel against King David, and King David was not actually King after he broke Israel’s laws against murder. Exceeding one’s power, as a ruler, even to do immoral things, does not in and of itself justify rebellion, nor does it mean that one’s political power evaporates.

    The bottom line, I think, is that you are taking your cue about the nature of political power, rulers, and what is due to them, far more from errant human theories that have been rejected by the Magisterium, and far less than from the Magisterium Herself. I would urge you, as I have urged others, to read the whole text of Diuturnum. I think you would find yourself far less likely to buy into these flawed Enlightenment theories of government.

  • If I understand him correctly, the gist of Mr. Besong’s posting at 10:43 AM on Sept. 10th is this:

    1. That however prestigious the Angelic Doctor may be, St. Thomas Aquinas is not the Magisterium. Therefore his Summa is subordinate in authority to the Diuturnum of Leo XIII (1881).

    2. That even if Thomastic authority is granted, Aquinas does not define the point at which a state forfeits its divinely ordained authority. The Summa cannot therefore tell us when our civic obligation to obey “our rulers” is nullified. Lacking clear a priori lines of demarcation, we must look to our local bishops for authoritative guidance, meaning that Catholic citizens must get explicit ecclesiastical permission to revolt against an oppressive government.

    Let me take these points in turn:

    1. On the standing of St. Thomas relative to the magisterium, I doubt I could get my Archbishop to give me an authoritative opinion in the abstract, and certainly not expeditiously enough for this ongoing series of postings. But our late Archbishop, Thomas J. Murphy of Seattle, did send Rev. Derick Lappe to Rome to study theology for several years, and Fr. Lappe is now my pastor. After morning mass today, I questioned him about the Besong argument. Referencing the Aeterni Patris of Leo XIII, Fr. Lappe said that St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica had been “incorporated into the magisterial Tradition of the Church.” Given the two witnesses, Pope Leo and my pastor, I believe I am on safe moral ground in following whatever guidance St. Thomas might provide. Mr. Besong’s insistence that I am flirting with sin is, to my mind, unjustified in this regard.

    2. And so what is the Thomastic position regarding the suspension of my duty to submit to my government? Again, the Summa states: “…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.” To paraphrase: Except for prudential considerations, our duty to obey applies neither to (A) USURPERS of political power, nor (B) UNJUST LAWS.

    (A) Usurpation of power is three times mentioned in the Declaration of Independence as justification for the American Revolution. If the primary author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, was accurate in identifying the usurpations of his day, then the contention that our Founding Fathers sinned by advocating and engaging in revolution is contrary to the magisterial Tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. Furthermore, if Presidents or Courts of the 21st century do in fact usurp power, they lack moral authority to require us to obey. As Catholics, then, we are released from the political obligation of submission.

    The key question then becomes: have the Executive and Legislative branches of the Federal Government indeed usurped power never allocated to them by the U.S. Constitution? Let citizens of the United States judge, as per the preeminence of the laity in civic affairs. In the words of the Declaration of Independence, “let facts be submitted to a candid world.”

    (B) Unjust and/or usurpatious laws abound in the postmodernist regime, as inflicted upon the citizenry since 1963. As a partial list, I propose the following fifteen:

    • The political part of the regime entrusted with the power of the sword, as described in Romans 13, has misused that power to defend and propagate evil domestically, meanwhile diminishing or denying the natural prerogatives of that which is good.

    • The political, economic and cultural components of the regime have opened the floodgates to a host of moral evils, including a reeking tide of pornography.

    • The regime has forbidden religion in public schools, and in the public square. This radical change in longstanding policy was mandated by the Judiciary, quite without the consent of the governed.

    • It amended the Constitution from the bench in 1973 (Roe. v. Wade), overturning the respective state laws against abortion in all 50 States.

    • Especially via its cultural levers like the media and entertainment industry, the regime is pushing for same-sex marriage, already enacting this abomination in six states (consent of the governed has been secured by vote of the people in no state). It has backed this movement with court rulings like Lawrence v. Texas (2003).

    • The Federal Government has launched five major Presidential Wars since mid-20th century (Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I, Iraq, Afghanistan), none conducted under the congressional declaration of war required by Article I, section 8, of the U.S. Constitution.

    • Via political and economic means, the regime has outsourced millions of jobs to countries overseas, using corporate globalism in combination with treaties and protocols like NAFTA.

    • The regime has surrendered a measure of our national sovereignty to the WTO (World Trade Organization) and other globalist associations and corporations.

    • It has employed passive resistance in Congress so as to make dead letters of laws guaranteeing the worker a full-employment economy.

    • It has created a stultifying federal bureaucracy, a massive and impersonal apparatus that subjects citizens to an arrogant and machine-like despotism.

    • It has made dead letters of the ninth and tenth Amendments in the Bill of Rights, so as to give government at the Federal level much of the power which “the supreme law of the land” reserves to the states respectively or to the people.

    • It has aggrandized the Federal Government to the point that America is destabilized by its top-heavy condition, and taxpayers burdened far in excess of what provoked the first American Revolution.

    • It has corrupted the system of federal elections so that big money rules, thus reducing the people to the role of crowing winners in brawls between two plutocratic political machines.

    • It has nullified term limits laws enacted by the electorate in half the states in the early 1990’s, by striking them down in usurpatious court rulings (U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, May 1995).

    • It has propagandized about a “living, breathing Constitution” in order to reduce our venerable document to wrapping paper for a judicial oligarchy, a postmodernist politburo of men not law.

    And so I’m wondering. Is anyone in the magisterium of the opinion that I should visit the Confessional on account of what I have written above?

  • Mary Kochan

    We might consider the arguments of Francisco Suarez who was enjoined by Pope Paul V to provide the theological and philosophical ammunition against James the First’s theory of the Divine Right of Kings.

    He defended the right of the people to establish a government for themselves, remove the governor from power if he is unjust, and revolt against a tyrant. Implicit in this is the consent of the governed, for God makes men naturally lawgivers and they transmit this power on their own behalf to the ruler.

  • Pingback: On Insurrection: A Roman Catholic View | Catholic Exchange()

  • Mary Kochan:
    In addition to Suarez there is also St. Robert Bellarmine, SJ, one of the 33 Doctors of the Church. It was Bellarmine’s position, considered radical in the early 17th century, “that political authority is vested in the people and that kings do not rule by divine right, but through the consent of the governed.”


  • Brian Besong


    I think you misunderstood me. I do not think that “Lacking clear a priori lines of demarcation, we must look to our local bishops for authoritative guidance, meaning that Catholic citizens must get explicit ecclesiastical permission to revolt against an oppressive government.” I think explicit permission is a sufficient condition for just rebellion, but not a necessary one. Hence, my asking for clear principles. Citing your local priest is not sufficient theological guidance; for, if it were, then Ted Kennedy was on equally good footing about legal acceptance of abortion as you are for rebellion. You must cite someone with authority, and a parish priest has very limited authority. To the degree that this is the only additional source that you cite in trying to find the clear principles that St. Thomas does not provide, I think you are really searching – and coming up short. I hate to be so blunt, because I respect you and Mary immensely. Yet, you cannot come up with valid, clear principles that suggest the authority of our government has vanished. Even when we say St. Thomas was right, we have to say that he was right insofar as his views were clarified by Rome in the Catechism (with the conditions for just rebellion). Thus, we are back to where I keep suggesting: the conditions for just rebellion form sufficient conditions for the dissolution of state power (as I have previously described). St. Thomas does not move us an inch forward from the Catechism.

    Additionally, neither Francisco Suarez nor St. Robert Bellarmine are authoritative. Pope Leo’s teachings are. Yes, a doctor of the Church significantly contributes to our understanding of doctrine and dogma; that does not mean everything written by a doctor requires the assent of mind and will. What Pope Leo writes DOES require our assent, unless we have misinterpreted it (and it has been more recently clarified by Rome). In the cases that we are talking about here, no misinterpretation has occurred: the Catechism is in perfect unanimity with Diuturnum. Again, back to square one: a government has political power from God, power does not reside in the people; because of the power given by God, all those who rule deserve esteem and honor by Catholics on pain of sin. That includes our President, Congress, etc.

  • Mary Kochan

    Brian, I have never said that the authority of our government has vanished. I don’t think Robert Struble has said that either. He is trying to recall the country to founding principles using constitutional means. Neither of us is advocating violent overthrow of the present administration. You seem to be conflating the general and particular discussion here.

  • plowshare


    Besides Brian and a few others of us, you also have Jay Sekulow and his organization, USJF, to contend with where calling a Constitutional Convention is concerned: Sekulow believes it could well be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Here is what he said in an e-mailing I received just today:

    We don’t know how a Constitutional Convention would be apportioned, or how the delegates would be elected. We don’t know what rules the Convention would operate under. We don’t know whether changes to the Constitution could be proposed by a simple majority, or would require a super majority, of those attending. We don’t know if the agenda could be limited or would be wide open to any proposal.

    We don’t know ANYTHING about how a Con Con would work — which means that it will come down to Congress setting the rules!

    And Congress is controlled by the most radically liberal Democrats in American history! Is that who we want to be in charge of a new Constitutional Convention?

    Do we want BARACK OBAMA, NANCY PELOSI, and HARRY REID to completely rewrite our most basic document of law?

    Barack Obama and his far-left supporters would be able to get THEIR people appointed as delegates to the Convention, so that THEIR agendas would be the Convention’s agenda, and THEIR plans for socialism in America would come to pass.

    Say BYE-BYE to the First Amendment’s freedom of speech — Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity could be taken off the air.

    Say BYE-BYE to the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms — a total gun ban could be the law of the land!

    Say BYE-BYE to the Constitution’s requirement that to serve as President a man or a woman must be a “natural born citizen”!

    You KNOW that’s what they’ll do if given the chance — and we’re only TWO STATES AWAY from seeing a Constitutional Convention convened!

    Sekulow warns that there is no guarantee that three-fourths of the states will have to ratify the outcome of any Constitutional Convention: “The Convention of 1787 reduced the number of states required to ratify a change from 100% of the states to 75%, and a Convention today could “follow their example” and reduce it further, to 66%, or 60%, or even 51%!”

  • Plowshare:
    Jay Sekulow is at the ACLJ (American Center for Law and Justice) a reputable organization that counters the sinister work of the ACLU. The USJF (U.S. Justice Foundation) is, by contrast, given to prevaricating propaganda. Their cheap hit piece leveled recently against a Constitutional Convention is evidently what you quoted from, and its attribution should be to Gary Kreep, not Mr. Sekulow.

    Misinformation about an Article V Convention is prolific, and seems to get worse the closer one gets to the power structure. As Antonin Scalia observed before he became a Justice, “(Congress) does not want amendment power to be anywhere but in its own hands.”

    The postmodernist powerholders are especially fearful because the Article V convention is the method bequeathed to us as a way around despotic or usurpatious federal government. The leader of the trek toward judicial dictatorship, Chief Justice Earl Warren, fretted in 1963 that in the hands of “an uninformed public,” an Article V convention “could soon destroy the foundations of the Constitution.” But President Dwight Eisenhower, who considered his nomination of Earl Warren to be the greatest mistake of his Administration, endorsed the convention process.

    Rather than evaluating the Convention option in light of harebrained emails, I would recommend Caplan’s definitive work on the Article V Convention: Russell L. Caplan, Constituitonal Brinksmanship, Amending the Constitution by National Convention (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

  • Mary Kochan

    Robert, you really have not supplied us with enough background or understanding to feel safe about this. Why wouldn’t it get hijacked?

  • You want to feel safe? The fact is that the times in which we live are intrinsically dangerous. Nothing, certainly not the status quo, will provide the patriot with a sense of safety and security right now. The challenges call for us to be bold and proactive, but to temper our zeal with prudence. In such qualities, under God, we can be hopeful if not secure.

    As for safety features built into the Article V Convention, see the section on safeguards in the fourth chapter of my online book, Treatise on Twelve Lights:

  • Brian Besong

    Mary, if you think the government at present is legitimately in power (and not, perhaps, right on the cusp of being illegitimate), then everything I said in my original article follows directly and should continue to be true for some time into the future.

  • Mary Kochan

    Robert, I mean safe for the Constitution. But you’re telling me to go read a book on it…

    Brian, yes, the federal government seems to be headed for illegitimacy, though I think it will collapse monetarily first… or concurrently.

  • Mary Kochan,
    I’m sorry, Mary, I didn’t mean to sound like I was giving you some reading as a homework assignment. Might have inadvertently put my teacher’s hat back on. Since my retirement in 2007, I’ve occasionally been called out by adult former students for doing just that.

    Ok, by way of reassurance about the Constitution: Maybe a couple of historical analogies will help. From 1918-1920 a civil war raged in Russia between the Whites and the Reds, the latter having perpetrated the Bolshevik Revolution of October, 1917. Alexander Kerensky, the prime minister of the Duma deposed by Lenin and Trotsky ended up in the safety of exile in Europe, and eventually in the United States where Kerensky got tenure as a college professor. But the democratic constitution of the February revolution was surely not safe, and the Whites fought a risky (and eventually losing war) to recover the constitution and restore Kerensky. Wasn’t it worth the risk (successful or not) to avert decades of Soviet dictatorship?

    Similarly the semi-deposed condition of the written U.S. Constitution is not safe at present. With a constitutional convention, or an even riskier plan B, there is no guarantee of our success. But at least there is hope, whereas “playing it safe” is a sure formula for assuring that our written Constitution will go into permanent exile and never return. In other words the written constitution is not safe now, and inaction will guarantee its demise.

    In the case of America in 1775, our rights as Englishmen were not safe with Boston occupied and the Intolerable Acts imposed. However, many Americans considered the minutemen at Lexington and Concord to be provocateurs. They preferred the “moderate” course, which was not, in reality, safe at all in terms of our liberties. There was no safe course for them at that point in time, except to fight and hope that victory would secure their liberties at some point in the future. Or as John-Paul Jones put it then, “he who will not risk, cannot win.”

    I for one would be willing to take a risk, even a high risk, in order to win back America the Beautiful and restore the scepter to the written Constitution.

  • Mary Kochan

    Please do put that teacher’s hat on, Robert. I’d be grateful for some instruction because I really don’t know enough about this process. I think that all the articles you have written about it so far for CE all begin at a point beyond where most of the readers are in terms of understanding any of this. They start past where I am, for sure, because when I hear a call for a convention I figure that’s the end given the folks in charge around here.

  • levi78

    That’s how I was brought up in the Catholic Church: obey civil authorities up until the point of their actions and rules being un-Godly and un-Christian-like.

    Well done Mr Struble!

  • Levi78,
    Thanks. Please keep an eye out for my next article in this series, hopefully sometime next week. It will elaborate on the Convention option under Article V of the Constitution. Tentative title is:
    Insurgency 101: An Ecumenical Primer

  • What Mr. Struble suggests is not an ILLEGAL revolution. Rather, it is an act provided for by law.

    It is one thing to rise up in arms (or to foment such uprising) against our government. That is clearly attacking it. It’s another to critically examine our system and suggest changes.

    Our government contradicts the Catechism’s requirements for governments in a number of grave matters. Aside from abortion, there is also the matter of easy divorce, subsidizing illegitemate children and joblessness, the coerced redistribution of wealth, both the minor amounts from wealthy to poor and the huge amounts from poor to wealthy, and the rather broad defense of pornography.

    Mr. Stroble sees these as grave problems, that our current system does nothing to mitigate. He proposes structural changes that he thinks will do so, and asks for our input.


    “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)

    So, when a government acts unjustly, and not toward the common good, it is tyrannical and should be disconcerted. I think I’ve listed enough of our government’s sins of omission and commission to suggest that its members are not acting toward the common good. Of course, Mr. Struble has gone much further than I.

    Acting within the bounds of the Constitution to modify our system of governance certainly fits under disconcerting, rather than insurrection. I’m not entirely sure I share all of Mr. Struble’s alarmism, or his faith in the efficacy of his solutions. But many of his suggestions do appear likely to mitigate the grave evils our government either tolerates or even actively promotes.

  • Another series of four articles follows, entitled “Insurgency 101.” Part one in the series is “Dare We Resist,” at