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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