The title of this post is an obvious truth that many Americans – very much including me – have a very hard time accepting. We see the corruption, the commandeering of the machinery of government for all kinds of evil purposes, the spying, the wars of distraction, the torture, the murder of civilians around the world, and have a hard time accepting that even a government such as ours, run by people such as our leaders, could still be a good thing – nay, a very good thing. Yet:
13. For the sake of the Lord, accept the authority of every human institution: the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14. and the governors as commissioned by him to punish criminals and praise those who do good. 15. It is God’s will that by your good deeds you should silence the ignorant talk of fools. 16. You are slaves of no one except God, so behave like free people, and never use your freedom as a cover for wickedness. 17. Have respect for everyone and love for your fellow-believers; fear God and honour the emperor. 18. Slaves, you should obey your masters respectfully, not only those who are kind and reasonable but also those who are difficult to please. 19. You see, there is merit if, in awareness of God, you put up with the pains of undeserved punishment; 20. but what glory is there in putting up with a beating after you have done something wrong? The merit in the sight of God is in putting up with it patiently when you are punished for doing your duty. 21. This, in fact, is what you were called to do, because Christ suffered for you and left an example for you to follow in his steps. 22. He had done nothing wrong, and had spoken no deceit. 23. He was insulted and did not retaliate with insults; when he was suffering he made no threats but put his trust in the upright judge. 24. He was bearing our sins in his own body on the cross, so that we might die to our sins and live for uprightness; through his bruises you have been healed. 25. You had gone astray like sheep but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
This, written by a man who would soon enough be crucified upside down by the very empire he here says to accept and honor. The emperor he was telling his flock to honor was Nero, who makes even your least favorite American president look like a boy scout.
1. Everyone is to obey the governing authorities, because there is no authority except from God and so whatever authorities exist have been appointed by God. 2. So anyone who disobeys an authority is rebelling against God’s ordinance; and rebels must expect to receive the condemnation they deserve. 3. Magistrates bring fear not to those who do good, but to those who do evil. So if you want to live with no fear of authority, live honestly and you will have its approval; 4. it is there to serve God for you and for your good. But if you do wrong, then you may well be afraid; because it is not for nothing that the symbol of authority is the sword: it is there to serve God, too, as his avenger, to bring retribution to wrongdoers. 5. You must be obedient, therefore, not only because of this retribution, but also for conscience’s sake. 6. And this is why you should pay taxes, too, because the authorities are all serving God as his agents, even while they are busily occupied with that particular task. 7. Pay to each one what is due to each: taxes to the one to whom tax is due, tolls to the one to whom tolls are due, respect to the one to whom respect is due, honour to the one to whom honour is due.
This, by a guy soon to be jailed, taken to Rome and beheaded by the authorities he’s telling us to obey and honor.
The Catechism chimes in:
1897 “Human society can be neither well-ordered nor prosperous unless it has some people invested with legitimate authority to preserve its institutions and to devote themselves as far as is necessary to work and care for the good of all.”15
By “authority” one means the quality by virtue of which persons or institutions make laws and give orders to men and expect obedience from them.
1898 Every human community needs an authority to govern it.16 The foundation of such authority lies in human nature. It is necessary for the unity of the state. Its role is to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society.
1899 The authority required by the moral order derives from God: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”17
1900 The duty of obedience requires all to give due honor to authority and to treat those who are charged to exercise it with respect, and, insofar as it is deserved, with gratitude and good-will.
OK, we may say. But then Pope Francis, in his exercise of his normal magisterial duty, says, among other things:
While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.
Which pretty clearly reflects the Catechism:
I. THE UNIVERSAL DESTINATION AND THE PRIVATE OWNERSHIP OF GOODS
2402 In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits.187 The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. However, the earth is divided up among men to assure the security of their lives, endangered by poverty and threatened by violence. The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men.
2403 The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goodsremains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.
2404 “In his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself.”188 The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family.
2405 Goods of production – material or immaterial – such as land, factories, practical or artistic skills, oblige their possessors to employ them in ways that will benefit the greatest number. Those who hold goods for use and consumption should use them with moderation, reserving the better part for guests, for the sick and the poor.
2406 Political authority has the right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good.
Wait – I’m supposed to trust – to honor and obey, even – THIS government? In its efforts to regulate the ownership of property for the sake of the common good? My head explodes: who gets to define ‘common good’? Who defines what is a legitimate exercise of the right to ownership? THESE clowns? (Not the lying bastards of your political party, of course – the lying bastards of the other political party.) Pul-ease! It’s one thing to say a government has a right and duty to promote the common good – it’s another entirely to say that THIS government can exercise that right how it sees fit. Sure, there are plenty of selfish rich people (virtually all Americans qualify as rich in the eyes of virtually all the world – and some of us are no doubt selfish), but if the alternative to letting them stay rich and selfish is to trust this government to do better – well, I’m chaffing, here.
Yet, Peter honored and obeyed Nero, and the Roman Empire that persecuted, tortured and executed his Christian brothers and sisters. Oh, yea, there’s that.
So – lecturing the mirror, now – I suppose I have a duty to not deride, mock or otherwise dishonor even this government. I need, perhaps, to better engage in efforts to make it better, just as I need to better engage in efforts to make myself better. I need to take a supportive view (until proven otherwise) of our government’s efforts to “regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good”. (And not add the reflexive ‘whatever the hell that means’.)
Yikes. This looks suspiciously like it will require holiness on my part.
6 thoughts on “Government is a Positive Good”
I wonder if it wouldn’t require a constitutional amendment too.
Hey! I’m trying real hard not to say anything mean about our government here. Suffice it to say a constitutional amendment only means anything if, you know, the Constitution means anything.
Yes, that’s a fair point. I’ll have to think about the implications if the government has ceased to be regulated by the constitution.
Supporting your point about our obligations as Christians, I have found it improves my attitude to pray for the president (second paragraph from the last) and for congress, both in their official capacity and as humans.
Well, if you like, my inner canon lawyer has spotted one word that may make a whole bunch of difference, from paragraph 1900, one very simple three-letter word: DUE. That is, we are obliged to give all DUE honour to authority.
Which logically implies that there can be such a thing as *un*-due honour. Which further implies that any power which claims as due such undue honour has forfeited legitimacy, or at the very least cannot defend that particular claim as a legitimate use of their authority. Which, quite frankly, only makes sense; if the resistance to the Obamacare contraception mandate isn’t based on the belief that there are some things no just and legitimate government has the right to force its citizens to do, I don’t know what it’s based on.
(It might also, in fairness, be pointed out that in no dictionary I know is “regulate” synonymous with “disregard” or “arbitrarily overrule”. There’s a difference between the legal prerogative to break up profiteering monopolies on necessities, and the right to arbitrarily confiscate possessions and funds without recompense or demonstrated need.)
All you say is right, of course. The thing is, I look in the mirror and see that my default attitude toward government is some combination of despair and contempt. It seems the Church – and Paul and Peter! – want our default attitude to be one of respect and honor. Of course, there is a line, the crossing of which lead to the martyrdoms of both Peter and Paul and thousands of others, who remain among our most honored saints.
Has our government crossed that line? Yes, in its attempts to mandate immoral actions. We may yet be called to martyrdom. But it seems to me that it is a question of whether we see this as a moment in which the true nature of government is revealed, or as a tragic moment of betrayal of something fundamentally very good. The Church and Scripture teach that, for the sake of our own holiness, the second attitude is the right one.
Characteristically, the Church takes the long view. Our experiences with liberal democracy are a tiny slice of the overall experience of people with governments, which includes everything from kings to tribes to feudalism to the chaos of barbarian invasions. It is within that perspective, I think, that we need to understand this teaching. And, as we respectfully march and protest and vote, to count our blessings.