Msgr. Luigi Civardi
Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, 1961
Published on the World Wide Web with Permission of the Publisher.


Preliminary Notions

1. Man is naturally sociable, inasmuch as he is destined to live not in isolation, but in society. Not only in domestic society, wherein he is born and reared, but also in civil society, which is a natural expansion of the family.

Civil society is necessary because therein only is it possible for man to develop all his faculties and to attain his end. Hence history assures us that man always lived in society. Accordingly, society is not a phenomenon that sprang up by the will of the associates, as some philosophers have fancied, but was ordained by Nature itself, or rather by God, the Creator.

Chief among those philosophers is Jean Jacques Rousseau, who may well be considered the father of liberalism. His book The Social Contract exerted a profound influence on the minds of the leaders of the French Revolution of 1789, which overthrew the ancient absolutist regime and inaugurated the popular, or liberal, regime.

This philosopher of Geneva taught that at first men lived in a natural state, by which he meant the state of absolute liberty, without social ties. Then they got together and formed society through a kind of free agreement [social contract]. Consequently, civil society is not necessary, but free; it is not an effect of the will of God, but of man.

2. There can be no society of any kind without an authority. Thus, just as society comes from God, so likewise does authority.

Authority is justly called the soul of society; in fact, just as in the human organism the soul harmonizes the various members and makes them concur toward the common end, which is life, similarly in the social organism, authority is the unifying principle that co-ordinates the wills of individuals and directs them to one end, which is the common good.

Without authority, an aggregation of men may be a crowd, but not a society, either public or private. Our Lord said: "Every kingdom divided against itself shall be made desolate." [Matt. 12: 25].

Now, every society without authority is doomed to become divided against itself and hence to fall. Thus history bears witness to another fact: There was never a society without authority. Those who, with Jean Jacques Rousseau, hold that civil society does not come from God, but from man, also hold logically but erroneously that civil authority likewise comes from man. That accounts for their theory of popular sovereignty, in the sense that all power is derived not from God, but from the people, truly sovereign in the most absolute sense of the world.

The expression popular sovereignty can also have this meaning: The people determine the form of government [popular election]. In this sense, popular sovereignty is admissible, though not necessary. The Church, in fact, has always declared that every form of government ----- aristocratic or democratic ----- is legitimate when it is suitable for the achievement of its end, which is the good of the citizens.

3. As there are different societies, so there are different kinds of authority. The principal ones are the following:

(a) Religious authority, that rules the religious society, which for us Catholics is the Church. This authority resides in the Pope and in the Bishops.

(b) Civil authority, that rules civil society and resides in the heads of government [emperors, kings or presidents of republics, and in their ministers and in legislative assemblies.]

(c) Domestic authority, which resides in the parents, especially the father, whence it is also called paternal authority.

We have already seen in a preceding chapter how Jesus restored paternal authority. We are now going to see how He likewise restored civil authority, which had been corrupted and led astray by paganism.

         Civil Authority in the Pagan World

1. Paganism had perverted the idea of the end of civil authority which, according to the intention of God, the Creator, is established for the good of the citizens, individually and collectively, without distinction. Whereas, among pagan people, at least at the time of Christ, authority was generally considered as a lordship. The state was free to dispose at will of the life and goods of its subjects, who, instead of subjects, might more properly be called slaves, and the people herds.

The state, among many pagan peoples, had become like the god Moloch of the Phoenicians, to whom parents had to sacrifice their children. The individual was sacrificed to the state, which was all but deified. This system of government was called Caesarism, from the title of the Roman emperor who claimed divine honors.

2. It is evident that Caesarism is a degeneration of absolutism, since it is quite possible to have an absolute government [the power of one only] that promotes the welfare of all the subjects according to justice and charity.

  Those were the days in which an emperor like Caligula could wish that the people had but a single head, in order that he might amuse himself by cutting it off in one blow. And the poet Horace could sing in a cynical tone: "Nos numerus sumus, fruges, consumere nati." "We are mere ciphers, born but to eat up food." The people were considered nothing but ciphers, and it happened not infrequently that they were sacrificed to the whim of a ruler, in a civil war of petty spite, of ambition, or in a vindictive slaughter.

Celebrated in this connection is the slaughter of the Jews ordered by King Assuerus [Artaxerxes] of Persia, in order to humor the whim of his proud and cruel minister, Amman. The latter had become enraged against the Jew, Mardochai, because he refused to adore him, and for revenge asked and obtained from the king the extermination of all of Mardochai's countrymen. [See Esther 1; 3]

Also in Christian times not a few rulers continued to be led by the pagan concept of authority cynically championed in the notorious book of Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince.

According to this author a ruler must know how to make good use "of the beast in a man" to play the part of the lion and of the fox, coupling strength with craftiness. Therefore "a ruler, and especially a new ruler, cannot observe all those things whereby men are said to be good, since it is often necessary in order to protect the state to act against the faith, against charity, against humanity, against religion." 
[Chap. 18].

Jesus Restored Civil Authority

He did this in two ways:

(a) By teaching its Divine origin,"
(b) By pointing out its end and its limits.


(a) Jesus taught that all authority comes from God ----- not only religious and paternal authority, but also civil; therefore, authority is something sacred and entitled to the utmost respect.

To Pilate, who reproaches Him for His silence by saying to Him: "Speakest thou not to me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and I have power to release thee?" Jesus answers solemnly: 

"Thou shouldst not have any power against me, unless it were given thee from above." [Jn. 19:10-11]. Even the authority of Pilate, like that of every ruler, comes therefore from above, from God.

Thus Jesus has exalted, ennobled and tempered civil authority. Little wonder, then, that in Christian times, kings were anointed after the manner of priests.

(b) If authority comes from God, it is always sacred and worthy of respect, even when it resides in unworthy persons; subjects, therefore, are bound to obey even the wicked rulers when their commands are not manifestly wicked. This was also the teaching of Christ, who said one day: "The scribes and the Pharisees have sit ten on the chair of Moses. All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do. But according to their works do ye not; for they say, and do not." [Matt. 23:2-3]. And when they ask Him if it is lawful to pay tribute to Caesar [to the Roman emperor, whom his fellow countrymen believed to be an unjust oppressor], Jesus replied: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." [Matt. 22:21].


(a) Jesus teaches that authority is not a lordship but a fatherhood, a ministry, a service. The subjects do not exist for the benefit of the former. The good of the people is the end of every civil authority, as well as its limitation.

Here are the priceless words of Christ, spoken to His Apostles but applicable to every authority: "You know that the princes of the Gentiles lord it over them, and they that are the greater, exercise power upon them.

It shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be the greater among you, let him be your minister: And he that will be first among you, shall be your servant. Even as the Son of man is not come to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give his life a redemption for many." [Matt. 20: 25-28].

(b) In fact, here too, as elsewhere, Jesus confirms His teaching by His example. 'lake the touching and suggestive episode of the Last Supper. St. John relates: "Knowing that the Father had given him all things into his hands, and that he came from God, and goeth to God; he riseth from supper, and layeth aside his garments, and having taken a towel, girded himself. After that, he putteth water into a basin, and began to wash the feet of the disciples, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded." [Jn. 13: 3-5]. And after this action, He explained its significance to them, saying: "For I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also." [Jn. 13: 15].

Note the first words of the account: "[Jesus,] knowing that the Father had given him all things into his hands" ----- that is, knowing that He was the Lord of the Universe and possessed all power in Heaven and on earth, nevertheless humbles Himself even to the point of performing such a base service, which at that time was done only by slaves. Then He says to the future rulers of His Church [and through them to all who hold any power whatever]: "As I have done to you, so you also should do."

  Manzoni tells us that Cardinal Frederick Borromeo had made up his mind at an early date: "That there is no just superiority of men over men, except in serving them," That is the true idea of every authority, religious, civil and paternal. The superior must consider himself a servant of his subjects, and precisely for this reason ----- and not through vain ostentation ----- does the Pope call him ----- self Servus Servorum Dei: The Servant of the Servants of God [a title first used by St. Gregory the Great].

Jesus Exalts the Dignity of the Subject

1. By exalting the dignity of the superior [that is, by declaring him vested with an authority that comes from God], Jesus thereby also exalted the dignity of the subject. In fact, the latter, by obeying his superior, in reality does not obey a man like himself, but God Himself. And to obey God is not to demean, but rather to exalt oneself. By that very means Christianity laid the most solid foundation to obedience, which always has God for its final end.

2. Furthermore, Jesus has exalted the individual with respect to authority:

(a) By teaching the truth of one Divine Fatherhood and, hence, of universal brotherhood.

The Christian ruler must look upon his subject not as a servant, but as a brothel; having the same rights before God, their common Father: In fact, ruler and subject together say: "Our Father:"

(b) By teaching the infinite value of a redeemed soul, purchased by the Blood of Christ: "Knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things as gold or silver, . . . but with the precious blood of Christ."
[1 Ptr: 1: 18-19].

Jesus, moreover, showed us in a most touching manner the value of a single individual, when He pictured Himself as the Good Shepherd who "has a hundred sheep and one of them go astray and he leaves the other ninety- nine in the mountains and goes in search of the one that has strayed" [Matt. 18: 12]. Even so, Jesus Christ asserts, it is not the will of your Father in Heaven that "a single one of these little ones should perish."

The Teachings of the Church

In this matter also, the teachings of Christ found a true echo in the teachings of the Church in every age and among every people.

1. Touching the divine origin of authority, we have the explicit testimony of the Apostles. St. Paul teaches the early Christians of imperial Rome: "There is no power but from God; . . . therefore, he that resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist purchase to themselves damnation . . . for he is God's minister to thee, for good." [Rom. 13: 1-4].

St. Peter is no less explicit when he exhorts the faithful as follows: "Be subject to every human creature for God's sake, whether it be to the king as excelling, or to the governors as sent by him for the punishment of evil-doers and for the praise of the good, for so is the will of God." [1 Ptr: 2: 13-15].

Pope St. Gregory the Great is later to declare: "Power is given to emperors and kings from Heaven."

The apologist Tertullian, toward the end of the second century after Christ, wrote: "We venerate in emperors the judgment of God Himself, who placed them at the head of the nations. In them we see the will of God, and therefore we, too, want to safeguard what God has willed."

2. Leo XIII, on the thorny question of the form of government, stated categorically: "There is no reason why the Church should not approve of the chief power being held by one man or by more, provided, only, it be just, and that it tend to the common good. Wherefore, so long as justice is respected, people are free to choose for themselves the form of government which suits best either their own disposition or the institutions and customs of their ancestors." [Encyclical on Civil Government].

Concerning the use of authority, the same Pontiff states: "But in order that justice may be retained in government, it is of the highest importance that those who rule states should understand that political power was not created for their particular advantage,. and that the administration of the state must be carried on for the benefit of those who have been committed to their care, not for the benefit of those to whom it has been committed." [Encyclical on Civil Government].

3. Developing this idea, Pius XII, in a discourse to a group of members of the Italian Parliament [Dec, 13, 1950] expressed himself as follows: "Superiority is a service; to command is not to act arbitrarily, but in obedience to the external law of truth and justice. You feel, as all must feel, how much strength from God is needed in order to react manfully, in the performance of duty, against selfishness and pride, always giving preference to the common interests over the private interests of the individual group or party, and to do that solely in the light of justice, of charity and of faith."

Concerning the duties of the State, Pius XII has taught us: "It is the noble prerogative and function of the State to control, aid and direct the private individual activities of national life so long as to make them concur harmoniously toward the common good, . . ."

"To consider the State as an end in itself to which everything else must be subordinated and directed cannot but be harmful to the true and lasting prosperity of nations, This can come about either when unlimited power is attributed to the State as mandatory of the nation, of the people, or even of a social class, or when the State claims such power as absolute master, without any mandate whatever." [Encyclical Summi Pontificatus].

From this clear-cut and beneficent Christian doctrine concerning authority, we will draw some practical corollaries:

1. First of all, a deep sense of gratitude to the Divine Redeemer for having conferred upon mankind also this great social blessing ----- that of having restored authority by making it at once strong and mild, like fatherhood.

2. If we occupy some position of authority, whether within or without the family, let us bear in mind our dignity and responsibility as representatives of God, to whom we will have to render a strict accounting of the use we have made of the authority we received from Him.

3. All authority ought directly or indirectly to promote the glory of God and the salvation of souls. At least, it must never be a hindrance thereto. It is with such intentions that every Catholic ought to accept and exercise authority.

4. Let us supernaturalize our obedience by looking upon every -----  legitimate authority ----- not only religious, but civil as well as a reflection of Divine authority. In that way, our obedience will become at once easier and more meritorious.


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