Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Powers of the State

James Cardinal Gibbons: 1919 Pastoral Address to the Catholic Church in America

Powers Of The State

The State, then, has a sacred claim upon our respect and loyalty. It may justly impose obligations and demand sacrifices for the sake of the common welfare which it is established to promote. It is the means to an end, not an end in itself; and because it receives its power from God, it cannot rightfully exert that power through any act or measure that would be at variance with the divine law, or with the divine economy for man's salvation. As long as the State remains within its proper limits and really furthers the common good, it has a right to our obedience. And this obedience we are bound to render, not merely on grounds of expediency but as a conscientious duty. "Be subject of necessity, not only for wrath but also for conscience sake" (, 5).

The end for which the State exists and for which authority is given it, determines the limit of its powers. It must respect and protect the divinely established rights of the individual and of the family. It must safeguard the liberty of all, so that none shall encroach upon the rights of others. But it may not rightfully hinder the citizen in the discharge of his conscientious obligation, and much less in the performance of duties which he owes to God. To all commands that would prevent him from worshiping the Creator in spirit and truth, the citizen will uphold his right by saying with the Apostles: "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

Where the State protects all in the reasonable exercise of their rights, there liberty exists. "The nature of human liberty," says Leo XIII, "however it be considered, whether in the individual or in society, whether in those who are governed or in those who govern, supposes the necessity of obedience to a supreme and eternal law, which is no other than the authority of God, commanding good and forbidding evil; and so far from destroying or even diminishing their liberty, the just authority of God over men protects it and makes it perfect" (encyclical, , June 20, 1888).

The State itself should be the first to appreciate the importance of religion for the preservation of the commonweal. It can ill afford at any time, and least of all in the present condition of the world, to reject the assistance which Christianity offers for the maintenance of peace and order. "Let princes and rulers of the people," says Pope Benedict XV, "bear this in mind and bethink themselves whether it be wise and salutary, either for public authority or for the nations themselves, to set aside the holy religion of Jesus Christ, in which that very authority may find such powerful support and defense. Let them seriously consider whether it be the part of political wisdom to exclude from the ordinance of the State and from public instruction, the teaching of the Gospel and of the Church.

Only too well does experience show that when religion is banished, human authority totters to its fall. That which happened to the first of our race when he failed in his duty to God, usually happens to nations as well. Scarcely had the will in him rebelled against God when the passions arose in rebellion against the will; and likewise, when the rulers of the people disdain the authority of God, the people in turn despise the authority of men. There remains, it is true, the usual expedient of suppressing rebellion by force; but to what effect? Force subdues the bodies of men, not their souls" (encyclical, , November 1, 1914).