Revised and reposted for the 4th of July:
Below, are four basic principles from the treatise On Civil Government by St. Robert Bellarmine which provides us a Catholic (and American) understanding of the State/government:
• Human nature was created by God in such a way as to require civil authority for its well-being, order and protection. As such, the authority of the State originates from the wise counsel of God. Human beings cannot co-exist without this higher principle of civil authority.
• Although civil authority finds its origin in God, it is not directly communicated to any one particular individual or group of individuals. The notion of the "divine right of kings" was a doctrine which arose out of Protestantism that held that God's power to rule was given to each king directly. This led to a kind of an oppressive monarchical system that Colonial Americans rebelled against. The truth is that the authority of the State resides in human nature, that is, in the people because it is for them that this authority exists to begin with.
• Since the people or the citizens of a nation are the purpose or end for which civil authority is ordained, it follows that it is the people’s prerogative to choose not only the form of government they see fit but the system through which their leaders are determined or chosen.
Before moving on, I want to add that in the supernatural order, religious authority works differently. It is, contrary to civil authority, conferred directly by God on specific men. For instance, Jesus Christ gave to Peter and the Apostles to power to bind and loose, to forgive and retain sins. In turn, this apostolic power was conferred on specific bishops the Apostles deemed to be worthy of the office. Indeed, the sacramental grace of Holy Orders is communicated to particular individuals directly from the “hands of God” but through the mediation of consecrated hands.
Now, from this Catholic perspective, if the State exists for the citizen, then the citizen can be also considered to be the customer of the State. A customer chooses what kind of services it wishes to receive and from whom it wishes to receive it. And according to Catholic political theology, people have the inherent right to choose what form of government they wish to be subject to. Furthermore, depending who they want to be ruled by, they also have the right to elect those political rulers of their choosing.
By virtue of this right, citizens can elect to create a government that invokes God and one that observes the principles of his Catholic Faith. After all, they are the customers of the State and the very purpose of the State is to serve their needs. Just as important, every man has spiritual needs that cannot be compartmentalized apart from his civic life. If the authority of the State comes from God- which the Catholic Church affirms that it does -then like the individual, the State is obligated to pay homage to its Creator. Yes, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God. What is commonly overlooked, however, is that Caesar belongs to God!
A complete separation between Church and State is a like severing the body from its soul. Such a radical division leads to death. Why? Because society itself is of a material and spiritual nature. The Catholic Church does hold to a kind of separation of Church and State in that they are distinct from one another. However, these two entities, like the body and soul, are to collaborate and interact with each other so that the common good of society may be brought about. The proposition that there should be a radical separation between these two institutions is what Pope Leo XIII referred to as a "fatal theory." To repeat, such a dichotomy leads to the death of the commonwealth.
Now, if civil authority is a mere invention of man without any inherent God-given purpose, then it can be defined by the powerful or the rich as they see fit. Instead of the State having the welfare of its citizens as its goal, the State can turn into an end in itself. Indeed, the purpose of government can be defined to mean that the people exist for the State; that the multitude ought to serve the interests of the few. As Pius XI said in his encyclical on communism, “There is no recognition of any right of the individual in his relations to the collectivity; no natural right is accorded to human personality, which is a mere cog-wheel in the Communist system.”
This perversion of power- so common in world history -explains why the twentieth-century was riddled with atheistic or communistic dictators who killed more of its own people than all the wars put together. In the absence of God then, the State becomes supreme and rules according to its own whim. Cardinal James Gibbons, in his pastoral letter to the US Bishops in 1919, issued the following warning about the State taking the place of God:
“It lies in the very nature of man that something must be supreme, something must take the place of the divine when this has been excluded; and this substitute for God, according to a predominant philosophy, is the State. Possessed of unlimited power to establish rights and impose obligations, the State becomes the sovereign ruler in human affairs.”
Joblessness, a down trodden economy, serfdom, and human rights violations are but the sad results of State supremacy. But throughout history, it was the Catholic Church and her moral authority that restrained the strong arm of the State, ensuring freedom for citizens. She confidently assumed a prophetic role in holding the State accountable to the divine and natural law. As such, St. Thomas Aquinas’ saying is wonderfully fulfilled: A government which governs least, governs best. But a government can only govern least if the laws of God are daily impressed upon it.