The duty of respect for lawful civil authority, even when this was exercised by non-Christian rulers, was too plainly spelled out in the NT to be reasonably questioned by anyone professing to accept the Christian revelation. Christ Himself had acknowledged a duty to Caesar (Mt 22.21; Mk 12.17; Lk 20.25). Christians were admonished to accept civil authority as coming from God (Rom 13.1–7; Ti 3.1; 1 Tm 2.2), to regard those vested with it as sent by God (Rom 13.16; 1 Pt 2.14), to be subject to them for the Lord's sake (1 Pt 2.13), to give them their due (Rom 13.7), to look upon resistance to them as resistance to the ordinance of God (Rom 13.2).
In the early Church these plain statements of Christian duty were enough to forestall any tendency to civil anarchy or disobedience that might have arisen among Christians in consequence of the severity with which they were treated in times of persecution. But if they did not deny the rights of civil authority, the recognition they accorded it was limited by the distinction, inadmissible in the Roman state, that they drew between civil and religious authority. Christianity professed no essential antagonism to the secular claims of the state, for Christianity was not a political theory and offered no political program, but was merely a doctrine and a way of salvation. My kingdom, Christ had said, is not of the world (Jn 18.36). But if the rights of the civil ruler within his own legitimate sphere of authority were not to be questioned, there could be no compromise with the religious pretensions of the Roman state. Nevertheless, apart from this, the Christian was as willing to cooperate civilly with the government as any other citizen of the Empire. His faith did not free him from his obligation to obey or set him apart from the social community or the order of justice. On the contrary, it provided him with a new motive for submission by making him see the civil ruler as the minister of God's justice. Moreover, the virtues inculcated by Christianity, such as charity, justice, piety, and temperance, tended to make him a better and more reliable citizen.
Origin. St. Paul's insistence on the coercive function of the civil ruler made it possible for most of the Fathers to think that civil government had no other purpose and that it existed simply as a remedy to disorders arising from sin. This was the view taken by St. Augustine, who held that, had men continued in a state of innocence, no man would have been master of his fellows and neither slavery nor civil subjection would have existed (Civ. 19.15). Gregory the Great and Isidore of Seville held the same opinion. There is some superficial resemblance between this position and the political idealism of Seneca, Rousseau, and others who dreamed of a lost Eden in which men were free. Through the schoolmen, however, the influence of Aristotle prevented this from becoming the dominant view of Catholic theologians. According to Aristotle, political organization and government are conditions necessary for civilized life and indispensable means for bringing man to the full development of his powers. This opinion was adopted by St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae 1a, 96.3–4), and has been commonly accepted by theologians since the 13th century.
The NT makes it clear that civil authority is from God, but this does not mean that God establishes it apart from the agency of secondary causes. By the 13th century theologians explicitly recognized that authority was derived from the people as a whole. Civil obedience is not submission to force, however benign, but a free acceptance of government. Some theologians, such as Suárez, have held that the people themselves first possess this power collectively, and then transmit it to the individuals they choose to govern them. In this view authority comes from God through the people. Others have thought that God immediately vests the ruler with authority, the intervention of the people being confined to the designation of the person or persons upon whom God confers it.
Limitations. The first and major limitation of the authority of the civil ruler, as this has been understood in Christian thought, arises from the distinction between civil and religious authority. The Christian sees himself, in effect, as a citizen of two cities, one temporal and the other spiritual, existing side by side and institutionally distinct, each autonomous in its own sphere. The doctrine of the two authorities, recognized in practice from the beginning of the Church, was expressly formulated by Pope gelasius i in a letter to the Emperor Anastasius in 494 (see Denz 347), and is known as the Gelasian doctrine, or the doctrine of the two swords. It holds that human society is subject to dual organization and control, based on the difference in kind of the values that need to be secured: spiritual interests and salvation are the concern of the Church; secular interests, on the other hand, such as the maintenance of peace, order, and justice, are the concern of civil government. Thus the authority of the civil ruler is restricted to the temporal and secular order; moreover, the ruler himself, if he is a Christian, is subject to the Church in spiritual matters, as St. Ambrose declared to the Emperor Valentinian (Ep. 21.4).
Other limitations took longer to be distinctly recognized. The doctrine that the ruler's authority comes from God, together with the notion that God has given men rulers as a remedy for sin—which was understood to mean that God may give men evil rulers to punish them for sin—tended to make some of the Fathers hesitate to question the legitimacy of de facto authority or of authority used wickedly or tyrannously (e.g., see Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., 5.24; Augustine, Civ., 5.19; Isidore of Seville, Sententiae, 3.48; St. Gregory the Great, Regulae pastoralis lib., 3.4). Instead of concluding that there can be a wicked authority that does not come from God, they were disposed rather to think of the ruler as the representative of God regardless of how he came by his authority or how he conducted himself in its use.
In the changed political climate of later times, Christian philosophers and theologians from John of Salisbury onward were more forthrightly critical of bad government, and came to assert other limitations. These depended on considerations of natural and positive law determining the nature and purpose of civil authority and the conditions of its rightful establishment and exercise. Great stress was laid on legitimacy—authority must be legitimate or at least legitimized; otherwise the ruler is such in name only and possesses no real authority. In the exercise of his office the ruler may make no demands that exceed the powers vested in him, nor may he impose useless or unjust burdens on his subjects. Indeed, unjust laws or ordinances are not, from the moral point of view, binding at all, and thus the obedience owed by subjects is always conditioned by the rightful exercise of authority (see, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas, ST 1a2ae, 96.1–6; 2a2ae, 42.2 ad 3; 104.5–6; De reg. princ. 3.10–12).
See Also: obedience; church and state.
Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Selected Political Writings, ed. a. passerin d'entrÈves, tr. j. g. dawson (Oxford 1948). t. gilby, The Political Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Chicago 1958). r. w. and a. j. carlyle, A History of Mediaeval Political Theory in the West, 6 v. (New York 1903–36).
[p. k. meagher]