This concerns the Christian duty: respect for authority, according to the Catholic Church, which can be found in the chapter Christianity and Authority in the book: How Christ Changed the World: The Social Teachings of the Catholic Church by Msgr. Luigi Civardi of Catholic Action, published in 1961 (edited here by A. J. MacDonald, Jr. (.pdf here; html here.)
Man is naturally sociable, inasmuch as he is destined to live not in isolation but in society. Not only is domestic society, wherein he is born and reared, but also in civil society, which is a natural expansion of the family. Cilvil 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.
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 coordinates the wills of individuals and directs them to one end, which is thecommon good. Without authority, an aggregation of men may be a crowd, but no a society, either public or private.
Our Lord said: “Every kingdom divided against itself will 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. The expression popular sovereignty can 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 suitable for the achievement of its end, which is the good of the citizens.
As there are different societies, so there are different kinds of authority. The principle ones are the following:
Religious authority, that rules the religious society, which for us Catholics is the Church. This authority resides in the Pope and in the Bishops.
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.)
Domestic authority, which resides in the parents, especially the father, whence it is also called paternal authority.
Jesus taught the divine origins of authority by pointing to its ends and its limits. 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: “Do you not speak to me? Do you not know I have the power to release you?” Jesus answers solemnly: “You would have no power against me unless it were given you from above.” (John 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.
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 sit in Moses‘ seat. All things therefore whatsoever they say to you, observe and do. But according to their works do 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 Caesars, and to God the things that are God’s. (Matt. 22:21).
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 greater, exercise power upon them. It shall not be so among you: but whomsoever 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 came not to be ministered to, but to minister, and to give his life a redemption for many.” (Matt. 20:25-28)
In fact, here, too, as elsewhere, Jesus confirms his teaching by his example. Take 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 goes to God, he rose from supper, and laid aside his garments, and having taken a towel, girded himself. After that, he put water into a basin, and began to wash the feet of the disciples, and to wipe them with the towel he was girded with.” (John 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.” (John 13:15).
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.
By teaching the truth of one divine Fatherhood and, hence of a universal brotherhood. The Christian ruler must look upon his subject not as a servant, but as a brother, having the same rights before God, their common Father. In fact, ruler and subject together say: “Our Father.” 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 Peter 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.”
In this matter also, the teachings of the Christ found true echo in the teachings of the Church in every age and among every people. 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 resists the power, resists the ordinance of God; and they that resist purchase to themselves damnation…for he is God’s minister to you for good.” (1 Peter 2:13-15).
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 it best either their own disposition or the institution 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).
Developing this same idea, Pius XII says: “Superiority is a service; to command is not to act arbitrarily, but in obedience to the external law of truth and justice…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 the mandatary of the nation, of the people, or even of a social class, or when the State claims such powers as absolute master, without any mandate whatsoever.” (Encyclical Summi Ponificatus).
From this clear-cut and beneficent Christian doctrine concerning authority, we will draw some practical corollaries:
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.
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.
All authority ought directly or indirectly to promote the glory of God and the salvation of souls. At least, it must never be a hinderance thereto. It is with such intentions that every Catholic ought to accept and exercise authority.
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.