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What follows is the traditional teaching on the nature of authority and the role of the State. The well-ordered state is a help not a hindrance to the exercise of virtue in society. 

Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in "A Bishop Speaks"

October 4, 1968

In a recent address, delivered in this month of October, our Holy Father, Pope Paul VI, warned us against erroneous interpretation of some of the Council's pronouncements on the dignity of the human person, interpretation which could lead to the rejection of authority and a scorning of obedience.

Very many of the occurrences we have witnessed in this post-conciliar period have illustrated the consequences of this mistaken interpretation and justified the fears of our Holy Father the Pope. Are we not flabbergasted by the open revolt of some groups of Catholic Action against their bishops, of seminary students against their superiors, and of priests, religious, and nuns whose negative attitude to authority makes its exercise impossible?

Human dignity, the exaltation of individual conscience, which has now become the fundamental rule of morality, and personal charisma—these have now become pretexts for reducing authority to a principle of unity, but a unity bereft of any power. How can we fail to compare this ferment, the prelude to rebellion, with the liberty of thought which was the source of the great calamities of recent ages? It seems to us that it is now more than ever opportune to re-store the true concept of authority and to that end show the benefits designed by Providence in the two divinely appointed societies which, by their nature, exert a primordial influence on every individual—the family and civil society.

It should be recalled that authority is the formal cause of society. Hence its purpose is the government and direction of all that leads to the final cause of society, the common good of all its members. Since the members of a society are intelligent beings, authority must necessarily direct their activity towards that end by guiding lines or laws, ensure their observance, and penalize all that is contrary to the common good. The question of authority will be dealt with in many ways, but the power of authority, the capacity for directing other human beings, means a sharing in the power of God. Since there exists a multiplicity of societies, the rules concerning authority may differ greatly, but they can never alter the fact that authority is of divine origin "There is no power but of God" (Rom. 13:1). "Thou couldst have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above," says our Lord to Pilate (Jn. 19:11).

In his Treatise of Philosophy (IV, 384), Jolivet thus describes the first source of authority:

God alone has an absolute right to command, since such a right, which lies in binding wills, can belong only to Him who gives life and being. We used therefore to say that God is the "living Law" because He is the first principle of all that is. From that it follows that all authority, in what society soever, may be exercised only in the name of a delegation given by God—every ruler invested with legitimate power is God's representative.

Since the aim of authority is the common good of its mem-bers and the members themselves seek to obtain the good of their choice, there should never be any clash between authority and the members pursuing the same end. There should be no intrinsic conflict between ruler and ruled, between authority and liberty. It is because authority no longer seeks the true
common good or because the subject puts his personal advantage before the true common good that there is this clash and misunderstanding. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, a legitimate and wise authority is the judge oldie common good and the members should submit a priori to that judgment. The putting of personal authority before that of legitimate authority means the destruction of society. To submit to the rulings of legitimate authority is to practise the virtue of obedience, of which our Lord gave us a supremely moving example by being obedient even unto death: "obediens usque ad rnortem, mortem autem crucis."

In his letter of August 25, 1910, Our Apostolic Mandate, St. Pius X writes:

Does not every society of people free and unequal by nature need an authority to direct their activity for the common good and lay clown its law? Can there be a shadow of truth in finding incompatibility between authority and liberty unless the concept of liberty is seriously mistaken? Is it possible to teach that obedience is contrary to human dignity and that, ideally, it should be replaced by "authority by consent"? Was not the Apostle Paul think-ing of human society at every possible stage in its progress when he adjured the faithful to submit themselves to every authority? Would the religious state founded on obedience be contrary to the ideal of human nature? Were the saints, the most obedient of men, slaves and degenerates?

Authority is the keystone of society.


If there is one period of human life when authority plays an important part, it is the period from birth to the coming-of-age. The family, in whose bosom man has the gift of existence, an existence so limited that he needs a long period of education, given first by his parents, then by those who collaborate in this education, normally according to the parents' choice, is indeed a marvelous and divine institution.

The young child owes everything to his father and mother, bodily, intellectually, and spiritually. It is they who give him his moral and social education. The parents invoke the help of teachers who, in the minds of the young, share the parental authority. Whether through the intermediary of teachers or parents, it is none the less true that almost all knowledge gained during the years of adolescence will be a knowledge learned, absorbed, and accepted, than knowledge acquired by intelligence and by the evidence ol reasoning and judgments. The young student has faith in his parents, his teachers, and his books; and so his knowledge broadens ancl multiplies. His knowledge properly so-called, that is as evidence of what he knows, is very limited. When childhood and youth are considered as a whole in the human race and in history, it le clear that the transmission of knowledge is largely due to its pass-ing on by authority rather than by its personal acquisition.

True, where higher studies are concerned, the young acquire more personal knowledge and seek to master the disciplines of study in the same way as did their teachers themselves.

But, considering the abundance of fields of study, is it possible for students to make personal experiments and reach personal conclusions?
Moreover, many subjects such as history, geography, archaeology, and the arts must rely on faith in books and teachers.

This is even more true where religious knowledge, the practice of religion, the morality bound up with that religion, traditions and custom are concerned! As a rule men live by the religion passed on to them by their parents. Conversion to a new religion finds an enormous obstacle in the break with ancestral religion. A human being is always susceptible to the call of a maternal religion.

Let us say, without further delay, how great a part in human life is played by this education bearing the stamp of the family and by an environment of teachers carrying on the family education. Nothing in an individual is more enduring than family traditions. This is true over the whole surface of the globe.

The outstanding influence of the family and educational environment is providential. It is willed by God. It is usual for children to keep the religion of their parents, just as it is usual, if the head of the family should be converted, for the whole family to follow suit. Many examples may be found in the Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles.
God willed that His bounties should be transmitted first by the family. For that reason He granted the father of a family the great authority which confers on him immense power over the society of the family, his wife and children. The greater the benefits to bequeath, the greater is the authority. A child is born so weak, so imperfect, one might almost say incomplete, that we can infer from it the absolute necessity for permanence in the home and the indissolubility of the family.

To exalt the personality and the personal conscience of the child to the detriment of family authority is to store up unhappiness for the children and drive them to rebellion and scorn for their parents, whereas long life is promised to those who honor their par-ents. St. Paul, indeed, adjures fathers: "Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and fear of the Lord" (Eph. 6:4).

We are straying from the way laid down by God when we claim that truth alone, by its own power and light, should point men to the true religion whereas, in reality, God's plan was for the transmission of religion by parents and witnesses worthy of the trust of their hearers. Were it necessary to await the understanding religious truths to believe and be converted, there would be very lew Christians today. We believe in religious truths because the witnesses to that truth are worthy of belief by reason of their holiness, their disinterestedness, and their charity. True religion is believed because it fulfills the deepest longings of a sincere human soul by giving it a divine Mother, Mary, a visible Father, the Pope, and heavenly food, the Eucharist. Our Lord did not ask those whom He converted whether they understood, but whether they believed. Thenceforward, as St. Augustine says, a living faith brings understanding.

It is clear that, in the case of family society, during the first period of all human life the benefits of authority are immense, indispensable, and the surest road to a complete education in preparation for life in a secular society and in the Church. The Church has already played a great part in bringing help to the family and those things essential to the Christian and social life of the faithful.

There comes a time, however, when the two societies must tine joint responsibility for the family, so clear is it that, even when educated, a human being is incapable of living and pursuing his vocation on this earth without the aid of these two societies.


Can it be said with truth that once a man has reached his majority he has no further need of help to progress in knowledge, live virtuously, and fulfill his role in society? If the essential task of the family society has come to an end, civil society and the Church clearly remain the normal means of giving him respectively the spiritual means and the social environment favorable to a virtuous life directed to the ultimate end ordained by divine Providence for all things here below.

This is a suitable point for joining with the traditional teaching teaching of the Church and all the popes of the last century in saying that he State, social society, has a major part to play in helping citizens and encouraging them in faith and virtue. There is no question of constraint in the act of faith; it is not a matter of any constraint on the conscience of the individual in his inward and private behavior. It is the normal part of civil society ordained by God to help men attain their last end. Pope Leo XIII (Libertas) said:

"It cannot be called in question that the gathering of men into society is theworking of the will of God, whether it be considered in its members, in its form, which is authority, in its cause, or in the number and importance of the advantages which it brings to man." Pius XI, in his turn (Divini Redemptoris), says: "God destined man to live in society as nature demands. In the Creator's plan society is the natural means which man can and should use for the attainment of his end."

Elsewhere Pius XI (Ad Salutem) says:

Princes and governments having received the power of God in order that each, within the limits of its authority, may strive to carry into effect the designs of divine Providence with whom they cooperate from then on. Not only should they do nothing which could prejudice the laws of justice and Christian charity, but they are bound to help those concerned to the knowledge and acquisition of the treasures that cannot perish.

Pius XII (June 11, 1941) says likewise: "On the form given to society, its conformity or absence of conformity to the laws of God, depends the good or evil which flows from it."

Fr. Jolivet (Treatise of Philosophy, IV, 435) concludes his study of the origin of power in civil society very clearly:
Whatever the point of view adopted regarding the efficient cause of social reality, the doctrine of the natural origin of society implies the essential principle that a political society, gathering together, for the sake of temporal common good, permanent assemblies of families and individuals, is an institution ordained by God, the author of nature. In other words it is part of divine natural law. From that it follows directly that the power of government is equally part of divine natural law.

The author ends his study with an exposition of the purpose of civil society or the State:

To create for oneself a purely materialist idea of temporal happiness is greatly to diminish the general function of the State. Temporal happiness largely depends on the intellectual and moral virtues of the citizens, on public morality, that is to say the happy flowering of all the spiritual and moral activities of man, particularly the religious life of the nation.

It follows that it is the duty of the State, without, of course, in any way neglecting its economic function, to seek to create the conditions most favorable to the moral and spiritual prosperity of the nation. This task has both a negative and a positive aspect.

We must stress this close bond between religion and the temporal function of the State. It is there that the true key to the many problems occupying rulers and the Church herself today may be found—problems of social justice, problems of hunger, problems ii peace, problems of birth control, etc. To treat of these problems apart from a Catholic conception of the city is illusory. One could strive momentarily to palliate particular disorders, one might some local local problems, but one would not reach the roots of humanity's ills. We must repeat time and again what the Church has always proclaimed—the solution of social problems lies in the social reign of our Lord Jesus Christ as it is known and taught by the Catholic Church.

Were we to enumerate the existing sores of society, it would immediately be seen that they have their origins in the confusion and errors of governments and often of many members of society. To seek to base social justice for employees and employers on any foundation other than the principles of Christian justice is to line up with totalitarian capitalism, financial hegemony, and world technocracy, or with Communist totalitarianism. To make material well-being the one aim of civil society and social action is to slide quickly into decadence resulting from immorality and hedonism.

In the matter of marriage and questions relative to it, Catholic doctrine alone truly preserves this institution, which is the very basis of civil society and so of the highest concern—divorce, birth control, contraception, homosexuality, 'abortion, and polygamy are mortal wounds to the State. Only the Church brings true remedies.

Social relations between officials and the governed, between the State and its citizens, true love of country and international re-lations are closely and strongly bound up with religion, and only the Catholic religion brings to them the principles of justice, equity, professional conscience, and human dignity in conformity with social life such as God willed and still wills today. Education and the means of social communication which to-day complement and continue education are very closely linked with sound morals, with virtue and vice, and hence with religion and Catholic religion.

It is a sign of great ignorance or pretended ignorance to be un-willing to admit that all religions, save the true, the Catholic religion, bring in their train festering sores in society which are a blot on the face of humanity, whether one thinks of divorce, of polygamy, of contraception, of free love, or whatever touches the family. Think, too, in the sphere of the very existence of society, of the two tendencies which are ruining it—a revolutionary trend, destructive of authority, and a demagogic trend, the ferment of constant disorders, the fruit of freedom of thought; or a totalitarian and tyrannical trend deriving from the union of religion and the State or of an ideology and the State. The history of recent centuries is a striking illustration of this reality.

It is thus inconceivable that Catholic governments should wash their hands of religion or admit in principle religious freedom in the public domain. To do so would be to fail to understand both the purpose of society and the extreme importance of religion in the domain of society and the fundamental difference between the true religion and the others in the sphere of morals—a major element for the achievement of the temporal aim of the State.

Such is the doctrine which the Church has always taught. It gives to society a capital role in the citizens' practice of virtue and so, indirectly, in the attainment of their eternal salvation. Now, faith is the fundamental virtue which conditions all the rest. It is therefore the duty of Catholic governments to safeguard and up-hold the faith, especially by favoring it in the sphere of education.

It is impossible to overstress the providential part played by the authority of the State in helping and upholding citizens in the obtaining of their eternal salvation. Everything created has been and is ordained for this purpose here below. Societies—family, State, Church, each in its place—have all been created by God to this end. It is undeniable that in fact the test of the history of Catholic nations, the history of the Church, the history of conversion to the Catholic Church, shows the providential part played by the State, so much so that it may fairly be said that its share in humanity's attainment of eternal salvation is of capital, if not preponderating, importance. Man is weak, the Christian wavering. If the whole ma-chinery and social conditioning of the State are secular, atheistic, irreligious, and, still worse, if it persecutes the Church, who will venture to say that it will be easy for non-Catholics to be converted and for Catholics to remain faithful?

More than ever, given modern means of social communica-tions and the proliferation of social relationships, the State exerts an ever-increasing influence on the behavior of citizens and their inner and outward lives—hence on their moral outlook and, ulti-mately, on their eternal destiny. It would be criminal to encourage Catholic States to secularize themselves, lose all interest in their religion, see with indifference error and immorality spread, and, under the false pretext of human dignity, introduce into society, with an exaggerated religious liberty, a ferment for its dissolution, elevating the individual conscience at the expense of the common weal and the lawfulness of conscientious objection. Pope Pius XII said (Summi Pontificatus): "Civil sovereignty was ordained by the Creator...that it might make it easier for the human person, in the temporal order, to achieve physical, intellectual, and moral perfec-tion, and that it might help him to attain his supernatural end."

Thus, whether authority in the family, authority of the State, or that of the Church is in question, it is impossible not to won-der at the design of Providence, of the divine Fatherhood which bestows on us existence, supernatural life, the practice of virtue, and, filially, everlasting perfection and holiness by means of these authorities. Authority is ultimately a sharing in the Divine Love, which, of itself, spreads and is diffused. Authority exists simply to spread this divine love which is Life and Salvation. But, like the love of it is of its nature demanding. Indeed, Divine Love can desire nothing but the Good—the Supreme Good which is God. In giving us life, which is a sharing in His love, God directs it inflexibly, guiding our life to the good, which He shows us partly through our nature, but, above all, through those who speak in His name and are His intermediaries in positive laws.

He lays obligations upon us. By His love He binds us to good and virtue. Through His laws He guides us in His love; He gives us commandments for their enforcement; and He threatens us if we refuse His love, which is our good. It is the same with authorities. All just legislation is a channel of Divine Love, every application of the laws is but the expression of the love of God in act and deed, hence a gain in virtue. These laws appeal to our intelligence and will, which, alas! may refuse to be vehicles of the love of God. Sanctions will fall on those who, by so doing, set obstacles in the way of love, life, the good, and, finally, God Himself. Indeed, authority without powers of legislation, government, and justice cannot be conceived. These three mani-festations may be summed up and find their synthesis in Divine Love, which carries within itself its manifestation, its practice, and its sanction.
May we, in coming to an end of this incomplete survey of the great part played by authority in the designs of God, share the feel-ings of St. Paul and say with him: "I bend my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, that Father from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth takes its title" (Eph. 3:14-15).