The Magisterium and Catholic Social Teaching

What is the magisterial authority of Catholic Social Teaching (CST), and how is it applied to real world situations? Catholic Social Doctrine is simply the voice of the Church, starting with the Sacred Scripture and the Church Fathers, that lays out the principles of how justice and charity are to be lived out in the world.

The contemporary era of CST began with Pope Leo’s XII’ Rerum Novarum in 1891, and continues up to Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate. Through the social documents, one can see a gradual development that reflects the Church’s study of the times. That is to say, the Church is always looking to update and clarify the basic principles of Social teaching, given new economic situations and technologies, without ever contradicting authoritative past teaching.

Confusion enters in when Catholic lay faithful (and in some cases clergy) mistakenly claim for their opinions the absolute magisterial authority of the Church and correspondingly denounce as un-Catholic the conflicting positions of others, whether their political criticism comes from the left, right, or center. The basic error is the failure to see that the foundational teachings and principles of CST can be applied in practice in a wide variety of ways — and working out the application of such principles in any given case rightly falls mainly to the laity, not the hierarchy. The magisterial Church’s role, normally exercised through the local ordinary (the bishop), is to point out when these applications appear to diverge from the principles and teachings themselves.

Conflicting opinions on CST fall into three basic camps:

  1. Those (including both some on the Catholic Left and Traditionalists) who seem to believe that all CST is Catholic doctrine, from basic principles of social justice down to their specific applications in the documents. They would argue, for example, that Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio requires Catholics to support government-to-government aid to developing nations (regardless of conflicting opinions about whether such aid actually harms the recipients). This group makes little distinction between the principles and their application.
  2. Those who hold that the principles of CST constitute definitive Church teaching and require assent, but that the applications found in Church documents are strictly prudential.
  3. Those who hold that CST constitutes the combined institutional wisdom of a Church that has existed since the Roman Empire. This group would argue that, while Catholics should follow CST, the principles are of relatively recent origin and therefore do not constitute definitive doctrine.


Before delving deeper into these questions, we should also consider another modern development: the post-Vatican II emergence of national conferences of bishops (known as episcopal conferences), and the extent to which, especially in the United States, such conferences speak and teach authoritatively on issues of Catholic social teaching. There has been much confusion in this area, going back to the American bishops’ conference’s endorsement of controversial documents largely written by bureaucrats. The most noteworthy of these statements, emerging during the Reagan years in the context of the Cold War, dealt with nuclear weapons and was titled “The Challenge of Peace.”

The reaction from the Catholic right was great. One of the founders of this magazine, Michael Novak, spearheaded a group of lay Catholic writers who issued a “pastoral” letter disagreeing with some of the conclusions of the conference’s document, as well as with the bishops’ authority on the subject and the extent to which their teaching was normative for their flock. The Novak piece, which took up an entire issue of National Review, was later published as Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age (Nashville: Thomas Nelson).

Happily, the collapse of the Evil Empire and the end of the Cold War made “The Challenge of Peace” largely a dead letter. However, in 1997, the Committee on Marriage and Family of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued an even more controversial document titled “Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children.”

On the bright side, this document led the Vatican (or, more precisely, Pope John Paul II) to issue a clarifying motu proprio (a document issued by the pope on his own initiative and personally signed by him), Apostolos Suos, on May 21, 1998. Apostolos Suos confirmed the limited authority of national bishops’ conferences, along with their associated committees, commissions, advisors, and experts. Since Vatican II, these had tended to usurp the fundamental canonical responsibility of an individual bishop as chief teacher of the faith in his diocese.

In a statement apparently directed principally toward the USCCB, the Holy Father wrote, “Commissions and offices exist to be of help to bishops and not to substitute for them.”

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger also commented on the purview of episcopal conferences: “Episcopal conferences do not constitute per se a doctrinal instance which is binding and superior to the authority of each bishop who comprises them.” However, “if the bishops approve doctrinal declarations emanating from a conference unanimously, they can be published in the name of the conference itself, and the faithful must adhere” to them.

In practice, this has never happened.

Apostolos Suos made clear that the magisterium of the Church comes from the Holy Father and the bishops in communion with him, and not from episcopal conferences. That question is therefore settled. Now let’s turn to what the Church teaches about the implementation of the social doctrine of the Church.


In 2004, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace issued a magnificent Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. This document, which should be on every Catholic’s bookshelf, draws from Scripture, papal teaching, curial documents, and the teaching of the saints, in 584 terse paragraphs.

However, I want to concentrate on paragraphs 565-574. Below I reproduce the especially relevant portions, with my brief comments following. I encourage readers to take a closer look at these paragraphs on their own and make their own judgment.

565. For the lay faithful, political involvement is a worthy and demanding expression of the Christian commitment of service to others. The pursuit of the common good in a spirit of service, the development of justice with particular attention to situations of poverty and suffering, respect for the autonomy of earthly realities, the principle of subsidiarity, the promotion of dialogue and peace in the context of solidarity: these are the criteria that must inspire the Christian laity in their political activity. All believers, insofar as they possess rights and duties as citizens, are obligated to respect these guiding principles. Special attention must be paid to their observance by those who occupy institutional positions dealing with the complex problems of the public domain, whether in local administrations or national and international institutions.

So we see the obligations of the laity to respect the principles mentioned above.

568. The lay faithful are called to identify steps that can be taken in concrete political situations in order to put into practice the principles and values proper to life in society. This calls for a method of discernment, at both the personal and community levels, structured around certain key elements: knowledge of the situations, analyzed with the help of the social sciences and other appropriate tools; systematic reflection on these realities in the light of the unchanging message of the Gospel and the Church’s social teaching; identification of choices aimed at assuring that the situation will evolve positively…. However, an absolute value must never be attributed to these choices because no problem can be solved once and for all.

From the above, we see that it’s the job of the laity to use their prudential judgment in applying these teachings to concrete situations, without making their decisions normative for others.

570. Whenconcerning areas or realities that involve fundamental ethical dutieslegislative or political choices contrary to Christian principles and values are proposed or made, the Magisterium teaches that “a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political programme or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.”

It is worth reiterating that final point: The well-formed Christian conscience cannot vote for a political program or any individual law that contradicts the “fundamental contents of faith and morals.”

571. The political commitment of Catholics is often placed in the context of the “autonomy” of the State, that is, the distinction between the political and religious spheres. This distinction “is a value that has been attained and recognized by the Catholic Church and belongs to the inheritance of contemporary civilization.” Catholic moral doctrine, however, clearly rejects the prospects of an autonomy that is understood as independence from the moral law.… A sincere quest for the truth, using legitimate means to promote and defend the moral truths concerning social life — justice, freedom, respect for life and for other human rights — is a right and duty of all members of a social and political community.

When the Church’s Magisterium intervenes in issues concerning social and political life, it does not fail to observe the requirements of a correctly understood autonomy, for “the Church’s Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions. Instead, it intends — as is its proper function — to instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, particularly those involved in political life, so that their actions may always serve the integral promotion of the human person and the common good. The social doctrine of the Church is not an intrusion into the government of individual countries. It is a question of the lay Catholic’s duty to be morally coherent, found within one’s conscience.”

The Church teaches; the laity acts, according to their consciences formed by the Church.

573. A particular area for discernment on the part of the lay faithful concerns the choice of political instruments, that is, membership in a party or in other types of political participation…. In every case, whatever choice is made must be rooted in charity and tend towards the attainment of the common good. It is difficult for the concerns of the Christian faith to be adequately met in one sole political entity…. Christians cannot find one party that fully corresponds to the ethical demands arising from faith and from membership in the Church. Their adherence to a political alliance will never be ideological but always critical.

Living and applying the social teaching of the Church supersedes and transcends party membership.


Catholic social teachings are nothing less than the Beatitudes of the gospel refined for action in the world. As such, the social doctrine is magisterial, and the laity have a serious obligation to put it into effect in their own lives, in society, their culture, and country, according to their conscience, which should be formed by the promulgated teaching of the Church and applied to the specific situations that they encounter. When in doubt, they should consult the bishop of their diocese, who is the best interpreter of the teaching of the Church.

At the same time, Catholics have to respect other opinions about the application of CST, as long as such opinions do not contradict the teachings and principles of the Church. We are bound to obey in those social issues that are strictly defined (abortion, marriage, pornography, contraception, etc.). However, in the great majority of social, political, and economic questions, the Church gives principles that allow the laity to apply them as best they can, according to their understanding of the problem.

Rev. C. J. McCloskey III


Fr. C. J. McCloskey III is a Church Historian and a research fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. After and while earning a degree in economics from Columbia University, he worked for two major firms on Wall Street. Visit his website at

  • Gian

    The Misean fringe of the Right denies the political sphere altogether. For them, the State has only the function of suppressing violence and fraud. They disallow and hold as immoral and unjust all other collective actions a people may want to undertake.
    Thus they flatly contradict $565 of CST (For the lay faithful, political involvement is a worthy and demanding expression of the Christian commitment of service to others.)

    The “night watchman” action is algorithmic and requires no political action once the criminal code has been set up. The tinkering with the criminal code, be it frequent or infrequent, can hardly constitute the high calling to political involvement that CST calls for.

    • Cord Hamrick


      I fear you are deeply uninformed about “The Misean fringe of the Right,” as you describe them.

      They do not deny the political sphere altogether. Have you ever listened to one long enough to know what he actually thought, or are you relying on caricatures made by their political opponents? I ask this because you genuinely do not seem to know.

      It is true that, in their view, the compulsory power of the State cannot justly be used for all things, but only for such things as deterring, stopping, and punishing the unjust use of physical or intellectual force against innocent persons.

      But this is not at all a denial of the Christian’s obligations in the political sphere. It is only — to exaggerate for the sake of clarifying the principle — a denial that the Christian is morally permitted to outlaw the simultaneous wearing of plaids and polka-dots, on pain of death.

      That is to say: The libertarian view is an affirmation of God’s moral restrictions on the use of force: There are some wrongdoings which justify us using force against our fellow man, but there are others which do not justify force.

      That does not mean we should cooperate with these evils, or pretend that these wrongs are not wrong. It only means that they are not wrongs of a kind which we are morally permitted to oppose forcibly. They are of another kind, which we oppose by argument and by non-cooperation; even by shunning; but not by using violence against those who do them.

      Now the great temptation — and it is a temptation, demonic in origin — is always to pull out our swords whenever our neighbors don’t reform their moral conduct as quickly as we’d like. Sometimes we are justified in doing so, but not always. Force ought to be our last resort, not our first inclination. And, when force is justified, the degree of force must be proportionate.

      When are we justified? Our justification is most certain when our neighbor’s immoral actions involve a wrongful use of force against others. For in that case, by using force to prevent this wrongful act, we do not initiate force, but oppose it in such a way as to reduce it in the end.

      So our justification for the use of force is strong in proportion to the degree to which the wrongful act is itself forcible. This applies to violence and theft and fraud and contract violation.

      But when the wrongdoing we oppose on moral grounds involves little or no force at all? Then our justification for the use of force is proportionally diminished.

      That is why in Just War doctrine, one can go to war to defend oneself or one’s ally against armed invasion by a foreign power. But one cannot go to war against a foreign power merely because their citizens smoke cigarettes at the breakfast table. This is an evil thing, no doubt; but it is not a use of force by that foreign power against its neighbors. Thus warfare to oppose it is not morally justified.

      Likewise, if a violent man breaks down my front door in the middle of the night, I am justified (indeed, I am usually morally obligated) to shoot him to prevent harm to my family. But if he stands on the opposite side of the street listening to Britney Spears recordings, I lack justification for shooting him. This is once again an evil thing, but it is not the kind of thing which justifies the use of force against my fellow man.

      The same moral strictures which exist at the lowest level (individual self-defense) and at the highest level (warfare between nations) also exist at the middle level between them (the compulsory activity of a state within its national boundaries). The Moral Law does not suddenly cease to impose restrictions on our use of violence, merely because we have delegated the gun-carrying to our employees, the government. This is true, even when the violence is to be used to punish an immoral (but non-forcible) act. The desire to punish immorality is laudable, but the desire to punish it through immoral (unjustified) means is not. Thou shalt not do evil that good come from it.

      There is thus no contradiction, for those holding this view, of paragraph 565 of CST.

      Indeed, by wielding their vote and their voice against the passage of laws which exceed God’s moral restrictions on the use of violence, Catholics are fulfilling their moral obligation to contribute actively to the creation of a more just and charitable social order.

  • TheOldCrusader

    “They disallow and hold as immoral and unjust all other collective actions a people may want to undertake.”

    There is no such thing as a ‘collective’ action.

    • Gian

      Your arguments illustrate my point exactly. You conceive of violence as the utmost evil but non-violent attacks on family such as
      pornography can be a greater evil. Why can’t a people ban obscene music? Americans were doing it not 50 years ago and most of the world does it still.

      Where would you stand on Comstock laws?.

      The Misean fringe equivocates on the Theory of State. Sometimes they argue on the basis of Constitution of 1789, other times they refer to the “night watchman” state. Surely they have been granted the best Constitution devised by the ingenuity of man yet and they should rest content with that.

      They remind me of the thinking of the Russian liberal intelligentsia as pictured in November 1916 (Solzhenitsyn). We only need to have a Constitution and then it would be a perfect world. But they paved the way for great horrors.

      • Cord Hamrick


        I do not conceive of violence as “the utmost evil.” Not at all: I am in favor of Just Wars.

        But I am opposed to unjust ones. Does that fact suggest that I think war is “the utmost evil?”

        And I am in favor of just uses of individually owned firearms for the defense of innocent persons in the gravest extreme. But I am also opposed to unjust ones. Does this suggest to you that I regard the use of individually owned firearms to be “the utmost evil?”

        In between these two extremes (violence between individuals, which may be justified or not; or violence between nations, which may be justified or not) lies the use of violence or the threat thereof to compel our neighbors within our national boundaries.

        Since I allow for the possibility of just wars, which clearly demonstrates that I do not regard war to be “the utmost evil,” and since I allow for the possibility of just armed defense of innocent persons by individuals, which clearly demonstrates that I do not regard that to be “the utmost evil,” surely the fact that I am not an anarchist but do in fact strongly advocate the state’s use of force in justified circumstances proves that I do not regard that to be “the utmost evil.”

        So why the straw-man characterization?

        Since you bring up pornography, let me say: Pornography is a great evil! The question is: What kind of evil is it? Is it a kind in which an aggressor initiates force against a victim?

        (Let us assume for the sake of this discussion that we not talking about child pornography, but the kind in which the participants make excellent money and which they, however outrageously, undertake as a sort of “good career move.”)

        If it is being distributed in such a way that children (persons incapable of consent) are able to access it, then there’s an argument that it is. This is in fact the case today, and I’m all for legislation which makes the penalty for failing to prevent pornography from falling into the hands of a child spectacularly harsh: Say, a hundred thousand dollars per photo?

        But what if it were distributed in such a way that only an adult could conceivably obtain it from its creator? In that case we have no assault, no compulsion, no fraud, no victim: Consensual creation of materials consensually distributed to consensual consumers.

        Both creator and consumer may very well go to hell — we forget sometimes, in our urgency to do justice, that justice is always done, in every case, whether we involve ourselves or not! — but neither can plausibly be construed an attacker or a victim. There is no involvement of force.

        And that is why the situation lacks justification for the use of force in response. To use force in such a case would be the same kind of act as to invade France because France and Portugal decided to permit marijuana trade between them. The Just War doctrine as expressed by Catholic moral theologians prohibits this.

        It would likewise be comparable to individual A clubbing individual B with a baseball bat because individual B had agreed with individual C to gather regularly in a private room to blaspheme God. Blaspheming God is of course a great evil. But does clubbing a voluntary participant sound like the kind of individual use of force permitted by the Catholic Catechism?

        Since we are speaking of pornography, which I feel strongly is a great evil, let me offer you (and me!) a way around the prohibition on the use of force to punish non-forcible crimes: If you can demonstrate that pornography is strongly addictive, then its sale to even an adult can be construed an attempt to take away the freedom of that adult through a fraud leading to a chemical dependency. I think there’s an argument to be made, there; I think studies could be conducted which would make the argument solid, and it allows one to construe the sale of pornography as a forcible act with a victim.

        If you can do that, great! Outlaw the stuff, please. (I have children. I’ve no desire at all to see them grow up in a world which remains as toxic as it currently is.)

        But as a matter of moral conviction, derived I think from eminently Catholic principles, I hold that the use of force is reserved for defense against wrongful use of force.

        Thus if one were, say, to criminalize the sale of sugar (have you looked around the U.S. recently? a whole lot of people need to lay off the Twinkies), one would in theory be fighting a great evil (obesity, which contributes to more early deaths in the U.S. than nearly anything else) and even saving lives.

        But it would be wrong, because at some point you’d be locking up a man, at gunpoint, for twenty years, having convicted him of sixteen counts of aggravated Twinkie manufacture, with intent to sell. He’d be perfectly correct to protest, “Whom did I assault?” No one: Which is what makes it an injustice. You’d be perpetrating an evil on him, “that good come from it”; and that is forbidden to Christians.

        By the way, I think there’s room for flexibility in the matter of strictness of sentencing. The state uses force in many ways, in some ways more direct and strenuous, and in some ways less direct and strenuous. The maximal use is to criminalize an act on pain of death. Slightly below that is life imprisonment; below that are shorter prison terms. Below prison terms are large fines, then smaller ones. Below that are tax disincentives and penalties. Below that are tax incentives for alternative behaviors. Below that are things like public service announcements and government sponsored ad campaigns discouraging a behavior.

        Now in my view, things which, though evil, do not involve the use of force are not to be opposed by the use of force. But let us say that you could argue it both ways (as in, I suspect, pornography as an addictive product). What then? I think the answer is to enact a punishment which is proportionally less severe as the direct connection to a wrongful use of force becomes more and more tenuous.

        So when we wander into arguable “gray areas,” that’s a good way to deal with our uncertainty: Dial back the use of state force to keep it proportionate to our certainty that the thing being punished is, in fact, wrongful force.

        Let us apply all this to the debated portion of Catholic Social Teaching:

        Leftists argue that people with high incomes are not merely morally obligated to give up thirty percent of their earnings to leftist entitlement operations who’ll distribute them however they wish (generally in politically helpful ways), but that these folk may justly be compelled at gunpoint to do so.

        I hold that this is an immoral use of force, just like a Just War or an unjustified shooting by a private individual.

        I am not thereby arguing that high income individuals aren’t morally obligated to give alms. I, like most folk on the rightward side of the political spectrum, think that they are. (This culture of moral obligation is, one assumes, the reason why folks who vote for conservatives tend to give about twice as much of their income to the poor and needy as left-leaning voters do.)

        But I think that there is no just authority residing in me to go stick a gun in my neighbor’s ribs if he doesn’t join me in giving money to the needy, or if he doesn’t give enough to meet my approval.

        And since I myself lack that just authority under God’s moral law, it makes good sense that I cannot delegate authority to do so to a hireling. Not even to that group of hirelings we call “the government.”

        It is not, please note, that I don’t give to the poor myself. Again, folk on the rightward side of the spectrum are far better about doing that than leftists (on average, and certainly with exceptions).

        And it is not that I don’t think my wealthy neighbor should do so.

        It is only that I don’t think I have warrant, under God’s Moral Law, to threaten him with a deadly weapon until he gives enough to satisfy me. I am a man; authorized by God to use force under limited circumstances. I am not God, that I could claim just authority to exceed those moral limitations.

        • Michael PS

          The use of force in the state depends on the social compact.

          As Rousseau says, “In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence.”

          • Gian

            You seem to think that if not libertarian, then socialism. But you forget the history of your own nation, not to mention the rest of
            Christiandom and the rest of civilized or semi-civilized world. Your theory of State is thin-blooded.

            Again and again you consider only the question of violence. That the State has justified to use force only in response to an force being used again an innocent. But the Christian states had used force very liberally. They burned heretics, witches, blasphemers and sodomites. They would not have been lenient against pornographers. It is not by conducting studies you fight pornography.

            The State has obligation that the society stay within the Tao. That means that some things be banned and fought with and uprooted. That sorcerers and sodomites will goto hell is their business but the State can not be neutral. It has an obligation to act against them. For outside the Tao, there is no standing (CS Lewis) and societies that depart from Tao fail to flourish or even exist.

            There is a liberty of indifference and a liberty of excellence. Catholicism is not for anarchy but for ordered liberty i.e. liberty order for human flourishing.

  • kathy

    “supercedes and transcends party membership”

    Tell that to the Catholics in Chicago who always vote democrat.

    • Martial Artist

      I think Fr. McCloskey just did. Of course, the “Catholics in Chicago who always vote democrat” can neither be forced nor coerced to read this article.

      Pax et bonum,
      Keith Töpfer

  • Michael PS


    “There is no such thing as ‘collective action'”

    Really? Not the Tennis Court Oath? Not the storming of the Bastille? Not the Women’s March on the Tuileries? Not the People’s justice? Not the levée en masse? Not a nation in arms against tyranny?

  • Peter Ford

    One thing that always puzzles me about the kind of distinction between economic policies/applications and ‘fundamentals of faith and morals’ (abortion, marriage, pornography, contraception) which Fr. CJ falls back on at the end of the article is that socialist policies are rooted in a socialist view of the human person, a particular anthropology that is in conflict with Catholic ‘fundamentals’ about the nature of human beings, the order of creation, and a proper understanding of the social nature of man. And socialism violates the p’ple of subsidiarity. So why this distinction, as if it were possible to be left on economic policies so long as one is pro-life/pro-family/anti-contraception? This desire to treat all economic policy as if it were opinionable, a matter of complete ‘freedom,’ seems ultimately incoherent, since what makes abortion wrong (nature of human person) also partially determines how we must normatively evaluate econ policies such as heavy taxation for the purpose of redistribution, etc.

    • Todd

      Peter, while I think you might be right in your contention that economic theories presuppose anthropologies, there is a perspective held by certain segments of the American Catholic intellectual class who argue that the “democratic capitalism” generally espoused by conservative leaning Catholics (Novak et al) is also in conflict with Catholic anthropology. I would point you to David Schindler, who is a heavyweight thinker.

  • Brien Kinkel


    I don’t, for the most part, agree with conservatives, but I do think George Will was on to something when he opined, “Ninety-five percent of what government does is redistribute wealth.” That said, how that wealth is garnered and how it is distributed is certainly within the purview of Catholic discernment in the context of CST.

    Since you mention it in the same breath as abortion, I gather you take a dim view of “heavy taxation for the purpose of redistribution.” Is there implicit in your comment a suggestion that Americans are too heavily taxed, and that our tax dollars are redistributed to the undeserving?

    Americans have, in general, among the lightest tax burden of any advanced economy. Moreover, that burden falls disproportionately on those of lesser means–the middle class and the working (or not) poor, who pay the same amount for a gallon of gas that the wealthy pay. As we tax the wealthy less and less, their share of our nation’s wealth and assets continues to grow enormously. We Americans have long had the distinction among advanced economies of having the greatest wealth gap between the truly wealthy and the rest of us.

    The proposed Republican/Ryan budget would permanently eliminate estate and capital gains taxes, a boon only to the wealthy, while it would drastically cut WIC and Head Start, programs desperately needed by the poor.

    I will leave to each individual reader to decide if such redistribution is consistent with CST.

    • Ender

      [quote]”I will leave to each individual reader to decide if such redistribution is consistent with CST.”[/quote]
      I think you missed the central point of the article, which was: [i]”…it’s the job of the laity to use their prudential judgment in applying these teachings to concrete situations.”[/i]

      I dispute your assertions, but the real point is not which of us has the better grasp of economics but that opposite solutions (e.g. support or rejection of the Ryan proposal) are morally equivalent because they are morally neutral. My discernment of the best solution may in fact be incorrect but it is not therefore immoral – and is not a violation of CST.

      The whole point of the article was that [i]”The Church teaches; the laity acts, according to their consciences formed by the Church.”[/i] The Church specifies the objectives; the laity specifies the means – and the disagreements on most issues are – legitimately – over the means, not the ends.

      There is no CST applicable to the Ryan budget proposal.

  • Jonathan

    Dear Fr. McCloskey,

    Thank you for this article. I was wondering if you could say more on the third of the three “basic camps” that you identify, because that is the camp toward which I am inclined.

    Please allow me to point toward one issue as an example. In “Rerum Novarum”, Pope Leo XIII writes thus: “The preservation of life is the bounden duty of one and all, and to be wanting therein is a crime. It necessarily follows that each one has a natural right to procure what is required in order to live, and the poor can procure that in no other way than by what they can earn through their work. 45. Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.”

    Leo XIII uses the adjective “ancient” to describe the “dictate of natural justice” that “wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner”, but if that dictate of natural justice is ancient, where can one find that dictate mentioned before Leo XIII? Did Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, or a pope prior to Leo XIII ever say that a wage ought to be sufficient to support a well-behaved laborer? This is exactly my difficulty: the idea that a wage must meet the needs of the laborer seems to be of “relatively recent origin”, to borrow from your description of my camp. But my difficulty may be due to my ignorance of what philosophers, theologians, and popes said about wages before Leo XIII.

    I suppose one might say that Aristotle, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas could not have said anything about wages because they lived in such different economic circumstances, but surely even in their times people were working as laborers for wages?

    Thank you very much.

    With docility,

  • Martial Artist


    Certainly, the Spanish scholastics of the sixteenth century, came to some remarkably precocious conclusions, including that a “just wage” was that wage freely agreed between worker and employer, a conclusion also reached by economists of the Austrian school. There is more in the book The Church and the Market by Thomas E. Woods Jr., as well as a number of articles at the Mises Institute website ( Search on their website or Google “economics and sixteenth century Spanish scholastics.” There is also at least this paper online at the Acton Institute.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  • Gian

    Regarding the Catholic position on libertarianism,Edward Feser at
    as a much more considered discussion, well worth a reading. Some excerpts:

    The main reason for claiming that a respect for traditional morality entails a libertarian political order is that for good behavior to count as truly virtuous, it must be freely chosen.

    However, some distinctions need to be drawn:
    1) We need to draw a distinction between requiring good actions and forbidding evil ones.
    Now it is not true without qualification even to say that the former cannot result in true virtue. On the contrary, as every good Aristotelian knows, that is what child-rearing is all about.

    2) another distinction, namely that between virtues which are best acquired through a struggle against the temptation to act viciously, and those which are not. For example, if you are trying to acquire the virtue of courage, it is a good idea to put yourself in situations where you are going to be tempted to be cowardly and to struggle against that temptation. But if you are trying to acquire the virtue of chastity, it is not a good idea to put yourself in situations where sexual temptations are likely to present themselves,

    3) A third important distinction to be made is that between actions that are inherently wrong and those that are not inherently wrong but are wrong only under certain circumstances.

    The point is rather to show that the issues are more complex than many libertarians, including fusionist libertarians, realize. Shouting “Virtue must be freely chosen!” doesn’t by itself settle things any more than shouting “Taxation is theft!” does. Some taxation does amount to theft – indeed, lots of actual taxation probably does, or at least is immoral all things considered – but taxation as such is not theft. (Again, see the article on property rights linked to above.) Similarly, while there is much truth in the claim that genuine virtue must be freely chosen, the claim is also subject to serious qualifications and does not by itself establish a strict, Nozick-style libertarianism.

  • Cord Hamrick


    I have great respect for Ed Feser; however, I do not think that the need for virtuous behavior to be uncompelled is the main reason for claiming that a respect for traditional morality entails a libertarian political order.

    I think the main reasons go like this:

    1. Governments are those organizations in a society which, normally, have a monopoly on the use of force to achieve their goals. This sets governments apart from all other organizations in a society.

    2. Governments either obtain just authority to use force from some source capable of conferring that authority on them, or they don’t have that authority at all.

    3. God is capable of directly deputizing a government to exercise force, but has only ever done so in human history in one case (the Kingdoms of Israel/Judah).

    4. Outside that one example, no human kingdom can point to the obvious, manifest will of God as a direct source for its warrant to use force. The “divine right of kings” is a sham: Usually a person won a battle and thereby became king; had he lost the other person would have claimed kingly authority, but in either case the outcome of a coup cannot be construed as a divine granting of authority to use force. (If it were, then the Soviets, after winning the Russian revolution, would have then ruled by divine right, which is obviously wrong.)

    5. Governments therefore must obtain legitimacy for their rule (and thus their warrant to use force) from some other source, and (absent a miraculous sign from God at the founding of a nation) the normal source is the consent of the governed. This is possible because people are created in the image of God, and possess as part of their human dignity a certain amount of just authority which they can delegate to their employees.

    6. When the people agree to employe a government for the protection of their liberties, they delegate to their employees their just authority to use force to defend innocent persons (an authority they have from God, under the Moral Law).

    7. Because this is the source of government legitimacy, some form of democratic vote is obligatory to maintain that legitimacy. And, because this is the source of government legitimacy, it places implicit limits on the power of the government:

    (a.) The government does not have any power the people do not delegate to it; and,

    (b.) The people cannot delegate to the government any kind of just authority which they themselves did not have to start with;

    8. Since people do not have just authority under God’s moral law to wield force against one another for any purpose other than to defend innocent persons against wrongful uses force, it follows that governments cannot plausibly have just authority to use force for other purposes, either. There are gray areas, as there are in all complex matters in a fallen world; but in general, the less connected a crime is with a use of force against a victim, the more tenuous is the government’s just authority to prosecute it; and thus, the more lenient the maximum justifiable punishment will be. If a thing involves no arguable use of force whatsoever, then government simply cannot criminalize it, period.

    To say otherwise is to propose some other source for the legitimacy of government than God-by-way-of-delegation-to-the-people. The only alternatives are God (directly) and something other than God. But only God has such authority.

    So either a government obtains its legitimacy directly from God through some miraculous and verifiable prophetic activity, as in the Davidic kingship, or from the people (who themselves obtained authority to use force, within certain limitations, from God’s Moral Law), or else the government simply doesn’t have just authority at all.

    • Michael PS

      This overlooks the fact of the social compact that constitutes the state.

      As Rousseau says, “Each man alienates, I admit, by the social compact, only such part of his powers, goods and liberty as it is important for the community to control; but it must also be granted that the Sovereign [i.e. the People] is sole judge of what is important.”

      This is obvious enough, for between the individual and the public there can be no impartial arbitrator. Either each individual is to be judge in his own cause, which means anarchy, or the general will, expressed in the laws, is to prevail.

      All admit that force may be used to compel the performance of a contract. Just War theory is very different, for, in relation to each other, states are in the state of nature, with no social compact to bind them.

      • Pete

        The Politburo decides for the Proletariat.

        • Michael PS

          No, that is to confuse the government, which is the executive agency of the people, with the state, which is the people themselves, with the laws being the consummated result of their own organized wishes.

      • Gian

        So all the governments prior to the Democratic Revolutions were illegitimate? as your (7) seems to imply.

        You forget that an authority-wielder has the authority to the extent he obeys Tao (i.e. the moral order). When Adam fell, his biology ceased to
        obey him. A husband can not ask his wife to violate natural law.
        So consider, say a pornographer or a heretic or a contracepting couple, they lose their authorities and indeed a people may act against them in perfect justice.

        I have not expressed it well as perhaps Ed Feser could

        You also do not note the practical paradox that it is precisely the democratic countries that the greatest growth of State has taken place in. The monarchical and autocratic states had very limited government. The communist regimes are no exceptions since they ruled in the name of democracy.

        Man had always lived in tribes that had rulers and elders. There always was hierarchy. Do you think that Adam and his sons had equal say?
        So the ancient origin of the State lies in one man being the father of another.

        • Michael PS

          Again, this is to confuse the government with the state. The people, if they wish may establish a monarchical form of government – Napoléon, as Emperor of the French, in the wake of the Revolution, claimed to be the first magistrate of the sovereign people. Many ancient monarchies were very popular. Even the Roman Emperors’ authority rested on the Lex de Imperio, enacted by the people at the commencement of their reigns and there is a relic of the same principle in the acclamations of the Frankish kings

          When you say, “So consider, say a pornographer or a heretic or a contracepting couple, they lose their authorities and indeed a people may act against them in perfect justice.” comes very close to Wyclif’s heresy of “Dominion by Grace,” according to which no respect is due to the commands or property of the wicked – power comes from God and is forfeited by sin. This was condemned at the Council of Constance and his body exhumed and burnt. It was also held by some Anabaptists, who were exterminated by Catholic and Protestant princes alike. It is a recipe for anarchy

        • Cord Hamrick


          So all the governments prior to the Democratic Revolutions were illegitimate? as your (7) seems to imply.

          Of course! Why should there be any question about that? Does their antiquity mean they were morally legitimate? Does the antiquity of slavery mean it was morally legitimate?

          But let’s be careful how we use the term “illegitimate.” I don’t at all mean that they used their power in a fashion which, had it been wielded by a properly-constituted government, would have been immoral. Sometimes they did misuse their power; sometimes they didn’t. There have been good and bad governments all along.

          All that I mean, in calling them illegitimate, is that they were improperly constituted: Had anyone raised the question, “Uh, who authorized you to do what you’re doing?” they’d have had no truthful reply.

          This, of course, is why, as a matter of habit, whenever someone raised such a question publicly, they didn’t answer him, but merely had him killed. And when the question really could no longer be ignored, they answered “Uh, God gave us the right. Yeah, that’s the ticket: God said so. So you’d better do whatever we say, because if you don’t, then you’ll be opposing God, and something bad might happen to you.”

          Or, if they were more honest, they would say, “Nobody authorized us to do this, not even God. But it just so happens we have enough power to do whatever we want with impunity. You ask who authorized it; We answer, who’s going to stop it? Might makes right.”

          And that’s how it went, for thousands of years. There was always a better way, a more Christian way, to approach things; but landing upon it was a matter of finding opportunity for innovation, like discovering a new technology.

          Look at it this way: Slavery is wrong. It always was wrong. But it existed for thousands of years; it probably started within a generation or three after the Fall. God never forbade it under the Mosaic Law — that was too much truth, too fast for a band of recently-enslaved nomads looking for their own slice of the pie — but He set up a system in which slaves would be treated as human beings. Jesus Himself did not forbid it, but He set up a Church which, led by the Holy Spirit, would eventually arrive at a moral understanding of the wrongness of slavery and forbid it.

          Likewise, I think, with the proper role of the state. Christianity can exist, of course, under monarchies and empires and dictatorships and Western European democratic socialism. But it can exist apart from them. And it develops toward an understanding of the proper role of the state which, eventually, allows us to see that such usurpations are self-evidently wrong.

        • Cord Hamrick


          In response to another statement you made: You say,

          You forget that an authority-wielder has the authority to the extent he obeys Tao (i.e. the moral order). When Adam fell, his biology ceased to
          obey him. A husband can not ask his wife to violate natural law.
          So consider, say a pornographer or a heretic or a contracepting couple, they lose their authorities and indeed a people may act against them in perfect justice.

          No, I don’t think that was any forgetfulness or neglect on my part. (I forget things all the time; but I don’t think this was one of them!)

          You are correct to say that a person can lose just authority by abusing it. That is well within the natural order.

          But that is not what is at issue here. What is at issue is whether Person A can gain additional authority to act outside his normal moral restrictions because Person B abused his own.

          Now, even that can be within the natural order, but only in a very limited and specific way. When Person B abuses his free will by sinning, this sometimes permits Person A to do things in response which would otherwise have been forbidden. For example, when Person B abuses his free will by breaking in to Person A’s house, Person A can use force against Person B; normally, Person A couldn’t do that.

          So we see that abuses of free will by one person can “change the rules” for the other. But we also see that it changes the rules in a fashion which has a direct correspondence of kind to the evil, and which is limited to preventing, ceasing, and undoing that evil. That is to say: When Person B forcibly violates Person A’s security, Person A can forcibly violate Person B’s security, not in an eye-for-an-eye kind of way, but in a proportionate kind of way for the purpose of stopping the particular evil Person B initiated.

          But when Person B forcibly violates Person A’s security, that doesn’t give Person A just moral authority to do just whatever he wants. Person A doesn’t suddenly gain just warrant to violate Person C’s security (where C is some uninvolved innocent third party), for example. He doesn’t suddenly gain the right to cheat on Mrs. A. He doesn’t suddenly have the right to rob banks or kick puppies, all because his neighbor is a sinner.

          Now your argument was not proposing a response corresponding to the evil. Correspondence is what happens when, because Mr. X threatened a man and stole his wallet, the rest of us exercise just moral authority to use force to compel the return of the wallet and to confine Mr. X to a prison cell for a while. That is within the natural order; one can see the correspondence between the wrongful use of force initiated by Mr. X and the corrective use of force in response.

          No, your argument is that, because Mr. X looked at a Playboy magazine, or blasphemed God, or gossiped about a neighbor to his wife, the rest of us suddenly have just moral authority to threaten him with guns and lock him up. Where’s the correspondence, there? It doesn’t exist; which is why that kind of response is not permissible under the moral law.

          To put it another way: All of us are sinners and, apart from the grace of God, all of us deserve hell. I suppose you could make exceptions for children who have committed no personal sin as of yet, but for adults, excluding Jesus and Mary, the observation generally holds.

          Fortunately for us, God forbears, giving us every opportunity for repentance and amended life until the last opportunity is gone. He certainly has just authority to impose on us everything we deserve at any time; but He does not in fact do so.

          You claim for the police power of the state an authority to treat their fellow men less well than they ordinarily would be morally obligated to treat them, not on the basis of a double-effect argument (using normally-wrongful force in order to prevent or halt a worse wrongful use of force) but merely on the basis that they have sinned, in whatever way, whether it involved force or not.

          If that were true — if we could do to any adult at any time whatever we wished, not because we were authorized by God but merely because they deserved it — why then we could kill anyone, any time. They all deserve hell; merely killing them is letting them off easy.

          Well, God certainly has such authority, to treat sinners any which way He sees fit. But when, I ask, did He delegate that authority to you? He habitually withholds inflicting just deserts until the last possible moment; who are you to jump the gun? When did He authorize you to do that?

          I don’t think He ever did grant authority to you, a sinner yourself, to exert force on just any other sinner, purely because they’re sinners.

          I don’t think He gave such authority to you, or to any of the other hundreds of millions of persons, living and dead, whose act of delegation conveys authority to the criminal code of the United States. If you say that He did, I say: Show me the miraculously-validated prophetic utterance which will prove me wrong!

          Barring a Scripture quote with your name in it, or fire falling from heaven on Mt. Carmel — or Mt. Rushmore — to prove that God has specially deputized the police power of the state beyond the normal moral limits of individuals, I hold that the moral strictures on the use of force are what the Catechism says they are: A man may use force in the gravest extreme to defend innocent persons against wrongful assaults on their person.

      • Cord Hamrick

        In reply to Michael:

        “Each man alienates, I admit, by the social compact, only such part of his powers, goods and liberty as it is important for the community to control; but it must also be granted that the Sovereign [i.e. the People] is sole judge of what is important.”

        Yes, another Rousseau quote.

        Rousseau was a bit ignorant about all this, I think. Even the quote you cite approvingly doesn’t survive quick scrutiny.

        He says, “it must also be granted that the Sovereign [i.e. the People] is the sole judge of what is important.”

        But that doesn’t make any sense.

        One can, in casual conversation, equate “the People” and “the Sovereign” as a sort of shorthand for expressing that Sovereignty comes from God and flows to the government only by way of the people.

        But one cannot refer to “the People” as “the Sovereign” in any sense involving decision making, e.g., “judging” what is important.

        For of course, a judgment must be uttered by a human mouth and made up in a human mind. No legal fiction can do so on its own apart from any humans.

        So in that context, when we say that “the Sovereign” judges what is important, we are being imprecise. The reality which is glossed over by the term “the Sovereign” is merely, in the end, “the government.” The particular persons employed for the duty of making a judgment are exercising that duty. The government is saying what it thinks is important. The people’s employees are saying what is important. Apart from (perhaps) a national popular vote plebiscite, there is no other definition of “the Sovereign” which can make sense when the term is used that way.

        Now that’s all very well if the employees are exercising judgment within a sphere of authority granted to them by consent of the governed. In that case they are merely doing their duty.

        But it makes no sense at all to say that the employees may exercise judgment to inform their employers (!) as to what sphere of authority the employers will grant them! That’s getting the employer-employee relationship entirely the wrong way around.

        Yet that, sadly, is how Rousseau meant it. He lacked the clarity about these matters which a later birth would have given him. Despite his best efforts he hadn’t yet rid his mind of some of the assumptions accumulated to support centuries of European divine right monarchies and their claims of unfettered top-down sovereignty. (An understandable failing. It’s so very hard to break free of all the category errors of one’s own era and culture.)

        • Michael PS

          On the contrary, Rousseau was a citizen of the Free City of Geneva (a sovereign state at that time – The Swiss Confederation was a mere defensive alliance, a bit like NATO) and was perfectly familiar with democratic government, for there the citizens did assemble and vote on laws and elect magistrates, just as they had at Athens, Sparta and Rome.

          No one was less likely to confuse the sovereign people with the government than Rousseau. That is why he was so sceptical about representative government and detested “factions” [political parties] which, he believed, had turned Athens into an oligarchy.

          To this day, the Swiss rely heavily on plebiscites to ratify legislation. He would have approved of that.

          • Cord Hamrick

            Michael, I’m sure he would have approved. I didn’t mean to imply that he wasn’t an advocate of democracy; I know full well he wasn’t a monarchist. I meant only that this confusion about “the People” having some mystical authority which comes neither from the persons, nor from anywhere else save the fact of having gathered together to form a collective, is a holdover confusion which, when examined, can be clearly seen to be false.

            Perhaps it’s even a result of erroneously ascribing to human-made “bodies” the kind of mystical unity and authority which only exists in that divinely-constructed body which is the Body of Christ, the Church?

            But that’s mere speculation. Let’s be clear here. If we are speaking of legislation enacted by a government, then what I said above holds true. But if we are speaking of plebiscites, then we must ask: Does a plebiscite have just authority to vote on the proposal, “All persons named Michael shall be tortured to death next Wednesday,” and to carry it out if the “ayes” outnumber the “nays?”

            If not, then there is some just limit on the power of the people. They cannot do merely whatever they desire, just because more of them desire it than oppose it. Their collective action is no greater than the sum of their individual morally permissible actions, and is generally less than that.

            And in that case, they cannot collectively form a government to do whatever they desire, either.

            (If you say that they do have just authority to do this, then I can only say: God help you! And, don’t vote for the chancellor with the stubby little mustache!)

          • Michael PS

            Hilaire Belloc puts this very well

            “Thus if there be cast together in some abandoned place a community of a few families so depraved or so necessitous that, against the teachings of their own consciences, and well knowing that what they are doing is what we call wrong, yet they will unanimously agree to do it, then that agreement of theirs, though certainly no temporal or civil authority can be quoted against it, is yet unjustifiable. Another authority lies behind. Still more evidently would this be true if, of say, twelve, seven decided (knowing the thing to be wrong) that the wrong thing should be done, five stood out for the right—and yet the majority possessed by the seven should be determined a sufficient authority for the wrongful command.
            But it is to be noted that this axiom only applies where the authority of the moral law (God, as the author of this book, with due deference to his readers, would prefer to say) is recognised and yet flouted. If those twelve families do sincerely believe such and such a general action to be right, then not only is their authority when they carry it into practice a civil and a temporal authority; it is an authority absolute in all respects; and further, if, upon a division of opinion among them not perhaps a bare majority, nay, perhaps not a majority at all, but at any rate a determinant current of opinion—determinant in intensity and in weight, that is, as well as in numbers—declares an action to be right, then that determinant weight of opinion gives to its resolve a political authority not only civil and temporal but absolute. Beyond it and above it there is no appeal.”

          • Cord Hamrick


            I take Belloc to here be stating the moral non-culpability of persons in a state of invincible ignorance.

            Were all the plebiscite to decide to torture to death persons on the basis of their names (or outlaw, on pain of execution, in-home growth of marijuana for private use), it would be in fact morally illegitimate. If, somehow, they should be faultlessly ignorant of the immorality of same, they could not be held culpable for the decision as a sin. And being ignorant of the wrongness, that the general will (especially the unanimous will) should prevail is no difficulty.

            But that sidesteps the contended issue between us.

            I am contending that, were these persons’ consciences properly formed in the matter of legitimate state action, they would recognize certain uses of force to be immoral, because unjustified under God’s moral law. That they are faultlessly ignorant now means they do not currently sin by supporting such laws and governments as use force in that way, and provided the whole society is equally faultlessly ignorant on the topic, no-one of course has any complaint (unless, perhaps, the people never delegated that particular power to the government; in which case one may still complain of unconstitutionality).

            One imagines that under the force of propaganda and in the heat of nationalistic fervor, perhaps a majority of Germans in the early 1940’s would have supported Hitler’s “final solution.” Government action supporting it might therefore be “legitimate” in a technical sense; does that make the action just in an absolute sense? Of course not, and we remain morally obligated to say that the thing is wrong and hope to teach their consciences until they see that it is wrong. And after that, their majoritarian action is no longer legitimated by vote (but it was never actually right).

            Likewise, enough persons in the United States think abortion should be legal that it has become so. At times this was a majority. Are the supporters of legal abortion not morally at fault? Belloc would say that they are not morally culpable if they are in invincible ignorance; still, is legal abortion wrong, or isn’t it? There is a law higher than that of the majority, and to it, we appeal when the majority is in moral error.

            In short, for many folk (yourself and Gian), the situation is that described in the second paragraph. But by arguing that the state’s war against sin must not only be a war, but a Just War, and not only a defense of innocent persons, but a justified defense, I am attempting to inform consciences so as to bring them into a state of being such as Belloc described in the first paragraph you quoted. I am trying to make folk see that when it comes to state action, “another authority lies behind.”

        • Gian

          Does the Church teach that it would be unjust for a State to ban obscene literature?

          Do you believe that the Constitution of 1776 was just or unjust?

          It amazes me that you hold illegitimate all the Christian states that ever existed because they do not measure upto the Misean standard.

          That man have often freely voted for the Comstock laws, does that mean nothing to you? They gave consent but it is not good enough for you.

          The evidence of ancient states and tribal elders seems to convey nothing to you. Were they all based upon consent of individuals?

          Why do you ignore the hypothesis that the origin of the State lies not in the social contract but in primordial patriarchy. That Adam’s sons
          owed him deference. Do you think that Adam should not have regulated the morals of his sons?

          The State is Father of People. It serves not as a servant but as a father.

          • Cord Hamrick


            The State can certainly ban obscene literature for the protection of children from same if there is no alternative. If it is not addictive (a proposition I’d be willing to argue for in order to make a general ban possible) and they are banning adults from using it, where there is no danger to children at all, then it is an immoral use of force.

            But…remember that I also hold that the immorality of it is in proportion to the degree of force used. A $10 fine per copy? I couldn’t even bring myself to rise off my sofa from a boring evening of watching reruns, to complain about the “injustice” of such a thing. It is too minor for consideration.

            But were the producer and consumer being executed for the same? Then I would arise and defend to the death their civil right to distribute and consume their smut, even though they had of course no moral (that is to say, no natural) right to do it. (For of course no one has a natural right to commit a moral evil.)

            Of course the “civil right” is the popular way of phrasing such things, but I regard the language of “rights” on such topics to be confusing. People are always getting confused about it, imagining that they have a right to free health care and a free television set, and that their neighbors don’t have a right to disagree with their public opinions or to refuse to pay for the broadcasting of those opinions.

            Better simply to say that while these folk are doing a moral wrong, they are doing a moral wrong of a type which it is immoral to oppose through force of arms. Therefore, the degree to which bullets are threatened or fired is the degree to which the government is immoral in opposing such actions. The persons doing it have no “right” to it in the natural-law sense, but their neighbors do moral wrong if they exceed their own God-given just authority in opposing it.

            I understand that you regard this view to be an “infection” and think it a failing. (Though I don’t know why you call it a failing of conservatives. Democrats are worse than conservatives in all the areas which seem to concern you most; indeed, I suspect a solid majority of conservatives would agree more with you than with me. Only self-described libertarians — the kind who like to distinguish themselves from conservatives instead of lumping themselves in with them — would be certain to take my view.)

            I am not sure what you mean when you refer to the “Constitution of 1776.” Do you have in mind the Articles of Confederation? Or the Constitution of 1789? (And in either case, you would need to specify which item in it you were asking me to signal approval or disapproval of.)

            Is the State the “father of the people?” No, but I think it might very well be the great-great-great-grandfather. But notice the proportion of guidance a many-times-great grandfather wields in the day-to-day lives of his many-times-great grandchildren, especially once they are mature adults! Even a Father recommends certain actions to his adult children, but, note, does not spank them for choosing other than that he recommends.

            You mention that folk have freely voted for the Comstock laws and ask if it means nothing to me. It means very much; I am grateful that they should have been so concerned with morality as to make such a mistake. Only a moral people would rise to that particular error; so it is in one sense greatly to their credit.

            I am only pointing out that it is an error, and that while the consciences of the majority of folk have since then become sadly less informed about sexual morality, those same consciences have rarely become much more informed about the morality of state compulsion. I would wish that they had retained their moral scruples in matters of obscenity, and increased them in matters of compulsion; instead, they have lost the former without (in most cases) gaining the latter.

            And of course the fact that majorities can vote for moral error is no surprise to anyone. Majorities supported alcohol prohibition; majorities have on some occasions supported abortion legalization; Hitler rose to power by the popular vote.

            It remains for persons who believe they see the majority making a moral error to try to inform the populace and educate their consciences until they see their error. Porn is evil, abortion is evil; I have before now inveighed against both. But the topic of this thread touched on the limits of legitimate state action. It made sense that I should also make comment about moral wrongs in that arena.

        • Gian

          The State is not concerned with sin per se but sin in its social aspect.That the State must attempt to regulate the morals
          (that is, keep the society within Tao) is universally accepted proposition save among Miseans.

          This i exactly the failing of American the Conservatives. They have caught the Misean infection and generalized it wildly beyond its scope.

          • Gian

            Are’nt you being more moral than the Church? Does the Church expresses such scruples?

  • Linus

    With all respect. Still clear as mud. It still reminds me of ” political speak. ” Sure, one must always adhere to the Doctrine of the Faith in all situations, even in political votes, party support, political policies, indeed in all that one does and thinks. It is when we get to the ” common good ” and true charity that the problem arises. On this it still seems to me the Bishops in conference and in their local conferences step beyond their authority in too many instances.

  • Don Schenk

    I’m currently going hrough Gerge Weigel’s biography of Pope John Paul II, and Weigele mentions that as bishop Wohtyla JP II had to fight the communist front organization “Pax,” and thatas JP II he assigned Cardinal Ratzinger to get the American bishops to amend “The Challenge of Peace” to admit that it was just their personal opinions, not Church teaching (for instance).

  • Tom

    Don, please, please, I love JP2, he is a real hero in the fight against the massive totalitarian iron curtain threat, but he is no model when it comes to preventing tyranny of petty, greedy adults that were under his governance.
    From what I understand, Madison wrote the constitution after reading over 400 books that Jefferson gave him, on various forms of government. His premise was that, by nature, humans love power, become corrupted as they gain power, and that, in general, they like to quarrel. So he designed a system of government “for the people by the people”, to prevent tyranny, including that of the majority, by making sure that power was divided, and that quarreling was institutionalized by a bicameral system with different terms for various bodies (2, 4, 6 years). State sponsored religion was specifically forbidden, in part because, as a young lawyer, he had to defend a Baptist preacher persecuted by Anglicans, the State religion at the time. This is something that both sides currently don’t seem to understand: it is neither no government, or excessive government, but still, some form government, that only reflects the will of the people in general at any given time. It’s designed to have partisan fights in a controlled manner. For example, it is clear to me, that abortion is a tyranny of the majority, the same way slavery or segregation was in Madison’s time. Those that say that things were perfect in the “good old days” don’t know what they are talking about. It took, almost 200 years of struggle to fix the later two. This did jot happen out of the blue. It required real struggle, with eventual amendments to the constitution (a system of correction that was but in place from start). The very same framework, put in place by Madison and others, is there to be used, to make sure that abortion be delegitimized. It is up to us to use it.
    This is a concept that Catholics struggle with. It is also the very same system that is forcing the Catholic Church to come clean in matters of abuse of her own most vulnerable members: her children, because own institutionalized mechanisms of governance completely and miserably failed, especially under JP2 (canon Laws were ignored, in case of abuse, or removed to manipulate spiritual matters, like the removal of the office of promoter of faith). It’s a sad fact that it is Madison’s system that is also forcing changes in the Catholic Church, because of criminal behavior ignored under JP2.

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