There is an impromptu symposium on legitimacy, sovereignty, and the duty to obey the law over at the traditionalist Catholic blog The Josias, from Daniel Lendman, Felix de St. Vincent, and Elliot Milco.

What caught my attention, and what might catch the attention of the Left, is how the complexity of ancient and medieval Catholic tradition undercuts the contemporary view that state legitimacy and national sovereignty are simple, basic facts of political reality. How strange to think of the basic agreement of Bl. Pius IX and the modern-day anarchist (perhaps one like David Graeber, whose balanced treatment of the medieval Church has startled even the most traditionalist Catholics), when the arch-conservative “Pio Nono” describes the following three falsehoods in his Syllabus of Errors:

39. The State, as being the origin and source of all rights, is endowed with a certain right not circumscribed by any limits.—Allocution “Maxima quidem,” June 9, 1862.


59. Right consists in the material fact. All human duties are an empty word, and all human facts have the force of right.—Allocution “Maxima quidem,” June 9, 1862.

60. Authority is nothing else but numbers and the sum total of material forces.—Ibid.

(Startling enough to awaken The Sweep out of a now-yearlong hibernation? Sed contra, it seems we are falling into a deeper sleep: the peaceful, dream-filled sleep of dogmatic slumber!)

So, what is the Christian tradition, in its ancient complexity, when it comes to “let every soul be subject to the higher powers” (Romans 13:1)?

A brief recap of what they have agreed on The Josias:

  1. The absolute political legitimacy of the sovereign state is a modern argument made, historically, to usurp the proper place and dignity of the Church (De St. Vincent 10 and 11).
  2. However, general obedience to political authorities is commanded in scripture and upheld in tradition (Lendman, De St. Vincent 6 and 9).
  3. Further, there are a variety of prudential and moral reasons to obey political authorities in many circumstances, for example, for the sake of public order (Milco 17-20).
  4. Officers of the state lose their right to subjects’ obedience, however, under circumstances when they act tyrannically, that is, without respect to the common good (Lendman, De St. Vincent 14, Milco 21).
  5. Without a unitary sovereign, it is difficult to locate tyranny in the modern state; however insofar as it denies the common good (beyond its “singularized” concept of public good), modern states will tend to be tyrannical in many circumstances (De St. Vincent 14b).
  6. Those who resist tyranny where it is found accrue political legitimacy of their own, when they exhort their neighbors to serve the common good where the state has failed (De St. Vincent 14a).
  7. “Pride would tell us that the love of neighbor should first of all take the form of mass action and large-scale political organization.  In reality, it needs to happen first in our families, parishes, offices, clubs, and the places we are already directly present” (Milco, Catholic Action, 15).

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