Political power must be guided by moral law

May 1, 2006

Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 393-401

Surveys regularly show that politicians receive the lowest level of respect of any occupational group in society. If you want to be popular, become a firefighter. If you shun popularity, go into politics.

My experience with politicians is that they are not a lower form of being. Many of them tend to be among the more idealistic members of society. They make significant sacrifices and put their careers on hold - or even in jeopardy - in order to work for the common good as they perceive it.

Certainly, some politicians abuse the authority they have been given. The perks of office blind some of them. Many enter the fray lacking adequate experience in leadership or management. Some have a poor concept of their own moral responsibility in terms of both their own personal behaviour and how morality affects the pursuit of the common good.


There is, nevertheless, the need for a collective examination of conscience as to how we view authority in general and political authority in particular. Authority and obedience are too often understood in terms of dominance and submission.

One person commands; others meekly follow.

Such an understanding of power often reflects the breakdown of authority that has already occurred. People in authority may use their power to dominate others. Or, conversely, those who are led may abdicate the responsibility they do have to show initiative.

Also, in contemporary society we have an inflated ideal of personal autonomy. We too often believe that we should be able to do whatever we want.

In fact, authority and obedience do limit people's freedom to do as they please. Such constraint is necessary to the proper functioning of any community. Far from being an assault on people's dignity, the proper exercise of authority orients the community toward the common good.


The authority of political leaders suffers when the population refuses to accept responsibility for the direction of society. When good people sit on their hands, rot is allowed to fester. But when people pull together to make a difference for the better, good things happen.

The media often exacerbate the crisis of political authority. It's safer for a pundit to be critical of the initiatives of authority than to praise them. If the initiative goes wrong, the pundit won't look Pollyannaish and can always say, "I told you so."

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church views political authority as "a positive and irreplaceable component of civil life" (n. 393). Political authority coordinates and directs individuals and institutions toward the common good. Such authority must be exercised within the limits of morality and be guided by moral law. It should, as Abraham Lincoln said, tap the resources of "the better angels of our nature."

Those who recognize authority as morally grounded, rather than an arbitrary usurping of power, will obey legitimate authorities. They will even go beyond the letter that is prescribed and be generous in striving to achieve the goals that the authority is seeking to accomplish.

The Compendium, however, does devote attention to the right to conscientious objection, even the right to resist the authority that "violate(s) in a serious or repeated manner the essential principles of natural law" (n. 400).

Drawing on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Compendium even lays down criteria for exercising the right to "armed resistance to oppression":

Such criteria would seem to severely limit the occasions under which armed insurrection is justified. Even Gandhi's peaceful resistance to British rule in India led to violence, upheaval and death. Violent insurrections – whether of the right or the left – have invariably led to chaos and repression.

But humanity cannot let grave injustice go unchallenged. What has led to some level of success in recent times – from Poland to the Philippines to Ukraine – has been religiously based mass protests to flagrant injustice.

Ultimately, the power of conscience aroused is greater than the power of the gun. It is well-formed conscience that exercises authority properly, that cooperates with such authority and that can resist the abuse of authority.