Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Morality's Hold: Authority and Power

THE POET HORACE WROTE in one of his poems:
Power without wisdom falls by its own weight:
The gods themselves advance temperate power:
And likewise hate force that, with its whole
Consciousness, is intent on wickedness.*

Power must be tempered, guided by something, and in the Catholic Church's view, the fundamental order under which authority's power is to be exercised is the moral law that was established by God, the creator of heaven, earth, and man. Therefore, the Compendium states succinctly the principle that is forever the bane of tyrants: "Authority must be guided by the moral law." (Compendium, No. 396) From the moral order, authority obtains its power to impose obligations and its moral legitimacy.

There is no moral law without regard to God, since the moral order has God as the fons et origo and the finis ultimus:

All of its [authority's] dignity derives from its being exercised within the context of the moral order, "which in turn has God for its first source and final end."

(Compendium, No. 396) (quoting Pope John XXIII, Pacem in terris, No. 270) In fact, recognition of the existence of God is absolutely necessary to prevent the advent of tyranny, because the moral order upon which authority relies "has no existence except in God; cut off from God it must necessarily disintegrate." (Compendium, No. 396) (quoting Pope John XXIII, Mater et magistra, 450) The modern loss of the sense of God therefore suggests not freedom, but oppression.

The moral order precedes authority, and is the basis of authority, which is to say that authority is nothing but tyranny without it. Authority--which is a moral concept--should therefore be distinguished from power--which is a legal, political, social, historical, or practical concept. Tyrants wield power--a legal, political, or practical reality--arbitrarily, without regard to the moral law, and hence they undermine their own foundation. Sic semper tyrannis!

Since power exercised without regard to authority is tyranny, denial of a moral order and of a natural moral law is tantamount to tyranny. And this is true whether the form of tyranny is in the form of one (monarchy or dictator) or the form of many (democracy). Tyranny is not based on form, but on substance. Tyranny exists whenever power--wherever it is to be found and in whatever manner exercised--acts without reference to an objective moral law.

Since authority flows from the moral law, it follows that authority will "recognize, respect, and promote essential human and moral values." These human and moral values are built in human nature so to speak, and, as John Paul II felicitously phrased it in his encyclical Evangelium vitae, "flow from the very truth of the human being and express and safeguard the dignity of the person." These human and moral values, the great Pope continues, are such that "no individual, no majority, and no State can ever create, modify, or destroy." (Evangelium vitae, 71).

The collapse of moral consensus in the West caused by the rejection of an objective moral order--the natural moral law--which leads to a vicious skepticism or relativism in morality therefore forebodes a frightening return of tyranny. This, of course, has been famously referred to as the "tyranny of relativism" by Pope Benedict XVI.

The inability to appreciate an objective moral order is also tied to the increased secularization of social, political, and legal life. We act as practical atheists. We act as if God did not exist.
If, as a result of the tragic clouding of the collective conscience, skepticism were to succeed in casting doubt on the basic principles of the moral law, the legal structure of the State itself would be shaken to its very foundations, being reduced to nothing more than a mechanism for the pragmatic regulation of different and opposing interests.
(Compendium, No. 397)

The world has groaned, and finds itself in this "tragic cloud" were all moral truths are denied and God's providence no longer offers guidance. Our moral vision thus obscured we walk lemming-like right into the pit of tyranny.

Since it is properly anchored in the moral law, authority properly exercised will enact just and moral laws. As the Compendium summarizes the relationship between the natural moral law, authority, and positive laws, citing back to the principles so well-stated by St. Thomas Aquinas:

Authority must enact just laws, that is, laws that correspond to the dignity of the human person and to what is required by right reason. "Human law is law insofar as it corresponds to right reason and therefore is derived from the eternal law. When, however, a law is contrary to reason, it is called an unjust law; in such a case it ceases to be law and becomes instead an act of violence."

(Compendium, No. 398) (quoting S.T. IaIIae, q. 93, a. 3, ad 2)

When human laws conform to the natural law--which is a participation in the eternal law of God--then they bind in conscience. That is why the Compendium states the traditional teaching:
Authority that governs according to reason places citizens in a relationship not so much of subjection to another person as of obedience to the moral order and, therefore, to God himself who is its ultimate source. Whoever refuses to obey an authority that is acting in accordance with the moral order "resists what God has appointed" (Rom. 13:2).
(Compendium, No. 398)

Not only must human laws conform to reason, they must also promote the common good. Indeed, it is the same thing to say that a human law is unreasonable, does not promote the common good,** is against the natural law, or is against God's law, since these are all different ways of saying the same thing.

When human laws do not conform to the natural law, when they are unreasonable, or when they act against the common good, then any tie between God's eternal law and human law is severed, and human law flails in the winds of moral chaos, like some kite that has lost its anchoring string. Such laws have lost their authority, are acts of raw will not reason, and in fact are hand in glove with the central law of the Devil: "Evil, be thou my good!"***

*Horace, Odes III.4.65-70 (Vis consili expers mole ruit sua; / Vim temperatum di quoquo provehunt / In maius; idem odere vires / omne nefasanim moventis.)
**As the Compendium notes: "[W]henever public authority--which has its foundation in human nature and belongs to the order pre-ordained by God--fails to seek the common good, it abandons its proper purpose and so delegitimizes itself." (Compendium, No. 398) By rejecting the natural moral law and the objective moral order, this seems to be increasingly applicable to most Western governments.
***John Milton, Paradise Lost, IV, 108.

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