Leonine radicalism and ressourcement


It is high time for Catholics to rediscover the magisterium of Leo XIII. There is a sense, we think, that the modern, liberal order is at a point of inflection, if not a point of crisis, and the cleverer among us are beginning to think about “what’s next.” Likewise, Leo’s pontificate, beginning in 1878 and continuing to 1903, took place during a similar moment of crisis—essentially between the revolutions of 1848 and 1870 and the First World War. And in this atmosphere, Leo taught often and at great length about the rightly ordered civil state, correct relations between the Church and states, and the duties of Christians in civil society. His lessons, however, have been forgotten, particularly as the Church itself has acceded, perhaps merely as a prudential decision, to the postwar liberal order.

Leo has not been forgotten, however, with his encyclical Rerum novarum considered the beginning of the Church’s social teaching. Yet even Rerum novarum is dragged into the service of the liberal order and construed as a great support for free-market capitalism. It is, of course, anything but. It is of a piece with Leo’s other great encyclicals on social matters, including Immortale Dei, Libertas praestantissimum, and Diuturnum illud. Throughout Leo’s social encyclicals, including the encyclicals about the constitution of the state, so to speak, he articulated what we would today call integralism. The state, no less than the individual, has duties to God, and the State is at least indirectly subordinated to the Church, since the end of the Church is much, much more excellent than the end of the state. This is profoundly illiberal thought.

But it is thought in keeping not only with the teaching of the Church but also the broader philosophical underpinnings (i.e., Aristotle) of that tradition. In other words, it poses none of the risks of other, no less illiberal ideologies that are in the air right now, including nationalism. It is, we think, time for a ressourcement of the Leonine magisterium. Catholics should return to Leo’s thought to see what the first principles of a rightly ordered state are. Obviously, such a project will have to be undertaken by individual Catholics or Catholics in groups, as the post-Conciliar amnesia of tradition applies to no one more strongly than Leo XIII. However, if this is an inflection point for liberalism, it will be necessary, we think, to be prepared to right the sinking ship of modern life. And that requires, ultimately, Christian principles of society.

Of course, the Leonine magisterium has a reputation for being conservative, not to say reactionary. For example, subsequent treatments of his magisterium, like St. Pius X’s syllabus Fin dalla prima nostra, tended to present it in a very conservative light. And to be sure, Leo was concerned with maintaining, if not the then-existing order, then respect for rulers and majesty, which seemed to him, correctly, to be in peril. However, it is, we think, a mistake to try to force Leo’s teachings into narrow political terms. Not least because some of his teachings were, to modern liberal eyes, quite radical. That is not to say that they are remotely controversial in doctrinal terms; simply that a modern liberal subject would likely consider them radical. And a project of Leonine ressourcement must include a fair assessment of even these teachings.


To give an example of “Leonine radicalism,” we turn to the question of when a Christian must disobey the law. One may assume that a supposed conservative like Leo would, of course, hold, as the Church has taught from St. Paul down to the present day, that Christians have an obligation to obey the law. Leo emphasizes, however, that this is not absolutely true. We shall see that a Christian may have a positive duty to disobey the law, and, moreover, this duty is not inconsistent with the obligation of a Christian to obey the civil authorities. We begin with  his 1890 encyclical “On Christians as Citizens,” Sapientiae Christianae:

Hence, they who blame, and call by the name of sedition, this steadfastness of attitude in the choice of duty have not rightly apprehended the force and nature of true law. We are speaking of matters widely known, and which We have before now more than once fully explained. Law is of its very essence a mandate of right reason, proclaimed by a properly constituted authority, for the common good. But true and legitimate authority is void of sanction, unless it proceed from God, the supreme Ruler and Lord of all. The Almighty alone can commit power to a man over his fellow men; nor may that be accounted as right reason which is in disaccord with truth and with divine reason; nor that held to be true good which is repugnant to the supreme and unchangeable good, or that wrests aside and draws away the wills of men from the charity of God.

Hallowed, therefore, in the minds of Christians is the very idea of public authority, in which they recognize some likeness and symbol as it were of the Divine Majesty, even when it is exercised by one unworthy. A just and due reverence to the laws abides in them, not from force and threats, but from a consciousness of duty; “for God hath not given us the spirit of fear.”

But, if the laws of the State are manifestly at variance with the divine law, containing enactments hurtful to the Church, or conveying injunctions adverse to the duties imposed by religion, or if they violate in the person of the supreme Pontiff the authority of Jesus Christ, then, truly, to resist becomes a positive duty, to obey, a crime; a crime, moreover, combined with misdemeanor against the State itself, inasmuch as every offense leveled against religion is also a sin against the State. Here anew it becomes evident how unjust is the reproach of sedition; for the obedience due to rulers and legislators is not refused, but there is a deviation from their will in those precepts only which they have no power to enjoin. Commands that are issued adversely to the honor due to God, and hence are beyond the scope of justice, must be looked upon as anything rather than laws. You are fully aware, venerable brothers, that this is the very contention of the Apostle St. Paul, who, in writing to Titus, after reminding Christians that they are “to be subject to princes and powers, and to obey at a word,” at once adds: “And to be ready to every good work.” Thereby he openly declares that, if laws of men contain injunctions contrary to the eternal law of God, it is right not to obey them. In like manner, the Prince of the Apostles gave this courageous and sublime answer to those who would have deprived him of the liberty of preaching the Gospel: “If it be just in the sight of God to hear you rather than God, judge ye, for we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”

(Emphasis supplied and footnotes omitted.) Consider the radicalism of the idea that it is a duty to resist an unjust law—more on that in a moment—and a crime to obey. And not merely a crime against God, but also a crime against the state. Now, there is some room for prudential discussion about what it means to “resist” or to “obey” an unjust law. However, that is a secondary issue.

We note that Sapientiae Christianae was not Leo’s sole treatment of civil disobedience. For example, in Diuturnum illud, his 1881 encyclical “On the Origin of Civil Power,” he taught,

The one only reason which men have for not obeying is when anything is demanded of them which is openly repugnant to the natural or the divine law, for it is equally unlawful to command to do anything in which the law of nature or the will of God is violated. If, therefore, it should happen to any one to be compelled to prefer one or the other, viz., to disregard either the commands of God or those of rulers, he must obey Jesus Christ, who commands us to “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” and must reply courageously after the example of the Apostles: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” And yet there is no reason why those who so behave themselves should be accused of refusing obedience; for, if the will of rulers is opposed to the will and the laws of God, they themselves exceed the bounds of their own power and pervert justice; nor can their authority then be valid, which, when there is no justice, is null.

(Emphasis supplied and footnotes omitted.) This is a capsule summary of the treatment, as we see it, in Sapientiae Christianae. Thus, we may say comfortably that Leo’s magisterium includes as a major theme the duty to resist unjust laws and the compatibility of such a duty with obedience to the civil authorities.

Of course, Leo’s notion of the power in law is profoundly Thomistic. This is, really, no surprise, given the importance that Leo placed on Thomas’s thought. Looking at this question in his Treatise on Law in the Summa, the Angelic Doctor taught:

Laws framed by man are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience, from the eternal law whence they are derived, according to Prov. 8:15: “By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things.” Now laws are said to be just, both from the end, when, to wit, they are ordained to the common good—and from their author, that is to say, when the law that is made does not exceed the power of the lawgiver—and from their form, when, to wit, burdens are laid on the subjects, according to an equality of proportion and with a view to the common good. For, since one man is a part of the community, each man in all that he is and has, belongs to the community; just as a part, in all that it is, belongs to the whole; wherefore nature inflicts a loss on the part, in order to save the whole: so that on this account, such laws as these, which impose proportionate burdens, are just and binding in conscience, and are legal laws.

 On the other hand laws may be unjust in two ways: first, by being contrary to human good, through being opposed to the things mentioned above—either in respect of the end, as when an authority imposes on his subjects burdensome laws, conducive, not to the common good, but rather to his own cupidity or vainglory—or in respect of the author, as when a man makes a law that goes beyond the power committed to him—or in respect of the form, as when burdens are imposed unequally on the community, although with a view to the common good. The like are acts of violence rather than laws; because, as Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5), “a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all.” Wherefore such laws do not bind in conscience, except perhaps in order to avoid scandal or disturbance, for which cause a man should even yield his right, according to Mt. 5:40,41: “If a man . . . take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him; and whosoever will force thee one mile, go with him other two.”

Secondly, laws may be unjust through being opposed to the Divine good: such are the laws of tyrants inducing to idolatry, or to anything else contrary to the Divine law: and laws of this kind must nowise be observed, because, as stated in Acts 5:29, “we ought to obey God rather than man.”

(ST Ia IIae q.96 a.4 co.) (emphasis supplied). However, Leo seems to go beyond Thomas’s teaching, however (and not for the only time). Thomas observes that laws at variance with the common good, essentially, do not bind in conscience, though a subject may make a prudential decision to submit to the law to avoid scandal or disturbance. In other words: violence. But human laws at variance with the divine law specifically cannot be obeyed at all, violence or no violence. Leo, on the other hand, teaches that human laws at variance with the divine or natural law are null and void, and that man must obey God’s laws rather than man’s in case of conflict.

This apparent extension can, we think, be explained by the Thomistic concept of natural law; that is, the natural law is the participation in the eternal law by reason (ST Ia IIae q.91 a.2 co.). Now, Thomas’s treatment of natural law is broader and more complex, especially as the natural law relates to virtue and vice versa, but this is a good enough statement of the law, so to speak. If, then, the natural law is our participation in the eternal law, then a violation of the natural law has consequences in the realm of the eternal law. To hold otherwise would be to introduce a division between the natural law and the eternal law, and Thomas himself repudiates the notion that the natural law and the eternal law are somehow separate (ST Ia IIae q.91 a.2 ad 1). Thus, a law that violates the natural law violates also the eternal law.

It is also worth observing, perhaps idly, that Thomas also taught that just laws flow from the natural law (ST Ia IIae q.95 a.2 co.). In particular, there are two ways this works. One, the lawgiver may draw conclusions from the premises of the natural law. Two, the lawgiver, acting as a craftsman, may give a particular shape to this or that idea inherent in the natural law. All this explains, in part, why there is a diversity of human laws, instead of one set of implementations of the natural law (ST Ia IIae q.95 a.2 obj. 3 & ad 3). It also gives us some pause about adopting a too-ferocious attitude about what is or is not consistent with the natural law. In the words of Thomas Gilby, O.P., the natural law is not “a kind of grid that could be laid on the plan of human life; it is the first stage in the working out of the living idea in divine government for incompletely intelligent and loving creatures, moving them to their fulfillment” (Blackfriars Summa v.28 appx. 6, p. 178). Gilby also makes manifest the connection between the natural law and the common good (ibid.). In some instances, it will be readily obvious that a human law contravenes the natural law. Take the laws on abortion in many western countries as an example. But, in other cases, it will not be so obvious that the law violates the natural law or harms the common good. In these cases, careful reasoning is required.

However, to a modern mind, or, indeed, even a particularly patriotic mind, there is a bigger problem than whether Leo goes beyond St. Thomas or whether there is an apparent difference between a law that violates the eternal law and a law that merely violates the natural law. There appears to be a serious contradiction between a duty to resist and a duty to obey. In part, this is due to liberalism, which rejects the idea that a law contrary to the eternal or natural law is no law; instead, the will of the sovereign, however that is defined, is sufficient to provide authority to law. It is also due to a disordered concept of the state, which tends toward positivism. Nevertheless, there may appear to be a contradiction between a duty to disobey unjust laws and true obedience to the state. But such a contradiction may be resolved, we think, by the profound resonances between this treatment in Sapientiae Christianae and a very interesting passage in Au milieu des sollicitudes, Leo’s 1892 ralliement encyclical. There, the pope taught, after condemning revolutionary activity generally:

it must be carefully observed that whatever be the form of civil power in a nation, it cannot be considered so definitive as to have the right to remain immutable, even though such were the intention of those who, in the beginning, determined it.… Only the Church of Jesus Christ has been able to preserve, and surely will preserve unto the consummation of time, her form of government. Founded by Him who was, who is, and who will be forever, she has received from Him, since her very origin, all that she requires for the pursuing of her divine mission across the changeable ocean of human affairs. And, far from wishing to transform her essential constitution, she has not the power even to relinquish the conditions of true liberty and sovereign independence with which Providence has endowed her in the general interest of souls… But, in regard to purely human societies, it is an oft-repeated historical fact that time, that great transformer of all things here below, operates great changes in their political institutions. On some occasions it limits itself to modifying something in the form of the established government; or, again, it will go so far as to substitute other forms for the primitive ones—forms totally different, even as regards the mode of transmitting sovereign power.

And how are these political changes of which We speak produced? They sometimes follow in the wake of violent crises, too often of a bloody character, in the midst of which preexisting governments totally disappear; then anarchy holds sway, and soon public order is shaken to its very foundations and finally overthrown. From that time onward a social need obtrudes itself upon the nation; it must provide for itself without delay. Is it not its privilege—or, better still, its duty—to defend itself against a state of affairs troubling it so deeply, and to re-establish public peace in the tranquillity of order? Now, this social need justifies the creation and the existence of new governments, whatever form they take; since, in the hypothesis wherein we reason, these new governments are a requisite to public order, all public order being impossible without a government. Thence it follows that, in similar junctures, all the novelty is limited to the political form of civil power, or to its mode of transmission; it in no wise affects the power considered in itself. This continues to be immutable and worthy of respect, as, considered in its nature, it is constituted to provide for the common good, the supreme end which gives human society its origin. To put it otherwise, in all hypotheses, civil power, considered as such, is from God, always from God: “For there is no power but from God.”

(Footnotes omitted and emphasis supplied.) In other words, Leo distinguishes between the civil power itself and its political form or mode of transmission. The government, so to speak, exercises and transmits the civil power, but it is not the civil power itself. Now, one can—and no less an authority than Roberto de Mattei has—criticize Au milieu and ralliement for a variety of reasons. Perhaps there is a tension between Leo’s illiberal—that is to say, Christian—politics and his embrace, likely for prudential reasons, of ralliement.

However, as we said, it seems to us that there are resonances between Sapientiae Christianae and Au milieu. That is, the division between the civil power and the political government explains—considered in addition to the authority of Holy Writ—the apparent contradiction between a duty to disobey unjust laws and a simultaneous claim to obedience. The civil power, constituted by God “to provide for the common good,” would not—cannot—be at variance with the divine or natural law, for the divine and natural law are the common good in a meaningful way. However, political governments, made up of men, can be at variance with the divine or natural law, insofar as man considered individually may sin. The political government, when it is at variance, ceases to exercise the civil power in that instance. The government, in purporting to promulgate an unjust law, has lost its divine sanction. But recall that it is not the civil power; it is simply the political form and means of transmission. Thus, the Christian obeys the true civil power while rejecting the invalid act of the political government. The duty to resist is thereby harmonized with true obedience.

It seems to us that Catholics have lost this sense of higher obedience. Instead, they have adopted the dreary liberal notion that the laws must be respected, right or wrong. The Catholic’s sole recourse in the case of a bad law is to pursue change of the law through the designated channels. Of course, it is perhaps unlikely that a government that implemented a bad law would leave open meaningful channels for Catholics to agitate for change. To resist the law more openly is, for many, sedition. Leo explains that this simply is not the case, and it is in the context of these erroneous attitudes that Leo’s teaching may be called “radical.” It is, as Leo explains, true obedience to the civil power to resist unjust laws. The political form of government is not the civil power. This does not create a sanction for revolutionary activity, of course, as Leo’s discourse in Au milieu is in the immediate context of condemning revolution, but neither does it require a sort of fatalistic quietism. It is a crime to obey an unjust law. Worse than that, by promulgating an unjust law, the political government has lost, at least in the scope of the law, its divine sanction to rule.

The Christian, then, confronted with a government that has abdicated its divine sanction to rule, must remain obedient to the immutable civil power, which is from God, which may include obedience to the government where it rules justly. In other words, the contradiction between a duty to resist unjust laws and obedience to civil authorities is only apparent. With a correct understanding of what the civil authorities are—and are not—the contradiction disappears. One may resist a government without resisting the civil power if the government has ceased to exercise the civil power justly, which is to say altogether.


You may, dear reader, object for whatever reason to the sort of analysis we have engaged in here. However, our point, even if we are wrong in our assessment of the Leonine magisterium on this question, is that the Leonine magisterium must be recovered by Catholics attempting to navigate this political moment. We submit, perhaps not quite as humbly as we ought, that this analysis is an example of what Catholics ought to be doing: returning to sound authorities and reconstructing a notion of politics in accordance with right reason. Leo’s teachings open up a vista onto other authorities, such as St. Thomas and Aristotle, who are themselves necessary to construct this politics. A politics, as it were, worthy of the name.


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