Catholic Political Thought & John Locke: Part III
In the previous part of this series, I gave a detailed comparison of the views of John Locke and Pope Leo XIII on the state of nature, the origin of private property, and the proper use of private property. In this final part, I want to make a few more points regarding what I think can be called “Lockean” thought, at least as it exists in contemporary America, explore the relationship between the Catholic Church and the United States, and explain why I think all that has been considered thus far is relevant for our political situation today.
It is rather uncontroversial to note that the Declaration of Independence (DI) was influenced by Locke, and particularly by the ST. While it would be impossible to argue that the document aligns perfectly with the Catholic political tradition, invoking as it does a vague “Creator” as opposed to God (the Holy Trinity), neither is it blatantly opposed to this tradition.
Nonetheless, there are a lot of traditionalists who believe that America’s founding was a sort of historical swindle, or that the revolution against the British crown was “unjust”; and there is no shortage of leftist revisionists who also make the same claims when it suits them, even if it is for entirely different reasons. For naturally, traditionalists want to show the illegitimacy of the American founding to make a case for a Catholic monarchy, while leftists want to do so to strike a blow against the injustice of the bourgeoisie.
The Right to Rebellion
The first rejoinder to such claims is that, once again, Locke, Jefferson, and Leo XIII appear to be of one mind on the topic of rebellion against despotic powers.
Locke, ST, sec. 222: “The reason why men enter into society, is the preservation of their property… Whensoever therefore the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society… [and] endeavour to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative, (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society.”
Jefferson, DI: “That to secure these rights [life, liberty, pursuit of happiness], Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Pope Leo XIII, RN, 22: “If the citizens, if the families on entering into association and fellowship, were to experience hindrance in a commonwealth instead of help, and were to find their rights attacked instead of being upheld, society would rightly be an object of detestation rather than of desire.”
Pope Leo XIII, Libertas, 46: “Neither does the Church condemn those who, if it can be done without violation of justice, wish to make their country independent of any foreign or despotic power.”
I’m well aware that there are differences between Locke and Jefferson on what constitutes the end for which governments are established, with the former holding to “life, liberty and estate” (property) and the latter holding to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I hope my readers will see that this difference is irrelevant, though, since the main point here is that a) governments are established by consent for specific ends, and b) when a government becomes “destructive of these ends”, the people have a right to throw it off. I think all three thinkers would agree that a new authority must be established, and would be established given man’s natural inclination to live in society, so obviously none of this is an endorsement of anarchy or brigandage.
Of course this doesn’t settle the debate as to whether or not the American war of independence was in itself a just war, but I assume here for the sake of argument that it was. I will also add, and I think this is relevant especially for the traditionalists who lambaste the American founding, that not only did Catholic nations such as France assist the American rebels, but also that both Leo XIII and Pius XII noted this in a positive light. One will search in absolute vain for any papal document condemning or even criticizing the American founding.
Catholic and non-Catholic States
Some readers who are with me thus far may still be wondering where in the Catholic political tradition there is any justification for a government such as America’s, though. We’ve already noted the “Creator” as opposed to God in the DI, and we can further note that neither God nor this “Creator” is to be found anywhere in the Constitution. Is this a problem? To address this point, I will depart from Locke for a while, though he is tangentially related because of his influence (however minor or major) on the American revolutionaries.
He is also related in that his Letter Concerning Toleration is often cited as proof of his anti-Catholicism. As we will see, though, Locke’s primary contention – that Catholics are subject to “another prince” – is utterly mistaken. And yes, he does share the same premise as Hobbes and Rousseau in this regard, but the difference is that virtually all of Locke’s other arguments for government by consent and private property are completely different than theirs, and in no small part because of the resemblance they bear to the Catholic political tradition!*
Returning to the point at hand, the relevant questions are these:
1) are non-Catholics expected to form Catholic states?
2) what is the relationship between the Church and a non-Catholic state?
3) what are Catholic citizens obliged to do in a non-Catholic state?
The answer to the first question is self-evident, but I ask and answer it because there are some who, by the violence and coarseness of their anti-American rhetoric, act as if it were so. No, no one expects a country full of Anglicans, Baptists, Quakers, Puritans, and every other shade of Protestant to establish a Catholic state, republic or monarchy. And no, no one expected the (at that time) miniscule Catholic minority to go to martyrdom to oppose the establishment of a non-Catholic state.
The answer to the second question is provided by the Catholic Encyclopedia, in the entry “State and Church.” Here we find that the Church recognizes four different types of civil authority:
1) Catholic states. This is a state in which the people (or the vast majority anyway) are Catholic.
2) Non-Christian states, such as the Islamic or atheistic communist regimes.
3) Christian, but non-Catholic states, in which the people are Protestants, Orthodox, etc.
4) A mixed state, “one, namely, the constituents of whose moral personality are necessarily of diverse religions.”
Which one of these was, and is, the United States? It is clearly 4; I rule out 3 because of the establishment clause of the first amendment, even though most of the founders were Protestants of some variety. Now, what is the relationship between the Church and this kind of state?
The subordination here indicated is indirect: not that the Church does not directly reach spiritual and mixed matters, but that in their regard it directly reaches only its immediate subjects, and indirectly, through them, the State which they constitute.
Before addressing this, one more point needs to be made. Seeking to clarify public confusion on the doctrine of the union of Church and State, the Encyclopedia explains it in the following way:
The essential idea of such union is a condition of affairs where a State recognizes its natural and supernatural relation to the Church, professes the Faith, and practises the worship of the Church, protects it, enacts no laws to its hurt, while, in case of necessity and at its instance taking all just and requisite civil measures to forward the Divinely appointed purpose of the Church–in so far as all these make for the State’s own essential purpose, the temporal happiness of its citizens. That this is in principle the normal and ethically proper condition for a truly Catholic State should be evident from the religious obligations of the Catholic State as above declared…
For a State once Catholic and in union with the Church to declare a separation on the ground that it has ceased to be Catholic is an action which as a matter of objective right has no standing… That in States whose personality is constitutionally made up of every complexion of religious faith, much of it in its diversity sincere, there should be a governmental abstention from any specific denominational worship or profession of belief, and a general protection and encouragement of the individual in the practice of religion according to his own religious principles within the limits of the Natural Law, or of a general acceptance of Christianity, seems a practical necessity of evil times.
Lest anyone think that this is the private opinion of the authors of this encyclopedia entry, I think it is rather clear that they were taking their cues from Leo XIII, who writes in Immortale Dei:
The Church, indeed, deems it unlawful to place the various forms of divine worship on the same footing as the true religion, but does not, on that account, condemn those rulers who, for the sake of securing some great good or of hindering some great evil, allow patiently custom or usage to be a kind of sanction for each kind of religion having its place in the State. And, in fact, the Church is wont to take earnest heed that no one shall be forced to embrace the Catholic faith against his will… (36)
If the reader has borne with me, I am grateful. Now what does all of this mean? In the first place, I raise these points because the distinction between Catholic and non-Catholic states is almost always overlooked in Catholic political discourses, especially when they touch upon the situation of the United States. The distinction is relevant because the Church has different relationships with different kinds of states, and really one ought to be able to see the necessity of this from reason alone. Because of this, we ought to be able to further see that it is not necessary for us to insist that the United States immediately become a Catholic state in order for us, as Catholics, to support or fight for it. For as we saw, the Church in a mixed state such as ours “reaches” or exerts her influence over the state through us, her subjects. We won’t be apologizing to the secular left for that.
This brings us to the third question regarding what it is exactly Catholic citizens are supposed to do. Here I want to return to Leo XIII. In a letter to the American bishops written in 1902, Leo offers some practical advice that I think would easily apply to us as well, for reasons I will explain. After taking note of the flourishing of the Catholic Church in the United States, a historical process which filled his “heart with delight” (another topic for another time), he writes:
True, you are shown no special favor by the law of the land, but on the other hand your lawgivers are certainly entitled to praise for the fact that they do nothing to restrain you in your just liberty. You must, therefore, and with you the Catholic host behind, make strenuous use of the favorable time for action which is now at your disposal… (In Amplissimo, 3)
There are a few points to be made here. First, it is true that Leo is addressing not the laity, the Catholic citizens, but the bishops of the US. What he wants them to do with their “favorable time” is to fight various heresies springing up. But I don’t see any reason why we can’t read it as a general exhortation to all Catholics. Leo mentions the “lawgivers” of the United States, and says they are “entitled to praise” because they do no restrain the Church’s “just liberty.” This is significant, because this was written well before groups such as the ACLU and others sprang up to challenge and overturn many of the laws established by the states, in accordance with the tenth amendment, regulating vice and promoting Christianity in general.
Who are these “lawgivers”? He might be referring to the contemporary generation of lawmakers, true. But as American founder John Adams famously stated, the republican form of government he and his compatriots were establishing was distinct from other governments in that it would create “a nation of laws, not men.” Though America had passed through a Civil War and many other crises, I don’t think she had yet embarked fully and with total commitment to a course that the modern libertarians, constitutionalists, and conservatives would see as a radical departure from the original intent of the Constitution.
The point here being that I think that the very thing Leo is praising here is indeed the US Constitution, or at least the way in which it had been interpreted until then, as it had created a lot of political space for the Church to grow and thrive while, on the other hand, she was being viciously persecuted throughout Europe. To praise our lawgivers, at least at that stage in history, in other words, is to praise the Constitution and the general ideas of the founding. And to praise those, in turn, is to praise Locke at least in part. This of course, in addition to everything that was argued in part II.
The Tea Party & The Lockean Legacy
As we also see, Leo wanted the bishops to make use of this political space to their advantage, to use their just liberties to combat the spreading of absurd and erroneous ideas. I don’t think it is a leap to argue that we ought to consider this as advice for us in the Catholic laity as well. I’ve made no secret of my support for the Tea Party as a resistance movement against the growth of the secular Leviathan. Now I want to tie together what I’ve covered thus far, since the convergence of Leo and Locke on property especially, considered in the light of what was covered above, renders it even more plausible and justifiable for Catholics to get involved in this resistance.
For I believe, deep down, the Tea Party is a Lockean enterprise. Not entirely, not consciously, but in a few of its core values, most certainly. There is first of course the presence of Locke, though to varying and disputed degrees, at the American founding. And it is to the founding that the Tea Party looks for inspiration, and to which it seeks to return America to in order to remedy its various ills. At the very least it is obvious that Locke’s basic argument regarding the ends of political societies and the right of the people to abolish them when they have ceased secure them was present in the Declaration.
On a deeper level, those who are familiar with Ron Paul and the libertarian tradition he represents ought to be familiar with Lockean terms and concepts, particularly the labor theory of property. Indeed, much of the Austrian school’s moral analysis of private property rests upon Locke’s treatment of property. Ron Paul and the Austrian school in turn have been an important part of the economic message of the Tea Party thus far, at least among the more knowledgeable and well-organized cadres.
This theory, once again, is that we have an undeniable right to the fruits of our labor; what the state can legitimately take in the form of taxation (and here Catholics have to depart from some Austrians) is ultimately limited by the terms of the social contract, that is, the ends for which it is established by the consent of the governed. In other words, in consenting to form a government, we consent to taxation of a certain kind and degree.
But we do not consent to arbitrary levels of taxation, nor do we consent to taxation to fund programs and projects that are inherently and manifestly evil, such as abortion. Nor is there any justification for a welfare state; those who wrangle this out of Leo’s general statement that the state has a right to regulate property for the public good go too far. For “public good” can mean many things; for instance, it is not a legitimate use of your property to purchase child pornography. This harms the public good, and the private good of those involved as well. It ought to be all the more understood this way in light of the indisputable failures, and the consequent spread of social evils of every kind, of modern welfare regimes. They’re certainly public, but there’s little good about them.
That being said, I think the Tea Party would do well to more greatly emphasize the obligation of charity that attends Locke’s theory of property, and the Church’s as well. It should be recalled that charity is not always voluntary – in extreme cases there are just claims that can be made on private property. Even Ron Paul recognizes that there has to be a “transitional period” from statism to a freer society, for the sole reason that so many people have grown dependent on the rotten fruits of statism that they would have nothing else if they were ripped from them. And even after such a period, there would be people with legitimate needs that could only be supplied through some imposition on private property, though far fewer than in a society atomized and depersonalized by statism. Private charity would become more effective by necessity, and contrary to the claims of those who believe that without a state, everyone would go their selfish way. This selfish behavior is caused by statism, not solved by it.
This won’t be possible, of course, until the Tea Party more clearly and explicitly recognizes Christ as the author of all morality, as did Locke, and as of course did Pope Leo and do all Catholics. It really is from this alone that both Locke and Leo derive the obligation to charity and the possibility of making claims to another’s property in extreme cases; the atheist libertarians, such as the Objectivists, some of the Austrians and others, will often reject this out of hand. But unlike some rabid critics of the Tea Party, I understand that this is a process, and that right now we are at a critical stage at which encroaching statism must be resisted. This will necessitate the collaboration of believers and non-believers, but it should never, it ought to go without saying, involve a compromise of philosophical or theological truths.
If we want Christ to become the center of our political and moral vision, then we have to bring him to the party. And we can do this not only through Pope Leo XIII and other Catholics, but through the man who invented the labor theory of property while holding to Christian obligations on charity, and which so many in this movement hold today, John Locke.
*I don’t feel unjustified in engaging in that bit of speculation. In a paper on the ST by Patrick Coby for The Review of Politics (1987), it is claimed, and my own experience with Locke bears this out, that “Locke is inconsistent, or apparently so, and is thus difficult to interpret.” Coby makes this claim as he himself is attempting to discern whether or not Locke is truly in the Christian (Catholic) natural law tradition, or a sort of pseudo-Hobbesian. Like many commentators, he finds some support for both positions. I hope no one will hold it against me if I emphasize Locke’s natural law tendencies, especially in light of his arguments regarding charity, since I don’t think many in modern America who look to Lockean ideas for inspiration are moved by his Hobbesian tendencies. We ought moreover to be grateful for Locke’s inconsistency, and that it was he and not Hobbes who so influenced the founders of the United States. Indeed, I’d say its a drift towards Hobbes that we see in America’s modern statesmen, and this is what the Tea Party opposes.
Also see Murray Rothbard’s “Catholicism, Protestantism and Capitalism” for further arguments regarding the “unpaid debt” that natural law theorists such as Locke owed the Catholic tradition.