Neither Statism nor Individualism
June 1999By Thomas Storck
Thomas Storck, who writes from Greenbelt, Maryland, is a Contributing Editor of the NOR and the author of The Catholic Milieu and Foundations of a Catholic Political Order.
Among more than one set of Christians today, the government, particularly the U.S. federal government, is considered an enemy. I understand and sympathize with that judgment. The government protects abortionists and puts defenders of unborn life in prison; spends large sums abroad to corrupt other countries with birth control and sex education; funds agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts, which gives money to blasphemers; frequently usurps the rights of parents; in short, today the actions of the federal government, and of many state governments, often seem designed to denigrate and destroy Christian life and exalt evil.
It is no wonder, then, that many Christians regard the state as an enemy and are ready converts to a libertarian philosophy that sees government as a barely necessary evil and seeks to minimize its functions almost to the vanishing point. Is not this the most effective way of protecting ourselves against state encroachment?
Attractive as this might be, I do not think we can accept a point of view that sees the state as an evil, even a necessary evil. In fact, no Catholic can hold a true libertarian point of view and remain orthodox. There are a good many distinctions which must be drawn in this matter, but as a beginning we might look at quotations from two popes that indicate an attitude of great respect toward the institution of civil authority. First from Leo XIIIs encyclical Sapientiae Christianae (1890): 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. Then from Pius XIs encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931): The State should be the supreme arbiter, ruling in queenly fashion far above all party contention, intent only upon justice and the common good .
These words should give us pause, for they embody an attitude toward public authority quite different from that held by the many Catholic critics of government. But, on the other hand, it would be too simplistic and equally false to embrace an expansionist view of the government, one that sees a new government program as the solution to every ill of mankind or that naively trusts the government never to do wrong. The modern state does overstep its bounds and does so quite often. But in considering government, we must be like St. Peter, who, though he was put to death by the Roman government for preaching the Gospel, had written, Be subject for the Lords sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right (1 Pet. 2:13-14); or like St. Paul, likewise put to death for the Gospel, yet who wrote even more strongly, For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is Gods servant for your good (Rom. 13:3-4).
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