The Illegitimate State as Chastisement

by Gregory de Rivière-Blanche

 The following essay rounds out our series on the question of political legitimacy, taking up the question from a somewhat different angle, with the guidance of St. Paul and St. Thomas Aquinas. —The Editors

The Josias’s ongoing symposium regarding legitimacy has raised several interesting questions about the legitimacy of modern states. One point that has come up repeatedly in the various contributions is whether a Catholic ought to obey an illegitimate government.[1] In discussing this question, Daniel Lendman has assumed that the illegitimate state is necessarily at variance with the divine will.[2] For our part, we shall show that, to the contrary, the illegitimate state may be an expression of the divine will as a chastisement sent by God to a sinful people. We suggest, therefore, that the Catholic should consider this point when examining his relationship to an illegitimate government.

Aquinas addresses this very question in his discourse upon the thirteenth chapter of Romans, in which Paul says:

Let every soul be subject to higher powers: for there is no power but from God: and those that are, are ordained of God. Therefore he that resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God. And they that resist, purchase to themselves damnation. For princes are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good: and thou shalt have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil. Wherefore be subject of necessity, not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For therefore also you pay tribute. For they are the ministers of God, serving unto this purpose.[3]

Paul is speaking of the pagan Roman emperors and the obligations of the Christians in Rome to those emperors. Paul’s teaching here sits alongside earlier Scriptural teaching regarding rulers[4], including the words of the Lord in St. John’s Gospel: “Thou shouldst not have any power against me, unless it were given thee from above. Therefore, he that hath delivered me to thee, hath the greater sin.”[5]

Aquinas begins by noting that Paul is responding to the belief in the early Church that the freedom granted by Christ included freedom from temporal powers.[6] Paul responds that every soul is subject to higher powers—that is, temporal rulers[7]—because those powers are established by God. Aquinas demonstrates this point elegantly:

For whatever is said in common of God and creatures, comes to creatures from God, as in the case of wisdom: all wisdom comes from God (Sir 1:1). But power is said of God and of men: God does not abandon the powers, since he is powerful (Job 35:5). Hence, it follows that all human power is from God . . . . [8]

Aquinas next shows that the order of ruler and ruled is implicit in the power God gives to temporal rulers. He argues,

God made all things through his wisdom, for it says in a psalm: in wisdom have you made all (Ps 104:24). But it is the function of wisdom to dispose things in order . . . For if the power of rulers is from God and nothing is from God without order, it follows that the order whereby the lower are subjected to the higher powers is from God.[9]

This is a crucial point: if a ruler has power from God, then virtue demands that the ruled obey him. “And they that resist, purchase to themselves damnation.”[10]

Aquinas explains how the resistors “purchase to themselves damnation.” First, those who resist authority that they should obey incur punishment from God (i.e., eternal damnation), as Dathan and Abiron did when they resisted Moses and Aaron.[11] Second, those who resist authority also incur punishments imposed by the temporal authorities themselves.[12] However, Aquinas notes that, “against this is the fact that the apostles and martyrs seem to have resisted rulers and authorities and did not receive damnation from God as a result but rather a reward.”[13] He resolves the apparent contradiction easily,

The answer is that the Apostle is now speaking of one who resists a lower power as established by God. But the divine order requires that a lower power not be obeyed in opposition to a higher one, as even in human affairs a governor is not obeyed against an emperor, nor a bailiff against a king. And every human power is set under the divine power, so that no human power should be obeyed against God, as it says in Acts: we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).[14]

Having shown that resistance of the temporal powers brings both eternal and temporal damnation upon the resistor, Aquinas turns to the statement,

For princes are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good: and thou shalt have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.[15]

He connects the first part of this statement with the very purpose for having rulers, which is to create the fear of punishment that is the only thing that governs some individuals.[16] This part also supports Aquinas’s statement earlier that those who resist authority incur damnation, for, if rulers punish bad conduct and one is punished, then one is acting badly.[17] The key to avoiding punishment (and obtaining rewards) from a ruler is simply to do what is good.[18] Aquinas shows, too, that this principle applies to wicked rulers, arguing that wicked rulers are also a terror to bad acts.[19] He even goes so far as to say that wicked rulers will produce good results for the just, even if the just are oppressed.[20]

Aquinas turns to the second part: “For he is God’s minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.”[21] He explains this directly:

This is clear in regard to the proper order of rulers. For they are under the authority of God, the supreme ruler, as his ministers: because as ministers of his kingdom, you did not rule rightly (Wis 6:4). But the ruler and the magistrates work for the same end: like the magistrate of the people, so are his officials (Sir 10:2). Therefore, just as God works for the good of those who do good, so also do rulers, if they perform their office rightly.[22]

In other words, because God works for the good of those who do good, so too do rulers, who are ministers of God in their rule.

Now, coming to our point, Aquinas says,

Furthermore, even wicked rulers are God’s minister for inflicting punishments according to God’s plan; although this is not their intention: ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger, the staff of my fury . . . but he does not so intend (Isa 10:5). Behold I will send, and take all the kindreds of the north, says the Lord, and Nabuchodonosor the king of Babylon my servant: and I will bring them against this land, and against the inhabitants thereof, and against all the nations that are round about it (Jer 25:9). And also because such wicked rulers sometimes afflict good men, God permitting, who profit thereby; for we know that everything God works for the good with those who love him (Rom 8:28).[23]

One can understand this argument in the light of the previous point. God works for the good of those who do good, and he may do so through his ministers. Likewise, God punishes those who do wicked things, and he may do this through his ministers, too. However, the ruler need not understand that he is one of God’s ministers. He may think that he is acting for his own ends or according to his own design.

Lendman has argued that “Authority, therefore, is only possessed when one adheres to the eternal law as expressed by the natural law. Violation of the natural law, therefore, shows that one has forsaken one’s source of authority and that, consequently, one has no authority at all.”[24] We now see that this is not correct: God may give authority to a tyrant in order to punish a sinful nation just as he gave authority to the Assyrians to punish Israel.[25] God sends punishments not for the sake of punishment, but to spur the people to repentance and reconciliation. Gregory the Great explains, “For we are become at variance with God by sin.  Therefore it is meet that we should be brought back to peace with Him by the scourge, that whereas every being created good turns to pain for us, the mind of the chastened man may be renewed in a humbled state to peace with the Creator.”[26] In other words, God sends a wicked nation a tyrant so that the nation might repent of its sins and be reconciled to God.[27]

Furthermore, Lendman suggests strongly that once a government loses legitimacy, its citizens are no longer subject to it, or, at the very least, ought to treat its decrees with contempt. (Which is essentially saying the same thing.) However, when a tyrant has been sent by God as a chastisement, its citizens are still subject to it. We have seen that “the order whereby the lower are subjected to the higher powers”[28] is implicit in the very power of rulers. Thus, if God has sent a tyrant to chastise a sinful people, the divine order holds that the citizens are subject to the tyrant. Aquinas calls rebellion against this order contrary to virtue.[29]

One might object at this point, however, that this means that a Catholic is bound to obey a tyrant even to the point of violating the divine law. An Irish citizen might be required, one might say, to acknowledge, one way or another, one of the new same-sex “marriages.” This is not the case. Aquinas, citing the example of the martyrs, reminds us that we must obey God rather than men.[30] When the tyrant’s decrees are opposed to the divine law, the Catholic obeys God as against the tyrant as one obeys an emperor as against a governor.[31] But this does not mean that the governor has no authority whatsoever: he simply has less authority than the emperor. Furthermore, Aquinas also reminds us that God works all things, even tyranny, to the benefit of the just.[32] In particular, Aquinas notes that those who patiently suffer persecution win praise.[33]

The tyrant as a chastisement sent from God demonstrates clearly the difficulty in linking legitimacy with authority. A tyrant certainly does not pursue the common good and is, therefore, illegitimate. However, a tyrant may well have authority from God because God wills to punish a sinful nation through the tyrant. The Catholic, therefore, should not necessarily assume that the illegitimate government is completely without authority because it no longer pursues the common good.

The Catholic, instead, should consider very seriously the state of his nation and whether it is possible that God has sent the tyrant as a chastisement to the nation. Lendman discusses the United States and the apparently forthcoming legalization of same-sex “marriage”. It is apparent that large numbers of Americans support any number of objectively gravely sinful acts, ranging from abortion to no-fault divorce to same-sex “marriage.” Worse than that, many of these citizens view those acts as fundamental rights, implicit in the United States Constitution. (There are, of course, many serious sins championed by the political right, though those sins are harder to summarize in a word.) Is it beyond belief that God would send such a country a tyrant to spur it to repentance? Of course not.


[1] We accept Aquinas’s definition of a tyrant: a ruler who pursues his own good over the common good. De regno [“DR”], lib. 1, cap. 4, at ¶ 22. (Note that the paragraph numbers given for the De regno are the ones found in the online edition maintained by the Dominican House of Studies.) In our view, illegitimacy and tyranny are the same thing.

[2] D. Lendman, A Note on the Legitimacy of Governments, The Josias (May 11, 2015).

[3] Rom. 13:1–6.

[4] E.g., Prov. 8:15–16; Dan. 2:21; Sir. 10:4.

[5] Jn. 19:11.

[6] Super Epistola ad Romanos [“SR”], C.13, L.1, at 1017. (Note that the section numbers given for the Super Epistola ad Romanos are the ones found in the recent Aquinas Institute edition.)

[7] SR, cap. 13, lect. 1, at 1017–18.

[8] SR, cap. 13, lect. 1, at 1021. [Quicquid enim communiter de Deo et creaturis dicitur, a Deo in creaturas derivatur, sicut patet de sapientia, Eccli. I, 1: omnis sapientia a Domino Deo est. Potestas autem de Deo et de hominibus dicitur. Iob c. XXXVI, 5: Deus potestates non abiicit, cum ipse sit potens. Unde consequens est, quod omnis humana potestas sit a Deo.] (When given, the English translation of SR is Father Larcher’s translation, as revised by Matthew Holmes and published by the Aquinas Institute.)

[9] SR, cap. 13, lect. 1, at 1024–25 [Deus omnia per suam sapientiam fecit, secundum illud Ps. CIII, 24: omnia in sapientia fecisti. Est autem proprium sapientiae ordinate omnia disponere . . . Si enim potestas principum, inquantum talis est, a Deo est, et nihil est a Deo sine ordine, consequens est, quod etiam ordo, quo inferiores potestatibus superioribus subiiciunutur, sit a Deo].

[10] Rom. 13:2.

[11] SR, cap. 13, lect. 1, at 1027.

[12] Id.

[13] SR, cap. 13, lect. 1, at 1028 [Sed contra hoc videtur esse quod apostoli et martyres principibus et potestatibus restiterunt et ex hoc non damnationem a Deo sed praemium acquisiverunt.”]

[14] Id. [Sed dicendum est ex quod Apostolus hic loquitur de eo qui resistit potestati inferiori, secundum quod a Deo ordinata. Habet autem hoc divina ordinatio ut potestati inferiori non obediatur contra superiorem, sicut etiam in rebus humanis ut proconsuli non obediatur contra imperatorem, nec balivo contra regem. Et omnis potestas humana sub potestate Dei ordinatur et nulli potestati humanae est contra Deum obediendum, secundum illud Act. V, 29: oportet obedire magis Deo quam hominibus.]

[15] Rom. 13:3–4.

[16] SR, cap. 13, lect. 1, at 1030.

[17] Id.

[18] Rom. 13:3; SR, cap. 13, lect. 1, at 1032–33.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Rom. 13:4–5.

[22] SR, cap. 13, lect. 1, at 1034. [Quod quidem manifeste patet, quantum ad debitum ordinem principem. Sunt enim sub regimine Dei, quasi supremi principis, tamquam ministri ordinati. Sap. VI, 3: cum essetis ministri regis illius, et cetera. Ad idem autem tendit minister et dominus. Eccli. X, 2: secundum iudicem populi, sic et ministri eius. Et ideo sicut Deus operatur in bonum his qui bonum agunt, ita et principes si recte ministerium suum impleant.]

[23] SR, cap. 13, lect.1, at 1034. [Sed et mali principes ministri Dei sunt, secundum ordinationem Dei ad inferendas poenas, licet hoc sit praeter intentum eorum; secundum illud Is. X, 5: assur virga furoris mei, et baculus ipse in manu mea est. Ipse autem non sic arbitrabitur. Et Ier. XXV, 9: assumam universam cognationem Aquilonis, et Nabuchodonosor regem Babylonis servum meum, et adducam eos super terram istam, et super habitatores eius, et cetera. Et quia tales mali principes, interdum, Deo permittente, bonos affligunt, quod in bonum eorum cedit, secundum illud supra VIII, 28: diligentibus Deum, et cetera.] See also DR, lib. 1, cap. 7, at 52.

[24] Lendman, supra.

[25] Is. 10:5.

[26] Moralia in Job, lib. 3, no. 15 [Per culpam quippe Deo discordes exstitimus; dignum ergo est ut ad pacem illius per flagella redeamus; ut cum unaquaeque res bene condita nobis in dolorem vertitur, correcti mens ad auctoris pacem humiliter reformetur.] (The translation given in the text is the John Henry Parker translation.)

[27] See also Is. 10:20–21.

[28] SR, cap. 13, lect. 1, at 1025.

[29] Id.

[30] SR, cap. 13, lect. 1, at 1028.

[31] Id.

[32] SR, cap. 13, lect. 1, at 1034.

[33] SR, cap. 13, lect. 1, at 1033 [Verificatur hoc etiam de malis principibus, quorum iniustam persecutionem, dum boni patienter sustinent, laudantur. Iac. V, 11: ecce beatificamus eos qui sustinuerunt.]