On Political Atheism

by Tommaso Maria Cardinal Zigliara, OP

Translated by Timothy Wilson

Today we continue our series of original translations of important texts relating to Catholic political philosophy. Tommaso Maria Cardinal Zigliara was a prominent Thomist philosopher and theologian in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Among many other accomplishments, he was closely involved with the preparation of the Leonine edition of the Angelic Doctor’s Opera Omnia (the first volume of which contains his synopses and annotations on St. Thomas’ Organon commentaries), and assisted in preparing the encyclicals Aeterni Patris and Rerum novarum.

The chapter translated here is taken from book two of the third part of Zigliara’s widely circulated Summa philosophica (14th ed., 1910). Having treated of domestic, civil, and religious society in their principles and particulars in the preceding books and chapters of this part, he now sets himself the task of treating in brief the relations which should obtain between those two perfect societies, the Church and the State. The original text can be found here.

This is the first of the five articles of the chapter, treating of political atheism. The remaining articles will be posted serially over the next few days.

On the mutual relations between Church and State

The nature of the Catholic Church having been set forth, and its power, consequently it remains to speak of the mutual relations existing between the Church and the civil State. And indeed it is proper to the Catholic Church, that it have members in every part of the world, and thus would rule over subjects of all nations; whence it comes about, that its power is found in intimate relation with civil States. It is necessary, therefore, that we speak of these mutual relations between the Church and the civil State. Indeed it is a difficult subject, not by its nature, but on account of the injustice of times and the malice of men. But that we might plainly determine the aforesaid relations, we begin from more remote principles, inquiring firstly of political atheism: whether indeed the political State thus is able to conduct itself as if no religion existed, and as if God did not exist;—secondly, of liberty of conscience, as they call it;—thirdly, of liberty of cult;—fourthly, of liberty of teaching;fifthly, of the subordination of the State to the Church.

On political atheism

I. The notion of political atheism. Earlier in our treatise we distinguished atheism into the species of theoretical and practical, insofar as either the existence of God is positively denied, or life is conducted as if God did not exist. In this second sense do we inquire concerning political atheism. For the elements of society are two: the governing element, in which there rests social authority, and the governed element, or the subjects, who are ordered by the ruler to the common good. And with respect to the governing element—whether he be called a prince, or is called by another name—is he able, in the drawing up of laws, in their execution, or in exercising judiciary power, to act as if God did not exist, and consequently to have no regard for divine laws, whether natural or positive? Behold the question.

II. The principles of political atheism. To the question proposed, the political atheist responds affirmatively; it is not difficult to assign the erroneous principles from which it is logically inferred, for they are both designated and proscribed many times in the lauded Syllabus, delivered by the authority of our most holy lord Pope Pius IX. Accordingly, whether the existence of God is denied; or, as with pantheism, his nature is confounded with the nature of the world; or, the existence of God having been posited, His divine providence is denied—God is always excluded from the world, such that «any action of God upon men and the world is to be denied» (Prop. II).

From this it follows, 1° that «Human reason, having no regard at all for God, is the single arbiter of the true and false, good and evil; it is a law unto itself, and suffices, by its natural powers, for procuring the good of men and peoples» (Prop. III).

— 2° Thus, «They derive all truths of religion from the native force of human reason; hence reason is the chief norm by which man may be able and ought to arrive at knowledge of all the truths of any sort of knowledge whatsoever» (Prop. IV).

— 3° Therefore «the laws of morals by no means require divine sanction, and it is not at all necessary, that human laws should be conformed to the law of nature, or that they should receive binding force from God» (Prop. LVI).

— 4° Therefore «Knowledge of philosophic and moral matters, and likewise civil laws, are able and ought to decline from divine and ecclesiastical authority» (Prop. LVII).

— 5° «Therefore the State, as the origin and font of all rights, enjoys a certain right circumscribed by no bounds» (Prop. XXXIX).

— 6° Therefore «right consists in material fact, and all duties of men are a hollow name, and all human deeds have the force of right» (Prop. LIX).

— 7° Therefore «the chance injustice of a deed causes no harm to the sanctity of right» (Prop. LXI).

— 8° Therefore «Authority is nothing other than the sum of number and material powers» (Prop. LX).

Errors of this sort, as anyone may see, are connected: for from the denial of God, descending, one arrives at materialism, and material force is opposed to individual right, and the despotism of the stronger to social right. Behold political atheism, both in its principles, and in its inferences proved by fact itself. Bayle, with whom Voltaire himself disagreed concerning this matter, dreamt of an atheistic society; Rousseau, for the most part, consented to Bayle in Book IV, ch. 7 of the Social Contract; both are more or less followed by those politicians who argue for the absolute separation of the State from the Church. Against all these, the conclusion is set forth:

III. Political atheism is absurd. It is proved. Political atheism dissolves society itself: because it is directly opposed so much to the end as to the essential elements of society. Therefore political atheism is absurd. — The antecedent is proved.

It is directly opposed to the end of society. The end of society is the perfection of the citizens, to be obtained through means which each and every person is not able to have from himself, and has from society; which perfection consists chiefly in the knowledge of one’s proper duties, and in the virtue by which those duties are carried out. But we have proved (32, IV) that the more principal duties of religion are the foundation of all other duties.[1] Therefore in society, and from society, the citizens principally ought to have the means by which they might carry out the duties of religion. But political atheism is either the denial of those things which pertain to religion, or at least an indifference and carelessness concerning the same, as it indeed defines itself. Therefore political atheism is directly opposed to the more principal end of human society. Wherefore Rousseau himself, in the text cited, against Bayle and indeed against himself, acknowledges that never was there any State founded, the basis of which was not religion. But if religion is the basis of society, then, religion having been expelled, it is necessary that human society should collapse.

It is opposed to the essential elements of society. The elements of this sort, as has been said, are the sovereign and the subjects: the former commands; the latter should be subject to him by the laws. Again, according to the hypothesis of political atheism, social authority depends upon no moral foundation and has no reason for existing. And this is indeed the case. Social authority is not the sum of number and material powers (51, V), but is something essentially moral, claiming for itself the right of ruling the human multitude. And thus it is not from the individual reason, to which no command or authority belongs of itself over other men, nor from an impersonal source, which is something abstract and fantastical, but is immediately from God, as a derivation or participation of the divine authority (ibid. IV). Therefore, political authority is not able to call itself atheistic, lest by this very act it necessarily and essentially negate itself. — The same result comes to pass if social authority were considered with respect to setting forth laws. For civil laws are naught except either proclamations of the law of nature, or determinations of that law of nature (25, VIII): but the law of nature is nothing other than a participation of the eternal law, from which every other law has its force. In consequence, political atheism is the denial of authority in itself; it is the denial of human legislation, which is null, for according to this hypothesis, it has no moral force to obligate. — Finally it should be added, that political authority, if it removes in whatever degree from God, should be said to depend on nothing other than itself. But this is State-theism, or, as it is called in the vulgar tongue, il Dio Stato, which in fact is able to be nothing other than the individual reason or will of rulers, governed not by a moral and superior principle, but by the force of arms and a supremely powerful ruler. Evidently, in political atheism, human society is not ruled by moral authority, but by the will and violence of individual reason, in that manner by which brute animals are governed.

The same conclusion is entirely proved, if we should consider the subjects. For these are men, that is, moral beings, to be directed in their course not through violence, but through law. Seeing, therefore, that the political authority professing atheism depends upon no moral principle, and the laws drawn up by it rest upon no principle superior to the individual reason, the citizens, reasoning in an ad hominem manner (L.41, XI), are not able to consider the authority as morally superior to themselves, and its laws as having the force of moral obligation; but they oppose individual reason to the individual reason of the one ruling. There remains the material force which prevails in the ruler; but material force is not a social bond of men; thereon to be shunned by means of ill will, no indeed, it is able to be overcome; and thus, by means of force, impious and foolish sovereigns are able to rob majesty from the citizens, which majesty they abuse against God. And so it happens that political authority, rising up against God in a most impious manner, sees its subjects rising up against itself.

I do not speak of the impiety of political atheism: for this is clear in itself. For if it is impious, that a citizen deny to God the duties of religion, it is most impious among those who rule society. For these latter are men, and so are obliged to fulfill those things which are man’s for God; they are rulers, and so ought to lead the way for all their subjects in the example of virtue and religion; they are for the good of society, and so ought not to subvert or subordinate religion, but ought, with all their powers, to promote it, so that men might not draw detriment from society—from which they have the right of aspiring to moral perfection—in those things which chiefly look to perfection, that is, religion and the eternal salvation of the soul.


[1] Zigliara here makes reference to earlier sections in the Ethica (lib. I, cap. 1, a. III no. III; cap. 2, a. I, no. IV) where, treating of right, duties, and religion considered in itself as a virtue, he writes:

«III. Nevertheless, in a created moral person, duty is more prior than right. And in fact, the first thing which is found in an existing man (and the same is said of any other created moral person) is the creaturely esse, which essentially implies a dependence, physical as well as moral, upon the Creator, so that the creature might observe the laws of the Creator, pursuing faithfully the order to the end set in place by Him. This primitive and essential duty having been posited, there spring forth the rights of preserving and defending life, of employing means necessary for perfecting themselves and for achieving their end, and others of this sort; but, that primitive and essential duty having been removed, all rights crumble because destitute of rational foundation: which is also clear from other quarters from the things said before (29, II). Whence that is to be retained as an unshaken principle: Human rights proceed from duties toward God.

[…] IV. The duties of religion are the chiefest duties, and are the foundation of all duties. This proposition is the corollary of the preceding. For the duties of religion emerge from the very essence of man, and from the very essence of God, as we have proved in no. II. Therefore they are the chiefest. — In addition, God having been removed by hypothesis, there also perishes by that very fact the reason for any duty whatsoever. Therefore religion, which implies an ordering to God, as has been said, is the foundation of all duties. Let St. Thomas be heard, who, by reason of the end to which the virtues are ordered, infers that religion is preeminent among the other moral virtues, and consequently that the duties of religion are chief among all our other duties: “Those things which are for an end, draw their goodness from the order to the end; and thus, however much they are nearer to the end, so much are they better. But the moral virtues, as has been said above, are concerned with those things which are ordered to God, as to an end. But religion approaches more nearly to God than the other moral virtues, insofar as it works those things which directly and immediately are ordered to the divine honor. And thus religion is preeminent among the other moral virtues” (ST IIaIIæ, q. 81, a. 7).»

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