Published on May 10, 2004
From EPPC senior fellow George Weigel’s new book Letters to a Young Catholic, which was published in March by Basic Books:
When Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, referred to a national rebirth of freedom “under God,” he was unintentionally adverting to the most fundamental idea that Western civilization learned from Catholicism: that God’s sovereignty transcends and stands in judgment on all worldly sovereignties. Because God is God, Caesar is not God and neither are Caesar’s successors, be they kings, presidents, prime ministers, or party general secretaries. And because Caesar and his successors aren’t God, their power is limited, not absolute; in addition to Caesar’s legitimate power, there are other legitimate powers in the world.
So the state cannot be all there is. Long before Enlightenment political theorists began challenging royal absolutism with ideas like Montesquieu’s “separation of powers,” Western civilization learned the idea of “limited government” in the school of Christian reflection. When medieval Catholic thinkers insisted on a sharp distinction between “society” and the “state,” they created a vaccine against absolutism in either its royal or modern (totalitarian) form. The vaccine wasn’t completely effective. But its potency may help explain why the age of absolutism was a rather short one, as these things go in history.
Medieval Catholicism also helped plant in the Western mind the idea that “consent” is crucial to just governance. Government isn’t simply coercion, medieval Catholic political theory insisted; just governance requires consent. Consent would be forthcoming if governance were just. And who would judge the justice of a particular form or style of governance, or the justice of a particular act of state? The Church’s claim to be able to judge princes, and the Catholic teaching that “the people” have an inherent sense of justice within them, injected a crucial idea into the political-cultural subsoil of the West—the idea that “justice” isn’t simply what those in authority say it is. There are moral standards of justice that are independent of governments; we can know those moral standards, and they ought to be applied in public life. All of these ideas, fundamental to democracy, were nurtured in the civilization of the Middle Ages by the Catholic Church.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.