I’ve recently heard an interesting opinion that no entity has moral right to exercise authority upon any social group that is unwilling to remain under this authority (excluding inmates). Therefore, any group has the right to secede, and the central authority may not try to force the seceding entity to remain within the state, even if the secessions would lead to the end of the larger state.

For example, the Union had no right to wage war against the Confederation in attempt to enforce the integrity of the U.S.A.; the Basques and the Scottish should be granted independence; the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had no right to fight the Cossacks as they did, instead they should have granted the Cossacks independence, and limit themselves to defending their new, shrunken borders against the Cossack raids. Note that it is not my intend to discuss these particular examples, I am providing them only to help understand the main issue.

These claims were made by a Catholic priest and were backed up by some ecumenical council (sadly I don’t remember which one), which allegedly stated that each nation has the right to self-determination or even to have it’s one state (again, sadly I don’t remember the details here). Additionally, these opinions seem to be backed up by CCC 1901, which states: “If authority belongs to the order established by God, "the choice of the political regime and the appointment of rulers are left to the free decision of the citizens."” – with a footnote directing to “GS 74 # 3.

Does the Catholic Church really teach that every group has the right to secede whenever it wishes so? Does it forbid forceful attempts to prevent such secession in any case? Are there any official documents on the matter?

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    Bl. Pope Pius IX wrote a letter to Jefferson Davies, acknowledging him as "Honorable President of the Confederate States of America."
    – Geremia
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 20:50
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    @Geremia Bl. Pope Pius IX authored the famous Syllabus of Errors, where he condemns, among others, that “it is lawful to refuse obedience to legitimate princes, and even to rebel against them” and cites «Encyclical "Qui pluribus," Nov. 9, 1864; Allocution "Quibusque vestrum," Oct. 4, 1847; "Noscitis et Nobiscum," Dec. 8, 1849; Apostolic Letter "Cum Catholica."»
    – gaazkam
    Commented Jan 30, 2016 at 12:08
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    Perhaps an answer with some possible historical papal actions could be found in order to support any existing documents would be welcome. Can we find the reasons and/or any papal statements to back up various coronations such as Pepin the Short or Charlemagne? In days gone by, Popes have even placed interdicts on various regions in order to bring Catholic monarchs back to the moral code of the day, Hilaire Belloc as an historian has written on the subject of English succession and why he thinks it is invalid.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Jan 30, 2016 at 17:15
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    @gaazkam Yes, of course rebellion is a sin (cf. Eph. 6), but notice the Bl. Pope Pius IX says "legitimate princes." Some have lost their authority by enacting laws contrary to the natural or divine laws.
    – Geremia
    Commented Jan 30, 2016 at 19:14
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    @Geremia That’s interesting. Many thanks so far. There are, however, two more problems. Q1. How does this relate to the already cited CCC 1901? These two documents seem to contradict each other on the matter. Q2. Assuming that a ruler did not loose their authority and therefore rebelling against them is sinful, but a rebellion still breaks out and it’s only goal is to secede, does the Church permit such a ruler to forcibly crush such a rebellion?
    – gaazkam
    Commented Jan 30, 2016 at 20:18

2 Answers 2


The morality of secession is related to the tyrannicide (killing of tyrants) thesis of the Spanish scholastic Jesuit Fr. Juan de Mariana, ch. 5 of his De Rege.

The economist Jesús Huerta de Soto, who specializes in Spanish scholasticism, describes Fr. De Mariana's thesis in his article "Juan de Mariana and the Spanish Scholastics" (cf. his related lecture):

Although Father Juan de Mariana wrote many books, the first one with a libertarian content was, perhaps, the book entitled De rege et regis institutione (“On the King and the Royal Institution”) published in 1598, in which he set forth his famous defence of tyrannicide. According to Mariana any individual citizen can justly assassinate a king who imposes taxes without the people’s consent, seizes the property of individuals and squanders it, or prevents a meeting of a democratic parliament.⁷ The doctrines contained in this book were apparently used to justify the assassination of the French tyrant kings Henry III and Henry IV and the book was burned in Paris by the executioner as a result of a decree issued by the Parliament of Paris on July 4, 1610.⁸

In Spain, although the authorities were not enthusiastic about it, the book was respected. In fact, all Mariana did was to take the idea that natural law is morally superior to the might of the state to its logical conclusion. This idea had previously been developed in detail by the great founder of international law, the Dominican Francisco de Vitoria (1485-1546), who began the Spanish scholastic tradition of denouncing the conquest and particularly the enslavement of the Indians by the Spaniards in the New World.

⁷Mariana describes the tyrant as follows:

He seizes the property of individuals and squanders it, impelled as he is by the unkingly vices of lust, avarice, cruelty, and fraud … Tyrants, indeed, try to injure and ruin everybody, but they direct their attack especially against rich and upright men throughout the realm. They consider the good more suspect than the evil; and the virtue which they themselves lack is most formidable to them … They expel the better men from the commonwealth on the principle that whatever is exalted in the kingdom should be laid low … They exhaust all the rest so that they can not unite by demanding new tributes from them daily, by stirring up quarrels among the citizens, and by joining war to war. They build huge works at the expense and the suffering of the citizens. Whence the pyramids of Egypt were born … The tyrant necessarily fears that those whom he terrorizes and holds as slaves will attempt to overthrow him … Thus he forbids the citizens to congregate together, to meet in assemblies, and to discuss the commonwealth altogether, taking from them by secret-police methods the opportunity of free speaking and freely listening so that they are not even allowed to complain freely.
—Murray N. Rothbard, Economic Thought before Adam Smith, op. cit., pp. 118-119.
⁸See Juan de Mariana, Discurso de las enfermedades de la Compañía, imprenta de Don Gabriel Ramírez, calle de Barrionuevo, Madrid, año de 1768, “Dissertation on the author, and the legitimacy of this discourse”, p. 53.

An interesting part of Prof. Huerta de Soto's lecture (@17:54):

But Mariana insists on another very important idea. He says natural law is vastly superior to the power of each king or ruler. This is an essential idea that is still perfectly applicable today. I believe that we must be aware of and very proud of the fact that when Thomas Jefferson, the founding father of the United States, was considering whether or not to rise up against the king of England, in order to give encouragement to Madison and the rest of the founding fathers of the great American homeland, he says to them: "You only have to read one book: The History of Spain by Fr. Juan de Mariana." And, in fact, Madison even sent him a copy of the book [vol. 2; here's a scan of Madison's copy on Internet Archive], because it is a history of Spain written from the perspective of freedom, unmasking the tyrants.

It indeed is Catholic teaching that natural law is superior to human law. For the relationship between Divine, natural, and human law, see St. Thomas Aquinas's Treatise on Law (Summa Theologica I-II qq. 90-108).

Also, see the article "The Shipwreck of Secession" by Catholic author John Horvat II

  • Thank you for your answer. or prevents a meeting of a democratic parliament – does this mean that the Church considers systems such as mediaval feudalism and hereditary monarchies as immoral per se?
    – gaazkam
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 9:56
  • @gaazkam Fr. Mariana's view is not meant to be an official teaching of the the Church, nor does it seem to oppose Church teaching.
    – Geremia
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 4:17
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    @gaazkam "the Church considers systems such as mediaval feudalism and hereditary monarchies as immoral per se?" No, quite the contrary; Pope Pius VI, for example, said monarchy is the best form of government ("praestantioris monorchici regiminis forma") in principle.
    – Geremia
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 4:22
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    @gaazkam Your "rephrasing" is really the converse of the original statement, and converses are not always the same as what they are the converse of. For example: "If it rains, then the sidewalk is wet." is not the same as to say: "If the sidewalk is wet, then it rains."
    – Geremia
    Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 4:27
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    So, I read Diuturnum. And it seems to me to contradict CCC 1902, which says: “A human law has the character of law to the extent that it accords with right reason, and thus derives from the eternal law. Insofar as it falls short of right reason it is said to be an unjust law, and thus has not so much the nature of law as of a kind of violence.” Which document has greater authority in case of incongruence: an encyclical, or the CCC?
    – gaazkam
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 11:02

In the fascinating article "Catholic Sources and the Declaration of Independence," Rev. John C. Rager, S.T.D., lists some parallels between the U.S.'s Declaration of Independence and St. Robert Bellarmine's and St. Thomas Aquinas's thought. Regarding "The right to change the government," he writes:

Declaration of Independence: “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government...Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient reasons.”

Bellarmine: “For legitimate reasons the people can change the government to an aristocracy or a democracy or vice versa” (“De Laicis,” c. 6). “The people never transfers its powers to a king so completely but that it reserves to itself the right of receiving back this power” (Recognitio de Laicis, c. 6).

St Thomas: “If any society of people have a right of choosing a king, then the king so established can be deposed by them without injustice, or his power can be curbed, when by tyranny he abuses his regal power” (“De Rege et Regno,” Bk. I, c. 6).

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    Would it make more sense to incorporate this answer into your previous one? Commented Aug 24, 2016 at 16:16
  • @Nathaniel It looks to me like two different answers approaching the same question from different angles and different teachings/authority Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 21:47

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