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My understanding of history is that:

  • During the times of the early Roman Empire the stance of the persecuted Christians was that they recognize the authority of the State and the Emperor and obey them, with the only exception of when the State orders them to sin (ie renounce their faith and worship false gods). God's authority is above the authority of the State, however, whenever the authority of the State does not clash with the authority of God then the State must be obeyed. For this reason when the State was condemning early Christians to death for their religious obstinacy then early Christians thought they now had the duty to obey the order of the State, which was to let the executioners kill them; as doing so was not a sin (as opposed to themselves killing others or renouncing faith) early Christians were not even attempting to escape or to rebel, but were obediently letting the State kill them. (This is sometimes brought even in contemporary times by preachers who advocate the doctrine that all people must unconditionally obey secular powers at all times with the only exception of when the secular power orders them to sin.)
  • However, in Medieval times, the Pope had the authority to free subjects of a king from the duty to obey him by excommunicating him. Excommunication, as far as I understand, is a formal declaration that someone is outside of the Church. Thus, it would seem to me, in Medieval times the Church did not teach that all must always obey the State, however vicious that State might be; to the contrary, Christians had to obey kings only as long as the Pope recognized these Kings were in full communion with the Church.

This seems contradictory to me.

Am I failing to understand something?

Or did the teachings of the Church on that matter indeed change in between of Ancient and Medieval times?

2 Answers 2

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What, historically, was the stance of the Catholic Church about the duty to obey non-Christian governments?

The faithful should obey the laws of the lands in which they are in, providing that they are morally ethical laws. No government can order you to commit sin!

St. Paul tells us to obey government rulers in his Letter to the Romans:

13 All of you must obey the government rulers. Everyone who rules was given the power to rule by God. And all those who rule now were given that power by God. 2 So anyone who is against the government is really against something God has commanded. Those who are against the government bring punishment on themselves. 3 People who do right don’t have to fear the rulers. But those who do wrong must fear them. Do you want to be free from fearing them? Then do only what is right, and they will praise you.

4 Rulers are God’s servants to help you. But if you do wrong, you have reason to be afraid. They have the power to punish, and they will use it. They are God’s servants to punish those who do wrong. 5 So you must obey the government, not just because you might be punished, but because you know it is the right thing to do.

6 And this is why you pay taxes too. Those rulers are working for God, and they give all their time to the work of ruling. 7 Give everyone what you owe them. If you owe them any kind of tax, then pay it. Show respect to those you should respect. And show honour to those you should honour. - Romans 13

In the Middle Ages it occasionally happened that popes lifted this obligation to obey civil governments, but these cases involved Catholic Sovereigns in Catholic countries who were for one reason or another had been disciplined by the pope, until such time as that individual obeyed the Laws of the Church. Thus the pope would free her subjects from obeying bad rulers within Catholic land. Thus, sometimes Catholic monarchs or rulers became excommunicated and their subject were freed from civil obedience to them.

Non-Christian leaders in foreign lands can not be excommunicated from the Church as they have never been part of the Church.

In his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, St. Thomas did not view the “governing authorities” of Romans 13 as referring specifically to coercive governmental rulers, but to anyone who exercises authority over another. This could be a Church leader, an employer, or the emperor Nero. St. Thomas - speaking of Romans 13 - wrote:

“Christians are bound to obey the authorities inasmuch as they are from God; and they are not bound to obey inasmuch as the authority is not from God.” Book 2, dist. 44, quest. 2

He continues by setting forth two ways by which an “authority may not be from God.” The authority is invalid from the outset if power was acquired by illegitimate means, such as by “violence, or simony or some other illegal method.” St. Thomas wrote:

“for whoever possesses himself of power by violence does not truly become lord or master. Therefore it is permissible, when occasion offers, for a person to reject such authority.” Id.

Even if the authority is accepted as legitimate in its origin, it does not mean that the authority is free to rule however it likes. In addition to declaring that a usurper had no claim to obedience, St. Thomas also taught that authority becomes illegitimate if the authority: 1) abuses its power or 2) goes beyond the purpose for which the authority is constituted. He gave as examples: an authority which commands a sinful action; or where the authority demands the property of another when nothing is justly owed.

“In keeping with the teachings of Jesus, the command to a sinful action always requires disobedience, while an unjust demand of payment might be obeyed or disobeyed.” Id.

Aquinas and Augustine on authority

Further reading may be followed in the following articles:

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St. Thomas Aquinas treats this question in Summa Theologica II-II q. 10 a. 10 "Whether unbelievers may have authority or dominion over the faithful?"

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  • First, we may speak of dominion or authority of unbelievers over the faithful as of a thing to be established for the first time. This ought by no means to be allowed... - This is interesting since it leads to a very counterintuitive conclusion: no Catholic president or prime minister may allow non-Catholics to find employment in politics, administration or any of the State's forces. Should a Catholic government enact a law that only Catholics may be ministers, clerks or police officers?
    – gaazkam
    Apr 24, 2023 at 14:59
  • @gaazkam That's what Franco did in art. 9 his constitution for Spain, the Fundamental Laws of the State: "In order to exercise the Headship of State as King or Regent, the candidate must be male and a Spaniard, must have attained the age of thirty, profess the Catholic religion…"
    – Geremia
    Apr 25, 2023 at 3:49

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