Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Is the State a Person?

First off, I'd like to apologize - particularly to Red - for my recent absence from the blog. I have a number of explanations which do not really add up to an excuse.

I'm fascinated by the comments on Red's post on the Fifth Commandment. I'm particularly interested in the arguments that the State has an authority to act which goes beyond the authority of any of its members.

The State, in the examples given, has the authority to execute prisoners and to wage war. No mere citizen has that authority. A person only is able to execute or wage war upon another person when acting as an agent of the State.

Now, I'm not in any way an expert on politics, or even on political philosophy. But it's clear to me that "The State" had rather a different implication in the mind of St. Thomas Aquinas than it does for us today. Today, we generally assume a constitutionally founded, geographically defined, internationally recognized nation-state, with recognizable institutions for legislative and executive functions. Thomas could have had none of those assumptions. In his day, the State would have ranged from more-or-less independent city-states to feudal regions to monarchies, all of which argued (and even warred) over borders, relationships, and dues. Moreover, the Church had a more political profile in his day, arguing with civil leaders about the authority to appoint bishops and to crown rulers.

So, although I have the highest respect for Thomas's philosophy and theology, I would consider it a betrayal of his thought to simply accept his statements about the State and it's role and authority without further examination.

So I ask, what is the basis of the State's authority, from the standpoint of the Church? And then, what does this imply about the State's authority to act in such ways as, for example, to defend its borders or to execute criminals or to regulate migration?

For the record, I don't yet have answers to these questions. Nor do I expect that there is only a single form of government that would meet the requirements of Catholic moral teaching. And furthermore this may just plain be too abstract a topic for this policy-focused blog. But consider it an introduction, and feel free to give me pointers toward texts I might not have met yet myself.


  1. The type of state has really nothing to do with his arguments for the regulation of society. It is first off based on the natural law, which does not change. Aquinas recognized that every society needs to have just laws and just regulation of its citizens. For Aquinas these principles follow no matter what type of regime or government it may be, this is known as "the law of nations." That is human law derived from the natural law. See ( ST, I-II, 95.4 and ST, II-II, 57.3) Aquinas also sees this as a necessity for the common good of society. Just because there are other types of regimes now that did not exist then does not make his principles non-applicable to us today. In Aquinas' day there were many forms of regime types, yet his principles from the natural law apply just the same.

    For Aquinas the governing regime based on the natural law has the right an duty to keep the moral order by making just laws and carrying just retributive punishment in proportion to the crime committed. For example, you would not punish a mass murderer the same as a kid stealing a sucker at the convenient store. If this blog is to be taken seriously in discussing the moral implications of such actions as physical and mental coercion, (torture) then its members must understand proper reasoning and a proper understanding of the natural law, which the Church holds as her own.

  2. Today, we generally assume a constitutionally founded, geographically defined, internationally recognized nation-state, with recognizable institutions for legislative and executive functions.

    What exactly are you stating here? That prior to or at the time of Aquinas anything corresponding to a sovereign political entity did not exist? That there were none constitutionally founded or geographically defined? That legislative bodies did not exist?

  3. In his day, the State would have ranged from more-or-less independent city-states to feudal regions to monarchies, all of which argued (and even warred) over borders, relationships, and dues.

    What relevance would this have to a civil authority enacting and promulgating laws?

    'Law is nothing other than a certain ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by him who has care of the community."

    "Law is a rule and measure of acts, whereby man is induced to act or is restrained from acting."

    "But since some are found to be dissolute and prone to vice, and not easily amenable to words, it was necessary for such to be restrained from evil by force and fear, in order that, at least, they might desist from evil-doing, and leave others in peace, and that they themselves, by being habituated in this way, might be brought to do willingly what hitherto they did from fear, and thus become virtuous."

  4. Alexander and Matthew -

    I guess it just seems obvious to me that a modern nation-state is not (necessarily) the same kind of beast as a feudal fiefdom or even kingdom.

    The main difference, which I implied in my title but failed to make clear in my post, is the relation of a person to the State. In the pre-modern world, grossly speaking, the State was invested in a person or persons. In the modern nation-state, again grossly speaking, the State is invested in a system.

    Granted, both kinds of State issue laws, but I'm not convinced they issue them based on the same authority. In other words, I think it's open to question whether Thomas' theories still hold.

    Or, as greater minds than mine have articulated the debate: "Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony!" (In case there's any question, I'm with Arthur in this debate.) ;-)

  5. Moreover, issuing laws is not the end-all and be-all of the State - at least, not in the modern sense, nor (I think) in the ancient sense.

  6. There is no question as to whether or not Aquinas' principles hold today. The Church has said they hold on numerous occasions in her documents. It makes no difference on what type of regime a State may have, if they are just, they must remain rooted in the natural law, which means the State holds the just authority in principle, there is no getting around it. What grounds are you going to argue from to say that a modern just State has no authority to keep the moral law? No one ever said that issuing laws was the be all end all, it is one particular, not only right of the State, but its obligation based on the natural law.

  7. Robert, you might find it helpful to read some of Leo XIII's encyclicals on the state: Diuturnum, Immortale Dei, and Libertas Praestantissimum are useful on this topic. Just a thought.

  8. Thanks John, those are great resources. A few quotes from Immortale Dei gives us a clear understanding that these basic principles apply to all types of civil society, again as long as they are just in applying the principles.

    "But, as no society can hold together unless some one be over all, directing all to strive earnestly for the common good, every body politic must have a ruling authority, and this authority, no less than society itself, has its source in nature, and has, consequently, God for its Author. Hence, it follows that all public power must proceed from God...In like manner, in civil society, God has always willed that there should be a ruling authority, and that they who are invested with it should reflect the divine power and providence in some measure over the human race...3) To despise legitimate authority, in whomsoever vested, is unlawful, as a rebellion against the divine will, and whoever resists that, rushes willfully to destruction. "He that resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God, and they that resist, purchase to themselves damnation."(4) To cast aside obedience, and by popular violence to incite to revolt, is therefore treason, not against man only, but against God...By the words and decrees just cited, if judged dispassionately, no one of the several forms of government is in itself condemned, inasmuch as none of them contains anything contrary to Catholic doctrine, and all of them are capable, if wisely and justly managed, to insure the welfare of the State...Therefore, when it is said that the Church is hostile to modern political regimes and that she repudiates the discoveries of modern research, the charge is a ridiculous and groundless calumny. Wild opinions she does repudiate..."

    So the type of political regime, as I stated earlier has nothing to do with the principles of natural law that the Church holds when it comes to the authority of the State. Now if the State exercises it authority in an unjust manner, like putting kids stealing suckers to death for example, then we should have a problem with that regime. But as in the US, where only the most severe crimes are punished with Capital Punishment, and are done with the opportunity for so many appeals, it could hardly be argued that Capital Punishment is being exercised in a complete unjust manner in the US.

  9. Robert,

    You're right, a state can't be just any body of people, but one that is within a natural formal limit. But personhood strikes me as an odd way of looking at it.

    Societies aren't persons, they're societies. And their authority comes from the people no matter how they are composed, so in some manner they do possess the authority to execute criminals.

    The problem is that we have a tendency to look at man as if he exists by nature not in society so that a man could act on that authority outside of society. So once you look at in terms of man is by nature a social animal all the modernist notions of man fall away and the answers come.

    If something along this line was said previously, sorry for repeating it, but I typically don't read long winded posts.

  10. John - thanks for the tips. I haven't gotten to Leo XIII yet (still brushing up on my Thomas) but I certainly will.

    Just to clarify: I'm not trying to question the legitimacy of modern nation-states. Nor am I saying that the natural law does not apply to them.

    I'm merely asking what the basis of their authority is, particularly in those areas where private citizens clearly do not have authority, such as the execution of criminals or the waging of war. What are the limits of governmental authority? Do our modern nation-states, particularly the U.S.A., adhere to such standards in their governance?

    Given the radical differences between governance in our time and that of ancient and medieval societies, I simply think it's legitimate to ask whether Thomas' descriptions still apply. I am not assuming that they don't apply. I am asking out of ignorance and in good faith.

    I hope this clears up any misunderstanding.

  11. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, ...

    Immortale Dei:
    18. In political affairs, and all matters civil, the laws aim at securing the common good, and are not framed according to the delusive caprices and opinions of the mass of the people, but by truth and by justice; the ruling powers are invested with a sacredness more than human, and are withheld from deviating from the path of duty, and from overstepping the bounds of rightful authority; and the obedience is not the servitude of man to man, but submission to the will of God, exercising His sovereignty through the medium of men. Now, this being recognized as undeniable, it is felt that the high office of rulers should be held in respect; that public authority should be constantly and faithfully obeyed; that no act of sedition should be committed; and that the civic order of the commonwealth should be maintained as sacred.

    23. But that harmful and deplorable passion for innovation which was aroused in the sixteenth century threw first of all into confusion the Christian religion, and next, by natural sequence, invaded the precincts of philosophy, whence it spread amongst all classes of society. From this source, as from a fountain-head, burst forth all those later tenets of unbridled license which, in the midst of the terrible unheavals of the last century, were wildly conceived and boldly proclaimed as the principles and foundation of that new conception of law which was not merely previously unknown, but was at variance on many points with not only the Christian, but even the natural law.

    24. Amongst these principles the main one lays down that as all men are alike by race and nature, so in like manner all are equal in the control of their life; that each one is so far his own master as to be in no sense under the rule of any other individual; that each is free to think on every subject just as he may choose, and to do whatever he may like to do; that no man has any right to rule over other men. In a society grounded upon such maxims all government is nothing more nor less than the will of the people, and the people, being under the power of itself alone, is alone its own ruler. It does choose, nevertheless, some to whose charge it may commit itself, but in such wise that it makes over to them not the right so much as the business of governing, to be exercised, however, in its name.

  12. Robert says, "But personhood strikes me as an odd way of looking at it. "

    Define what you are talking about. St Thomas is not saying the State is a "person." He saying that the State is form of government which has an authority over individuals via the natural and divine law.

  13. Also, I am curious, is this blog also supporting the abolishment of the death penalty?

  14. RE: Catechism

    CCC: "2267 Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

    If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

    Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically non-existent'."

    God Bless

    Richard W Comerford

  15. "Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself"

    First of all it is not only the safety of others that is at play here. Again, retributive justice is necessary in a just society along with keeping the moral order, as well as protecting innocent citizens. Also the lives of those running prisons must be taken into account as well. Just because a prisoner is behind bars does not completely negate his or her ability to willfully cause harm to others. Just ask the many prison guards who have been assaulted while working their jobs. This is truly a naive position to hold indeed.

    Also, assuming that the death of a prisoner amounts to them not being able to redeem themselves is false, and the very fact that his end is near may provide that person with a conversion of heart, which may not happen over the course of the next 50 or 60 years in prison subjected to the immorality that thrives in that environment.

    As far as being more in line with human dignity, an action either violates it, or it does not. There is no in between. So all of this talk about human dignity which refers to actions that are supposedly intrinsically evil, cannot be applied here in any absolute sense, otherwise the death penalty itself would be intrinsically evil, which is of course where many ignorant people want to take it, but we know that is simply not the case.

    "the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically non-existent'."

    This is simply not true.

  16. Matthew Bellisario vs. The Catechism of the Catholic Church

    Obviously Mr. Bellisario is smarter, holier and more guided by the Holy Spirit than the Vicars of Christ. We should place the fate of our immortal souls in his hands rather than listen to the teachings of the Church. After all what have we to loose?

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  17. Richard, can you address the subject matter or are you going to resort with ad-hominems? An ad-hominem is a logical fallacy and holds no place in rational discussions.

  18. RE: Subject Matter

    The subject matter in question is whether we listen to the clear teaching of the Catholic Church on this matter, approved by the Vicar of Christ, or listen to Mr. Bellisario who is neither Pope, Bishop or Pastor.

    After all what have we to loose but our immortal souls?

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  19. Re:Subject Matter

    Neither are you the Pope or Magisterium, so either argue the subject matter using your own arguments and intellect or quit using ad-hominems.

  20. Mr. Bellisario:

    I am in full communion and in obedience to the Holy Father on this matter.

    It is not a matter of argument. Rather it is a question of loyalty. You are at odds with Pope, Council and Bishops on this matter. You do not possess equal standing with the Vicar of Christ. You are not guided by the Holy Spirit as is the Holy Father. You have no authority, no expertise, no experience in this area. Either ones stands with the faith or against it.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford