The Christian in the World
Index The Catholic Faith
Return To Level Four Topic Index
"By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; by me princes rule, and nobles govern the earth" (Prov 8:15-16).
Just as men and women naturally come together to form families, human beings also join together to form families, human beings also join together to form larger societies. Not only are we members of a family, but we are citizens of a city or town, state, and a nation. Just as our parents have legitimate authority over the members in their family, so do the officials of the civil government. St. Paul reminds us that their authority, like that of parents, comes from God.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God. . . Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed. . . (Rom 13:1-2).
The purpose of civil society is to promote and ensure the common good of its members. The common good is the welfare of the whole community, not just an individual. In order to promote the common good of the whole community the state has the authority to make just (fair) laws and regulation to govern its citizens. And citizens have an obligation to obey and respect these laws. Our Lord taught us the importance of recognizing civil authority when he was asked about the lawfulness of paying tribute to Caesar, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Lk 20-25). It is important to remember that in this passage Our Lord gives two commands. As Christians we must first of all obey the laws of God. Then, as citizens, we must obey the laws of society.
God's Laws Come First
While the civil government - sometimes called "the state" - has legitimate authority, it does not have the right to demand something which violates God's law. For example, no government has the right to command willful murder, since this is a violation of God's law. When such laws are made, citizens are not bound to obey them. In fact, in some sense that are not really laws. In such a situation we should think of the words of St. Peter to the Sanhedrin, "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).
To illustrate this point - that God's law is above the law of the state - we can look at the life of St. Thomas More. Thomas More was a great lawyer and statesman in England at the beginning of the sixteenth century. He was a layman who dedicated himself to serving his country and his king. He rose to prominence during the reign of his friend King Henry VIII and was eventually appointed Chancellor of England, second in power to the king.
In order to divorce his wife, King Henry declared himself to be the supreme head of the Church in England. All of his subjects were then required to take an oath acknowledging this and declaring their primary allegiance to the king. Thomas More knew that he could not take this oath, for that would mean denying God's law.
On July 6, 1535, Thomas More was beheaded - by order of the king and his court - for refusing to sign the oath. Before he died, he reminded us that God's law is supreme: "I die the king's good servant, but God's first."
Although we are not bound to obey such laws, we are bound to obey all laws which conform to God's laws. For example, we must obey laws regarding the property rights of others. In addition to obeying just laws, there are several other duties which we have as citizens.
As citizens we must develop the virtue of patriotism, which is love of one's country. It is natural and good for us to love our native land. Patriotism is not merely the emotional reaction we may have when we sing our national anthem or see our nation's flag. This emotional reaction may be the beginning. However, patriotism is actually a deep love for our country which prompts us to dedicate ourselves to promoting those things which are good for our country and its citizens.
At the same time, we must avoid that excessive love of country which can result in the error of excessive nationalism. This can result from a love which is blind to the defects of one's nation. One must also avoid the opposite error which is a lack of love for one's country which can lead one to despise and turn against one's own country. The actual betrayal of one's country is known as treason.
The Christian citizen must use his influence to help make his nation just. This is an area in which the laity are especially called to bring Christ to the world. We must work to promote just and moral laws, in keeping with God's law. When there are unjust laws, we must work to change them. We must work to change harmful attitudes such as racism and lack of respect for human beings, including the unborn and the poor, by conforming our own attitudes to justice, truth, and love. In a democratic nation, the Christian, then, has a particular duty to take part in the government of his country - voting for good leaders or perhaps even running for office himself.
Duties of Citizens
There are also other duties which we have as citizens. We must support the government through the payment of taxes and we should, if necessary, be willing to defend our country against unjust aggression. Finally, as Christians we have a particular obligation to pray for our leaders and our country.
Besides being citizens of our nation, we are also members of the larger society of the world. We cannot isolate ourselves in our own nation, but we must be concerned about all peoples. As Christians we have a responsibility to serve others - particularly those whose rights and human needs are not recognized. We must work for peace and justice in the world, practicing the corporal works of mercy whenever we can.
The Christian View of Creatures
In the first chapter of Genesis we read of the creation of the world. Out of nothing God brought into existence all the creatures of our world. First he created many inanimate objects - the sun, the moon, the mountains, and the seas. Then he made the various plants and the many animals - birds, fish, insects, and the beasts of the earth. Finally, as the pinnacle of his creation on earth, God created man and woman and said to them: Fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth (Gen 1:28).
When God created the world he gave human beings dominion over his creation. This means that God made the earth and all of the creatures on it - animals, plants, mountains, rivers, etc. - for us. They were made, first of all, to glorify God and to remind us of him and lead us to himself - as does, for example, a magnificent sunset. But these things were also made to give us joy.
Because we are the highest creatures on earth, we have been entrusted with a great responsibility to exercise stewardship over creation. This means that we must take care of creation and use wisely the many gifts God has given us. We must not waste or abuse any of God's creation. Man depends on air, water, forests, plants, and animals for his life, food, and clothing. Stewardship does not mean that we cannot kill animals for these purposes, but we must use them for our needs, not wastefully. Nor should we cause animals any unnecessary suffering but treat them kindly.
St. Francis of Assisi can be an example for us of the care we should have for all God's creatures. Francis loved not only the poor of this world but all of God's creatures as well - animals and all of nature. He saw all of creation as traces and reflections of God. His tenderness for and his gently sway over animals were often noted by his companions. He spoke of animals and indeed, all creatures, as his "brothers" and "sisters". His beautiful "Canticle of the Sun" illustrates this reverence for God's work.
Canticle of the Sun
Most High, Almighty, Good Lord God, to thee belong praise, glory, honor and all
Praised be my Lord God, with all his creatures, and especially our brother the Sun, who brings us the day and who brings us the light: fair is he, and he shines with a very great splendor.
O Lord, he signifies thee to us!
Praised by my Lord for our sister the Moon, and for the stars, the which he has set clear and lovely in the heaven.
Praised be my Lord for our brother the wind, and for air and clouds, calms and all weather, by which thou upholdest life and all creatures.
Praised be my Lord for our sister water, who is very serviceable to us, and humble and precious and clean.
Praised by my Lord for our brother fire, through whom thou givest us light in the darkness; and he is bright and pleasant and very mighty and strong.
Praised by my Lord for our mother the earth, the which doth sustain us and keep us, and bringeth forth divers fruits and flowers of many colors, and grass.
Praised be my Lord for all those who pardon one another for love's sake, and who endure weakness and tribulation: blessed are they who peacefully shall endure, for thou, O Most High, wilt give them a crown.
Praised be my Lord for our sister, the death of the body, from which no man escapeth. Woe to him who dieth in mortal sin. Blessed are those who die in they most holy will, for the second death shall have no power to do them harm.
Praise ye and bless the Lord, and give thanks to him and serve him with great humility.
Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534
Index The Catholic Faith
Return To Level Four Topic Index