St Thomas on Authority


6. Scriptum Super Libros Sententiarum II, dist. 44, q. II, a. 2.[The problem is whether Christians are bound to obey secular powers, especially tyrants.]

The procedure in discussing this problem is this: It seems that they are not bound to this obedience… The fourth argument [in favour of this position) runs as follows: It is legitimate for anyone, who can do so, to re-take what has been taken away from him unjustly. Now many secular princes unjustly usurped the dominion of Christian lands. Since, therefore, in such cases rebellion is legitimate, Christians have no obligation to obey these princes. —The fifth argument: If it is a legitimate and even a praiseworthy deed to kill a person, then no obligation of obedience exists toward that person. Now in the Book on Duties [De Officiis I, 8, 26] Cicero justifies Julius Caesar’s assassins. Although Caesar was a close friend of his, yet by usurping the empire he proved himself to be a tyrant. Therefore toward such powers there is no obligation of obedience.

On the other hand, however, there are the following arguments proving the contrary position: First, it is said: Servants, be in subjection to your masters (1 Pet. 2:18.) Second, it is also said: He who resists the power, withstands the ordinance of God (Rom. xiii, 2.) Now it is not legitimate to withstand the ordinance of God. Hence it is not legitimate either to withstand secular power.

Solution and determination. Obedience, by keeping a commandment, has for its [formal] object the obligation, involved in the cominandment, that it be kept. Now this obligation originates in that the commanding authority has the power to impose an obligation binding not only to external but also to internal and spiritual obedience—“for conscience sake”, as the Apostle says (Rom. xiii, 5.) For power (authority) comes from God, as the Apostle implies in the same place. Hence, 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.

Now, this not being from God may be the case, first, as to the mode in which authority is acquired, and, second, as to the use which is made of authority.

Concerning the first case we must again distinguish two defects: There may be a defect of the person acquiring authority inasmuch as this person is unworthy of it. There may also be a defect in the mode of acquiring authority, namely, if it is obtained by violence, or simony, or other illegitimate means.

As to the first of these defects, we say that it does not constitute an obstacle against acquiring lawful authority. Since, then, as such, authority is always from God (and this is what causes the obligation of obedience), the subjects are bound to render obedience to these authorities, unworthy as they may be.

As to the second of those defects, we say that in such a case there is no lawful authority at all. He who seizes power by violence does not become a true holder of power. Hence, when it is possible to do so, anybody may repel this domination, unless, of course, the usurper should later on have become a true ruler by the consent of the subjects or by a recognition being extended to him by a higher authority.

The abuse of power might take on two forms. First, a commandment emanating from the authority might be contrary to the very end in view of which authority is instituted, i.e., to be an educator to, and a preserver of, virtue. Should therefore the authority command an act of sin contrary to virtue, we not only are not obliged to obey but we are also obliged not to obey, according to the example of the holy martyrs who preferred death to obeying those ungodly tyrants.

The second form of abusing power is for the authority to go beyond the bounds of its legal rights, for instance, when a master exacts duties which the servant is not bound to pay, or the like. In this case the subject is not obliged to obey, but neither is he obliged not to obey.

Consequently… to the fourth argument the answer is this: An authority acquired by violence is not a true authority, and there is no obligation of obedience, as we said above.

To the fifth argument the answer is that Cicero speaks of domination obtained by violence and ruse, the subjects being unwilling or even forced to accept it and there being no recourse open to a superior who might pronounce judgment upon the usurper. In this case he that kills the tyrant for the liberation of the country, is praised and rewarded. Footnote


7. Contra Gentiles IV, 76.

…It is evident that, although there are many different peoples in different dioceses and cities, yet there is one Christendom (Populus Christianus), just as there is one Church. Therefore, just as there is one bishop appointed to one particular people in order to be the head of them all, so in the whole of Christendom one must be the head of the whole Church….

JOHN OF PARIS thought ftt to correct this text in the following way: It is evident that, although there are many different peoples in different dioceses and cities, in which the bishops hold authority in matters spiritual, yet there is one Church of all the Faithful and one Christendom. Therefore, just as there is one bishop in every diocese appointed to be the head of the particular church of that people, so in the whole Church and in the whole of Christendom, there is one supreme bishop, viz., the Pope. —De Potestate Regia et Papali (A.D. 1302), ch. III.


8. Scriptum, Super Libros Sententiarum II, dist. 44, Expositio textus.

[The problem is whether we should obey a superior authority more than an inferior one.]

If the position be taken that such is indeed our duty, this seems not to be true…. For [fourth argument] spiritual power is higher than secular power. If, then, it were true that we must obey more the superior power, the spiritual power would have the right always to release a man from his allegiance to a secular power, which is evidently not true.

Solution and determination. Two cases are to be considered in which we find the superior and the inferior authorities standing in different relations one to the other. First, the inferior authority originates totally from the superior authority. In this case, absolutely speaking and in all events, greater obedience is due to the superior power. An illustration of this is the order of natural causes: the first cause has a stronger impact upon the thing caused by a second cause than has this very second cause, as is said in the Liber De Causis [1]. In this position we find God’s power in regard to every created power, or likewise the Emperor’s power in regard to that of the Proconsul, or again the Pope’s power in regard to every spiritual power in the Church, since by the Pope all degrees of different dignities in the Church are distributed and ordered. Whence papal authority is one of the foundations of the Church, as is evident from Matthew 16:18. So in all things, without any distinction, the Pope ought to be obeyed more than Bishops and Archbishops; (more also by the monk than is the abbot).—The second case to be considered is, that both the superior and the inferior powers originate from one supreme power. Their subordination, thus, depends on the latter who subordinates one to the other as he pleases. As to this case we say that here one power is superior to the other only in regard to those matters in view of which they have been so suborclinated one to the other by that supreme power. Hence in these matters alone greater obedience is due to the superior than to the inferior. An example of this is our relation to the authorities of a Bishop and an Archbishop, both of which descend from the papal authority.

The answer then… to the fourth argument is this. Spiritual as well as secular power comes from the divine power. Hence secular power is subjected to spiritual power in those matters concerning which the subjection has been specified and ordained by God, i.e., in matters belonging to the salvation of the soul. Hence in these we are to obey spiritual authority more than secular authority. On the other hand, more obedience is due to secular than to spiritual power in the things that belong to the civic good (bonum civile). For it is said Matthew 22:21: Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. A special case occurs, however, when spiritual and secular power are so joined in one person as they are in the Pope, who holds the apex of both spiritual and secular powers. This has been so arranged by Him who is both Priest and King, Priest Eternal after the order of Melchisedech, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Whose dominion shall not pass away, and his kingdom shall not be destroyed for ever and ever. Amen. [Conclusion of the second book of the Scriptum; this explains the doxological ending.]

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