As the federal and state legislatures are beginning their new sessions, and as a new president will be inaugurated on Friday, it is helpful to reflect upon what St. Paul meant when he said “there is no authority except from God” and what the Catechism means when it says “Every human community needs an authority to govern it. . . The authority required by the moral order derives from God.” Romans 13:1-2; Catechism 1898-99. Is this teaching contrary to what the Declaration of Independence says when it declares that “governments are established among men, deriving their just authority from the consent of the governed?” Although it may seem like the two sources conflict when one says that authority comes from God and the other from the consent of the governed, the two ideas can be reconciled if seen in their rightful context.
For both the Catechism and America’s founding fathers distinguish between the fundamental rights and duties created by God Himself, and the means of carrying them out, which is entrusted to the people of each society. Thus, the Catechism goes on to say, “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. The diversity of political regimes is morally acceptable, provided they serve the legitimate goals of the communities that adopt them.” Catechism 1901. Likewise, before describing the government as deriving authority from the governed, the Declaration of Independence declares that we have inalienable rights, including those of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, from God Himself. Abraham Lincoln referred to this law of God when, in 1863 he commended the Senate for “devoutly recognizing the supreme authority and just government of Almighty God in all the affairs of men and nations.”
The idea is that, as there are laws of physical nature, the understanding of which helps us build physical things, such as buildings and machines, there are laws of human nature, ordained by God, that help us build a better society. As with buildings and instruments, so it is with governments: there will be many means of achieving rightful ends. But one must adhere to physical laws to construct things that will work in the world. Likewise, we must know and accept the law of God for this society to uphold our calling as a free and strong people that makes this a better world.