Dominic Prümmer, OP on the duties of rulers and subjects

by Gerardus Maiella

As something of an Election Day special, and in order to fill in the gap of yesterday’s missed Manualist Monday, we have a text from the esteemed pre-conciliar moral theologian and canonist Dominic Prümmer, OP, on the duties of rulers and subjects in civil society.

Dominicus Prümmer, Manuale theologiæ moralis vol. II, tract. XI, q. 2, art. 6 (13th ed., 1958), pp. 471-475


On the obligations of rulers and subjects.

Preliminary note. Here we speak only of civil leaders and superiors and subjects; for it is the custom to treat of the obligations of ecclesiastic superiors in canon law. The obligations of the faithful toward ecclesiastic superiors are love, reverence, and obedience in spiritual matters. In addition, the faithful ought to supply a subsidy for the suitable sustentation of the ministers of the Church, as has been said above in n. 499 concerning tithes and offerings.

Not only are emperors, kings, dukes, etc. called civil leaders here, but all those to whom falls the management of public affairs. Therefore in this sense, the House of Deputies is a civil leader.

599. a) The obligations of civil governors. All who have been charged with some civil community are held, under pain of grave sin, to procure the temporal common good, yet in such a way that the spiritual good is not endangered. This is clear in itself. Hence they are held, according to their powers, to avert all temporal evils, of which sort are wars, seditions, famines, contagious diseases of both men and animals, etc. They ought in addition to foster true religion, and not only to not impede the true Church in her actions, but rather to protect her against all the attacks of her enemies. They should furthermore strenuously enforce justice, both distributive and vindictive: distributive, namely, insomuch as they distribute offices and burdens in equity; and vindictive, in respect of malefactors, insomuch as they inflict just punishments for crimes committed, without any preference of persons.

Leo XIII discoursed best on the obligations of rulers in the encyclical Immortale Dei of 1 Nov 1885, saying: “In any kind of State, the rulers ought absolutely to have regard for the supreme governor of the world, and set Him before themselves in the administration of society as an example and law… Rule therefore ought to be just, not after the manner of masters, but as it were paternal, because the power of God over men is most just, and is also conjoined with paternal goodness: but it is to be used for the advantage of the citizens, seeing that those who have the charge of others are so placed for this one reason, that they might guard the interests of society… But if those who rule descend into unjust tyranny, if they should sin by importunity or pride, if they should mislead the people, let them know that they must render an account to God; and that account will be so much more severe, to the degree that they either occupied a more sacred office, or were possessed of a loftier degree of dignity. The powerful shall be mightily tormented.”

These things which have been said of the obligations of rulers are valid also regarding the obligations of deputies, since according to the constitution of nearly all States, the legislative power is committed to deputies. Hence it is clear per se how gravely those deputies sin, who do not oppose unjust laws with all their ability, who from negligence do not assist in committees and thus bring about harm to the State. To these can the words of holy Scripture be applied: “For power is given to you by the most High, who will examine your works, and search out your thoughts: because being ministers of his kingdom, you have not judged rightly, nor kept the law of justice, nor walked according to the will of God. Horribly and speedily will he appear to you: for a most severe judgment shall be for them that bear rule. For to him that is little, mercy is granted: but the might shall be mightily tormented. For God will not except any man’s person, neither will he stand in awe of any man’s greatness: for he hath made the little and the great, and he hath equally care for all. But a greater punishment is ready for the more mighty.”[1]

Above, at n. 105 in the treatise on justice, it has been said in what way deputies are obliged to restitution, or bound by excommunication because of unjust laws passed contrary to ecclesiastical goods. In practice, the matter is often very intricate and hardly solvable. And indeed it can be proved only with difficulty how much influence the vote of one deputy has on the passing of an unjust law. Wherefore, it is expedient for greater security that the confessor for such a deputy should turn to the Sacred Penitentiary or to the bishop, who customarily has special faculties concerning the absolution of cases of this sort. Cf. the different Instructions given for the bishops of France and Italy.[2]

600. b) Obligations of subjects. Subjects are held 1. to show to civil rulers reverence, obedience, and faithfulness; 2. to elect good deputies; 3. to pay just taxes; 4. sometimes to fulfill military service. On paying taxes and military service, we have already spoken sufficiently above, in the treatise on civil laws, n. 291ff.

Regarding 1. Reverence is to be shown to rulers, because their power of governing is not conferred by the people, but from God. Already in the Old Testament it is said: “By me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things, by me princes rule, and the mighty decree justice.”[3] And St. Paul says: “Let every soul be subject to higher powers: for there is no power but from God: and those that are, are ordained of God.”[4] — Those subjects sin against the reverence due to rulers, who inflict abuse upon the person or image of the ruler; who with writing, words, or pictures deride him; who deny to him the signs of reverence which are due and exhibited by all, etc.

601. Obedience is to be shown to civil rulers in all licit things legitimately commanded. Hence St. Peter says: “Be ye subject therefore to every human creature for God’s sake: whether it be to the king as excelling, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of the good, for so is the will of God…”[5] — In order to establish a true direct obligation in conscience, it is required that the ruler command truly and justly. For sometimes civil laws are merely penal or irritating, which produce no direct obligation in conscience; sometimes, too, civil laws are manifestly unjust and contrary to the divine and natural law. Then, certainly, God ought to be obeyed more than men. “Nor yet is there a reason why those who act thus should be said to have refused obedience; for if the will of rulers is at odds with the will and laws of God, they exceed the due measure of their power and pervert justice: and neither then is their authority valid, which authority, where there is no justice, is null.”[6] Nevertheless, although one must not obey unjust laws, yet it is never licit to rebel against a legitimate ruler. Wherefore, Pius IX condemned in the Syllabus the 63rd proposition: “It is permitted to refuse obedience to legitimate rulers, no indeed and to rebel also.”[7] The reason is, that such open and offensive rebellion would redound against God himself, by whom kings reign. Hence in the first centuries, while the Church was enduring dire persecutions, we see the Theban Legion; although it would have been easy for them to resist the impious emperor by means of force, yet they preferred to die for religion rather than oppose the public authority through sedition and agitations. Therefore, a tyrannical ruler, just as also unjust laws, is to be opposed by so-called passive resistance, which consists in this, that obedience is steadily denied, and in no way are the divine precepts offended. But if then the tyrant urges the observation of laws harming the right of God and of religion by means of heavy punishments, it is necessary rather to suffer martyrdom, than to violate the law of God. But if the matter concerns laws which are indeed unjust, but which can be observed without sin, then it is permitted to obey, no indeed it is sometimes also necessary in order to avoid greater evils. It is clear per se that subjects can by licit means defend themselves against unjust laws, e.g. by showing the iniquity of the laws in public papers, by electing good deputies, by establishing public conventions, etc.

602. The fidelity owed to rulers requires that the subjects not do anything unjust to remove themselves from the jurisdiction of their superiors, nor undertake anything to thrust the ruler from his legitimate seat of power. Today, kings and rulers are accustomed, at the beginning of their rule, to make an oath upon the constitution, i.e. to vow that they shall faithfully observe those things which have been ordained in the constitution of the kingdom. Which if the ruler should violate this sworn constitution, and should break the faith he gave, according to the Rule (75) of Law: “He demands in vain that faith be kept by that one, to whom he has refused to keep the faith which he gave.” — Nevertheless, even in this case, neither rebellion nor so-called tyrannicide is licit.[8]

603. Regarding 2. Today, in nearly all civilized regions, the people elect deputies, who assemble to manage public affairs by means of their decisive (and not merely consultative) votes, whether in a kingdom or a province or a municipality. For this reason, the good of the entire State depends in great part upon the votes of the deputies. Wherefore it becomes more clear of what great importance it is, that good deputies be elected, who are endowed with fortitude of mind, a Christian spirit, aptness in managing things, knowledge in political affairs, and sufficient eloquence. Thus it is also clear how gravely they neglect their duty and also legal justice, who do not rightly use the right of electing deputies and thus permit that perverse deputies be elected. Trifling reasons do not at all excuse from this obligation of electing good deputies, e.g. a sacrifice of time, or the derision of others; nor even does the probably uselessness of the vote excuse. Indeed, although a good candidate will not be elected because of a plurality of contrary votes, yet it is very beneficial at least to show, by the fact of the election, what is the will of good citizens. If only all good citizens always fulfilled the duty of electing good deputies! Certainly there would not now be present as many unjust laws as there are in fact today. Hence, unless there should arise for the elector a truly grave difficulty, e.g. in goods of fortune, because of imminent danger of losing his office, etc., there does not exist sufficient cause excusing one from casting a vote. In practice it can be difficult to determine whether someone has gravely sinned from having neglected the obligation of electing good deputies, since the gravity of the sin so committed depends on the gravity of the harm really committed or in fact not evaded—which gravity indeed is often not clear with certainty. Therefore, let proven citizens more effectually and diligently rally to the elections of good deputies, and let priests prudently and also urgently exhort; let there be permanent associations for this end; let erudite laypersons (but not priests, since grave detriments can arise from thence), endowed with eloquence and zeal, deliver to the people speeches, in which they instruct the electors of the mode and the duty of electing, and discuss the qualities of the candidates. At the time of election, let all good citizens be summoned to the election, but let those who are more sluggish also be morally compelled.

604. On the election of an unworthy deputy. Although it is much more advisable always to elect the more worthy deputy, because thus the common good is more provided for, yet it suffices per se to elect a worthy and fitting one, the more worthy one being left behind. The reason is, that it is prescribed nowhere that the more worthy one be elected, but it is only required that a worthy one be elected. It is a grave sin per se to elect a deputy who is certainly unworthy, since such an election is illicit cooperation to grave evil for society. For electors participate mediately in all the evils which are caused by evil deputies. Nevertheless, since such cooperation is not formal, but material, sometimes it is licit to elect an unworthy deputy. That this participation is per se material and not formal, is clear from this, that the election of a deputy is an act per se indifferent, and that the elected deputy by his own fault abuses the right committed to him by the election. But so that it may be licit in practice to elect an unworthy deputy, not only is an upright end required, but also most grave cause. And first, an upright end; and thus he gravely sins who gives a vote to a perverse deputy, so that he may afterward be able to concur to evil laws against religion. Then there is required a grave, no indeed also a most grave cause; such causes are grave harms to be averted, whether from the one electing, or from others, or from the State. Thus e.g. a worker would be able to elect an evil deputy, if he would otherwise lose his office and would not be able to find another;[9] it is licit to elect an evil deputy to impede the election of one who is worse. This indeed not at all rarely can happen in so-called second elections.[10] For then there is no choice except between two candidates. But often in this case it is necessary to declare publicly, in order to avoid scandal, that this election is not made except to exclude the more unworthy candidate. Sometimes it is also licit to elect a few evil deputies who are placed in a group containing many good deputies, if the whole group otherwise will not be elected, with great detriment to religion or the State.[11]

[1] Wisdom 6:4-9; cf. also Leo XIII’s encyclical Diuturnum illud of 29 June 1881.

[2] Cf. S. Poenit., 5 Aug 1907.

[3] Proverbs 8:15.

[4] Romans 13:1.

[5] 1 Peter 2:13.

[6] Leo XIII, Diuturnum illud §15; cf. also Immortale Dei of the same Pontiff.

[7] Denz 1763.

[8] Cf. Leo XIII, encyclical Quod apostolici, 28 Dec 1879. On the famous question of whether it is licit to kill a tyrant by private authority, let the following things be noted. The tyrant customarily is distinguished twofold: the one is the tyrant of rule, who abuses legitimately obtained rule by oppressing the people. The other is the tyrant of usurpation, who has illegitimately seized rule. The tyrant of rule is able to be killed licitly by private authority; the contrary doctrine has in condemned in the Council of Constance (Denz 690). But the tyrant of usurpation can licitly be killed by private authority by right of defense and of vengeance, so long as the following conditions are present: 1. that the more sober part of society consents; 2. that the tyranny is not able to be removed by recourse to a greater superior. Cf. Billuart, De iustitia, diss. 10, a. 2; Cathrein, Moralphilosophie II, 692ff (5th ed.).

[9] Thus says Noldin also, De præceptis n. 325. Nearly all modern theologians concede that the election of an evil deputy is not something intrinsically evil, and hence sometimes is licit per accidens in order to avert greater evils.

[10] In the vernacular, Stichwahl, ballotage, second ballot.

[11] Vermeersch treats more broadly of this matter, Quæstiones de iustitia, q. 3, c. 1, on the right of suffrage. Cf. also Staatslexikon, s. v. “Wahlrecht”.