What is Church teaching on the purpose of government?


On another board, I encountered Catholics who say that the role of government is to lead its people to salvation, and therefore government should silence heretics. This isn’t Church teaching is it?


The business of the State is to foster the common good of its citizens, to provide for their temporal well being. But, as man is so constituted that he cannot be happy even in this world unless his heart is set on his final end, which is God, the State cannot disregard these supra-temporal aspirations; it must, at least indirectly, encourage whatever may assist their realization. Directly, however, the State is concerned with promoting the public good by legislation in the interests of the political, social, and private rights of citizens.

In none of these matters has the Church the right of direct interference. Occasion may arise, however, when she must speak her mind even here. For the political and social orders, in so far as they fall under the moral law and the judgment of human conscience, are subject to the authority of the Church. This supremely important principle is not seldom overlooked: most often by those who resent the subjection of their political and social actions to any higher tribunal.


The poster’s assertion does not reflect in any way the teaching of the Church. When people make such bald assertions, they should be challenged as to the source of their statement. In other words, the burden of proof is on them.


Something else to consider. The character of baptism is necessarily and infallibly received whenever baptism is validly administered, as this effect cannot be separated from the outward sign. It may well be, as with large heretical bodies, that the Church cannot enforce her rights over all that belong to her, and it may equally well be that, prudently, weighing what is ultimately best for mankind, she may not wish to enforce these rights. Yet she always has those rights; for they are, and must be, co-extensive with that portion of the human race that is marked with the character of baptism.


Bull of Pope Boniface VIII promulgated November 18, 1302

first part skpped to fit in posting size limits,…

Therefore, if the Greeks or others should say that they are not confided to Peter and to his successors, they must confess not being the sheep of Christ, since Our Lord says in John ‘there is one sheepfold and one shepherd.’ **We are informed by the texts of the gospels that in this Church and in its power are two swords; **namely, the spiritual and the temporal. For when the Apostles say: ‘Behold, here are two swords’ [Lk 22:38] that is to say, in the Church, since the Apostles were speaking, the Lord did not reply that there were too many, but sufficient. Certainly the one who denies that the temporal sword is in the power of Peter has not listened well to the word of the Lord commanding: ‘Put up thy sword into thy scabbard’ [Mt 26:52].

Both, therefore, are in the power of the Church, that is to say, the spiritual and the material sword, but the former is to be administered for the Church but the latter by the Church; the former in the hands of the priest; the latter by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest.

However, one sword ought to be subordinated to the other and temporal authority, subjected to spiritual power. For since the Apostle said: ‘There is no power except from God and the things that are, are ordained of God’ [Rom 13:1-2], but they would not be ordained if one sword were not subordinated to the other and if the inferior one, as it were, were not led upwards by the other.

For, according to the Blessed Dionysius, it is a law of the divinity that the lowest things reach the highest place by intermediaries. Then, according to the order of the universe, all things are not led back to order equally and immediately, but the lowest by the intermediary, and the inferior by the superior. Hence we must recognize the more clearly that spiritual power surpasses in dignity and in nobility any temporal power whatever, as spiritual things surpass the temporal. This we see very clearly also by the payment, benediction, and consecration of the tithes, but the acceptance of power itself and by the government even of things. For with truth as our witness, it belongs to spiritual power to establish the terrestrial power and to pass judgement if it has not been good. Thus is accomplished the prophecy of Jeremias concerning the Church and the ecclesiastical power: ‘Behold to-day I have placed you over nations, and over kingdoms’ and the rest. Therefore, if the terrestrial power err, it will be judged by the spiritual power; but if a minor spiritual power err, it will be judged by a superior spiritual power; but if the highest power of all err, it can be judged only by God, and not by man, according to the testimony of the Apostle: ‘The spiritual man judgeth of all things and he himself is judged by no man’ [1 Cor 2:15]. This authority, however, (though it has been given to man and is exercised by man), is not human but rather divine, granted to Peter by a divine word and reaffirmed to him (Peter) and his successors by the One Whom Peter confessed, the Lord saying to Peter himself, ‘Whatsoever you shall bind on earth, shall be bound also in Heaven’ etc., [Mt 16:19]. Therefore whoever resists this power thus ordained by God, resists the ordinance of God [Rom 13:2], unless he invent like Manicheus two beginnings, which is false and judged by us heretical, since according to the testimony of Moses, it is not in the beginnings but in the beginning that God created heaven and earth [Gen 1:1]. Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.



There should be a separation of Church and State. A government is in place to represent the will of the people and to serve the people. Even Jesus acknowledged the authority of government over earthly matters (give to God what is God’s and give to Caesar what is Caesar’s). The Catholic Church does not advocate theocracies.

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