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To despise legitimate authority, in whomsoever vested, is unlawful, as a rebellion against the divine will, and whoever resists that, rushes willfully to destruction.

-Pope Leo XIII, Immortale Dei

As I was listening to the latest episode of the excellent Josias Podcast, two sentences stood out to me, one referring to revolutions as “intrinsically immoral”, the other stating that “we are obliged to accept the De Facto Power by Catholic Doctrine.” To take the second statement first as it naturally leads to the other, are Catholics always obliged to accept the De Facto Power as legitimate? Is this really the doctrine that was established by Pope Leo XIII?

The short answer is no, for though “there is no power (Potestas) but from God: and those that are, are ordained of God”¹, not all power in sense of mere force (Potentia) qualifies as an authority ordained of God. Indeed in a case where “the will of rulers is opposed to the will and the laws of God, they themselves exceed the bounds of their own power and pervert justice; nor can their authority then be valid, which, when there is no justice, is null,² we are explicitly obliged to disobey the Power which stands in contradiction to the Author of Authority. But what of the case of a power which does not explicitly attack the Catholic Church or the Divine Faith, but which came into power through usurpation? When (if ever) are Catholics obliged to obey it?

It is clear that the regime of usurpation is as legitimate as the reign of an occupying enemy who has come to power through an unjust war of aggression. As we have seen many times in history, recourse to rebellion under these circumstances is not intrinsically immoral.  However consideration must be given to the Common Good and the condition of a Just War must be fulfilled before such drastic recourse can be taken. The two risings of the Vendeans and the Chouans, the rebellion of the Tyroleans under Andreas Hofer, and the Cristero War are all rebellions by Catholics against the De Facto Power in defense of Legitimate Authority.

Now some may raise the objection that Pope Leo XIII taught that,

sometimes follow in the wake of violent crises, too often of a bloody character, in the midst of which preexisting governments totally disappear; then anarchy holds sway, and soon public order is shaken to its very foundations and finally overthrown. From that time onward a social need obtrudes itself upon the nation; it must provide for itself without delay. Is it not its privilege – or, better still, its duty – to defend itself against a state of affairs troubling it so deeply, and to re-establish public peace in the tranquillity of order?³

However it is clear that this cannot be applied to a government which itself caused the violent crisis through its usurpation of the preexisting government. All governments in some measure must serve the Common Good in order to exist, yet the existence of the usurpatory while the legitimate authority still exists (with moral authority is unable to enforce) is itself an injustice and continual offense against the Common Good. While such a government still serves the Common Good in such a way that a rebellion against it would be a greater harm to the Common Good, its citizens ought to obey it. But they ought to obey it only as a representative of the Legitimate Authority, the restoration of which they are obliged to pursue through lawful means, or in the case of extreme necessity, rebellion.

Of course the new governments of which Pope Leo writes may arise legitimately under two circumstances. The first of these is “as soon as there is no one left who could make a legitimate claim, or as soon as all those entitled to succeed have given up definitively and bindingly.”4 Either the legitimate authority must no longer exist, or the rights of the legitimate authority must be surrendered clearly and without duress of any kind. The second circumstance is that in which a new government takes the place of a preexisting power with the intention of restoring the Legitimate Authority. This is exemplified by the Austrian Ständestaat. Engelbert Dollfuss (and his successor) acted as legitimate authorities because of their intention to right the fundamental injustice of the usurpation through making possible the return of the legitimate authority. 

While it is true that the form of government “cannot be considered so definitive as to have the right to remain immutable”5 such changes must happen organically without the disruption of legitimate power. Under no circumstance does rightful authority simply expire, “the statute of limitations is a purely positivist institution. So long as in this question of Legitimacy there is no instance of Interpatrial Law or other Legal Authority over the individual power, and no right of positive law can atone for illegitimate assimilation of power, there can be no talk of the statute of limitation for rightful claims to power.”To hold such a position is not merely to deny the grave harm to the Common Good caused by continual usurpation, but to also invite acts of usurpation with the justification that they will automatically become legitimate over an arbitrary period of time. That those in continual rebellion to the legitimate authority invested by God serve some aspects of the Common Good cannot be taken as removing the fundamental injustice of their regime. Even regimes virulently opposed to the Divine Law serve some aspects of the Common Good.

In so far as such regimes do serve the Common Good, we are indeed obliged to obey and cooperate with them. Recourse to armed resistance must only be taken in the most dire necessity, as when the Legitimist Resistance fought against the National Socialist usurpation of their homeland. However, the moral right of the Legitimate Authority to return remains even under a substitutionary Catholic Regime. In order for the Authority to be truly present it must be just, and can admit no injustice in its institution, but must rather work to right the fundamental wrong upon which it was founded.






¹Romans 13:1
²Leo XIII, Diuturnum Illud
³Leo XIII, Au milieu des sollicitudes
4 Dr. Hans Karl von Zessner-Spitzenberg, Legitimität und Legalität
5Leo XIII, Au milieu des sollicitudes
6Dr. Hans Karl von Zessner-Spitzenberg, Legitimität und Legalität