Questions Answered

  • Does the Church state that there is an ideal form of government?
  • What Magisterial status does the teaching of the popes on contraception enjoy?  Can it be changed?  Must we believe it?

Plato, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Aristotle.

Question: Does the Church state that there is an ideal form of government?

Answer: Catholics are not bound to any particular form of government except a just one. There has been a lot of theological speculation about which is the best kind of government, at least, in Western philosophy, probably going back to Plato.

Plato hated democracy because the democracy in Athens killed the only really wise man he had ever known, Socrates. For him, the philosopher king was the ideal. Though he tried to implement his ideas practically with Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, he failed, as Dionysius proved in no sense to be the ideal ruler. The principle of good government, though, was established by Plato, who maintained that the difference between a good and bad government is not based on how many people participate in it. Monarchies, oligarchies, and democracies can all be tyrannies if the people in power are more interested in their own private goods at the expense of the common good. Indeed, this is the touchstone of the difference. In a good government, the ruler or rulers are more interested in the common good than in pursuing their own private interests. In a bad the government, the opposite is true.

Aristotle more realistically declared that the ideal government should be a combination of all three: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. His ideal government was based again on the notion of the common good. Interestingly, Alexander the Great was his most famous student, who was in no sense a democrat. However, the Greeks certainly maintained that they did not have all-powerful kings like the Persians, and it was this which allowed them to defeat the vast Persian Empire so easily.

Many Christians were of the opinion that monarchy was the best form of government because it most closely resembled God’s government of the universe. Thomas Aquinas said that this was true if man’s nature is whole and intact. However, though he also affirms with Aristotle that the best form of government is a combination of all threegiven the difficulties of corrupt human nature after the Original Sinhe also states that because of the propensities of fallen human nature, democracy is best. The reason is that it is more difficult to corrupt all the people than only one man.

There has always been a tension in Catholicism allying itself with any particular form of government. Though the Eastern Church has tended toward the union of throne and altar—which the Western Church experienced for several hundred years—in the latter case this was basically a response to the Protestant Reformation. Since the place of the Church as a mediator, or authority, exercising power in the name of Christ is, at best, unclear in a religion based on the individual encounter of the soul with God—as being the sole interpreter of Scripture—many Protestants invested supreme religious authority in the state. Catholicism tolerated something approaching this idea in France, Spain, and Austria-Hungary for several centuries, but this is not really a Catholic position. This is because the state and the Church have very different purposes, and very different goods entrusted to them by God. They are not contradictory, but complementary.

The civil government rules in the name of God only through the Natural Law of reason—not through divine revelation as the Church does. Any form of government established by the constitution of a given society—be it written or unwritten—is just, provided those who exercise authority are more interested in the common good than in their own private goods. The Church is a hieratic order, based on service, and is supernatural in its goal, as well as in its order. The Church has never canonized any particular form of government. Therefore, Catholics are free to participate in a monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, or combination of all three, provided that such a government is constitutionally determined, and has a true and objective common good emphasis which it pursues in accord with the Natural Law.

Question: What Magisterial status does the teaching of the popes on contraception enjoy?  Can it be changed?  Must we believe it?

Answer: A recent doctrinal commentary by Cardinal Ratzinger on the profession of faith (Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, “Doctrinal Commentary of the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei,” Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, June 29, 1998) now required reading for those who teach in the Church, lists three distinctions in the exercise of the teaching of the Magisterium. The first distinction involves both the extraordinary Magisterium and the ordinary Magisterium teaching in a solemn manner. “These doctrines are contained in the word of God, written, or handed down, and defined with a solemn judgment, as divinely revealed truths, either by the Roman Pontiff when he speaks ‘ex cathedra,’ or by the college of bishops gathered in council, or infallibly proposed for belief by the ordinary and universal Magisterium” (Ratzinger, 5). Examples of this are: “the articles of faith of the Creed, the various Christological dogmas, and the Marian dogmas; the doctrine of the institution of the sacraments by Christ, and their efficacy with regard to grace; the doctrine of the real and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the sacrificial nature of the Eucharistic celebration; the foundation of the Church by the will of Christ; the doctrine on the primacy and the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff; the doctrine on the existence of Original Sin; the doctrine on the immortality of the soul, and on the immediate recompense after death; the absence of error in inspired sacred texts; the doctrine of grace; the doctrine on the immorality of the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being” (Ratzinger, 11). The assent which required for this type of declaration is “theological faith,” a lack of which is punished by the censure of “heresy” (Ibid.).

The second distinction respects a further distinction in the ordinary Magisterium. The formula in the profession of faith on which Ratzinger comments is, “I also firmly accept and hold each and every thing definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.” Notice that in relation to the doctrines in the first distinction, these are “definitively taught,” but not taught “in a solemn manner.”

“The object taught by this formula includes all those teachings belonging to the dogmatic or moral area, which are necessary for faithfully keeping and expounding the deposit of faith, even if they have not been proposed by the Magisterium of the Church as formally revealed” (Ratzinger, 6). The assent demanded by these teachings is not one that falls directly under the virtue of faith, but an assent which is “firm and definitive” (Ibid.). A person who did not assent to these teachings “would no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church” (Ibid.).

Examples of this sort of teaching are those connected “by logical necessity” with revelation. This necessity can also be an historical necessity. Some concrete examples would be: “the development in the understanding of the doctrine connected with the definition of papal infallibility, prior to the dogmatic definition of the First Vatican Council; … the doctrine that priestly ordination is reserved only to men; … the illicitness of euthanasia; … the illicitness of prostitution and of fornication; … the legitimacy of the election of the Roman Pontiff, or the celebration of an ecumenical council, the canonization of saints (dogmatic facts), the declaration … on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations …” (Ratzinger, 11).

It would seem that Humanae Vitae, and the teaching on birth control, fall under this classification because this teaching involves a conclusion, from logical necessity, on the data of revelation concerning sexual ethics, even though contraception is never specifically mentioned in Scripture.  This is because Scripture includes, in its moral teaching, all that is contained in the Natural Law. Here, the true relation between reason and faith is very evident, as is clear in many of the reflections of Pope John Paul II on sexual ethics.

Both sorts of teaching—namely, that which is divinely revealed, and that which is held definitively by logical connection to what is divinely revealed—are taught infallibly. In the case of the second kind of doctrine, one held definitively in a non-defining act by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of bishops, “such a doctrine can be confirmed or reaffirmed by the Roman Pontiff, even without recourse to a solemn definition” (Ratzinger, 9).  Ex cathedra infallibility spoken of by Vatican I, described a solemn definition by a pope alone. However, Vatican I did not limit the infallibility of the Church in teaching doctrine to this one act. This act was merely a special instance of the action of the Holy Spirit.

The latter type of teaching is from the College of Bishops, acting to define a doctrine. Humanae Vitae is certainly an example of this type of teaching, and so one must assent to it. It cannot be changed.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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  1. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Thank you Father Mullady for a clear explanation of structures of government and on the Papal magisterium and extraordinary episcopal magisterium . Thanks be to God the Church has it. And Humanae Vitae has an infallible teaching on contraception and legitimate marriage. Divine help is given to a good catholic to faithfully assent to this.

  2. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    the pics of Plato and Aristotle are a detail from a larger painting from the peripatetic school of education in Athens where the hand and finger of Plato is pointing upwards while Aristotle has his hand out and down indicating their differences in metaphysical being. Aristotle indicating forms of the principle of contradiction and the principle of individuation where Thomas Aquinas joins in with Aristotle as a conceptual realist. Those doctrines in Systematic theology are permanent .