There is a substantial difference in how St. Thomas and St. Augustine see government. St. Thomas is a metaphysician. And metaphysics looks “beyond the physical” to the nature of something as created by God. In essence, the nature of government is good, because some authority is necessary to organize the society, and that is put in us by God, who does not create evil. In the Garden of Eden, we would have some government, but there would be no coercion, because the ruler(s) would always be just, and all people would see the reasonableness of what they ask. Catholics, who have been educated in the thought of St. Thomas for quite some time, accept this at face value, and this, I suspect, has colored the view of Catholics, and even some official Church documents, in the direction of a kind of worship of government. (One might want to see my previous article on cosmos and taxis, and well as those on government and the economy.)
Now, St. Thomas was not some naïve college student. His fifth type of law is called “fomes,” the Latin word for tinder wood. Tinder wood is very dry wood that burns very hot and very fast. The fomes means the tendency that human beings have to let their passions and emotions get control over their reason. If one does this, one winds up with a big, out-of-control, fire (see my article “What a Character”).
Now, let us contrast this approach with that of St. Augustine, a main theological source for the thinking of Pope Benedict XVI. St. Augustine posits the existence to two cities: the City of God and the City of Man, or the earthly city. The citizens of these two cities are distinguished by the objects of their love: the citizens of the City of God love God even to the contempt of selves, and the citizens of the City of Man love themselves even to the contempt of God. But, as in the parable of wheat and the tares (Mt 13: 24-30), God allows them both to grow up together, meaning that this world is inhabited by both, and the citizens of the earthly city outnumber the citizens of the City of God.
For Augustine, the citizens of the earthly city are attracted to the power and wealth of rulership, and, indeed, usually end up as the ruling authorities. Which means, in real life, government has no interest in the common good or virtuous rule. Augustine feels that the only reason government exists is to protect the citizens of the City of God from the citizens of the City of Man. But wait, you may say, why would the earthly citizens who rule protect the Godly citizens? Simple: they do not want to be overthrown. Irritate the Godly citizens enough and they will get rid of the current rulers and get someone who can do the job. Other than that, government is seen by Augustine as a punishment for sin, just as death is. In fact, if you heard the expression, “Nothing is inevitable except death and taxes,” it, or at least the concept, probably came from St. Augustine.
St. Augustine does believe that individual governments can be good. Firstly, occasionally a good person gets into rulership and for a while there is some respite from government stupidity. Unfortunately, these good rulers get killed, die of natural causes, or get exiled. Cicero comes to mind. He was a great thinker, and was called on to rule a consul of Rome twice. He was a very good ruler, and exposed a number of scandals. He ended up being killed by the Emperor and his head and his hand were nailed to the podium of the Senate. Secondly, governments can listen to the Church, and as Bishop of Hippo, he did not hesitate to tell magistrates what they should do. But I would not hold my breath waiting for that; do these names of “Catholic” legislators like Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry and “Catholic” bureaucrats like Kathleen Sebelius mean anything to you? Do they listen to the Church? How about Representative Patrick Kennedy? Did he listen to his bishop, even when his official restraint from receiving Communion became public, or even after the letter from his bishop became public?
So, if St. Thomas and St. Augustine were speaking together about government, after St. Thomas said the government was in essence good, St. Augustine would probably reply: “So what?” He would point out that we do not live in a world of essences, but in a world tainted by men with original sin (the fomes). In real life, government is nothing but a great robbery, a racket. He spends many pages in The City of God showing the atrocities of Rome, which was a great empire founded on a parricide, and never stopped. He quotes a pirate (arrgh!) who was captured by Alexander the Great, who told that emperor that he had a lot of nerve calling him a thief because he stole a few ships, but for stealing whole countries, Alexander is called “emperor.”
Sadly, this well-founded distrust of government does not show up often in the thinking of Catholic churchman, and even the current pontiff (see my article, “Where is Pope Benedict Coming From?”), with the exception of Centesimus Annus of John Paul II. Catholics who merely parrot what they hear and read, without looking at the actual situations, and taking advantage of the findings of such sciences as political science and economics, are doing a disservice to their fellow man, their fellow Catholics, and their country.