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Do We Need a Theory of the State?

Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Centesimus annus, makes the following observation:

Pope Leo XIII was aware of the need for a sound theory of the State in order to ensure the normal development of man’s spiritual and temporal activities, both of which are indispensable. For this reason, in one passage of Rerum novarum he presents the organization of society according to the three powers—legislative, executive and judicial—, something which at the time represented a novelty in Church teaching. Such an ordering reflects a realistic vision of man’s social nature, which calls for legislation capable of protecting the freedom of all. To that end, it is preferable that each power be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds. This is the principle of the “rule of law”, in which the law is sovereign, and not the arbitrary will of individuals.

The part of this that interests me is the first sentence. Why is a “theory of the state” necessary for the spiritual well-being of humankind? That seems like quite an odd claim, which, if true would seem to imply that vast segments of (Christian) humanity throughout history could not possibly have had access to “normal” spiritual development.


  1. Hill wrote:

    I don’t think he means “state” in the modern sense. I think it makes more sense to understand it generally as a theory of political order (known as “the state” these days). Yes, it is an anachronistic description of what I’m saying, but as you’ve pointed out, it would be absurd if understood otherwise.

    Monday, April 27, 2009 at 11:46 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    But, from the description it does seem like a modern theory of the state (i.e. the whole thing about executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government as normative).

    Monday, April 27, 2009 at 11:54 am | Permalink
  3. Michael wrote:

    Perhaps JP means there is a need now: given the existence of the modern state, there needs to be a theory of it to ensure our normal development. (?) The contrarian in me wishes he meant it dialectically – here is that which the church is not – but he seems positively optimistic.

    Monday, April 27, 2009 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    It’s a stretch, but I think legislative, judicial and executive refer to three very general (if not exactly universal) features of government. It is a certain historically contingent formulation, but I don’t think it necessarily requires assuming that he’s saying the modern nation-state is required for proper spiritual formation.

    Monday, April 27, 2009 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  5. Wilson wrote:

    The other thing that should be considered in this issue is that the English version is not authoritative. The Latin version of the encyclical phrases that first part in this way: “Non Leo XIII nesciebat sanam Civitatis doctrinam” (got to love the old latin double negative). Civitatis doctrinam could refer to an Augustinian conception of the City of God or the City of Man. Also, ‘theory’ seems a much more loaded phrase than in the Latin with instruction or teaching more to the point.

    Monday, April 27, 2009 at 2:53 pm | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    Excellent point.

    Monday, April 27, 2009 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

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