BRYN MAWR, July 12, 2006 – Yesterday I outlined in brief a biblical case for the legitimate and even divine institution of civil government. Having established that the State is a valid social institution, the next step in what is broadly called social ethics is to outline the scope of the State’s authority and its relations to other social institutions.
A valuable place to start might be in defining what the role of the State ought to be, rather than simply cataloguing the specific tasks of the State one by one, starting with the punishment of the wrongdoer, and so on (in this sort of endeavor, I think Aquinas’ maxim regarding when to make law is invaluable). Gaudium et spes gives a valuable starting point for a discussion of the common good: “The sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.” Leo XIII says that “Civil society exists for the common good.”
In some sense, too, the State exists for the common good, although its role is clearly defined and sharply delimited: to ensure some of the necessary preconditions for the realization of the common good.
Recall what Lord Acton writes of liberty, the highest political end, that it is necessary “for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.” These highest objects of civil society could be summed up in the concept of the common good. Thus Acton writes that beyond the core and proper center of the scope of governmental authority, the State “can only give indirect help to fight the battle of life by promoting the influences which prevail against temptation–religion, education, and the distribution of wealth.”
In discussing the relationship between the Church and State, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the State’s responsibility with regard to the first table of the Decalogue in a similar way. He argues that the State effectively meets its responsibility in promoting and protecting the Church by carving out space for the existence of the Church, ensuring its ability to exist and vigorously thrive in freedom.
In our American context, I think we can understand the establishment clause of the First Amendment to effectively accomplish this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Bill of Rights therefore protects and even promotes the right of the Church to exist
Simply put: the government exists to promote and protect liberty, a necessary but not sufficient condition for the attainment of human virtue and flourishing, also called the common good.