First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers,
petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone,
for kings and for all in authority,
that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life
in all devotion and dignity.
This is good and pleasing to God our savior,
who wills everyone to be saved
I Timothy 2:1-2
By the reign of Nero (54-68 AD) the Empire had begun to harass and soon to kill the disciples of the Prince of Peace. Neither the Roman officials nor the Roman population generally liked or approved of the new religion. Philosophers considered its doctrine of the resurrection and its claim that Jesus would return in glory not so much mistaken as scandalous naive. In this environment Christians were convenient scapegoats. Nero blamed the great fire of July 64 in the Roman capital on Christians, some of whom, Peter probably among them, he crucified upside down in the Circus that bore the emperor’s name on the Vatican Hill. At the turn of the third century Tertullian reminded his readers that when the Tiber overflowed its banks the cry would go up, Christians to the lions. The state soon came to see that despite their quiet peaceable way of life the new religion posed a threat because it taught a loyalty higher than the customary duty of citizens to the state. Typical Romans found Christianity threatening because Christians stood outside familiar culture and because they worshiped God who was not a creature of the state but the Creator of all things visible and invisible, becoming thereby politically unreliable. Persecution was apparently sporadic and localized until Decius, about 250, launched an inquisition that required every Roman to affirm his loyalty to the empire by worshiping the imperial statue. The apogee was the great persecution in the reign of Diocletian (300-303). Eight years later Constantine and Licinius published their edict of toleration, and Christianity began its march toward cultural popularity and then dominance.
But throughout the long three centuries of oppression the Church never counseled rebellion, always hewing to the apostolic line that “the powers that be are ordained by God” (Romans 13:1), that rules and rulers are providentially provided to reward goodness and to punish evil (I Peter 2:13–14). So we find Saint Paul, as early as fifty or sixty, counseling Timothy in his second letter to command in Paul’s name, “First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority” ( 2:1–2). Depending on just when Paul wrote First Timothy, the emperor for whom Paul urged prayer would have been Claudius, Caligula, or Nero.
Beneath the Pauline command that authorities be prayed for and obeyed lay the Christian understanding of God’s providence, expressed eloquently about 90 AD by Clement, perhaps the third bishop of Rome, in the great prayer that concludes his Letter to the Corinthians.
To our rulers and governors on the earth — to them You, Lord, gave the power of the kingdom by Your glorious and ineffable might, to the end that we may know the glory and honor given to them by You and be subject to them, in naught resisting Your will; to them, Lord, give health, peace, concord, stability, that they may exercise the authority given to them without offense. For You, O heavenly Lord and King eternal, givest to the sons of men glory and honor and power over the things that are on the earth; do Thou, Lord, direct their counsel according to that which is good and well-pleasing in Your sight, that, devoutly in peace and meekness exercising the power given them by You, they may find You propitious. O Thou, who only has power to do these things.
As Paul knew the political order, like the order of salvation governing the redemption of souls, is ordered by God’s providence, under rulers he has permitted to rule, not because of any moral excellence of their own but because they are put in place by God. To rebel against that order is to rebel against God.
So what is every Christan’s defense against the inevitable descent of the political order into tyranny, or in Augustine’s words domination? It is one thing to obey a just, wise, and gentle ruler, another to accede to a tyrant. Is submission the only Christian choice; rebellion being impossible since the order of the world is providentially ordained by God? The answer is the same answer the martyrs gave in the days of persecution: witness. They did not frame the question as one to be resolved by political action but as one touching the moral imperative intrinsic to their situations: to sacrifice or not. Christians we are not encouraged to raise an army against the prince, even when oppression is obvious and dire, partly for the sound theological reason that the powers that be are providentially ordained or permitted and partly for the practical reason that political rebellion is as likely to bring harm as it is to effect righteousness.
We are, however, commanded always to bear witness by never being complicit with evil. We are not permitted to hate any person , to believe lies, to act on behalf of injustice, or within our power to countenance anything that denies or runs counter to the teachings of Christ. It was this witness, person by person, year after year that turned the Roman empire into the empire of Christ the King.
This witness is now weak—perhaps it is always weak—but still to be found, and still has the power to confront tyranny. It is the Little Sisters of the Poor after decades of litigating still unwilling to provide abortion for their employees. It is an archbishop who will not permit the desecration of the Mass as it damages souls or a bishop who will not be silent as Christian morality is assailed. It is observant Catholics who go to Mass and confession, and those who undertake the religious life of poverty, chastity and obedience when these are profoundly anti-cultural. It is those who take time to know who they are voting for. It is those who sacrifice to send their children to the parish school. And it is those who pray for our rulers. Without reference to any particular person, God’s grace can change them, or permit them to continue in rebellion against the good and the true as he wills; our hostility and hatred can only affect the destruction of souls, our own.
Christianity has always been disappointing to those who will not trust God’s will. Judas was only the first to betray because (we assume) he had expected a successful revolution on behalf of power, human or divine. What happened was the cross.