Pope's Timely Advice on Essence of a Good Ruler

St. Ambrose of Milan
St. Ambrose of Milan (photo: Wikipedia)

During his visit to the World Meeting of Families in Milan at the weekend, Pope Benedict XVI gave a timely address on the relationship between Church and State and the essence of a just, wise and benevolent ruler. His words were relevant not only to the situation in the United States but also many other countries where the rights and freedoms of Catholics, especially when it comes to the protection of life and the family, are under threat.

To help explain his arguments, the Holy Father, who was addressing civil and military authorities, industrialists and workers, and exponents of the world of culture in the Italian region of Lombardy, drew on the example and principles of St. Ambrose, the 4th century Bishop of Milan and Doctor of the Church, who also governed the Roman provinces of Liguria and Aemilia.

Noting that the Saint was advised “to administer not as a judge but as a bishop,” the Pope said he was an effective governor, “a balanced and enlightened ruler” who handled questions “with wisdom, common sense and authority, knowing to overcome differences and reconcile divisions.”

The Pope then recalled St. Ambrose's words, given in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, that point to a central truth about the human person – words which the Pope said act as a solid foundation of social coexistence: “that no power of man can be considered divine, and therefore no man is master of another man.” St. Ambrose would courageously remember this, the Pope added, writing to the Emperor: "Even you, august Emperor, you are a man" (Epistola 51.11).

The Pope continued:

“There is another element we can derive from the teaching of St. Ambrose. The first quality of the ruler is justice, a public virtue par excellence, because it concerns the good of the whole community. Yet it is not enough. Ambrose says it must be accompanied by another quality: the love of freedom, which he considers a discriminatory factor between good and bad leaders, because, as one reads in another of his letters, "the good ones love freedom, the reprobates love servitude" (Epistola 40, 2). Freedom is not a privilege for some, but a right for all, a precious right that the civil authorities are to ensure. However, freedom does not mean the will of the individual but the responsibility of everyone. One of the principle elements of the secular State is to ensure freedom so that everyone can present their own vision of social life, but always while respecting others and in the context of laws which seek the good of all.

On the other hand, insofar as the concept can be realized in a confessional state, it seems clear, in each case, that its laws must draw justification and strength from natural law, which is the foundation for a social order adapted to the dignity of the human person, going beyond a purely positivist conception from which it’s not possible to derive indications that are, in a certain way, of ethical character (the Pope cites here his address to the German Parliament on, September 22, 2011, when he noted that in Europe efforts are being made to ensure that only positivism is being recognized as a common culture and a common basis for law-making. This has meant, he explained, that  “all the other insights and values of our culture are reduced to the level of subculture, with the result that Europe vis-à-vis other world cultures is left in a state of culturelessness and at the same time extremist and radical movements emerge to fill the vacuum.” This leaves society resembling “a concrete bunker with no windows,” the Pope said, “in which we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric conditions, being no longer willing to obtain either from God’s wide world.”).

The State is at the service of, and the guardian of, the individual and his “well-being" in its multiple aspects, beginning with the right to life, which must never be deliberately suppressed. Everyone can then see how the legislation, and the work of state institutions in particular, should be serving the family founded upon marriage and open to life, and also recognize the right of parents freely to choose the education and formation of their children, according to the plan for education they deem valid and relevant. It does no justice to the family if the State does not support the freedom of education for the common good of society.

In this, the state exists for its citizens, in a valuable and constructive cooperation with the Church, certainly not confusing the different purposes and roles of civil power and the Church itself, but for the contribution that it [the Church] has provided and still can provide society with its experience, its teachings, its traditions, its institutions and its works, with which it is placed at the service of the people. It’s enough to think of the many shining figures of saints of charity, of schools and of culture, saints who cared for the sick and the marginalised with the same service and love with which we would serve and love the Lord. This tradition continues to bear fruit: the work of Lombardy Christians in each field is very much alive and perhaps even more significant than in the past.  Christian communities promote these actions not as a substitute, but as a gratuitous superabundance of Christ's charity and of the all-embracing experience of their faith. Apart from courageous technical and political decisions, the crisis we are going through also has need of gratuitousness, as I had the occasion to observe: "The "city of man" is promoted not only by relationships of rights and duties, but still even more by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy and communion "(Encyclical Caritas in Veritate, 6).

We can conclude with a last precious invitation from St. Ambrose, whose figure and solemn warning is woven into the banner of the City of Milan. To those who want to help the Government and Public Administration, St. Ambrose requires that they love. In the work De officiis he says: "That which love does can never be done by fear. Nothing is so useful as to be loved" (II, 29). On the other hand, the reasons that, in turn, move and keep your hardworking and industrious presence in various fields of public life cannot but be a desire to dedicate yourselves to the good of citizens, and therefore a clear expression and an evident sign of love. In this way, therefore, politics is ennobled and becomes an exalted form of charity.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen! Accept my simple considerations as a sign of my deep respect for the institutions that you serve and for your important work. May the continued protection of Heaven assist you in your responsibility… I impart the Apostolic Blessing to you, your employees and your families. Thank you! “


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