Social Peace and the Dangerous Ideal of Conflict
Now we come to the issue of competition viewed as a social ideal in political affairs, which is closely related to our discussion of capitalist societies. Earlier it was addressed in its economic form. Here we address it as a much broader mentality, because our economic attitudes never remain in the purely economic sphere, but expand and invade every area of life.
After the fashion of capitalism and the theory of evolution, modern society believes that strife is an intrinsic good. It is the mechanism for progress. In science, for example, it is believed that human life itself is the result of a perpetual struggle for existence, a “survival of the fittest” through which progress is brought about. This same attitude appears in economic ideologies which hold competition to be the engine of social welfare and human creativity. Likewise, in political institutions there is a sort of “institutionalized conflict” represented by the separate branches of government and the parties competing for control of those branches. Such a system is designed for conflict.
In every case, then, it seems that the underlying assumption is that peace follows from chaos, and that strife is the mother of harmony. Because this has become so engrained as to seem natural, it may surprise the reader to find that the Church—and indeed most other traditions outside of modern systems—taught the opposite: that peace is the supreme value to be sought and strife avoided; and that this is in fact a duty which must be acted upon and not left as if it would occur as a result of automatic processes.
a. True peace is harmony of wills
The peace in question is not the peace which follows combat, which is simply the peace of death and defeat. The peace sought by the Christian is not merely the absence of war, pain, or the precarious tension of “balanced powers.” True peace is a harmonious union of wills through which those involved not only cease to fight, but actually agree in their desires. Such persons are “unified” in their efforts. Peaceful unity requires the courageousness of trust, the seeking of justice, the practice of love, and the realization of human brotherhood. In fact, we can say that peace is more the fruit of love than of justice, since justice removes obstacles to peace, while it is the part of love to bring it to fruition.
It goes without saying that if strife is considered the ideal and peace simply a consequence of the mechanism of strife, then true peace will be perpetually undermined. War and threat of war cannot be escaped so long as sin persists, but this does not in any way transform them into goods to be sought after as if they were the engines of peace, for this would only bring about the peace of death.
b. On obedience and revolution
We are sometimes led to believe that the philosophers and theologians of old demanded an unconditional submission to social authorities. We also imagine that this was motivated by the naïve assumption that social authorities were divinely instituted and therefore unconditionally legitimate. In truth, however, men like Aquinas always acknowledged the existence of legitimate causes for the removal of unjust rulers. The difference between the traditional thinking and the modern has more to do with the circumstances that each accepts as “unjust.”
For example, while moderns tend to view revolution as legitimate virtually any time the governed become dissatisfied with their government. So long as it can be clearly demonstrated that the people are unhappy—a majority vote, for example—a leader can be removed. All that is required is proof that it was the will of the people. The justification for removal of leaders in democratic regimes, then, boils down to a question, not of some objective standard of justice, but of public opinion plain and simple.
It is on this point that the thinkers of the Middle Ages beg to differ. For them, because governmental authority was instituted, not personally but universally and by God, its operation had to be judged by a standard of justice that was objective, like God. If a ruler was to be removed, he had to be removed by proving that he was governing unjustly. If he was carrying out his functions well, it would not matter if 99% of the population wanted him removed, it would be unjust to do so.
To simplify the problem, we can make the distinction between the ruler himself, as an individual, and the office that he is holding. Respect is due to a ruler because he is holding an office. Thus, the respect he is given is less due to him personally as it is due to the divinely ordained authority, which is to say, to God as represented by him. Even if he behaves ignobly, he holds a noble office. So when is it appropriate to remove an ignoble noble? Taking into account this separation between the man (who may be good or evil) and the office (which, being divinely instituted, is in itself good), we can say with the theorists of the Middle Ages that it is legitimate to remove even a good man who is a bad ruler, but it is not legitimate to remove a bad man who is a good ruler.
Such is the meaning of Christ’s words to the apostles: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.” Thus, when it comes to bad men who are good leaders, we are told to do what they say but not what they do. The most obvious implication here is that, although Christ bluntly acknowledged hypocrisy, he also commanded obedience.
 Mt, 23:2-3.