When folks find out that I describe myself as a Catholic who is also an anarchist, they often ask me “what about Romans 13” in which Paul encourages his hearers to “submit” to civil authorities. I’m often tempted to respond, with Brian Walsh, “to hell with Romans 13!”
Our new contributor, David, is a scholar of Pauline literature so he is certainly more qualified than I am to comment on this often-cited chapter of Romans. But I was struck recently at what the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says about it, and how it places that passage next to chapter 17 or the book of Revelation. Here’s an excerpt:
The Apostle certainly does not intend to legitimize every authority so much as to help Christians to “take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” (Rom 12:17), including their relations with the authorities, insofar as the authorities are at the service of God for the good of the person….…
When human authority goes beyond the limits willed by God, it makes itself a deity and demands absolute submission; it becomes the Beast of the Apocalypse, an image of the power of the imperial persecutor “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (Rev 17:6). The Beast is served by the “false prophet” (Rev 19:20), who, with beguiling signs, induces people to adore it. This vision is a prophetic indication of the snares used by Satan to rule men, stealing his way into their spirit with lies. But Christ is the Victorious Lamb who, down the course of human history, overcomes every power that would make it absolute. Before such a power, Saint John suggests the resistance of the martyrs; in this way, believers bear witness that corrupt and satanic power is defeated, because it no longer has any authority over them.
(Compendium, nos. 380, 382. Emphasis in original.)