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Scotland demonstrates the provisional nature of sovereignty

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 17, 2014

The campaign for Scotland’s independence from the United Kingdom draws to a close today. While I am sure this question is enormously important to many in Scotland, when viewed from a distance it best serves to illustrate the principle that political entities have no absolute character. By this I mean that no nation or state of any kind exists by Divine right or possesses an absolute claim to the obedience of its citizens, the shape of its borders, or even its existence as a political unit.

I tried to argue this point at some length back in 2012, mostly in connection with American debates over immigration (see The Sovereignty Myth: On the Limits of Political Authority). It concerned me then that the argument was greeted with not a few blank stares, as if nothing could be plainer than the sacrosanct character of America’s borders and America’s absolute right to arrange her affairs just as she pleases.

Might it not be salutary, then, to consider the case of Scotland? Current polls show sentiment to be fairly equally divided, with a slight majority in favor of remaining part of the United Kingdom and about fourteen percent of voters still undecided. But whichever way the vote goes, are we to suppose that somehow “Scotland” has decided this question with an absolute moral authority? What about the 49% (for example) who will have voted the other way? Ought they to recognize the outcome as the will of God, or as merely one more political convention with which they are likely to find it prudent to comply?

Prescinding from the inscrutable question of Divine Providence, nothing could be plainer, in truth, than that the peculiar combination of historical circumstances, political opportunities, military actions, and human desires which go into the creation and maintenance of political entities possess no absolute moral character whatsoever. They are almost exclusively provisional and ad hoc. In and of themselves, they confer moral authority in exactly the same degree that they can be demonstrated to be God’s active will (as opposed to his permissive will)—which is to say not at all.

This is why the exercise of political power is always ordered to and limited by the common good (which of course includes the natural moral law). It is the common good which both justifies political rule in the first place and determines its moral limits. Politically understood, the common good may be loosely defined as the basic conditions of human flourishing which pertain to all those who are affected by the actions of a particular government. Such basic conditions are spiritual, moral and social as well as material. (Each person, of course, is also under a moral constraint to avoid actions which undermine the common good.)

So let me say it again: Regardless of the peculiar (and sometimes even ludicrous) sets of circumstances out of which particular political states evolve, political morality—including even political legitimacy—is ultimately determined by the common good. There is nothing morally absolute about human borders, human constitutions, human political systems, human judicial decrees, or human laws. Very often, the common good itself will demand that we honor these things. Even more often, prudence will demand it, because of the consequences of not doing so. But they are all mere conventions.

Too often, national identity and patriotism can skew our judgments. Morality does not derive from territorial political arrangements. Might and right are not the same.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 22, 2014 10:12 AM ET USA

    John J Plick: In the hope of making some headway, two points: In your first comment, "every nation" encompasses nation states or political entities only indirectly. The word "nation" as used in the passage you cite refers to a "people". With regard to the second comment, there is a huge difference between stating that the sovereignty of states is justified by the common good (and not by divine right, with an absolute license to do whatever they please) and arguing that legitimate government has no moral force whatsoever. Again, we cannot allow inordinate attachment to our own political identity to obscure the roots of the social order in the natural moral law. We can presume that many societies and even many governments, and certainly many forms of government, have been established to pursue some reasonable set of goods. This does not give them a moral authority which extends beyond the natural moral principles which objectively determine those goods.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Sep. 20, 2014 2:59 PM ET USA

    Do other theologians feel as you do? I am honestly interested. Conceptually, it would appear that the acceptance of this principle that you would propose would allow the Church to avoid some disturbing implications. However if the United States IS a valid moral entity based on the promotion of legitimate individualism, & is also "not Catholic," than the Church is liable to a charge of promoting a dysfunctional "prescriptionism" which has created elitism & compromised individual freedom & gifts?

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Sep. 18, 2014 12:48 PM ET USA

    Where are you getting this "theological principle" of "the provisional nature" of sovereignty? You should cite your sources. But the Bible that I read states "Every nation on earth shall adore You..." & what of God's statement to Moses regarding the land which Esau & his descendants occupied & which He refused to let them violate saying "Mt. Seir I have given to Esau & his descendants..." ? Why then does the Vatican condescend to be part of the UN & work with other "nations?"