Even in Marriage, Authority is Derived from the Consent of the Governed

According to Catholic theology (and as far as I’m aware the the theology of the majority of Protestant churches), a marriage is not valid unless both the wife and husband agree to the marriage. Otherwise, whatever anybody says, no marriage has taken place. Agreeing to the marriage carries the explicit (not even “implicit” for Christians, at least) promise from the wife that she submit to the husband, but the marriage has to be agreed upon first.

The wife, insofar as she is governed by the husband, can only be governed if she consents to be under the authority of the husband in advance. In other words: his authority is derived from the consent of the governed.

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16 Responses to Even in Marriage, Authority is Derived from the Consent of the Governed

  1. Zippy says:

    Usually a “consent of the governed” formulation implies that the authority goes away when consent is withdrawn. If that sounds incoherent it is because it is incoherent: an authority that may be ignored or eliminated arbitrarily is no authority at all.

    Another problem with the comparison is that while it is true that the matter of the sacrament of matrimony is mutual consent to marriage, it is straightforwardly false that sovereign authority derives from consent at all.

    • Ha! I knew this was Zippy bait.

      I would simply reply that that formulation of the formula is one that I DO reject as incoherent, but this formulation of it proves that the concept does actually have some legs under it.

      I agree with you that there are fundamental differences between matrimonial and sovereign authority, but I think going through the implications of that are a subject of another post (I really, REALLY recommend you read through the comments in the WWWtW thread “Exceptional America”, Tony’s in particular).

      • Zippy says:

        Then you reject consent doctrine as propounded by Locke, Jefferson, and pretty much anyone of note who has promoted consent doctrine.

        The idea that authority derives from consent is wrong even in marriage. Someone might become a citizen of a country voluntarily, but it doesn’t follow that the sovereign’s authority therefore derives from consent. A woman can agree to marry, become thereby a member of her husband’s
        household, and place herself permanently under his authority; but that doesn’t mean that she creates his authority by her consent.

        There is no chance that I will waste a single quantum of energy reading that post or thread.

        Consent doctrines are pernicious, evil, vile, despicable heresy that has been condemned by the Magisterium: an invention of the Father of Lies designed to murder and torment vast numbers of people and lead them to Hell.

      • Hmmmm, I don’t know if you’re totally right. Some quick googling (because I knew these quotes existed and just needed to find them) gives me these:

        St. Robert Bellarmine: “It depends upon the consent of the multitude to constitute over itself a king, consul, or other magistrate. This power is, indeed, from God, but vested in a particular ruler by the counsel and election of men” (“De Laicis, c. 6, notes 4 and 5). “The people themselves immediately and directly hold the political power” (“De Clericis,” c. 7).

        St. Thomas Aquinas: “Therefore the making of a law belongs either to the whole people or to a public personage who has care of the whole people” (Summa, la llae, q. 90, a. 3). “The ruler has power and eminence from the subjects, and, in the event of his despising them, he sometimes loses both his power and position” (“De Erudit. Princ.” Bk. I, c. 6).

        Certainly there are ways that concept can be formulated without it necessarily being false or heretical.

        There is no chance that I will waste a single quantum of energy reading that post or thread.

        Up to you.

        I want to point out, which I did on that thread too, that I don’t necessarily think you’re wrong here. I’m playing devil’s advocate in pretty much all arguments/discussions of this sort. Right now I’m actually roughly fifty/fifty in my views on this matter; this post is just something that occurred to me late one night that I thought I should get down.

  2. I’m in considerable agreement with the post. One of the important things about marriage is that although it can be seen as a contract, it is much more like a fundamental law, a constitution or treaty of federation between nations, than like most contracts we deal with. It is recognition of common good, and creation of new common good, and involves taking steps to produce common good. And, as Aquinas notes, the proper and natural caretaker of the common good of a society is each person in the society as a rational member of it; this is basic authority. But, as in a nation the people build further structures of authority (offices of government) through reason, custom, and fundamental positive law, in order to make it easier to serve common good, so too the participants in a marriage do something similar through reason, mutual agreement, and vow.

  3. Pingback: Consent doesn’t create authority, even in marriage | Zippy Catholic

  4. Zippy says:

    Bellarmine (as interpreted by modern minds at least) is wrong. And Aquinas doesn’t say that authority derives from consent. The source of authority is indeed the governed, because authority is for the common good not the private good of the sovereign. It is simply an error to conflate the common good with consent.

    • Okay; where does the magisterium expressly condemn the concept?

      (This is a serious, non-sarcastic question.)

    • Malcolm isn’t conflating common good with consent, though; you are, because you are conflating efficient cause and final cause, which is effectively equivalent. Because authority derives from common good final cause, authority resides in the caretaker of what is common, which is in the first and primary sense the whole people. The whole people, however, may establish by customary law particular formats of government, in which some particular person is granted authority to act on behalf of the whole people. Thus the particular authority in any society, where that particular authority is not the consensus of everyone, is derived from customary law formed by the whole people. Aquinas is very clear about this. And customary law is formed by the shared sense or consent of the people. This is why it is not only Bellarmine’s interpretation of Aquinas that the authority of government derives from the consent of the whole people, but also Suarez’s, and pretty much everyone else’s.

      Locke, of course, did not originate the idea of consent of the governed; that the authority of government derives from ‘common consent of the whole realm’ was a standard, and longstanding, English doctrine that Locke was adapting to his own theory of government, and that doctrine in turn derived from medieval Catholic jurisprudence, modified so as to fit the Parliamentary idea. The idea that it is somehow a purely modern idea is itself a very modern idea.

  5. Catholic Economist says:


    From Pope Saint Pius X’s Notre Charge Apostolique:

    The Sillon places public authority primarily in the people, from whom it then flows into the government in such a manner, however, that it continues to reside in the people. But Leo XIII absolutely condemned this doctrine in his Encyclical “Diuturnum Illud” on political government in which he said:

    “Modern writers in great numbers, following in the footsteps of those who called themselves philosophers in the last century, declare that all power comes from the people; consequently those who exercise power in society do not exercise it from their own authority, but from an authority delegated to them by the people and on the condition that it can be revoked by the will of the people from whom they hold it. Quite contrary is the sentiment of Catholics who hold that the right of government derives from God as its natural and necessary principle.”

    Admittedly, the Sillon holds that authority – which first places in the people – descends from God, but in such a way: “as to return from below upwards, whilst in the organization of the Church power descends from above downwards.”

    But besides its being abnormal for the delegation of power to ascend, since it is in its nature to descend, Leo XIII refuted in advance this attempt to reconcile Catholic Doctrine with the error of philosophism. For, he continues: “It is necessary to remark here that those who preside over the government of public affairs may indeed, in certain cases, be chosen by the will and judgment of the multitude without repugnance or opposition to Catholic doctrine. But whilst this choice marks out the ruler, it does not confer upon him the authority to govern; it does not delegate the power, it designates the person who will be invested with it.”

    For the rest, if the people remain the holders of power, what becomes of authority? A shadow, a myth; there is no more law properly so-called, no more obedience. The Sillon acknowledges this: indeed, since it demands that threefold political, economic, and intellectual emancipation in the name of human dignity, the Future City in the formation of which it is engaged will have no masters and no servants. All citizens will be free; all comrades, all kings. A command, a precept would be viewed as an attack upon their freedom; subordination to any form of superiority would be a diminishment of the human person, and obedience a disgrace.”

  6. Catholic Economist says:

    And of course, as alluded to above, Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical “Diuturnum Illudis” worth a read.

    An excerpt:

    Those who believe civil society to have risen from the free consent of men, looking for the origin of its authority from the same source, say that each individual has given up something of his right,and that voluntarily every person has put himself into the power of the one man in whose person the whole of those rights has been centered. But it is a great error not to see, what is manifest, that men, as they are not a nomad race, have been created, without their own free will, for a natural community of life. It is plain, moreover, that the pact which they allege is openly a falsehood and a fiction, and that it has no authority to confer on political power such great force, dignity, and firmness as the safety of the State and the common good of the citizens require. Then only will the government have all those ornaments and guarantees, when it is understood to emanate from God as its august and most sacred source.

  7. Catholic Economist says:

    I apologize for cluttering your comments section Malcolm, but one more example of the Magisterium condemning the idea of the “consent of the governed”. From Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Libertas Praestantissimum:

    For, when once man is firmly persuaded that he is subject to no one, it follows that the efficient cause of the unity of civil society is not to be sought in any principle external to man, or superior to him, but simply in the free will of individuals; that the authority in the State comes from the people only; and that, just as every man’s individual reason is his only rule of life, so the collective reason of the community should be the supreme guide in the management of all public affairs. Hence the doctrine of the supremacy of the greater number, and that all right and all duty reside in the majority. But, from what has been said, it is clear that all this is in contradiction to reason. To refuse any bond of union between man and civil society, on the one hand, and God the Creator and consequently the supreme Law-giver, on the other, is plainly repugnant to the nature, not only of man, but of all created things; for, of necessity, all effects must in some proper way be connected with their cause; and it belongs to the perfection of every nature to contain itself within that sphere and grade which the order of nature has assigned to it, namely, that the lower should be subject and obedient to the higher.

    Moreover, besides this, a doctrine of such character is most hurtful both to individuals and to the State. For, once ascribe to human reason the only authority to decide what is true and what is good, and the real distinction between good and evil is destroyed; honor and dishonor differ not in their nature, but in the opinion and judgment of each one; pleasure is the measure of what is lawful; and, given a code of morality which can have little or no power to restrain or quiet the unruly propensities of man, a way is naturally opened to universal corruption. With reference also to public affairs: authority is severed from the true and natural principle whence it derives all its efficacy for the common good; and the law determining what it is right to do and avoid doing is at the mercy of a majority. Now, this is simply a road leading straight to tyranny. The empire of God over man and civil society once repudiated, it follows that religion, as a public institution, can have no claim to exist, and that everything that belongs to religion will be treated with complete indifference. Furthermore, with ambitious designs on sovereignty, tumult and sedition will be common amongst the people; and when duty and conscience cease to appeal to them, there will be nothing to hold them back but force, which of itself alone is powerless to keep their covetousness in check. Of this we have almost daily evidence in the conflict with socialists and members of other seditious societies, who labor unceasingly to bring about revolution. It is for those, then, who are capable of forming a just estimate of things to decide whether such doctrines promote that true liberty which alone is worthy of man, or rather, pervert and destroy it.

  8. Zippy says:

    I am not equating efficient and final cause at all. It is not the consent (will) of the people that determines what is good. Yes, (some) men (trivially) make decisions about how to be governed and how to go about governing; but their decisions do not determine what is good. Equivocation between the trivial sense and the liberal sense is exactly what modern “consent” theories are all about.

    • By talking about ‘determining what is good’ you are again trying to talk about the efficient cause, or the authority of the caretaker, to which consent is relevant, as if it were the final cause, which is common good. The very fact that you have shifted from talking about authority to talking about good establishes that you are equivocating.

      And indeed, the latter is precisely the reason why consent becomes relevant at all, for reasons that are given by Aquinas: the natural caretaker for any community organized by common good is everyone in the community, for the obvious reason that if the good is really common everyone has the authority to work with others for it; in Aquinas’s account, the authority of a particular caretaker of common good, whether it be a council or a king or anything else, is conferred by the consent of the community in its pursuit of common good.

  9. Please, nobody apologize! I love it when I spark discussions like this among intelligent people. For a few brief moments I get to feel as if I’m on their level.

    Oh, and, like, learning and stuff.

    But seriously, thanks.

  10. Res says:

    Explore the analogy.

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