My Thoughts

I cannot help but wonder how many have ever heard of John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton. Born in Naples, Italy on January 10, 1834, a cradle Catholic, he grew up speaking four languages: English, German, French, and Italian. Barred from attending Cambridge University because of his Catholicism, he studied at the University of Munich under the famous church historian, Ignaz von Döllinger. Through Döllinger’s teaching, he learned to consider himself first and foremost a historian. When he died in 1902, he was considered one of the most learned people of his age, unmatched for the breadth, depth, and humanity of his knowledge.

He would later acquire the Rambler, making it a liberal Catholic journal dedicated to the discussion of social, political, and theological issues and ideas. Through this activity and through his involvement in the first Vatican Council, Lord Acton became known as one of the most articulate defenders of religious and political freedom. He argued that the church faithfully fulfills its mission by encouraging the pursuit of scientific, historical, and philosophical truth, and by promoting individual liberty in the political realm.

John Acton pursued electoral politics and entered the House of Commons in 1859 as a member for the Irish constituency of Carlow. In 1869, Gladstone rewarded him for his efforts on behalf of Liberal political causes by offering him a peerage. In 1895, Lord Acton was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University and is no doubt most familiar to succeeding generations for his observation that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) was a keen observer of both religion and politics, having written and spoken much on the confluence of the two over the years. In his book, Western Culture he spoke of the relationship between power and law.

It is the specific task of politics to apply the criterion of the law to power, thereby structuring the use of power in a meaningful manner. It is not the law of the stronger, but the strength of the law that must hold sway. Power as structured by law, and at the service of the law, is the antithesis of violence, which is a lawless power that opposes the law. This is why it is important for every society to overcome any suspicion that is cast on the law and its regulations, for it is only in this way that arbitrariness can be excluded and freedom can be experienced as a freedom shared in common with others. Freedom without law is anarchy and, hence, the destruction of freedom. Suspicion of the law, revolt against the law, will always arise when law itself appears to be no longer the expression of a justice that is at the service of all but rather the product of arbitrariness and legislative arrogance on the part of those who have power.[1]

And then there is this, written by Ben Moreell more than a decade ago:

When a person gains power over other persons–political power to force other persons to do his bidding when they do not believe it right to do so–it seems inevitable that a moral weakness develops in the person who exercises that power. It may take time for this weakness to become visible. In fact, its full extent is frequently left to the historians to record, but we eventually learn of it.

Please do not misunderstand me. These persons who are corrupted by the process of ruling over their fellow men are not innately evil. They begin as honest men. Their motives for wanting to direct the actions of others may be purely patriotic and altruistic. Indeed, they may wish only “to do good for the people.” But, apparently, the only way they can think of to do this “good” is to impose more restrictive laws.

Now, obviously, there is no point in passing a law which requires people to do something they would do anyhow; or which prevents them from doing what they are not going to do anyhow. Therefore, the possessor of the political power could very well decide to leave every person free to do as he pleases so long as he does not infringe upon the same right of every other person to do as he pleases. However, that concept appears to be utterly without reason to a person who wants to exercise political power over his fellow man, for he asks himself: “How can I ‘do good’ for the people if I just leave them alone?” Besides, he does not want to pass into history as a “do nothing” leader who ends up as a footnote somewhere. So he begins to pass laws that will force all other persons to conform to his ideas of what is good for them.

That is the danger point! The more restrictions and compulsions he imposes on other persons, the greater the strain on his own morality. As his appetite for using force against people increases, he tends increasingly to surround himself with advisers who also seem to derive a peculiar pleasure from forcing others to obey their decrees. He appoints friends and supporters to easy jobs of questionable necessity. If there are not enough jobs to go around, he creates new ones. In some instances, jobs are sold to the highest bidder. The hard-earned money of those over whom he rules is loaned for questionable private endeavors or spent on grandiose public projects at home and abroad. If there is opposition, an emergency is declared or created to justify these actions.

If the benevolent ruler stays in power long enough, he eventually concludes that power and wisdom are the same thing. And as he possesses power, he must also possess wisdom. He becomes converted to the seductive thesis that election to public office endows the official with both power and wisdom. At this point, he begins to lose his ability to distinguish between what is morally right and what is politically expedient.[2]

All this leads to this rather disconcerting thought, something we all should pause to ponder with profundity and purpose, no matter which way your mast is tilting: if power tends to corrupt, how long before power corrupts absolutely? One more thing: “It is not the law of the stronger, but the strength of the law that must hold sway.” Just something to think about. Wake up America!

Just my thoughts for a Thursday, for what it is worth.


[1] Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), Western Culture: Today and Tomorrow, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2007), 87-88.

[2] Ben Moreell, “Power Corrupts”, Acton Institute: Religion & Liberty: Volume 2, Number 6, July 20, 2010.

Deacon Chuck

About the author: Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator. Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin. He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is "Colloqui: A journal for restless minds", a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: http://deaconscorner.org. Comments are always welcome and appreciated. He is the author of two books: "The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence" which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and "Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories" which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love. He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

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