A New Roman Question

Being a Latin teacher and an attorney (a deadly cocktail if ever there was one), I read with great interest the reports of Justice Antonin Scalia’s comments this past week of the possibility of the reappearance of internment camps here in the United States. The reason for such reappearance was left vague, other than to mention their use in times of war. The reporting on Scalia’s comments stated that he employed a Latin phrase to illustrate the point. My interest was piqued and, not having to look far, the inimitable Fr. Z mentioned the story and the phrase in question:

Silent enim leges inter arma. (“For the laws are silent amidst arms.”)

marcus-tullius-ciceroThe quote comes from Cicero’s Pro Milone. I decided to pick up my dog-eared copy of Cicero’s Selected Political Speeches and take a look for myself the context of the original quote. It appears that it was uttered during a period of extreme unrest in Rome in 53 BC (during the time of the first triumvirate) where virtual martial law was called by Pompey to stem the mob violence in the streets. There are indications that Cicero himself was rather nervous in giving this oration and the very opening lines are a feat of rhetorical eloquence (and perhaps personal psychological comfort) in describing the scene of armed guards surrounding him. It seems that the context of the original line above, quoted through the years in various contexts, actually followed a very eloquent defense of the reality of the natural law and the right of one to self-defense. Here it is in its English translation:

And indeed, gentlemen, there exists a law, not written down anywhere but inborn in our hearts; a law which comes to us not by training or custom or reading but by derivation and absorption and adoption from nature itself; a law which has come to us not from theory but from practice, not by instruction but by natural intuition. I refer to the law which lays it down that, if our lives are endangered by plots or violence or armed robbers or enemies, any and every method of protecting ourselves is morally right.

While we know that not “any and every method of protecting ourselves” is morally right, Cicero articulates well the natural inclination of man to preserve his life and those of his loved ones–in the context of the oration, for his client Milo. Indeed, our own jurisprudence–taking its cue from the natural law and the example of Rome–acknowledges the right of self-defense and defense of others.

The same week as Scalia’s comment saw the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child level an unprecedented attack on the Church and the Holy See for upholding the natural law and a vision of the human person and the family that has been the common approach for most of recorded human history. In its “Concluding Observations,” the UN is attempting to coerce, through the influence of international institutions, the Church to change moral doctrine, canon law, and even Catholic school textbooks! The Holy See issued a terse response (in typical diplomatic speech) regretting the “attempt to interfere with Catholic Church teaching on the dignity of human person and in the exercise of religious freedom.”

I find it very interesting that the remarks of Scalia and the UN Report came out in the same week. Couple this with the current Administration’s constant imposition of the same agenda (i.e., homosexual supremacy and radical individualism and moral relativism) upon the people of the United States and its attitude that constitutionally defined roles and procedures are optional, the Church finds herself being increasingly marginalized. Some have called this increasing marginalization a prelude to persecution. While in some sense, there has never been a time where the Church was not under attack, the recent actions of the UN and the Administration bring up for discussion whether or not there will be an eventual attempt to “outlaw the Church.”  This potential action would likely be under the rubric of “unfair discrimination” or “hostility to women” or a violation of some sort of “diversity code.”  So much for the COEXIST bumper stickers.

So Cicero’s words are instructive; while not an exact analogue to the situation…yet. As he notes, the principle of self-defense is one that is “inborn in our heart.”  Such attacks on the Church from the secular authorities should disturb us; there should be a visceral desire in us to defend the Church and the truth. The Holy Father has referenced many times that these movements and attitudes are the work of the Evil One. Satan’s strategy is always to deceive, to divide, to be foul and to destroy. Since this, at its root, is a spiritual and intellectual battle, are Catholics prepared to defend themselves spiritually and intellectually? Self-defense is not simply the taking up of material arms–though, perhaps, it may come to that. Self-defense is utilizing “any and every method of protecting ourselves” that is morally upright and tailored to the situation. Given that the liberty of the Church is more and more under attack, perhaps the pastors and the faithful of the Church should look to the past to see how we may defend ourselves in this current situation.

In the 19th century, after the loss of the Papal States and the death of Blessed Pius IX, the new pope, Leo XIII, was left with a seemingly insoluble problem. Since 1861 and as a result of the Italian Risorgimento, the Church’s temporal power was stripped by the actions of political and cultural revolutionaries who wanted a united Italy.  Unjustly were the Church’s lands and political authority taken, and the inconclusive resolution of the matter became known as “The Roman Question.”  At the heart of this problem was the liberty of the Church to perform her spiritual mission and the necessity of material things to do so. Pope Leo XIII ordered prayers to be said at the end of every low Mass offered throughout the world for the resolution of this question. In 1929, with the Lateran Treaty being signed between the Holy See and Italy, the “Roman Question” finally found resolution. Yet, the then-reigning pope, Pius XI, ordered the prayers after the low Mass to continue, but with the intention of the conversion of Russia. With the introduction of the 1970 Missale Romanum (forma ordinaria), the prayers after Mass were no longer obligatory.

Perhaps now is the time to reintroduce the prayers after Mass to the Ordinary Form of the Mass (they still are said for those who pray in the Extraordinary Form)? Just as is times past, the liberty of the Church is being circumscribed by secular authorities. This time, however, it is unique–it is more dangerous. We see an attempt by these authorities–both domestically and internationally–to influence the changing of doctrine, to silence the Church’s witness to not only divine revelation, but natural reason itself. Now it is not about land or political realities, it is about intellectual and spiritual realities. The Church’s pastors would do well to recommend the reintroduction of these prayers. And even if they don’t, we would do well to pray them privately and personally, for self defense.

O God, our refuge and our strength, look down in mercy on Thy people who cry to Thee; and by the intercession of the glorious and immaculate Virgin Mary, Mother of God, of St. Joseph her Spouse, of Thy blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and of all the Saints, in mercy and goodness hear our prayers for the conversion of sinners, and for the liberty and exaltation of our holy Mother the Church. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.


This article, A New Roman Question is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

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John M. DeJak

John M. DeJak is an attorney and Latin teacher and works in academic administration. He writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
  • You lost me at “Justice” Antonin Scalia. His opinions and my beliefs have little common ground.

  • Well, Denise, whatever your thoughts of Scalia’s jurisprudence, the point was his quote of Cicero and the very real specter of government overreach in times of emergency or perceived emergency. If you read the article it has nothing to do with Scalia–other than being a touchstone for a reflection–nor an endorsement or criticism of his jurisprudence.

  • Yet more proof that Mother Church has long prepared her flock, the Church Militant. Even the very Creed we profess reminds us of the same: https://bellarmineforum.org/2013/03/29/why-pontius-pilate-is-in-the-apostles-creed-not-judas-or-the-jews-gird-your-loins-for-the-answer/

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