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When Is It Okay to Disobey the State?

Imagine for a moment that a law were passed in our country outlawing attendance at Mass. What would you do? Certainly campaigns would be launched to change the law, to challenge the law in court, and to elect new leaders who would reject such a law.

But those processes could take years. The question is, what would you do in the meantime? Would you go to Mass anyway? If you are a priest, would you celebrate Mass anyway? Are there times when you would disobey the law and consider that disobedience to be morally justified?

This question goes to the heart of who we are as Christian citizens and of the relationship of the Church to the state.

The King Is Subject to a King

The Old Testament provides an excellent starting point for this question in 1 Samuel 8. The people of God are living on the land the Lord gave them. All around them, other nations are worshipping strange gods and engaging in strange rituals. One of the differences between God’s people and these other nations was that the other nations had a king. The people of Israel were always talking about the Lord, the Covenant, and the Commandments God gave to Moses, but they didn’t have a king.

So one day they go to the prophet Samuel, and ask, “Would you give us a king, please? All the other nations around us have a ruler that leads them into battle and fights their wars and provides for them, and we don’t have a king.” Samuel says, “What are you talking about? The Lord is your king!” “Yes, but we want a king like the other nations,” they reply.

So Samuel turns to the Lord, who tells Samuel to grant their request but also to warn the people that they’re going to suffer for it. And several chapters later we read the instructions that Samuel gives to the people. He says to them,

You said to me, no we want a king to rule over us. But the Lord your God was your king and now behold the king whom you have chosen, for whom you have asked. Behold, the Lord has set a king over you. If you will fear the Lord and serve him and hearken to his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the Lord and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the Lord your God it will be well. But if you will not hearken to the voice of the Lord and rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then the hand of the Lord will be against you and your king. (1 Sm 12:12b-15)

A hierarchy is established: The people obey the king. The people and the king obey the Lord.

If you read through the history of the Old Testament, you’re actually reading the history of two kingdoms interwoven one with another, the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah). And you soon discover that you are reading theological history. In other words, the events happened, but you are reading them from the perspective of God and understanding the God-related reasons why certain armies won the battles and others lost.

What Scripture is trying to convey is not the brilliant political strategies or the terrible blunders, but rather the fact that when the people and their king observed and obeyed the Covenant, things went well and God delivered them from their enemies. But when they—often at the urging of their king and because of his sinfulness—violated the Covenant, God delivered them into the hands of their enemies.

The prophets arrived to admonish the kings and to instruct the people. The role of the prophets is very clear in the Old Testament: to reproach the kings, telling them again that they need to be faithful to the Covenant.

The King’s Responsibilities

You and I are in a position today in America that gives us even more responsibility than the prophets had when they spoke to the kings. We too are prophets by our baptism into Christ. We have a prophetic role, not in the sense of telling the future but of speaking the present, interpreting present events in the light of the Word of God. We do it as clergy when we preach, but we all do it as baptized members of the faithful when we bear witness to the Word of God in our daily life. We bear greater responsibility because we have more than just the opportunity to speak to our “kings,” our rulers, those in government authority. We have the opportunity to choose them—an opportunity that the people in the Old Testament never had. We have the power to choose them. And if our system of governance works the way it’s supposed to work, we in fact govern ourselves.

What this means is that all the scriptural responsibilities that God places on the sovereign, on the king, on the ruler, are placed on us! If you read the Bible from the beginning to the end you see a whole series of very serious responsibilities placed on the shoulders of the ruler of the people. The ruler of the people was to do justice, reaffirm the Covenant, lead the people in the ways of the Lord, promote peace, defend life, and rescue the poor and the widow. All of the responsibilities of the sovereign and their people are now on us. We don’t only have the responsibility that belongs to the people; we have the responsibility that belongs to the sovereign because of our ability, our opportunity to take part in the political process.

The Church’s Yes and No

What, then, does the Church think about the state? Historically, beginning with Jesus himself, it has said to governments at the same time yes and no. And the Church maintains a delicate balance between her yes and her no. In his book, Church and State in Early Christianity, Hugo Rahner writes, “The Church has never confronted the state with a ‘no’ of inflexible refusal dictated by an other-worldly mysticism or with a ‘yes’ of unqualified acceptance based on political indifference. The Church of the martyrs with a sure political instinct illuminated by grace knew how to find a balance between ‘yes’ and ‘no.’”

Let’s look more closely at that yes and no.

First, the Church says a profound yes to the state, and this is rooted in a very simple fact: All authority, all power, comes from God. Therefore obeying earthly, civil authority becomes part of our obedience to God.

Scripture is filled with examples of this. Perhaps one of the most striking is in the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Even when the state and the powers of civil authority are persecuting believers, believers are exhorted to be good citizens. We read that God’s people are being taken into exile in Babylon. Yet they’re not told to create a revolution. They’re not called to overthrow the Babylonians. What are they called to do?

Thus says the Lord of hosts, to the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives, have sons and daughters. Take wives for your sons that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there, do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer 29:4-7)

Seek the welfare of the city even if the city is holding you in exile.

We’re even more familiar with the New Testament exhortations. Peter, for example says:

Maintain good contact among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers they may see your good deeds and glorify God . . . Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme or to governors . . . Honor all men, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the emperor. (1 Pt 2:12-13, 17)

And then of course we find the exhortation to pay taxes and the example of Jesus paying the temple tax and taking the coin out of the mouth of the fish to do so.

So to put it simply, the fact that we are citizens of heaven (Phil 3:20) does not give us the right to ignore our duties as citizens of earth. One of the old criticisms of religion is that because we focus on the world to come we are less concerned about this one. But the Church’s teaching has always been very clear: Preparing for the world to come makes us more concerned about this one. After all, we want to spend eternity with the person next to us. God is preparing for us new heavens and a new earth—not some kind of totally disconnected world that has nothing to do with the things that go on in this life.

Nonetheless, the Church also says a clear no to the state. That no is grounded in the very nature of a kingdom not of this world. When Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king, Jesus replied that his kingdom was not of this world (Jn 18:36). When Jesus was asked, “Is it lawful to pay the tax to Caesar? ,” notice what Jesus does in response. He asks whose image and inscription are on the coin. They say “Caesar’s.” “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he tells them (that’s the yes to the state) “but give to God what is God’s” (that’s the no; see Mt 17:24-27, 22:17-21). In other words there’s something higher here. There’s a duty to be given. Now, from where does that duty flow? Think of what he said. The coin belongs to Caesar because it bears the image of Caesar, so give it to him. But “give to God what belongs to God.” That belongs to God which bears the image of God, namely human beings—including Caesar himself! So Christ establishes the framework. Caesar himself belongs to God. The state itself belongs to God.

The Church has always taught that the state does not contain the fullness of human hope or embrace the totality of human existence. The state exists for the human person, not the other way around. Our destiny, ultimately, is the new heavens and the new earth. So we can never put our ultimate hope and trust in what the state can do for us. In this consists the Church’s no to the state. It frees us from the myth of some kind of political salvation. The Church is the first to say that we are not asked to put ultimate hope and trust in any political party, candidate or system. Those things do play a key role but never merit our ultimate hope or trust. Our destiny is not comprised by this world alone.

That does not mean, however, that we can shirk our responsibilities. We can’t walk away saying, “Oh, we can’t rely on those people anyway; they’re all crooked, they never keep their promises.”

God’s Law Comes First

In this context, then, we can return to the question with which we began. What would we do if a law were passed in our country outlawing attendance at Mass?

Hopefully, we would have the courage to disobey it.

The Catechism asserts in its own words the Church’s yes and no to the state in sections 1897-1904 and again in 2234 to 2243. It explains that we are “resident aliens.” Our citizenship is in heaven, and only there is our ultimate loyalty. Hence, if that loyalty conflicts with our loyalty to civic authority, loyalty to God must prevail.

Having said this, the Catechism then explicitly talks about the proper role civil disobedience can play, if circumstances warrant. We have to obey authority, it reminds us. But the role of authority “is to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society” (1898). Sometimes authority will fail in doing so.

It explains such a circumstance in this way:

Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself. It must not behave in a despotic manner, but must act for the common good as a moral force based on freedom and a sense of responsibility: A human law has the character of law to the extent that it accords with right reason, and thus derives from the eternal law. Insofar as it falls short of right reason it is said to be an unjust law, and thus has not so much the nature of law as of a kind of violence. (1902)

Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse. (1903)

Our duty in such cases is explained a bit later in the Catechism:

The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” “We must obey God rather than men”:

When citizens are under the oppression of a public authority which oversteps its competence, they should still not refuse to give or to do what is objectively demanded of them by the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and those of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority within the limits of the natural law and the law of the gospel. (2242)

The Right to Life

In our day, the most egregious example of the failure of civil authority to maintain the common good and protect human rights is in the legalization of abortion and euthanasia. Applying the Catechism’s teachings, Pope John Paul II wrote at length about civil disobedience in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life):

Laws which authorize and promote abortion and euthanasia are therefore radically opposed not only to the good of the individual but also to the common good; as such they are completely lacking in authentic juridical validity. Disregard for the right to life, precisely because it leads to the killing of the person whom society exists to serve, is what most directly conflicts with the possibility of achieving the common good. Consequently, a civil law authorizing abortion or euthanasia ceases by that very fact to be a true, morally binding civil law.

Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. From the very beginnings of the Church, the apostolic preaching reminded Christians of their duty to obey legitimately constituted public authorities (cf. Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pt 2:13-14), but at the same time it firmly warned that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). In the Old Testament, precisely in regard to threats against life, we find a significant example of resistance to the unjust command of those in authority. After Pharaoh ordered the killing of all newborn males, the Hebrew midwives refused. “They did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live” (Ex 1:17). But the ultimate reason for their action should be noted: “the midwives feared God” (ibid.). It is precisely from obedience to God—to whom alone is due that fear which is acknowledgment of his absolute sovereignty—that the strength and the courage to resist unjust human laws are born. It is the strength and the courage of those prepared even to be imprisoned or put to the sword, in the certainty that this is what makes for “the endurance and faith of the saints” (Rv 13:10). In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it. (EV 72, 73)

Surveying these teachings briefly, we find that the Church first of all calls us to do everything we can within the law to correct injustices. That is why we must be politically active and fully utilizeour democratic system to change laws that fall short of the very purpose of law.

Secondly, when circumstances justify acting outside the law, we are never justified in committing acts of violence or otherwise violating human rights. Moreover, in judging whether circumstances for civil disobedience prevail, we have to exercise the virtue of prudence and always seek the guidance of others so that we do not rely solely on our own judgment.

Finally, it is clear that civil disobedience is not in any way disrespect for the law, because unjust laws are not bad laws, but no laws at all. Defending human rights in peaceful ways outside “the law” is ultimately a form of defense of and respect for the law. Civil disobedience, in defense of human rights, is actually divine obedience.


No Longer Law but a Perversion of It

As Augustine says (De Libero Arbitrio i, 5) “that which is not just seems to be no law at all”: wherefore the force of a law depends on the extent of its justice. Now in human affairs a thing is said to be just, from being right, according to the rule of reason. But the first rule of reason is the law of nature, as is clear from what has been stated above. Consequently every human law has just so much of the nature of law, as it is derived from the law of nature. But if in any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law. . . .

Some things are therefore derived from the general principles of the natural law, by way of conclusions; e.g. that “one must not kill” may be derived as a conclusion from the principle that “one should do harm to no man”: while some are derived therefrom by way of determination; e.g. the law of nature has it that the evil-doer should be punished; but that he be punished in this or that way, is a determination of the law of nature.

Accordingly both modes of derivation are found in the human law. But those things which are derived in the first way, are contained in human law not as emanating therefrom exclusively, but have some force from the natural law also. But those things which are derived in the second way, have no other force than that of human law.
Summa Theologiae I-II:95:2

Bound to a Higher Law

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a manmade code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. . . . One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. . . .
—from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

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