Opinion: The Limits of Law and Obedience

The Church, mediated by the authority invested in the successor of Peter, can bind us in conscience on defined and infallible matters of faith and morals, but what of human law, those matters of directives and discipline, that are at times all-too fallible?

(Image: Gabriella Clare Marino/Unsplash.com)

Obedience is not necessarily a virtue. It did not excuse the Nazis at Nuremberg, who were just ‘following orders’. Just as Serviam has its exceptions and nuances, so too Non Serviam can be firmly stated without its usual demonic overtones. 

So how do we know when obedience is good, and when not so? With Saint Peter, we must in the end obey God rather than men. Yes, God usually speaks through the authority of men and their laws – rare is the direct voice of the Almighty in our minds, and ‘God told me to do it’ is also not an excuse for evil. Here’s Thomas More, in Bolt’s play, responding to his son-in-law Roper, who wanted to break the law to get at King Henry:

Roper- Now you give the Devil benefit of law!

More- Yes, what would you do? Cut a road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper- Yes. I’d cut down every law in England to do that.

More- And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned on you … where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted with laws from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s, and if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the wind that would blow then?

We should take More’s warning into account when we’re pondering the breaking of laws. Even so, law is in the end a guide to our conscience, not our conscience itself. And it is on our conscience that we must act, and upon which we will be judged, for it is through our conscience where we are ‘alone with God’, to hear the ‘still small voice’ that Elijah heard on the mountain. We must act in accord with our conscience, which Pope John Paul II in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor calls the ‘proximate norm of morality’ (VS, 59-60).

More precisely, conscience is defined in our tradition as ‘a judgment of reason, whereby the human person recognized the moral quality of a concrete act’ (CCC, 1778). It is an act, discerning the morality of another act. This judgment is not something purely autonomous, made in a vacuum and on the spur of the moment. Rather, conscience must be formed in the truth, by a solid stock of a priori principles, which guide our way in truth and goodness. Pope John Paul II describes this as a ‘participated theonomy’ (VS, 41), a cooperation in God’s own eternal law. We all have some innate awareness of these moral truths written upon our hearts, termed synderesis (CCC, 1780). As Moses taught of old, and as the newer Catechism puts it: ‘No one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law’ (CCC, 1860).

Beyond these basic principles, there are many guides to our conscience for all the complexities of the moral life: Our families, first and primary, schools of various sorts, friends, counselors, the Church in the myriad of her teachings, literature, theologians, philosophers, pundits and prophets in all their stripes and, to the point at hand, the State in its laws. These are all of various degrees of authority by which they move our conscience, exhorting, educating, inspiring, or even coercing, either positively or negatively. 

The Church, mediated by the authority invested in the successor of Peter, can bind us in conscience on defined and infallible matters of faith and morals, but what of human law, those matters of directives and discipline, that are at times all-too fallible? Is it always a sin to skirt around the law, and might we do so in good conscience? Saint Thomas Aquinas asks this very question (I-II, q. 96, a. 4), and the principles he offers will help guide our own decisions, as we make our way ‘by the tangle of our wits’, as More advised Roper. 

Aquinas defines law as an ‘ordinance of reason, promulgated by him who has authority over community, for the common good’ (I-II, Q. 90, a. 4). Human law, as it is based on reason, ultimately has its binding force from the natural moral law, in turn defined as ‘the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law’. So law binds not from its own authority but from God’s, and we are bound to obey the law insofar as it carries the authority of God. 

Hence, if any law violates the law of God – the natural or divine law – then not only does it not bind in conscience, but we are rather bound to disobey such laws, at least by passive resistance (such as refusing to participate in abortion or euthanasia), and, if push comes to shove, to die a martyr rather than follow them, as did the first Christians of Rome, as did Thomas More himself, and as did countless witnesses against all the anti-Christian totalitarian regimes. 

Things get a bit more murky when laws do not – or do not so obviously – violate the natural or divine law, but are rather inane, overbearing or, at least at times, impractical. 

Take jay-walking: According to the letter of the law, we pedestrians are supposed to cross busy roads only at intersections, but who of us has not just made a mad dash for it, or sauntered to the other side like the proverbial chicken when traffic is light? 

Or, here in the Canadian province where I reside, the consumption of alcohol is only permitted in private houses and licensed establishments. What are we to say of those who take along some vino to a picnic, or perhaps a sip of Scotch after a hard day’s hiking in the hills?   

There are more serious cases, as in the increasingly burdensome Covid protocols, and the looming vaccine. 

Aquinas says that laws are binding if they fulfill three criteria: 

First, the ‘end’: The law must be for the common good of the particular society for which they are promulgated and intended, and not just ‘good in general’. It may be beneficial for students to do calisthenics, but it would be odd if a college were to require such as part of the morning regimen of each class. 

Second, the ‘author’: The law must be promulgated by the proper authority. A bishop can only decree liturgical and other laws within the geographical (or spiritual) boundaries of his own diocese. There are cardinals and archbishops who would like to impose their Covidian protocols to entire provinces, states or nations, but, well, too bad. 

Third, the ‘form’: The ‘burden’ of the law – for all law has its coercive dimension – cannot be disproportionate to the good sought, or the evil avoided, or fall disproportionately on one segment of the population than another. Taxes should be imposed fairly, along with conscription, jury duty, and no one should receive undue preferential treatment. All are equal before the law, without some being more equal than others. 

If a law fails in any one of these criteria, Aquinas says it does not, strictly speaking, bind in conscience. 

But – and there is always a but – he cautions that we should generally still obey such laws, in order to avoid ‘scandal or disturbance’. After all, to disdain a law is to disdain the authority which promulgated the law, at least to some small extent. Furthermore, we are not infallible, and should consider that we might not know all the facts, nor all the reasons for a law. Societies need to maintain cohesion and order, or anarchy quickly ensues – schisms and heresies always arise from those who think they know better than the Church, or whomever is placed above them.

There is a holiness in humble obedience, and the path to pride a quick and deadly one. The original sin was in large part the desire to decide for ourselves what is ‘good and evil’, and Saint Philip Neri used to quip that sanctity is found in the ‘space of three fingers’ – the width of one’s forehead, and mortifying one’s reason. 

Like all aphorisms, this has limits, as does obedience. If, after prayer and pondering and counsel, we truly judge in our conscience – the proximate and final norm of morality – that a law does not bind, and that a higher good moves us, then we may wiggle around the law, striving to avoid ‘scandal and disturbance’ as much as we might. It is one thing to act outside a given law in private, or while out in God’s vast wilderness – and there is plenty of it out there – and quite another to deliberately thumb one’s nose to authority. 

Yet there are times when we must resist publicly, when the powers-that-be have gone a bridge too far, when our God-given freedoms are compromised, laws become a burden beyond bearing, the common good vitiated, and we are called to cause a ‘disturbance’, even if it be a ‘scandal’ to some. As I write, it’s the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Justified? It seems so, in the mind of the many, even if the lost tea cost the Brits a small fortune, and the Intolerable Acts followed, along with the subsequent Revolution – well, you get the gist. 

We should recall that like the authority from which they derive, laws and obedience to them is hierarchical: That of a priest is countermanded by a bishop, which is in turn trumped by the pope, who is turn under Christ, whose vicar he is. And all eventually comes down to our conscience, which has limits in what it may endure. 

Aquinas warned five centuries before the tea was dumped, that overbearing laws will produce bitter fruit, even bloodshed, as the populace reaches a breaking point, from which it is nearly impossible to turn back. Revolutions in the time since have proved him right.

At this moment across the once-free world, many regions are under draconian lockdowns and virtual house arrest, with guests verboten even in or near private homes. Many, especially those abandoned and alone are being driven to despair, even suicide. Mental illness is on the rise. Families are divided, even torn apart. Schools are shut, with parents at their wits’ end. Churches are closed, partly open, then closed again, at the whim of medical periti with newfound pontifical powers. Bishops capitulate, wringing their hands. Some priests and faithful head to the ‘catacombs’ to receive the Eucharist. Many more, with little or no access to the sacraments or worshiping together, drift along as they might, some losing their faith, and their hope.

We are avoiding each other, even with eye contact. Demographics, already in free fall, are now imploding, as couples despair of bringing children into such a world so unwelcoming to them. Debts are skyrocketing to the stratosphere. Small and medium businesses are going bankrupt. All the while ‘essential’ government apparatchiks, who are impounding said businesses for ever-evolving minute ‘infractions’, continue to cash their hefty paycheques, enjoying freedoms denied the hoi polloi. Any dissent from the party line is censored by the ubiquitous social media, hand-in-glove with the government. All the while, the culture of death and deviant sexuality continues its long march nearly unabated.

Not a recipe for social cohesion and harmony. Will we return to some sort of quasi-normal? Or will it be, as one pundit put it, the faithful rebel alliance against the God-less empire and their death star? Might we hope for a Deus ex machina, the Almighty intervening in some surprising way? We should always hope for that. So, as much as you are able, stoke the hearth and fill the table. And be ye of good cheer, for it is for freedom that Christ has made us free (Gal 5:1).

And on that note of freedom, as far as our own response to overbearing and unjust laws and authorities – or, more properly, obedience to higher laws and authorities – I will leave this to the reader’s conscience, hopefully enlightened by the Holy Ghost, who leads us in the path of truth. 


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About John Paul Meenan 4 Articles
John Paul Meenan, M.Sc., M.A., teaches theology and science at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom in Ontario, Canada, with a particular interest in the relationship between faith and reason, and how the principles of our faith should impact and shape the human person and modern culture.

9 Comments

  1. When an order by a government official is based on a lie, I feel we have the duty to disobey it. When the official thinks that “the law doesn’t apply to him”, I feel we have a duty to disobey him. When the consequences of such orders severely affect those who were already in dire situations, I feel we have a duty to loudly condemn and then disobey. These lockdowns have stopped the normal movement of goods to other countries, including what 3rd world people need to survive. As a result, 130,000,000 persons have starved or are near to starving to death. We are being forced to disregard our consciences and deprived of personal responsibility by “Mother America” (Think “Mother Russia”) micro managing our lives (unless we disobey, in which case they lower the boom) in the hope that we will turn to and become dependent on the government. It’s called godless socialism and it is evil.

    • Prove your facts. Where do you get the 130 million starved to death because of these lockdowns? You need documentation to prove your claim.

  2. We read: “As I write, it’s the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Justified? It seems so, in the mind of the many, even if the lost tea cost the Brits a small fortune, and the Intolerable Acts followed, along with the subsequent Revolution – well, you get the gist.”

    Of the American “revolution,” this possibly refining footnote on the “gist”:
    Under the advice of the Catholic Charles Carroll (1737-1832), one importer of British tea, the Catholic Mr. Stewart, allowed his vessel’s cargo to be dumped by the Boston Tea Party. The Brits lost only the tax (not yet an unreasonable surcharge, but voted by only the English Parliament which in the previous century had extracted such authority from the King who had granted the now-displaced colonial Charters).

    Carroll himself later lived to be the last of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. As for the Declaration itself—-in contrast with the “[r]evolutions in the time since…” These revolutions are often more accurately likened less to the anti-Parliament/Charter-affirming and restorationist (somewhat, yes?) “shot heard ‘round the world” than they are to the excesses of France’s degenerate Reign of Terror and its guillotine so often heard ‘round the world—-in the name of a routinely absolutized “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” (now not only post-colonial and post-Church, but a “tyranny of Relativism,” Communism/Socialism, and even post-Family).

    • Well, the British perspective was that we were already paying lower taxes than the folks back home were. And as the French and Indian War was fought to protect the British colonies it didn’t seem unreasonable to expect colonials to help pay for a war fought for their benefit.

  3. “If any law violates the law of God – The natural or divine law – then not only does it not bind in conscience, but we are rather (em) BOUND TO DISOBEY SUCH LAWS, at least by passive resistance (such as refusing to participate in abortion or euthanasia) and, if push comes to shove, to die a martyr ……..” Strong words, strong words indeed.

    That day is surely coming, and I for one would not be surprised to see it come in the form of a Priest denying Holy Communion to Joseph Biden if he becomes President of the United States – somewhere out there is a Priest with the courage to do just that. I’m not fooling myself into believing there is a Bishop with that sort of courage but there IS a Priest with that courage, and history awaits him.

    And then the MSM will crucify him.

  4. I have been asking for someone to advise people on what to do. To layout the principles for making such decisions. I have asked for advice from bishops with no response, none! I thank the author for this article. Many good Catholics have found themselves divided over what their response should be to the government’s response to COVID. Many of them are very sure their way is the correct response. This article gives everyone food for thought and reflection if they read it and take it all in, and not just cherry-pick what fits their point of view.

  5. Obedience to moral law is a good thing. Obedience to government pronouncements that cross the line of morality and assist you to your death. or the death of others, is not. One need not simply nod in agreement with criminally permissive abortion laws,that have now moved forward to the point of infanticide, for example. One also need not cooperate with the shut down of churches when it is beyond clear that such shut-downs do not work for the purpose intended. One need not cooperate with a government telling you that you may not work, send your children to school, or see your family, except with government permission. No one can take advantage of you without your cooperation. Refuse to give it. Decide if you want to live in fear, or live with a quality of life by taking a measured, calculated risk. There is now talk of the regulations for shut down, masks and other isolation orders moving into late next year AT LEAST. This is not sustainable for human beings. Isolation is not a SOLUTION, but brings its own death rate from suicide, mental illness, delayed medical treatments, drug and physical abuse. Newsflash: Immortality has ALWAYS been off the table. Decide what quality of life you want to live until then.

  6. There is pretty much no doubt in my mind that any of the new “laws” are unjust. One must eat to live, and one must pay for one’s food, rent etc. and other necessities. To obtain money one typically must work. To work some must leave their residence. To wear a mask is to participate in a scientific experiment, is unnatural, and is dehumanizing, so any mask “mandates” violate a person’s natural right to control his own person. Additionally, our natural rights to revolt, associate, communicate (i.e. touch), and for SOME have intimate relations means that we needn’t “social distance,” and can’t be obliged to.

    There is even something of a medical argument against the unjust measures, because physical contact reduces stress which helps the immune system. Paradoxically (or perhaps not) the guidelines seem to be exacerbating the situation. In addition, to deprive persons of the possibility of observing a smile may also serve to prevent a possible means of decrease in stress.

    “Obedience is not necessarily a virtue. It did not excuse the Nazis at Nuremberg, who were just ‘following orders’. Just as Serviam has its exceptions and nuances, so too Non Serviam can be firmly stated without its usual demonic overtones.”

    There is the sin of blind obedience. As such obedience is or perhaps should be presumed to always be virtuous. Granted, of course, the case where one is going along with a suggestion. In this situation, there is no specific hierarchical considerations, so one wouldn’t be – technically – obedient. Perhaps compliant is a better word.

    “Take jay-walking: According to the letter of the law, we pedestrians are supposed to cross busy roads only at intersections, but who of us has not just made a mad dash for it, or sauntered to the other side like the proverbial chicken when traffic is light?”

    Jay-walking is an example of a penal law. It is held by some moral theologians that these don’t oblige under pain of sin until a judgment has been entered against a violator. This doesn’t necessarily give license to anyone, but it is less of a burden on one’s conscience. Even then, if a person believes himself to be innocent of the offense, then it is possible to refuse the punishment. A fortiori the same principle holds with any “violation” of an unjust “law” – penal or not. One can even morally resist authorities (even in the face of other unjust “laws”) when they unlawfully arrest you under color of law.

    “First, the ‘end’: The law must be for the common good of the particular society for which they are promulgated and intended, and not just ‘good in general’. It may be beneficial for students to do calisthenics, but it would be odd if a college were to require such as part of the morning regimen of each class. ”

    I understand this requirement to be a matter of respecting every person’s natural and civil rights. There are certain qualifications, but not when one is concerned with the laws of civil authority. For instance, parents’ are permitted to use corporal punishment on their children, but any husband would need to be arrested and put in jail to be potentially subject to the same treatment by another citizen.

    I must take issue with St. Thomas Aquinas over his concern about scandal. Given that morality isn’t always obvious, to “go with the crowd” can’t be seen as necessarily virtuous. St. Augustine famously noted that right and wrong are independent of the extent of their observance. If black could be made white through public opinion, then by this logic apparently injustice could be turned to justice if pretty much every single person “obeyed” an unjust “law.” A good real life example of this is St. Thomas More. If he had taken St. Thomas’s advice, he may have saved himself from martyrdom, but he didn’t.

    Another issue is that to submit to injustice is to somewhat encourage the wickedly unjust. It is an admission that one is willing to forfeit one’s rights and dignity unchallenged. Fear of adverse consequences leads to a certain – probably non-culpable – complicity with the evil.

    “Not a recipe for social cohesion and harmony. Will we return to some sort of quasi-normal? Or will it be, as one pundit put it, the faithful rebel alliance against the God-less empire and their death star? Might we hope for a Deus ex machina, the Almighty intervening in some surprising way?”

    Nothing in this world except for human beings’ souls lasts forever, so the answer the first question is yes.

    Only God knows the answer to the second question, but I will offer a relevant quote by way of helpful illumination:

    “Morpheus : That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison…for your mind….”

    With regards to the third question, I suspect that this whole evil disaster is God’s permissive punishment. Perhaps what is partly or wholly necessary is prayer, fasting, and repentance. Such actions can never hurt – excepting hypocrisy and vanity.

  7. “Might we hope for a Deus ex machina, the Almighty intervening in some surprising way? We should always hope for that.”

    The object of the theological virtue of hope is God, as it pertains to a future fulfillment in the eschaton, not what God may or may not do before then.

    “First, the ‘end’: The law must be for the common good of the particular society for which they are promulgated and intended, and not just ‘good in general’. It may be beneficial for students to do calisthenics, but it would be odd if a college were to require such as part of the morning regimen of each class.”

    The example is actually better for the second criterion, proper authority. A college might not have the authority to require that its students do such exercises, but the political authority could require its citizens to do what is necessary to remain able-bodied.

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