The news is filled with stories of civil disobedience and selective enforcement of our laws. However you feel about Kim Davis, or sanctuary cities, or recreational cannabis, or even things as mundane as the near-universal disregard for speed limits and the minimum drinking age, it is clear that we live in a lawless society. This is even more apparent when we see the depth of corruption and the implausible accumulation of wealth for public figures like Lois Lerner, Dennis Hastert, and Hillary Clinton. If we are, as Ken Burns put it in his documentary on Prohibition, a nation of scofflaws, it should be no surprise that we are governed by criminals.
As Christians, we must obey the law. It is a grave matter when we disobey earthly authorities, because, as the Catechism tells us, “Those subject to authority should regard those in authority as representatives of God, who has made them stewards of his gift.” However, the Catechism also quotes the Blessed Pope Paul VI who wrote, “When citizens are under the oppression of a public authority which oversteps its competence…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.”
It is not only that we are obligated to follow the laws, but as Christians we also need the law. The First Amendment is the most powerful statement of the rights of conscience ever written, for it encompasses not only the freedoms of religion, of speech, of the press, of assembly, and of petition, but indeed the very notion of freedom at all. Without being able to appeal to this supreme law, the God-given right to think and to act in accordance with our conscience evaporates and instead of acting through the political process, we become little more than rival gangs squabbling and rioting in the street.
No less an authority on the natural law that St. Augustine wrote, “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?” Legitimate authority depends on the justice of and respect for the laws. Tacitus wrote, “The more corrupt the state, the more laws,” and it was Horace who implored, “Of what use are laws, inoperative through public immorality?” We see today what happens when the law is mocked by the public and our leaders alike. The infamous missing 18 1/2 minutes of the Nixon tapes was the cause of great scandal. When Hillary Clinton deletes thousands of emails, the nation shrugs and changes the channel.
Most troubling of all is the tortuous path taken by Justice Kennedy on the way to same-sex marriage. In hindsight, the decision in Hollingsworth v. Perry was an unnecessary step if Kennedy was going to impose same-sex marriage anyway. In that decision, the Supreme Court legitimized civil disobedience by elected officials when they ruled that Governors Schwarzenegger and Brown of California were free to disregard the constitution of their state which was the controlling law at the time. Kim Davis is an unsympathetic figure in many ways, but she is not alone, and is disingenuous for supporters of same-sex marriage to criticize her for standing for her conscience when they did exactly the same thing.
Even so, this is a dangerous precedent. When our law is thus degraded, it is no coincidence that we are surrounded by security cameras, barricades, checkpoints, and the clamoring for restrictions on firearms. The great statesman and orator Cicero wrote, “We are all servants of the laws in order that we may be free,” and in the dramatization of the life of St. Thomas More’s, playwright Robert Bolt gives the saint the line, “Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!” Disobeying the law in the name of conscience is a serious business not to be taken lightly. St. Thomas More resigned as chancellor to Henry VIII because he could not acquiesce to the latter’s adulterous remarriage, much less the Act of Supremacy which placed the temporal authority of the king above the spiritual authority of the Vicar of Christ.
St. Thomas More could go to the scaffold not only with a clear conscience, but also knowing that he was truly innocent of any crime, commending his final judgement to God–and the history books. Although his innocence depended on his silence on the central point, he did not go quietly. Indeed, for a man of such eloquence, his silence was a resounding and deafening clash amid the clamoring noise of sycophants and appeasers in Henry VIII’s retinue. Refusing to be complicit in enforcing an unjust law does not mean we cannot protest it and endeavor by every lawful means to see it changed.
In the coming struggles for conscience rights and religious liberty, we will appeal to the Constitution for protection of these most important of all freedoms. For this reason, we should be very careful about supporting civil disobedience which casts aside the authority of that same document and disregards the same courts which uphold that authority. Kim Davis and the other clerks and magistrates who stand with her in defiance of the Supreme Court are unquestionably right that marriage cannot be redefined by any judge or legislator, but if we wish to remain a free society guided by Christian virtue, we desperately need the rule of law and we cast it away at our peril.