Sirach, Chapter 23, Verse 27
Thus all who dwell on the earth shall know, all who remain in the world shall understand, that nothing is better than the fear of the Lord, nothing sweeter than obeying the commandments of the Lord.
What happens when those who dwell on the earth no longer know God and what should we do when it becomes abundantly clear to us that our duty to God is threatened by the governments of men?
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church addresses the issue of when and how St. Peter's teaching that obedience to God comes before obedience to men as it applies in the modern Christian's life.
Presciently, or perhaps better, prophetically, Pope Benedict XVI foresaw and foresees increasing conflict between American Catholics and a public authority increasingly secularized and increasingly hostile to the moral values of its Catholic citizens. The conflict is caused by the increasing demands of the State to "to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices." The aggressive secularist State wants freedom of religion to be limited to "mere freedom of worship," and not to "freedom of conscience" which extends beyond the realm of the four walls of a Church into the "public square" of social, civil, political, and economic life." Christians may conscientiously object to civil laws if they infringe upon one or more of three things: (1) the law violates the moral order, that is, the natural moral law; (2) the law violates fundamental human rights; or (3) the law violates the teachings of the Gospel, which is to say the teachings of the Church. Laws that trespass against one or more of these three things may not be obeyed, and obedience to them must be refused. In fact, the Christian has both a duty and a right to refuse such a law. And though it may be unrecognized, it is a right that he must exercise regardless of the consequences to him.
The full text of the Compendium on this issue merits quotation: "Citizens are not obligated in conscience to follow the prescriptions of civil authorities if their precepts are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or to the teachings of the Gospel. Unjust laws pose dramatic problems of conscience for morally upright people: when they are called to cooperate in morally evil acts they must refuse. Besides being a moral duty, such a refusal is also a basic human right which, precisely as such, civil law itself is obliged to recognize and protect. 'Those who have recourse to conscientious objection must be protected not only from legal penalties but also from any negative effects on the legal, disciplinary, financial and professional plane.'" "It is a grave duty of conscience not to cooperate, not even formally, in practices which, although permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to the Law of God. Such cooperation in fact can never be justified, not by invoking respect for the freedom of others nor by appealing to the fact that it is foreseen and required by civil law. No one can escape the moral responsibility for actions taken, and all will be judged by God himself based on this responsibility (cf. Rom 2:6; 14:12)." (Compendium, No. 399)
The right of conscientious objection is not the right of resistance, and the two should be carefully distinguished. Moreover, resistance which can be expressed in "many different concrete ways" should be distinguished from the last and desperate recourse of "armed resistance." The right to resist an oppressive law or an oppressive government is one that is found in the natural law. It is a right which precedes a government, and so is one that is inalienable. Resistance generally is something to be avoided, and it is justified only if there is a "serious" infringement or "repeated" and chronic infringements of the natural moral law, a fundamental human right, or a Gospel precept. "Recognizing that natural law is the basis for and places limits on positive law means admitting that it is legitimate to resist authority should it violate in a serious or repeated manner the essential principles of natural law. Saint Thomas Aquinas writes that 'one is obliged to obey . . . insofar as it is required by the order of justice.' Natural law is therefore the basis of the right to resistance." The right of resistance is not one that necessarily has the overthrow of government in mind. There may be many ways in which resistance may be expressed, and there may be many ends which resistance may have in mind: "There can be many different concrete ways this right may be exercised; there are also many different ends that may be pursued. Resistance to authority is meant to attest to the validity of a different way of looking at things, whether the intent is to achieve partial change, for example, modifying certain laws, or to fight for a radical change in the situation." (Compendium, No. 400)
Resistance in the sense of armed resistance is something which is a last resort. The Church has identified five conditions all of which must be met before armed resistance is morally justified: "1) there is certain, grave and prolonged violation of fundamental rights, 2) all other means of redress have been exhausted, 3) such resistance will not provoke worse disorders, 4) there is well-founded hope of success; and 5) it is impossible reasonably to foresee any better solution." As the Church observes, armed resistance, even if morally justified, is generally to be avoided, and passive resistance is to be preferred. Armed resistance is often a Pandora's Box which unleashes as much or more evil as it intended to avoid. "Recourse to arms is seen as an extreme remedy for putting an end to a 'manifest, long-standing tyranny which would do great damage to fundamental personal rights and dangerous harm to the common good of the country.' The gravity of the danger that recourse to violence entails today makes it preferable in any case that passive resistance be practiced, which is 'a way more conformable to moral principles and having no less prospects for success.'" (Compendium, No. 401)
For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God. (2 Tm. 1:7-8)
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