|Dr Brian Lewis is one of Australia’s
most eminent moral theologians.
He is a graduate of the Angelicum and the Alphonsian Academy in Rome
and formerly lectured in moral theology in Ballarat and Melbourne.
Prior to retirement he taught scripture, theology and ethics on campuses of the present Australian Catholic University.
He has contributed articles to many journals and reviews.
Perspectives - The articles at
this link are part of an ongoing series written by Dr Brian Lewis which
explores understandings of conscience and morality in the Christian
tradition. Deeper insights into the Scriptures and church traditions open
up new possibilities in ecumenical and philosophical thinking in the
search for a more comprehensive moral worldview.
Brian's previous articles
June 25, 2012 Brian Lewis, Ballarat, Australia
AND ECCLESIASTICAL DISOBEDIENCE
of us believe obedience to the law is necessary for our society to flourish.
What then are we to make of cases of disobedience even on the part of respected
citizens? Is disobedience ever justified, and if so on what grounds? During the
last week on this website reference was made to the actions of US Archbishop
Raymond Hunthausen, who withheld half of his income tax in protest against
nuclear stockpiling and who also vigorously opposed the government's nuclear
submarine base in his archdiocese. Was his civil disobedience justified in the
of other examples come to mind. What, for instance do we think of the motorists
and pedestrians who illegally cross train lines, apparently oblivious of the
risk to which they are exposing themselves? What of the people in Australia and
elsewhere who establish themselves outside abortion clinics with a view to
deter, sometimes violently, women seeking an abortion? The law allows abortion
at least under certain conditions, so are such people justified in flouting the
law? Again what is our judgment of
the conduct of parents who on religious grounds refuse blood transfusions
necessary to save their child's life?
questions may be asked about the actions of some within the Church who protest
against the Vatican or Canon Law. The
Austrian Priests Initiative made headlines not long ago with its associated
catchcry 'Call to Disobedience' and similar associations exist in Ireland,
England, the USA and elsewhere. It suffices to mention in more detail the
international movement 'We are Church', which was founded in Rome in I996 and is
now represented in more than 28 countries. The organisation seeks to initiate
informed dialogue within the Church on five key objectives: equality in decision
making based on appropriate structures to empower active sharing by all, full
participation by women in all aspects of Church life, including priesthood,
acceptance of the primacy of conscience, removal of obligatory celibacy for
priests and a positive attitude towards sexuality, an inclusive Church open to
all, including the divorced/remarried, gays and lesbians, etc.
doubt these aims, or most of them, can be classified as dissent rather than
disobedience. More on that anon.
the moral tradition we inherit from St. Thomas Aquinas, human law is defined as
'a direction or ordinance of reason promulgated by the competent authority for
the sake of the common good'. Such law is
* a directive of reason: it is not an arbitrary fiat of the authority, as some have held. Something is commanded because it is good, not good because it is commanded, and this directive should be reasonable and reasoned
the sake of the common good: its objective is the common good through the
upholding of public order in the community. As a direction of reason, the
reasons why some activity is required for public order should be adequate and
competent authority (in the sense of acting within its charter):
in civil law: the duly elected government
in the Church: the Pope for the whole church,
bishops in their dioceses
proper response to positive law is obedience. Positive law derives from the
natural law. It further determines or applies the natural law in specific
circumstances. Thus it gets its obligatory force from the moral law inbuilt in
us as human beings. The first principle of this law is to choose what is good
and avoid what is evil. And, as has already been pointed out, positive law,
ideally at any rate, enacts an activity because it is good. For this reason,
because we are always bound to the good, positive law obliges us in conscience
to obedience. And, as Aquinas holds, since the natural law is a participation in
the eternal design of God (which he calls eternal law), when we obey positive
law we are in the last analysis obeying God.
to the law does not mean blind compliance. Law is a directive of reason. Its
obligatory power depends on the strength of the reasons supporting it.
Intelligent members of the community should be able to understand the reasons
and respond as befits intelligent persons. Problems arise when legislators
exceed their competence and act in a tyrannical or self-serving manner, putting
their own interests above those of the community they are meant to serve. But
especially problematical is the case of laws which do not serve public order,
laws which are unjust, which disturb public peace or which compromise public
morality. It is for responsible citizens to evaluate the reasons why this is so.
If they are convinced that an affirmative answer must be given in the situation,
then they have an obligation in conscience to seek the reform of the law. If all
other avenues of redress prove ineffective, the question of civil (or
ecclesiastical) disobedience arises, as it did in South Africa in the resistance
to apartheid and in the civil rights push in 1960's US.
must be stressed that what is at issue here is responsible disobedience, not
mere law breaking. Responsible disobedience aims to serve the community by
opposing an unreasonable law which exceeds the competence of the legislator or
which is disruptive of public order, especially if justice is infringed. Mere
law breaking has no such laudable objective but is a mere service to one's
disobedience is not a response to be taken lightly. Given that generally
speaking we are obliged to obey the law and that the presumption favours the
law, a conscience decision to oppose the law is a serious matter. As we know,
the law itself may sometimes recognise 'conscientious objection', as in the case
of pacifists who are exempted from military service, though this would be less
likely in the case of persons burning their draft cards as a protest against the
war, and by the same token also against the law of the land. The conclusion is
that in certain circumstances there may be an obligation in conscience to
protest responsibly against some legislation, whether civil or ecclesiastical.
Strict conditions obtain. For example, the civil or ecclesiastical disobedient
person must be prepared to pay the price and accept the penalty for
disobedience. Responsible disobedience must a last resort, other avenues of
redress having failed or being assessed as useless. The objective should always
be the betterment of the community in relation to some specific wrong, and in
general opposition to an unjust law should be non-violent.
already noted, much of the current unrest in the Church might be classified as
dissent rather than disobedience, although disobedience may also be involved.
One may not dissent from the dogmatic teaching of the Church without putting
oneself outside the Church, that is, teachings of the Church clearly contained
in Scripture or in Christian Tradition. Nobody today, as far as I can see, is dissenting from these teachings, nor indeed from doctrines that are
indispensable for maintaining the essence of the faith. The issue seems to
concern some Church teachings about what has traditionally been referred to as discipline,
that is, practices, customs and ways of living in accord with the Gospel. I
discussed this matter in my article of April 15,
2012, arguing that here the
appropriate response is not obedience but serious attentiveness. Listening
carefully does not rule out dissent, which may be morally justified depending on
the strength of the reasons supporting it.