Friday, 28 September 2012

Civil disobedience

399px Cloak of Conscience Closeup

One of the most common charges against “religious” people in general and Catholics in particular is that they surrender the use of their critical faculties and follow orders from their leaders like sheep. In other words: they are no trouble, they won't break rank and are all-round model citizens.

Today I'd like to argue that this is as far from the truth as possible, and I will take advantage of the Vatican’s foreign secretary, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti’s address to the United Nations from last Monday, which in many ways tracks Pope Benedict XVI’s speech at the German Bundestag, delivered last year.

He starts by acknowledging the dangers that follow from the “financial crisis, which is worsening some humanitarian and environmental emergencies, does not seem yet to be over, and may even herald new and dangerous conflicts” and that spreading “the rule of law by every means becomes a particularly urgent task for a just, equitable and effective world governance.” Then, he fully aligns himself with the UN’s insistence on: “the unbreakable link between the rule of law and respect for human rights, […] the judicial control of laws and of executive power, […] transparency in acts of governance and the existence of public opinion capable of expressing itself freely.” Mamberti’s key point comes next though:
“The rule of law is also put at risk when it is equated with a legalistic mentality, with a formal and uncritical adherence to laws and rules, in an attitude which can even paradoxically degenerate into a means of abusing human dignity and the rights of individuals, communities and states, as happened during the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Furthermore, in the phrase “rule of law”, the concept “law” should be understood as “justice”.”
The first thing to note here is that it calls for critical thinking and, I believe, that, as far as they are rules, this warning also applies to Church teaching. Taking even the ‘rules’ that the Church presents to its members and applying them with a “legalistic mentality, with a formal and uncritical adherence” can lead to their perversion. The Church has very rightly emphasized a focus on deepening one’s relationship with Jesus during the upcoming Year of Faith, rather than talking about making oneself familiar with Church “rules.”

In case you think that this is just my own interpretation of Church teaching, as opposed to the official line, let me point to one of my favorite lines from the Catechism:
A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. (CCC, §1790)
In fact, this brings us back to Mamberti’s talk, where he affirms that justice is “proper and inalienable to the nature of every human being.” Bringing all of this together in fact puts a Catholic into a position of having to critically assess laws and being called both to strict adherence to those that are aligned with their conscience and to resistance against those that don’t. This is neither a position of blind obedience, nor one of disregard for the law, but a more complex, but far more personally and socially rewarding one, where discernment and prudence need to be exercised.

Let’s get back to Mamberti though and see what he has to say about justice:
“Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled, and it is only in this way that we can speak truly of the rule of law.”
The key here, to my mind, is that freedom is not arbitrary. You can’t just decide, with disregard for human nature and your conscience, what behavior to follow and expect that it will allow you to remain free.

Just to avoid giving the impression that this topic is in any way simple, Mamberti rightly recognizes that “[t]he question of how to recognize what is truly right and thus to serve justice when framing laws has never been simple, and today in view of the vast extent of our knowledge and our capacity, it has become still harder.” The more you know the more difficult certainty becomes, which echoes Socrates’ “The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know.” And, finally, he postulates a very clear link between a subversion of the law and the economic crisis that the world is in today:
“It is well known that, at the international level, there are interest groups present who, by means of formally legitimate procedures, are impacting on the policies of states in order to obtain multilateral norms which not only cannot serve the common good but which, under the guise of legitimacy, are in fact an abuse of norms and of international recommendations, as has been seen in the recent financial crisis.”
Even just the last 100 years have been addled with abuses of the law that were fully legal in the sense of not exhibiting procedural violations. It would be a mistake to think though that this is all in the past or that it only applies to regimes notorious for human rights abuses. Even in the “civilized West” there are attacks on the rights of peoples to express their desire for self-determination and on the practice of religious freedom. As St. Augustine said “Without justice – what else is the State but a great band of robbers?”