Monday, 9 October 2017

Law and disobedience in the Church’s social doctrine

Klee spärlich belaubt 1934

5684 words, 29 min read

In 2004 the Catholic Church published a key document, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, where she sets out her teaching on all aspects of how a society ought to be ordered and of how one ought to act in a society, regardless of its ordering, for the greater good of all. The 142K word document presents a comprehensive overview of current Church teaching, with 1232 references to Scripture, the magisterial documents of the Church and to the teaching of the saints. It “is presented as an instrument for the moral and pastoral discernment of the complex events that mark our time; as a guide to inspire, at the individual and collective levels, attitudes and choices that will permit all people to look to the future with greater trust and hope; as an aid for the faithful concerning the Church’s teaching in the area of social morality.” And since complex events are indeed the order of the day, I would here like to share some key passages that stood out to me when reading the Compendium. Doing so in the wake of recent events in Catalonia, which I experienced first hand and that deeply sadden and trouble me, has resulted in following a certain thread that deals with issues of law and disobedience. With the desire to form my own conscience, I wanted to understand how the Church frames such “complex events” and even if you are not a Catholic, I hope you will find the following to be of interest. I would also wholeheartedly encourage anyone to read this document in full.

To begin with, the Church presents a social vision of freedom that is both possibility and limitation; that is gift, that is to be cultivated and whose death destroys individual and society alike:
“Freedom in fact does not have “its absolute and unconditional origin ... in itself, but in the life within which it is situated and which represents for it, at one and the same time, both a limitation and a possibility. Human freedom belongs to us as creatures; it is a freedom which is given as a gift, one to be received like a seed and to be cultivated responsibly”. When the contrary is the case, freedom dies, destroying man and society.” (138)
Such freedom is best participated in with the help of a conscience that is formed in truth and that supports actions rooted in it:
“The truth concerning good and evil is recognized in a practical and concrete manner by the judgment of conscience, which leads to the acceptance of responsibility for the good accomplished and the evil committed. “Consequently in the practical judgment of conscience, which imposes on the person the obligation to perform a given act, the link between freedom and truth is made manifest. Precisely for this reason conscience expresses itself in acts of ‘judgment’ which reflect the truth about the good, and not in arbitrary ‘decisions’. The maturity and responsibility of these judgments — and, when all is said and done, of the individual who is their subject — are not measured by the liberation of the conscience from objective truth, in favour of an alleged autonomy in personal decisions, but, on the contrary, by an insistent search for truth and by allowing oneself to be guided by that truth in one’s actions”.” (139)
Truth then is accessed by means of the rationality that is universal to all humanity and that Christians identify with God himself. It demands submission to itself and insists on everyone “seeing others as equal to oneself”:
“The exercise of freedom implies a reference to a natural moral law, of a universal character, that precedes and unites all rights and duties. The natural law “is nothing other than the light of intellect infused within us by God. Thanks to this, we know what must be done and what must be avoided. This light or this law has been given by God to creation”. It consists in the participation in his eternal law, which is identified with God himself. This law is called “natural” because the reason that promulgates it is proper to human nature. It is universal, it extends to all people insofar as it is established by reason. In its principal precepts, the divine and natural law is presented in the Decalogue and indicates the primary and essential norms regulating moral life. Its central focus is the act of aspiring and submitting to God, the source and judge of everything that is good, and also the act of seeing others as equal to oneself. The natural law expresses the dignity of the person and lays the foundations of the person’s fundamental duties.” (140)
This universal, underlying rationality (natural law) is ubiquitous and even when suppressed or unrecognized, it is a force that rises again in individuals and societies:
“In the diversity of cultures, the natural law unites peoples, enjoining common principles. Although its application may require adaptations to the many different conditions of life according to place, time and circumstances, it remains immutable “under the flux of ideas and customs and supports their progress ... Even when it is rejected in its very principles, it cannot be destroyed or removed from the heart of man. It always rises again in the life of individuals and societies”. Its precepts, however, are not clearly and immediately perceived by everyone.” (141)
Given its force and foundational identity, natural law is destined to be the basis of civil law. If such a link between universal rationality and juridical systems is lacking, the result impedes “true and lasting communion” in a society.
“The natural law, which is the law of God, cannot be annulled by human sinfulness. It lays the indispensable moral foundation for building the human community and for establishing the civil law that draws its consequences of a concrete and contingent nature from the principles of the natural law. If the perception of the universality of the moral law is dimmed, people cannot build a true and lasting communion with others, because when a correspondence between truth and good is lacking, “whether culpably or not, our acts damage the communion of persons, to the detriment of each”. Only freedom rooted in a common nature, in fact, can make all men responsible and enable them to justify public morality. Those who proclaim themselves to be the sole measure of realities and of truth cannot live peacefully in society with their fellow men and cooperate with them.” (142)
Being open to abuse, to being used against others instead of as a means for a gift of self, freedom is in need of purification:
“Human freedom needs therefore to be liberated. Christ, by the power of his Paschal Mystery, frees man from his disordered love of self, which is the source of his contempt for his neighbour and of those relationships marked by domination of others. Christ shows us that freedom attains its fulfilment in the gift of self. By his sacrifice on the cross, Jesus places man once more in communion with God and his neighbour.” (143)
The dignity of each human being that a distortion of the freedom of others can bring about is the basis of human rights, whose identification and proclamation the Church presents as “a true milestone on the path of humanity’s moral progress” (152):
“In fact, the roots of human rights are to be found in the dignity that belongs to each human being. This dignity, inherent in human life and equal in every person, is perceived and understood first of all by reason. The natural foundation of rights appears all the more solid when, in light of the supernatural, it is considered that human dignity, after having been given by God and having been profoundly wounded by sin, was taken on and redeemed by Jesus Christ in his incarnation, death and resurrection. The ultimate source of human rights is not found in the mere will of human beings, in the reality of the State, in public powers, but in man himself and in God his Creator. These rights are “universal, inviolable, inalienable”. Universal because they are present in all human beings, without exception of time, place or subject. Inviolable insofar as “they are inherent in the human person and in human dignity” and because “it would be vain to proclaim rights, if at the same time everything were not done to ensure the duty of respecting them by all people, everywhere, and for all people”. Inalienable insofar as “no one can legitimately deprive another person, whoever they may be, of these rights, since this would do violence to their nature”.

Human rights are to be defended not only individually but also as a whole: protecting them only partially would imply a kind of failure to recognize them.” (153-4)
Instead of applying only to individuals, human rights extend to peoples and nations too, whose rights to self-determination and free cooperation are the basis of international law:
“The field of human rights has expanded to include the rights of peoples and nations: in fact, “what is true for the individual is also true for peoples”. The Magisterium points out that international law “rests upon the principle of equal respect for States, for each people’s right to self-determination and for their free cooperation in view of the higher common good of humanity”. Peace is founded not only on respect for human rights but also on respect for the rights of peoples, in particular the right to independence.

The rights of nations are nothing but “‘human rights’ fostered at the specific level of community life”. A nation has a “fundamental right to existence”, to “its own language and culture, through which a people expresses and promotes ... its fundamental spiritual ‘sovereignty”’, to “shape its life according to its own traditions, excluding, of course, every abuse of basic human rights and in particular the oppression of minorities”, to “build its future by providing an appropriate education for the younger generation”. The international order requires a balance between particularity and universality, which all nations are called to bring about, for their primary duty is to live in a posture of peace, respect and solidarity with other nations.” (157)
In this context, the task of political authority is to support the striving for the common good that is attainable at any one moment in any one place:
“The responsibility for attaining the common good, besides falling to individual persons, belongs also to the State, since the common good is the reason that the political authority exists. The State, in fact, must guarantee the coherency, unity and organization of the civil society of which it is an expression, in order that the common good may be attained with the contribution of every citizen. The individual person, the family or intermediate groups are not able to achieve their full development by themselves for living a truly human life. Hence the necessity of political institutions, the purpose of which is to make available to persons the necessary material, cultural, moral and spiritual goods. The goal of life in society is in fact the historically attainable common good.” (168)
The legal dimension of the Church’s social teaching is introduced by reflecting on Jesus’ relationship with temporal authority, which is selective in that he recognizes its partial legitimacy, directed towards service, while refusing its power when despotic:
“Jesus refuses the oppressive and despotic power wielded by the rulers of the nations (cf. Mk 10:42) and rejects their pretension in having themselves called benefactors (cf. Lk 22:25), but he does not directly oppose the authorities of his time. In his pronouncement on the paying of taxes to Caesar (cf. Mk 12:13-17; Mt 22:15-22; Lk 20:20-26), he affirms that we must give to God what is God’s, implicitly condemning every attempt at making temporal power divine or absolute: God alone can demand everything from man. At the same time, temporal power has the right to its due: Jesus does not consider it unjust to pay taxes to Caesar. […] As his disciples are discussing with one another who is the greatest, Jesus teaches them that they must make themselves least and the servants of all (cf. Mk 9:33- 35), showing to the sons of Zebedee, James and John, who wish to sit at His right hand, the path of the cross (cf. Mk 10:35-40; Mt 20:20-23).” (379)
When consistent with conscience, compliance with legitimate authority is a good, while freedom directed at selfish ends an evil:
“Submission, not passive but “for the sake of conscience” (Rom 13:5), to legitimate authority responds to the order established by God. Saint Paul defines the relationships and duties that a Christian is to have towards the authorities (cf. Rom 13:1-7). He insists on the civic duty to pay taxes: “Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, fear to whom fear is due, respect to who respect is due” (Rom 13:7). The Apostle certainly does not intend to legitimize every authority so much as to help Christians to “take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” (Rom 12:17), including their relations with the authorities, insofar as the authorities are at the service of God for the good of the person (cf. Rom 13:4; 1 Tim 2:1-2; Tit 3:1) and “to execute [God’s] wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4).

Saint Peter exhorts Christians to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Pet 2:13). The king and his governors have the duty “to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right” (1 Pet 2:14). This authority of theirs must be “honoured” (1 Pet 2:17), that is, recognized, because God demands correct behaviour that will “silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Pet 2:15). Freedom must not be used as a pretext for evil but to serve God (cf. 1 Pet 2:16). It concerns free and responsible obedience to an authority that causes justice to be respected, ensuring the common good.” (380)
The Church then has harsh words for authority that places itself above “the limits willed by God” (which coincide with natural law, i.e., universal rationality):
“When human authority goes beyond the limits willed by God, it makes itself a deity and demands absolute submission; it becomes the Beast of the Apocalypse, an image of the power of the imperial persecutor “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (Rev 17:6). The Beast is served by the “false prophet” (Rev 19:20), who, with beguiling signs, induces people to adore it. […] Before such a power, Saint John suggests the resistance of the martyrs; in this way, believers bear witness that corrupt and satanic power is defeated, because it no longer has any authority over them.” (382)
Instead, authority is called to have regard for human freedom and peace rather than be domination:
“Christ reveals to human authority, always tempted by the desire to dominate, its authentic and complete meaning as service. God is the one Father, and Christ the one Teacher, of all mankind, and all people are brothers and sisters. Sovereignty belongs to God. The Lord, however, “has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature. This mode of governance ought to be followed in social life. The way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard for human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities. They should behave as ministers of divine providence”. The biblical message provides endless inspiration for Christian reflection on political power, recalling that it comes from God and is an integral part of the order that he created. This order is perceived by the human conscience and, in social life, finds its fulfilment in the truth, justice, freedom and solidarity that bring peace.” (383)
Next, a strong emphasis is placed on the social and political anthropology of the human person, who is fulfilled when open to others and to the Transcendent:
“The human person is the foundation and purpose of political life. Endowed with a rational nature, the human person is responsible for his own choices and able to pursue projects that give meaning to life at the individual and social level. Being open both to the Transcendent and to others is his characteristic and distinguishing trait. Only in relation to the Transcendent and to others does the human person reach the total and complete fulfilment of himself. This means that for the human person, a naturally social and political being, “social life is not something added on” but is part of an essential and indelible dimension.

The political community originates in the nature of persons, whose conscience “reveals to them and enjoins them to obey” the order which God has imprinted in all his creatures: “a moral and religious order; and it is this order — and not considerations of a purely extraneous, material order — which has the greatest validity in the solution of problems relating to their lives as individuals and as members of society, and problems concerning individual States and their interrelations”. This order must be gradually discovered and developed by humanity. The political community, a reality inherent in mankind, exists to achieve an end otherwise unobtainable: the full growth of each of its members, called to cooperate steadfastly for the attainment of the common good, under the impulse of their natural inclinations towards what is true and good.” (384)
Such humans then form peoples, who are free to express their political choices for the common good and whose members maintain their autonomy:
“The political community finds its authentic dimension in its reference to people: “it is and should in practice be the organic and organizing unity of a real people”. The term “a people” does not mean a shapeless multitude, an inert mass to be manipulated and exploited, but a group of persons, each of whom — “at his proper place and in his own way” — is able to form its own opinion on public matters and has the freedom to express its own political sentiments and to bring them to bear positively on the common good. A people “exists in the fullness of the lives of the men and women by whom it is made up, each of whom ... is a person aware of his own responsibilities and convictions”. Those who belong to a political community, although organically united among themselves as a people, maintain an irrepressible autonomy at the level of personal existence and of the goals to be pursued.” (385)
Peoples then, in general, are nations, or minorities in other nations’ states who may strive for greater autonomy or independence, when “dialogue and negotiation are the path for attaining peace”:
“For every people there is in general a corresponding nation, but for various reasons national boundaries do not always coincide with ethnic boundaries. Thus the question of minorities arises, which has historically been the cause of more than just a few conflicts. The Magisterium affirms that minorities constitute groups with precise rights and duties, most of all, the right to exist, which “can be ignored in many ways, including such extreme cases as its denial through overt or indirect forms of genocide”. Moreover, minorities have the right to maintain their culture, including their language, and to maintain their religious beliefs, including worship services. In the legitimate quest to have their rights respected, minorities may be driven to seek greater autonomy or even independence; in such delicate circumstances, dialogue and negotiation are the path for attaining peace. In every case, recourse to terrorism is unjustifiable and damages the cause that is being sought. Minorities are also bound by duties, among which, above all, is working for the common good of the State in which they live. In particular, “a minority group has the duty to promote the freedom and dignity of each one of its members and to respect the decisions of each one, even if someone were to decide to adopt the majority culture”.” (387)
The purpose, then of political authority is coordination and direction at the service of integral human growth, which - when “exercised within the limits of morality and on behalf of the dynamically conceived common good, […] citizens are conscience-bound to obey”:
“Political authority must guarantee an ordered and upright community life without usurping the free activity of individuals and groups but disciplining and orienting this freedom, by respecting and defending the independence of the individual and social subjects, for the attainment of the common good. Political authority is an instrument of coordination and direction by means of which the many individuals and intermediate bodies must move towards an order in which relationships, institutions and procedures are put at the service of integral human growth. Political authority, in fact, “whether in the community as such or in institutions representing the State, must always be exercised within the limits of morality and on behalf of the dynamically conceived common good, according to a juridical order enjoying legal status. When such is the case citizens are conscience-bound to obey”.” (394)
The subject of political authority is the people, who retain sovereignty even when they elect representatives, whom they subsequently may replace.
“The subject of political authority is the people considered in its entirety as those who have sovereignty. In various forms, this people transfers the exercise of sovereignty to those whom it freely elects as its representatives, but it preserves the prerogative to assert this sovereignty in evaluating the work of those charged with governing and also in replacing them when they do not fulfil their functions satisfactorily. Although this right is operative in every State and in every kind of political regime, a democratic form of government, due to its procedures for verification, allows and guarantees its fullest application. The mere consent of the people is not, however, sufficient for considering “just” the ways in which political authority is exercised.” (395)
Such authority derives power from morality directed towards the common good.
“Authority must be guided by the moral law. All of its dignity derives from its being exercised within the context of the moral order, “which in turn has God for its first source and final end”. Because of its necessary reference to the moral order, which precedes it and is its basis, and because of its purpose and the people to whom it is directed, authority cannot be understood as a power determined by criteria of a solely sociological or historical character. […] It is from the moral order that authority derives its power to impose obligations and its moral legitimacy, not from some arbitrary will or from the thirst for power, and it is to translate this order into concrete actions to achieve the common good.” (396)
For authority to avoid becoming a mere “pragmatic regulation of different and opposing interest” it must retain its roots in natural law.
“Authority must recognize, respect and promote essential human and moral values. These are innate and “flow from the very truth of the human being and express and safeguard the dignity of the person; values which no individual, no majority and no State can ever create, modify or destroy”. These values do not have their foundation in provisional and changeable “majority” opinions, but must simply be recognized, respected and promoted as elements of an objective moral law, the natural law written in the human heart (cf. Rom 2:15), and as the normative point of reference for civil law itself. If, as a result of the tragic clouding of the collective conscience, scepticism were to succeed in casting doubt on the basic principles of the moral law, the legal structure of the State itself would be shaken to its very foundations, being reduced to nothing more than a mechanism for the pragmatic regulation of different and opposing interests.” (397)
As a result, for authority to be and remain legitimate, it must enact just laws. As soon as unjust laws are pursued, they cease to be laws themselves (becoming violence) and delegitimize authority.
“Authority must enact just laws, that is, laws that correspond to the dignity of the human person and to what is required by right reason. “Human law is law insofar as it corresponds to right reason and therefore is derived from the eternal law. When, however, a law is contrary to reason, it is called an unjust law; in such a case it ceases to be law and becomes instead an act of violence”. Authority that governs according to reason places citizens in a relationship not so much of subjection to another person as of obedience to the moral order and, therefore, to God himself who is its ultimate source. Whoever refuses to obey an authority that is acting in accordance with the moral order “resists what God has appointed” (Rom 13:2). Analogously, whenever public authority — which has its foundation in human nature and belongs to the order pre-ordained by God — fails to seek the common good, it abandons its proper purpose and so delegitimizes itself.” (398)
Refusing to obey unjust laws is not only a right, but a duty and it can be overruled neither by arguments about the freedom of others nor by being required by civil law.
“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).” (399)
A direct consequence then is the legitimacy of resistance to civil (positive) law that is in contradiction with natural law (i.e., universal rationality), with the objective of change.
“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.

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.” (400)
Here there is a powerful preference for passive resistance and it is only under extreme, specific conditions (all applying simultaneously) that armed resistance could be deemed legitimate:
“The Church’s social doctrine indicates the criteria for exercising the right to resistance: “Armed resistance to oppression by political authority is not legitimate, unless all the following conditions are met: 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”. 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 practised, which is “a way more conformable to moral principles and having no less prospects for success”.” (401)
Having focused on circumstances where being at odds with political and juridical power is right and duty, it is important to also recognize the good they may represent, always in function of the people they serve:
“The Magisterium recognizes the importance of national sovereignty, understood above all as an expression of the freedom that must govern relations between States. Sovereignty represents the subjectivity of a nation, in the political, economic, social and even cultural sense. The cultural dimension takes on particular importance as a source of strength in resisting acts of aggression or forms of domination that have repercussions on a country’s freedom. Culture constitutes the guarantee for the preservation of the identity of a people and expresses and promotes its spiritual sovereignty.

National sovereignty is not, however, absolute. Nations can freely renounce the exercise of some of their rights in view of a common goal, in the awareness that they form a “family of nations” where mutual trust, support and respect must prevail. In this perspective, special attention should be given to the fact that there is still no international agreement that adequately addresses “the rights of nations”, the preparation of which could profitably deal with questions concerning justice and freedom in today’s world.” (435)
The Church also insists on the importance of negotiation and dialogue when tensions among political communities arise and denounces not only the use but even the threat of force.
“To resolve the tensions that arise among different political communities and can compromise the stability of nations and international security, it is indispensable to make use of common rules in a commitment to negotiation and to reject definitively the idea that justice can be sought through recourse to war. “If war can end without winners or losers in a suicide of humanity, then we must repudiate the logic which leads to it: the idea that the effort to destroy the enemy, confrontation and war itself are factors of progress and historical advancement”.

Not only does the Charter of the United Nations ban recourse to force, but it rejects even the threat to use force. This provision arose from the tragic experience of the Second World War. During that conflict the Magisterium did not fail to identify certain indispensable factors for building a renewed international order: the freedom and territorial integrity of each nation, defence of the rights of minorities, an equitable sharing of the earth’s resources, the rejection of war and an effective plan of disarmament, fidelity to agreements undertaken and an end to religious persecution.” (438)
For conflicts at the level of nations to be resolved peacefully, “international law must ensure that the law of the more powerful does not prevail.”
“In order to consolidate the primacy of law, the principle of mutual confidence is of the utmost importance. In this perspective, normative instruments for the peaceful resolution of controversies must be reformulated so as to strengthen their scope and binding force. Processes of negotiation, mediation, conciliation and arbitration that are provided for in international law must be supported with the creation of “a totally effective juridical authority in a peaceful world”. Progress in this direction will allow the international community to be seen no longer as a simple aggregation of States in various moments of their existence, but as a structure in which conflicts can be peacefully resolved. “As in the internal life of individual States ... a system of private vendetta and reprisal has given way to the rule of law, so too a similar step forward is now urgently needed in the international community”. In short, “international law must ensure that the law of the more powerful does not prevail”.” (439)
Finally, the Church returns to denouncing the evil of violence yet again, and calls for a safeguarding of human rights, even at the cost of ridicule.
“Violence is never a proper response. With the conviction of her faith in Christ and with the awareness of her mission, the Church proclaims “that violence is evil, that violence is unacceptable as a solution to problems, that violence is unworthy of man. Violence is a lie, for it goes against the truth of our faith, the truth of our humanity. Violence destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity, the life, the freedom of human beings”.

The contemporary world too needs the witness of unarmed prophets, who are often the objects of ridicule. “Those who renounce violence and bloodshed and, in order to safeguard human rights, make use of those means of defence available to the weakest, bear witness to evangelical charity, provided they do so without harming the rights and obligations of other men and societies. They bear legitimate witness to the gravity of the physical and moral risk of recourse to violence, with all its destruction and death”.” (496)

I hope that following this thread through the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church has been of interest to you and that it has presented a useful framework for considering complex and challenging situations, like the one that is currently the case in Catalonia. It should be obvious that the Church does not push for one solution or another, but that she insists on the pursuit of the common good, on respecting the dignity and ultimate value of each person, on the application of universal rationality, on the posture of service instead of domination, on the denunciation of violence and on the need for dialogue and the protection of minorities.