In general, just laws should be obeyed, but sometimes a law just in itself is inapplicable to one’s action. Sometimes compliance with an unjust law is morally required, but other times such compliance would be morally wrong. Ordinarily, it should be presumed that compliance with any law, just or unjust, is morally required, but under certain conditions this presumption can be overcome. In itself, the duty to obey just laws is a grave matter, but the responsibility admits of parvity. Insofar as laws are unjust or imperfect, citizens should work to reform them. Citizens often should resist bad laws, and in certain circumstances may, or even should, work for the replacement of a bad regime.
Laws are directives given by those exercising authority in a community in order to guide its members’ cooperation toward their common good (see S.t., 1–2, q. 90, aa. 1–3). Just laws are those which fully conform to the standard of the common good set out above (in B.4.a). As will be explained in the next section, a law just in itself sometimes is inapplicable.
A person should make a reasonable effort to find out what laws are in force and how they apply to his or her actions. Every just law should be obeyed in accord with its spirit, not minimalistically, even if it is not being enforced, or has some injustice associated with it, or might well be better.
a) There are special reasons why citizens should be law-abiding. The primary moral grounds of the responsibility to obey just and applicable laws are the reasons, already stated (in B.3.a, d), why civic responsibilities in general should be fulfilled: the obligation to pursue and protect the goods which constitute the common good and the duty to be fair to others. But there are additional factors requiring conscientious obedience to just and applicable laws: the more or less probable bad consequences of failing to obey. The potential bad consequences for oneself, one’s family, and one’s associates are obvious: punishment, shame, ill repute, and so forth. Less obvious, but very important, are indirect bad consequences for the common good.
Not only do those who disobey a law directly withhold their cooperation and perhaps interfere with others’ action for the common good, but they also indirectly affect others’ actions. Some who observe lawbreaking will be tempted to follow the bad example, and even those who do not are nevertheless likely to be discouraged and less generous in fulfilling civic responsibilities. The inevitable antagonism between the more and less law-abiding strains the mutual good will necessary for community. Resources that could be put to other uses must be expended on law enforcement. The authorities, taking account of the limited will to community manifested by limited obedience to the laws, often are inhibited from choosing ways of pursuing and protecting the common good which would be preferable if only citizens were more dutiful.
b) One should obey laws whose existence and relevance are obvious or probable. In general, people know what the law is and what it requires. Still, doubts do sometimes arise, due to the lack of adequate information about the law or incompatible interpretations of its relevance to one’s actions. When conditions change, for example, it may happen that a law which once effectively guided cooperation toward the common good no longer does so. Since it now is pointless, the authorities no longer enforce it and even the most law-abiding citizens no longer heed it. Yet it remains in the code as a dead letter, no longer in force. Confronted with a law which seems archaic, one therefore might wonder whether it still is in force. Again, studying the directions provided by the government’s tax office to see whether a certain kind of income must be reported, one might find the topic treated in two different places, one seeming to say no, the other yes.
To direct action effectively toward the common good, lawmakers must see to it that most citizens can determine what rules of law are in force and how they should be applied to their actions. Some means usually is available to settle doubts, and it should be used: ask some conscientious and well-informed fellow citizen, seek guidance from an appropriate public official, consult a lawyer, and so forth. If this leads to the conclusion that a norm of law more probably is in force than not and/or more probably requires one thing than another, one should act accordingly.
Sometimes, however, doubt persists even after a reasonable effort to overcome it: it seems no more likely that the law is in force than not or requires this rather than that. Now, a person’s moral responsibility is to obey laws, not anything and everything which might be a law, and to do what the law in fact requires, not anything and everything it might require. Law’s function is to shape cooperation toward the common good; but if, having made a reasonable effort, citizens cannot determine what the law requires of them, they cannot effectively cooperate. Consequently, when a rule of law remains doubtful, citizens simply cannot cooperate in accord with it, and so it does not bind in conscience.
c) Not the law’s letter but its intent specifies one’s duty to obey. In many cases, if the law’s wording is not definite, clear, and simple, its effectiveness in shaping cooperation is impeded. However, in some cases its purpose can be served without precise compliance with its letter, so that reasonable citizens do not expect precise compliance and public officials usually are satisfied with substantial compliance, which implies some noncompliance.
For example, speed limits must be definite, and the precise limit established is more or less arbitrary. Due to variations in the road, the environment, and the performance of vehicles, drivers could not consistently avoid exceeding the limit except by very carefully maintaining a speed well within it. Moreover, traffic officers must allow a margin for their own errors and so cannot fairly charge a driver with speeding unless there is evidence that the vehicle’s speed exceeded the limit by more than that margin. In view of these factors, most people regard speeds slightly in excess of the limit as acceptable, and officers do not intentionally charge those whose speed is within that margin. Since those setting speed limits take these facts into account and set them at a somewhat lower level than they think the common good requires, the speed limit indicated by the letter of the law is consequently both more precise and lower than the legislature actually intends.
In cases of this kind, citizens are not morally bound to comply with the letter of the law; instead, they may shape their behavior in accord with the reasonable and common understanding of the law’s intent. Still, within the margin between the law’s letter and its intent, violations sometimes are officially noticed, and the law is enforced. That need not be due to any unfairness; indeed, it is inevitable if the law is to be enforced and its intended purpose served. Citizens who obey the law according to its intent but do not comply with its letter should therefore be prepared to accept and cooperate with its enforcement against their noncompliance. Noncompliance with the letter of the law is not morally wrong in such cases, but seeking to resist or evade the just penalty for that noncompliance is wrong.87
d) Just laws should be fulfilled according to their spirit. Many people approach all laws with a legalistic mentality, seeing them primarily as limitations on their freedom to do as they please and examining each law closely to try to discover the absolute minimum required to avoid liability for lawbreaking. Such legalism and minimalism manifest defects both in commitment to the common good and in fair-mindedness and mercy toward fellow citizens.
Instead of approaching laws this way, one should try to understand their purpose and shape one’s action by them toward that purpose, while encouraging the same attitude in others and hoping everyone’s cooperation will bear fruit in the common good. Recognizing that everyone sometimes falls short of doing what he or she should, Christians should make an extra effort, so that mercy will overcome evil and redeem the benefit for all which will be lost if the law fails of its purpose. The proper approach to traffic laws, for instance, begins with understanding that they regulate driving for everyone’s safety and convenience. When conditions are bad, good citizens are more careful than the law requires. When traffic is snarled, they are courteous: they give other drivers a chance to proceed. When other drivers are inept, confused, careless, drunk, or reckless, Christian citizens should be merciful: they should yield their rights in order to compensate for others’ shortcomings.
e) False standards should not be used to judge a just law nonbinding. Even citizens who generally approach laws with the right attitude sometimes use a false standard in evaluating particular laws. Thus they risk mistakenly excusing themselves from obeying a just law. Three false standards are widely used.
Sometimes a law remains in force and is not a dead letter, but often is violated and seldom enforced. For example, in many places drivers disregard a seldom-enforced law against entering an intersection unless it will be possible to pass through it without blocking it. Noticing that they can do this with impunity, those with a strictly legalistic attitude for that reason alone consider the law nonbinding. But even many who are more fair-minded feel relieved of the duty to obey the law, for they notice that others disobey it, hastily generalize that nobody is obeying it, and feel they need not treat others better than others treat them. This standard is false; the common good remains the correct standard. The law’s purpose is to facilitate efficient traffic movement; and even if many people violate it, obeying it usually does something toward serving its purpose, while the more often it is violated, the worse traffic is snarled.
Again, injustice sometimes is associated with a law. Perhaps procedural injustices occurred in its making; perhaps it is not enforced evenhandedly; perhaps lawmakers give bad example by violating it themselves; perhaps the regime is corrupt; perhaps the government is unjust. Many people mistakenly think these associated injustices subvert the law and render it nonbinding. What is relevant, however, is the justice of the law itself: Does it meet the standard of the common good? If so, it deserves obedience even if, to take the most extreme case, the government itself is unjust: “Where public authority, going beyond its competence, oppresses citizens, they should not be unwilling to do what the common good objectively demands” (GS 74). For example, in nations conquered by the Nazis and governed by their puppet regimes, many just laws—such as those forbidding various serious forms of wrongdoing, regulating traffic, and so forth—were maintained from codes previously in force or even were newly enacted. Despite the injustice of such puppet governments, their just laws served the common good, and so deserved obedience.
Finally, sometimes conscientious and thoughtful citizens think a law does not serve the common good as well as some alternative would. Since they would amend the law or replace it if they could, they conclude that they will meet their responsibility by doing what a better law would require, even when that involves violating the existing law. This misapplies the standard of the common good, which is not that the decision of those exercising authority must be the best possible—an impossible ideal—but only that it be good and not in any way evil. Moreover, those who substitute their own judgment about how to serve the common good for what the law requires abandon communal cooperation for individualistic action and presume what they are unlikely to know: that their judgment is better than that of those entrusted with authority.
Sometimes a law just in itself should not be applied in given circumstances, and one rightly does not obey it because something else, which happens to be incompatible with obedience, ought to be done. The conflicting duty can have two different sources: the common good itself or some other morally upright interest.
a) The common good can call for an exception to a just law. A just law shapes cooperation toward the common good in the situations to which it is meant to apply. Still, because no lawmaker can foresee and provide for every eventuality, in unusual circumstances a law which is just in itself can become counterproductive. Thus, a conscientious and thoughtful citizen, without arrogantly presuming the superiority of his or her personal judgment, sometimes can judge that the common good requires an act or omission contrary to what the law specifies. For example, a town’s ordinance forbids ringing church bells between midnight and six in the morning; but in the middle of the night a church sexton notices that a large prairie fire is about to engulf the town; rightly judging that he must warn the townspeople, he sets the bells to clanging. The sexton’s judgment, which pertains to an aspect of the virtue of justice called epikeia (see CMP, 11.E.10; S.t., 1–2, q. 96, a. 6; 2–2, q. 120), is not that the common good would be better served by a different law—say, one more flexible about the ringing of church bells—but that in these unusual circumstances, here and now, the law’s spirit requires setting aside its letter.
Where it is right to make an exception on this basis, the law could not reasonably have been meant to apply in that situation. One is confident that, were the authorities aware of the circumstances and functioning properly, they not only would see that one’s course of action is objectively reasonable but would prescribe it. For the law’s force comes from the common good, and here the common good itself requires that the law not be applied.
b) A conflict of duty can call for an exception to a just law. As was explained above (in B.3.e), hardship does not easily excuse one from fulfilling civic duties, including the duty to obey laws. However, just as certain unusual circumstances can require setting aside the letter of the law for the sake of the common good, so other unusual circumstances can make abiding by the law so burdensome that an exception is justified for the good of some person, family, or other group. In its usual application, the law is just, but in some circumstances it would be unfair for the authorities to require obedience.
If possible, a citizen should seek an official dispensation from the law in such a case (see S.t., 1–2, q. 97, a. 4). But even when that is impossible, it sometimes is fair for the citizen to act contrary to the law. The test is: Would conscientious, fair-minded members of the community agree that anyone in such circumstances should make the exception? If so, one will be confident that a jury chosen at random would not convict one for violating the law, and will agree that anyone confronted with a similar situation should act in the same way. For example, laws protecting property often may be set aside when human life is at stake, and the courts recognize the reasonableness of doing so by accepting the so-called necessity defense.
Since there can be no duty to do anything sinful, however, avoiding sin, no matter how burdensome that may be, never can generate a conflict of duty and render a law inapplicable. Thus, no conflict of duty can justify doing anything wrong in itself, or with a wrong intention, or in a way unfair to others. Moreover, since everyone ought to make some sacrifices for the common good, the burden justifying an exception must be grave. Unless one has a moral obligation to avoid the burden, it plainly is not grave.
Insofar as a law is unjust, there is a sense in which it is no law at all: it is not a proper exercise of authority shaping cooperation toward the common good. Yet unjust laws have more or less the same social and institutional causes, features, and effects as just laws, and in that sense they are laws.88 Therefore, from a moral point of view, one’s responsibilities do not end with the judgment that a law is unjust; one may not proceed as if the unjust law were nothing at all. Rather, it is a fact posing a special moral problem.
Insofar as a law is unjust, obedience is not strictly speaking called for. The question thus is, not whether to obey an unjust law, but whether to comply with it, that is, conform one’s behavior to it. Sometimes one should not comply, and sometimes one should practice civil disobedience (see 6.a, below). But sometimes either the common good or some personal responsibility requires compliance despite the law’s injustice. When there are reasons both for and against complying, but no obligation to do either, a person should discern which is preferable and choose accordingly.
a) One should not comply with a law at odds with a moral obligation. Sometimes a law is radically unjust because it directs doing some act excluded by a moral absolute or prohibits an act which citizens not only have a general right but a strict duty to do. For example, a law or directive might require the killing of certain innocent persons (see Ex 1.16) or forbid the preaching of the gospel (see Acts 5.28). In such cases, Christians rightly judge: “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5.29; cf. DH 11; S.t., 2–2, q. 104, a. 5) and do what is morally required rather than comply.89
In such a case, is there an obligation to be open about one’s noncompliance with the law and/or to accept the penalty? In general, no. The goods at stake very often require that noncompliance be as stealthy as possible and that every morally acceptable means be used to evade punishment. Sometimes, though, specific circumstances require that noncompliance be open and punishment be accepted. Stealthy noncompliance may be scandalous (see 2 Mc 6.18–31); open refusal to comply may be necessary to bring about an unjust law’s rectification; concealing noncompliance may be possible only by using immoral means such as lying; evading punishment might unfairly cause others to suffer; and so on.
b) Sometimes the common good requires compliance with an unjust law. If an unjust law requires nothing at odds with moral obligation, the common good may well require compliance (see GS 74). That can be so for different reasons.
Sometimes the law’s injustice lies in unfairly distributing burdens and benefits among citizens, in violating the rights of other nations, or in wrongly taking over the responsibilities of individuals, families, or other nonpolitical groups; even so, the law does direct cooperation toward an element of the common good. In such cases, the responsibility of citizens to pursue or protect the common good can require them to obey the law while accepting injustice to themselves and perhaps also materially cooperating in injustice to others. Suppose, for example, that the regulations governing air traffic unfairly favor the convenience and safety of the private aircraft of influential citizens of a few powerful nations, while imposing unfair burdens on both commercial aviation and other nations. People will still have serious reasons to fly, and, if they do, the common good of air safety will require them to comply with the unjust regulations. In doing so, they need not choose or intend the injustice to others, any more than that to themselves, as either means or end. Rather, they could accept both injustices as inevitable side effects of acting on good reasons to fly and meeting their responsibilities to the common good.
Sometimes the law’s injustice is more radical, and it does not direct action toward the common good. Yet even then, the common good can require compliance. Suppose, for example, that a military government imposed by the victor in an unjust war enacts laws exacting reparations from the defeated nation and credibly threatens its destruction if citizens refuse to comply. The nation’s common good requires compliance, just as an individual’s good usually requires compliance with a robber’s demand: “Your money or your life.” Again, suppose that, on the one hand, certain laws purportedly made for the sake of public safety do not shape cooperation toward any common good but were enacted only for the unfair convenience of certain groups, while, on the other hand, citizens can comply at the cost only of slight personal inconvenience. In such a case, one should consider the likely effect of noncompliance on others’ attitudes toward all laws and tendencies to disobey even entirely just laws. Since widespread contempt for law gravely harms the common good, in the situation described a person might be required to comply with the unjust law so as not to contribute to that harm.
c) Another responsibility can require compliance with a law which is not just. Whether or not the common good calls for compliance with an unjust law, responsibility for one’s own well-being or some duty toward others can require it. That obviously is so in the example of the unjust regulations governing air traffic. In many cases, too, the penalties risked by violating an unjust law would impede one from fulfilling other important responsibilities—for example, toward dependents, work associates, or clients—and there is no justification for taking the risk: one therefore should comply.
In some cases, all the members of an oppressed group should comply with unjust laws in order to avoid provoking greater injustices against the group’s weaker members. Sometimes, too, laws providing and regulating the use of public facilities are unjust, but people must comply if they are to use those facilities, and some responsibility requires their use. For example, prior to 1954, only racially segregated schools were available to many families in the United States, and so parents, to meet their responsibility to educate their children, were compelled in that matter to comply with segregation laws.
Patriotic and fair-minded citizens are ready to obey the laws, not predisposed to look for reasons which might negate that duty. But sometimes it is warranted to examine the duty to comply.
a) One should presume that laws are both just and applicable. If aware of a law relevant to his or her action, a person generally should take for granted that it is just and applicable, and act as it directs, without delaying to investigate the possibility that it need not, or even should not, be complied with. Although those subject to a law frequently have some reason for thinking noncompliance would be preferable, by itself that provides no adequate ground for not complying or for deferring compliance. Such reasons usually seem plausible because of the indivi~dual’s limited viewpoint and special interests, which lead to overlooking considerations that justify the law’s directive and exclude exceptions. Thus, for the most part, reasons for questioning whether to comply with a law do not point to the conclusion that one should not. Moreover, if citizens were not in the habit of unhesitating compliance, civic cooperation would collapse amidst endless hesitations, reflections, debates, and frustrations. Consequently, everyone should make a general presumption in favor of compliance with the law: compliance often is morally required even if a law is unjust; and usually laws are just; exceptions are unwarranted; and failure to obey promptly will undermine effective cooperation for the common good.
b) Sometimes one should investigate whether to comply with a law. Since there is a general presumption in favor of compliance, one has no general duty to question whether particular laws should be complied with; indeed, a general tendency to do that wastes time, fosters temptations not to comply, and manifests, at best, lack of community spirit and, at worst, rebelliousness.
Still, questioning a law’s justice or applicability sometimes is appropriate. Investigation is morally required and blind compliance is excluded (see GS 79) when one has, not merely a vague suspicion, but a definite reason for thinking that following the law would be morally wrong—that the act it requires is wrong in itself, that complying would unfairly cause harm to someone or some group, or that the circumstances morally require making an exception. While not morally required, investigation also can be warranted on various wider grounds, for example, evidence that in making a law the authorities were motivated by self-interest rather than concern for the common good, the very great burdensomeness of complying, indications that a law is not bringing about fruitful cooperation, and so on.
c) The presumption in favor of the law is not easily rebutted. The mere fact that investigation is warranted or even morally required does not at once overturn the presumption in favor of compliance, and the law should not be violated while inquiry proceeds. Still, if the law and the circumstances admit delaying compliance, one may be justified in delaying and should do so if the question is whether complying would be wrong.
Investigation often does not reach a definitive conclusion. Sometimes it leads to a probable conclusion that there is no obligation to comply, yet one is confident no wrong will be done by complying and is not morally certain that noncompliance will not be wrong. In such cases, the presumption in favor of compliance stands, and one should comply.90 A mere personal preference cannot prevail over the presumption in favor of compliance.
Sometimes, however, the investigation whose outcome is not definitive was morally required: the question is not whether noncompliance would be morally permissible but whether compliance would be morally wrong. In such a case, if it seems more likely than not that one should comply, the presumption in favor of the law stands, and one should comply. But if, having considered everything, including the grounds for the presumption in favor of the law, one judges it more probable that it would be wrong to comply, then one ought not. Rather, as in any other case of uncertainty about moral obligations, one should fulfill what more likely is one’s true moral responsibility (see CMP, 12.C.7).
Law shapes cooperation toward the common good, and those exercising public authority seldom make laws about insignificant matters. Disobedience to a law is thus likely to have significant bad consequences for someone—indeed, in most cases, for many people—and disobedience to any just and applicable law therefore usually is a grave matter. Even though, as often happens, what a law requires may appear at first sight trivial or even ridiculous, careful consideration generally shows that more is at stake than meets the eye. Moreover, lawbreaking’s indirect effects must be taken into account, not least the fact that violating any law weakens the general habit of obedience, which is vital to the common good. Furthermore, since lawbreaking involves unfairness to fellow citizens, an important sign of its gravity is the seriousness with which people take others’ violations, even in comparatively small matters. To be inconvenienced even by someone else’s parking violation strikes few people as insignificant.
Nevertheless, sometimes a violation can be a light matter because a law’s subject matter makes it possible that even if small violations become common, neither significant harm nor significant indirect bad effects will result. A sign of such parvity is that even citizens who do not themselves violate the law consider violations insignificant. The violation might be merely technical, not an action wrong in itself, and so minor that nobody would expect it to be punished. Or, again, it might be something wrong in itself but subject to parvity, for example, slight trespassing of a kind reasonable property owners easily tolerate and never seek to prevent by asking officials to enforce the law.
Sometimes police or other officials are bribed to facilitate sinful lawbreaking. Bribery not only itself violates the law, but involves scandal; other things being equal, it is a graver matter, morally speaking, than other lawbreaking. Moreover, bribery quickly corrupts legal processes, so that, without giving bribes, nobody can obtain from officials what he or she deserves. Poor people who cannot afford to pay bribes then suffer great injustices. (What about corrupt regimes in which bribery is officially tolerated and necessary to do things which are entirely legitimate? Assuming the end is good and the means chosen morally acceptable in all other respects, the paying of bribes in that kind of situation is material cooperation in wrongdoing, which may or may not be morally acceptable; see 7.F.4–5.)
Obeying God rather than complying with a demand of human authority whenever the two conflict, obeying just and applicable laws, and complying when appropriate with unjust laws do not exhaust one’s responsibilities with respect to laws. Good citizens also should do what they can to change unjust laws and prevent or remedy governmental injustices.
In this struggle for justice, of course, actions wrong in themselves may never be chosen as means. Always, too, Christians should proceed in accord with specifically Christian principles, including love of enemies. And, as has been explained, even in a context of officially sanctioned injustice, just and applicable laws should be obeyed and unjust laws often should be complied with. Therefore, citizens should try first to achieve justice by strictly lawful means: publicity, political action, the courts, referenda, peaceful demonstrations, and so on. Whenever an injustice is great and there is a real prospect of overcoming it by lawful means, one should cooperate in the effort as fully as one can without neglecting other serious responsibilities.
a) Sometimes one should practice civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is a method of public protest against a law, public policy, or governmental act. It involves three things: (i) openly violating some law to focus attention on an injustice as a means toward overcoming it; (ii) avoiding doing anything wrong in itself, damaging to the common good, or unfair to fellow citizens; and (iii) showing sincerity and respect for authority by willingly suffering the penalty for violating the law. Sometimes those engaged in civil disobedience can violate a law whose injustice is (or is included in) the precise object of their protest. For example, some people violated laws requiring racially segregated seating on public transportation in order to protest the injustice both of those laws and the entire system of segregation. In other cases, it is either practically or morally impossible to focus civil disobedience on the injustice being protested, and so some related law is violated as a symbolic gesture. For example, civil disobedience has sometimes been practiced by carrying out demonstrations on public property slightly within the boundaries of zones from which demonstrations were excluded.
Civil disobedience should not be used as a substitute for lawful means of pursuing justice, but only as a supplement to them and only when there is good reason to hope that it will help overcome injustice rather than provoke its deeper entrenchment. Those engaging in civil disobedience should manifest neither hatred of anyone nor contempt for rational argument. The tactic also should be avoided if it seems likely to harm the common good, for example, by contributing to a general breakdown of public order.
Rightly conducted in suitable circumstances, however, civil disobedience is morally acceptable. By combining illegality with evidence of serious concern for the common good, it can effectively call attention to officially sanctioned injustices. Even when it involves violating some just law as a gesture, it can be morally justified, provided no moral norm independent of law is violated. For in such a case, the letter of the law does not apply, since the merely symbolic violation is meant to serve the common good, and reasonable lawmakers, even those holding a contrary position on the matter at issue, should appreciate that intention and recognize the service.
Consequently, for those whose other responsibilities permit them to accept punishment for civil disobedience, this practice can be morally good. Indeed, if grave injustices cry out for remedy, in appropriate circumstances Christians should engage in civil disobedience and, other things being equal, plainly should prefer it to measures involving more risks to the common good and/or to innocent persons.
b) Sometimes substantive and covert lawbreaking is warranted. Strictly lawful means and civil disobedience often are sufficient to carry on an effective struggle for justice, but in some cases they are inadequate. Of course, nothing can justify doing anything wrong in itself, damaging to the common good, or unfair to fellow citizens. But under certain circumstances, lawbreaking is warranted which is not merely symbolic but substantive, and those who engage in it need not act openly and accept punishment. Rather, they may rightly act covertly and try to avoid being caught.
Perhaps a regime has seized power contrary to the provisions of a just constitution, in order to protect special interests against the common good. Or perhaps a government has been imposed unjustly, for example, by the victors in an unjust war. In such cases, patriotic citizens often are justified in carrying on a systematic campaign of nonviolent resistance, in order to bring about reforms or the replacement of the usurping regime or unjust government. Such resistance can include the violation of many laws, for example, those forbidding the movement of persons, restricting publication, regulating certain forms of economic activity, and so on.
Sometimes, too, a government which on the whole is just has laws which unjustly permit the violation of a certain group’s fundamental human rights, for example, laws permitting abortion. Now, in general, if citizens observe one person killing another, they may use the minimum force necessary to defend the victim’s life, and in such a case, laws against trespassing, the destruction of property, and so forth should not keep anyone from doing what is required. Considered in themselves, moreover, acts morally acceptable in defending someone’s life against a violation forbidden by a just law do not become immoral when they are necessary to defend someone’s life against a violation permitted by an unjust law. In sum, when fundamental human rights are at stake, those engaged in their defense are not always morally bound to remain within the limits of civil disobedience.91 In such cases, of course, the use of illegal means to defend the victims’ rights might well be excluded by concern for the common good (for example, the danger of widespread public disorder) or one’s other responsibilities (for example, the likely effects on one’s family if one were sent to prison).
c) Rarely, force may be used to replace a bad regime. When regimes repress justified action for nonviolent reform and use institutionalized violence to maintain structural injustices, they and their supporters are chiefly responsible for revolutionary outbreaks which occur when people in desperation resort to arms in their pursuit of justice.92 Moreover, since bad rulers who systematically pursue ends at odds with a nation’s common good have no real authority, their status is the same as that of rebels against a just government (see S.t., 2–2, q. 42, a. 2, ad 3). Therefore, the Church’s teaching admits the possible moral justification of recourse to armed struggle as a last resort “to put an end to an obvious and prolonged tyranny which is gravely damaging the fundamental rights of individuals and the common good [note omitted].”93
Nevertheless, Christians should be very cautious about supporting the use of force against those in power, for, in practice, attempts to overthrow a bad regime are likely to be morally flawed. The side effects and risks involved in the use of force cannot be justified so long as there is any reasonable hope of attaining the end without armed struggle, and nonviolent action’s capacity for effecting change should not be underestimated.94 No use of force is justified unless the prospect of success is sufficient to warrant the inevitable costs. Furthermore, if force is used against a bad regime, its military capabilities and readiness to use them are likely to make bad means seem necessary—terrorism, torture, provocations intended to create martyrs, and so on—but nothing can justify using such means.95 Finally, even if the bad regime is overcome, the common good may not be served; the new regime may be as bad as the old or even worse.96
Consequently, Catholic teachers often speak out against revolutionary violence. For example, even though the Latin American bishops clearly recognized widespread, entrenched injustices in their region and morally condemned them, they rejected the option of political violence and instead held: “Our responsibility as Christians is to use all possible means to promote the implementation of nonviolent tactics in the effort to re-establish justice in economic and sociopolitical relations.”97 Considering that the bishops took this position despite the authoritarian character of many of the regimes then holding power in their nations, it is even less likely that armed struggle could be justified to remedy injustices in nations living under freely elected regimes.
87. In general, one’s moral obligation is not merely to accept the penalty if one disobeys a law (as the so-called purely penal law theory holds) but rather to obey the law: see Matthew Herron, T.O.R., The Binding Force of Civil Laws (Paterson, N.J.: St. Anthony Guild Press, 1952); Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights, 325–32. However, if the law’s letter differs from its intent, compliance with the intent is obeying the law. The duty to accept the penalty for noncompliance with the letter flows from the relationship between law enforcement and the common good, not from the legislator’s fiat, as in the purely penal law theory.
88. For a fuller treatment of some aspects of this matter, together with references to the theological tradition, see Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights, 351–68.
89. See Leo XIII, Sapientiae Christianae, ASS 22 (1889–90) 388–89, PE, 111.10; Pius XII, Ad Apostolorum Principis, AAS 50 (1958) 606–7, PE, 261.20–24.
90. St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, Theologia moralis, ed. L. Gaudé, 4 vols. (Rome: Ex Typographia Vaticana, 1905–12), 1:80–81, shows that the tradition supports a strong presumption in favor of the law. However, not all of those cited seem to distinguish clearly between cases in which one is confident that compliance is morally permissible and cases in which there are reasons for thinking that obeying a law would be wrong.
91. Thus, it is a mistake to apply the standards of civil disobedience to illegal actions taken to protect human life. This mistake underlies the view that people involved in direct action against abortion are morally obliged to show respect for public authority by cooperating with arresting officers, paying fines, and so on. It also leads to arguments which are beside the point, for example: Direct action against abortion is counterproductive, because it alienates law-abiding people rather than winning them to the prolife cause. In fact, direct action against abortion aims not at changing public opinion but at saving babies; its bad side effects on public opinion may be accepted unless doing so is more probably unfair than fair to others affected, including other babies at risk. (Also, it is hard to know whether direct action against abortion is counterproductive, for even though it alienates some law-abiding people, it bears witness to the truth and makes it more difficult for people to forget that abortion kills babies.)
92. See the Medellin Conference document: Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops, The Church in the Present-Day Transformation of Latin America in the Light of the Council, vol. 2, Conclusions, 2nd ed., 2.15–19 (Washington, D.C.: Division for Latin America, United States Catholic Conference, 1973), 60–63.
93. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, 79, AAS 79 (1987) 590, OR, 14 Apr. 1986, 7; cf. papal teachings cited in the Congregation’s n. 119.
94. John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 25, AAS 83 (1991) 822–23, OR, 6 May 1991, 9, explains: “The events of 1989 are an example of the success of willingness to negotiate and of the Gospel spirit in the face of an adversary determined not to be bound by moral principles. These events are a warning to those who, in the name of political realism, wish to banish law and morality from the political arena. Undoubtedly, the struggle which led to the changes of 1989 called for clarity, moderation, suffering and sacrifice. In a certain sense, it was a struggle born of prayer, and it would have been unthinkable without immense trust in God, the Lord of history, who carries the human heart in his hands. It is by uniting his own sufferings for the sake of truth and freedom to the sufferings of Christ on the Cross that man is able to accomplish the miracle of peace and is in a position to discern the often narrow path between the cowardice which gives in to evil and the violence which, under the illusion of fighting evil, only makes it worse.” P. Régamey, O.P., Non-violence and the Christian Conscience (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1966), articulates a Catholic theology of nonviolent action; Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973), provides an extensive treatment of the theory, methods, and dynamics of nonviolent struggle. While neither of these works is acceptable in every respect, both are valuable and deserve careful study.
95. Paul VI, Mense maio, AAS 57 (1965) 356, PE, 272.8, notes “that there is very often no respect for the sacred and inviolable character of human life” and condemns “secret and treacherous warfare, terrorist activities, the taking of hostages, and savage reprisals against unarmed people.” Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation”, 11.7, AAS 76 (1984) 904–5, OR, 10 Sept. 1984, 4, teaches: “The truth of mankind requires that this battle be fought in ways consistent with human dignity. That is why the systematic and deliberate recourse to blind violence, no matter from which side it comes, must be condemned (cf. Doc. de Puebla, II, c. II, 5, 4). To put one’s trust in violent means in the hope of restoring more justice is to become the victim of a fatal illusion: violence begets violence and degrades man. It mocks the dignity of man in the person of the victims and it debases that same dignity among those who practice it.” Also Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, 78–79, AAS 79 (1987) 589–90, OR, 14 Apr. 1986, 7, teaches: “The fight against injustice is meaningless unless it is waged with a view to establishing a new social and political order in conformity with the demands of justice. Justice must already mark each stage of the establishment of this new order. There is a morality of means [note omitted].” Hence, although armed struggle could be justified as a last resort to put an end to obvious and longstanding tyranny, “because of the continual development of the technology of violence and the increasingly serious dangers implied in its recourse, that which today is termed ‘passive resistance’ shows a way more conformable to moral principles and having no less prospects for success.”
96. The popes frequently stress this point; see, for example, John XXIII, Pacem in terris, AAS 55 (1963) 301, PE, 270.161–62.
97. Third General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate, Evangelization in Latin America’s Present and Future, 220.127.116.113, in Puebla and Beyond: Documentation and Commentary, ed. John Eagleson and Philip Scharper, trans. John Drury (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1979), p. 198; in 18.104.22.1689–10, pp. 194–95, the document frankly points out the origin of the violence: “The violence is generated and fostered by two factors: (1) what can be called institutionalized injustice in various social, political, and economic systems; and (2) ideologies that use violence as a means to win power. The latter in turn causes the proliferation of governments based on force, which often derive their inspiration from the ideology of National Security.”