Sunday, March 28, 2010

Calling a Spade a Spade

There is a serious schism growing in our Church. It is like a malignant cancer that has been steadily growing for decades now, and anyone who denies it must have had their eyes closed for the duration. Although many might be hesitant to use words like schism and cancer because of the divisive sentiment they carry, I am not. I'm going to call a spade a spade.

The division has been building steam for the latter part of the 20th Century. It is taking place in the pews of our own parishes, in our homes, and in our schools. It is a wedge being driven to the very center of God's design, human life and powerful cooperative role we have been given in the creation of it. It's being driven between those who faithfully adhere to God's plan for our procreation, life, and death that he laid out for us in the very creation of our bodies, and those who have fallen victim to the lies about human sexuality and contraception that our progressive culture sells us at every turn.

Pope Paul VI prophesied in his encyclical, Humane Vitae, that four devastating effects would come about as a result of the spread of contraception: (1) complacency about, and even rewarding of, irresponsible and sinful sexual behavior; (2) a loss of respect for the beauty and genius of God's design of the woman; (3) an abuse of power by government officials who, under the guise of "family planning" or "population control" resort to ever more extreme and amoral methods of stifling and snuffing out the dignity of human life, from conception until natural death; and (4) man's assertion of his own, newfound control over life and death leading to misuse of the human body as an object or commodity rather than a creation of God and temple of the Holy Spirit.

How much do we see the damaging, cancerous pervasiveness of this heresy in our culture today? It reached its previous milestone in the 1973 Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade, and now has reached a new one in the passage of legislation that does not prohibit the use of taxpayer money to fund the murderous holocaust of abortion that has cost over 50 million pre-born children their lives in their most vulnerable--and what should be their most protected--stage of life.

Yes, the President did sign an executive order purported to expand the restrictions of the Medicare Hyde Amendment to the new health care legislation, but its effectiveness is dubious for two reasons: (1) An executive order can be rescinded or changed at any time, as quickly as it is written; and (2) It sets the dangerous precedent that the President, with a stroke of his pen, can override or amend legislation. The latter is one giant step on the road that can only end in a de facto dictatorship.

Getting back to the point, the bottom line is that a significant number in our Church are being led astray into this "culture of death" as John Paul II put it. Whether by the failure of clergy and teachers to educate the faithful, or worse, by the obstinate--and often arrogant--failure of individual Catholics to inform their own consciences in accordance with the ancient teachings of mother Church, a condition has erupted that cannot be described by any other name than a heresy. Again, I'm just calling it like I see it. As renowned Catholic author and professor Peter Kreeft described in his Handbook of Catholic Apologetics, "The Spanish Inquisition wrongly destroyed heretics in order rightly to destroy heresies; modern "liberals" wrongly love heresies in order to rightly love heretics" (p. 28).

It is time that we as Catholics get to the business at hand of remaking our culture, and that starts with acknowledging where we have failed to address this issue--this heresy--in the past and dealing with it now, post haste. Several bishops have spoken out on this issue, most notably and vocally Archbishop Chaput of Denver. While we certainly look to them for leadership and inspiration, we ought not wait for them to act in our own individual lives and circumstances. We must encourage, teach, and admonish each other, within our own homes, schools, and churches, as Christ commanded us:

If another member of the church sins against you, go out and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (Matthew 18:15-18).

There's a reason that one of the spiritual works of mercy is to "admonish the sinner." To correct someone who has strayed across the double yellow line into the lane of traffic opposed to God and to the holy mission of his Church is arguably the most important aspect of our mission of evangelization, and--not surprisingly--also one of the most difficult. None of us wants to hear that our actions or opinions are opposed to the work of the Church, especially if we don't feel that our stance is wrong. As children of Adam and Eve, we are predisposed to fall into the same lie that the serpent duped them with in the garden, that God, in setting boundaries for us, is really just a tyrant who is holding out. We think we should be able take the rules that we like, and throw out or ignore the ones that don't match our selfish desires. The bottom line is that we want to define the rules of our own reality, including the decisions about who lives and who dies, and once anyone buys into the lie that they have that power it is hard to give it up. The only way to counter this heresy of heresies is to lovingly encourage and remind each other that our ultimate duty is to submit to the saving power of Christ and the authority that he has delegated in the temporal realm to his Church militant here on earth. Obedience is God's demand, but it is also our joy and claim to the inheritance that he promised if we should only follow the example of radical obedience of his Son. It is our duty always to remind each other of this objective truth, especially when it comes to matters of life and death that are the central debates in our societies today.

On the same token, so need to encourage our bishops and priests to have the courage to preach about it in their homilies, regardless of how divisive a topic it might be. In the end, the divisiveness is like the necessary blade of a surgeon. Better to perform the surgery now, while there is time for repentance and a change of heart, and ultimately healing, than to abandon those whose hearts have not been hardened against the truth to continue to stumble toward the Day of Judgment. Anyone who is authentic in their faith will hunger for and only satisfied by the truth, regardless of the difficult demands it places upon us. Those who do not and have closed their ears and hardened their hearts against it, if they refuse to submit even to the authority of the Church, must be turned away as Christ demanded.  They must be treated "as a Gentile and a tax collector" in hopes that such tough love will drive them to seek repentance and reunification with the Church.

There is no time to waste. While we fail to act, lives--and more importantly souls--are being lost.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fasting: Dispelling the Satisfaction Delusion

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." But he answered, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" (Matthew 4:1-4)

I have to begin here with full disclosure: I'm a wimpy faster. There's no two ways around it, I'm not that great at it. Fasting is not fun. When talk comes up of giving anything up that tastes good or that satisfies hunger, mixed feelings well up and I have an overwhelming temptation to turn the other way and high-tail it out. Even the two days of the year that adults in the Church are required to fast, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, seemed for the longest time like an unnecessary burden; today, though I now understand the purpose behind it, that feeling (temptation) often wins out and, at some point or another I lose resolve. But, even despite many times failing to follow through, the difficulty of fasting has made its power even more evident. I suppose that is what the Lord meant when he replied to St. Paul's appeal for relief of the thorn in his side, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9)  So, I write this as much for myself as for anyone else.

As a young adult growing up in the Church--when fasting became a requirement--I almost could not believe that we should be required to impose some suffering on ourselves, especially when we had food is readily available. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, "What kind of sense does that make?"

Well, as I've come to discover fifteen years later, it doesn't make any sense--to the world that is. But, then again there are a lot of things that we do as Christians that seem like nonsense to a society that in so many ways is opposed to the Gospel. Christ himself promised that not only would the world not understand us, it would despise and hate us (cf. John 15:18), among other things simply for being counter-cultural and denouncing every idol that society promises will satisfy us. That includes the idea that is thrust in our faces at practically every turn, that having all of our temporal needs met, including the most basic need of food, will ultimately satisfy us.

Joining Christ in the Desert

Back to the physical reality of fasting, again, it is just plain, flat out, not fun. Not only that, but it is difficult. Where I come from, that would seem like a textbook lose-lose situation. By the end of a day of fasting, especially more rigorous fasting, as physical fatigue and hunger headaches start to cloud thoughts, the temptation to give in and give up only gets stronger and stronger. It is hard enough (and I've failed enough) just trying to make it through one day; it is almost unimaginable to have endured for 40. But, in following Jesus' example and allowing the suffering of hunger pangs to take us into an interior desert, we are brought to the reality that it is Christ himself, the new bread of life, that we are now to depend on.

Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, conveyed this idea well in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, contrasting the Christ's temptation in the desert with his later multiplication of the loaves and fishes: "He himself has become bread for us, and this multiplication of the loaves endures to the end of time." Continuing, quoting the German Jesuit Alfred Delp, who was executed by the Nazis, "'Bread is important, freedom is more important, but most important of all is unbroken fidelity and faithful adoration'" (p. 33). Through fasting, we are prepared for the greater difficulties and temptations that fidelity and faithful adoration to Christ will inevitably bring.

The Holy Father continues,

"We live in this world, where God is not so manifest as tangible things are, but can be sought and found only when the heart sets out on the 'exodus' from 'Egypt.' It is in this world that we are obliged to resist the delusions of false philosophies and to recognize that we do not live by bread alone, by first and foremost by obedience to God's word. Only when this obedience is put into practice does the attitude develop that is also capable of providing bread for all" (p.34)

Fasting pulls us away from that 'satisfaction delusion' offered by this world and back into the eternal reality, to join Christ in the desert and, with him and in him, to submit our will to be steeled against the lies of the tempter. It allows us to rediscover the truth that the only thing that can satisfy us is the Word of God, whom we have the privilege of knowing as the person of Christ and experiencing in the flesh every time we celebrate the Eucharist.

To the Foot of the Cross

By fasting, we voluntarily impose suffering on ourselves and, in doing so, we allow our focus to be pulled away from our 'this world, here-and-now' comfort zone, straight back to the foot of the cross. It hastens our death to self, so that being emptied as he was, we can better dispose our will to his and, with greater focus and purpose, carry out the mission that has been given to us of spreading the Gospel. It gives us a stark reminder, through a real and tangible pain in our stomach, that to join in the joy of his work and ultimately the glory of his Resurrection, we must first endure the suffering, and pain of our crosses in life, and ultimately the death that he has transformed into a door to eternal life.

Prayer Booster

In Mark 9, after Jesus drove an evil spirit out of a boy, his disciples asked him, "'Why could we not cast it out? He said, 'This kind can only come out through prayer'" (other ancient translations add and fasting; Mark 9:28-29, NRSV). It would seem that Jesus is trying to make a point here, first about the necessity of prayer, and second that there are certain, powerful actions that ordinary, 'run-of-the-mill' day-to-day faithful living cannot by itself bring about. In order to reach this more powerful, higher level of faith in action, we must first enter more deeply into the mystery of prayer, by denying the needs of our physical body (albeit temporarily).  Even better, we should strive more frequently to enter into this self-denying faith.  For most of us, who otherwise have our bodily needs met, this is accomplished by fasting. In doing so our spiritual needs, both our individual needs and those of the of the faith community as a whole, are brought into clearer focus as we bring them closer to Christ by drawing nearer to his cross.

On second thought, those two days probably aren't enough.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Pray Without Ceasing

"Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints." Ephesians 6:18

"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." 2 Thessalonians 5:16-18

In these two short, simple passages Paul captures the essense of what our primary responsibility as Christians is: to pray. Lent, provides us with the perfect opportunity to re-focus on the three pillars or "essentials" of living a repentant life: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. I will delve into on the other two in future postings, but for now I want to focus on the primary Christian activity that must exist before the power of God's love can enter into us.

Why We Pray

I tend to think of things in terms of analogies. This may be a crudely simple one, but I think it's a good starting point to launch into a short exploration of prayer. Prayer, and the grace that comes through it, might be thought of as kind of like electricity, we like a computer, and God like the electrical "grid." Bear with me on this one. Without a connection to the grid - by being plugged into it - a computer (or, for that matter, any other electrical device) is utterly useless. Sure a laptop might run on batter power for a short time, but to use it's full potential, it will have to be plugged in and recharged frequently, and it functions best when plugged in all the time. Without the electrical power it needs from the computer - as grace conferred through prayer - it is nothing more than a useless collection of parts.

We as creatures, despite the fact that we would often like to think of ourselves as creators, are much the same way. Without frequent "plug-ins" to the person of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit that unites Him in love with the Father, we lose our connection to the only power that can really sustain and satisfy us, the power of God. Ultimately, we become nothing but empty, perishing shells of flesh, who in the end will stand before the Lord convicted by hands and hearts empty of faith and its fruits. Prayer is our "lifeline" to the Father through Christ, that lifts us out of the despair of our frail, passing physical existence into relationship with the Eternal One.

The Holy Father explains it much more eloquently in Chapter Five of Jesus of Nazareth, in which he focuses on how Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord's Prayer (cf. Matthew 6:9-13):
The more the depths of our souls are directed toward God, the better we will be able to pray. The more prayer is the foundation that upholds our entire existence, the more we will become men of peace. The more we can bear pain, the more we will be able to understand others and open ourselves to them. This orientation pervasively shaping our whole consciousness, this silent presence of God at the heart of our thinking, or meditating, and our being, is what we mean by "prayer without ceasing." (p. 129-130).

How We Pray

I have to preface by saying that none of us knows how to pray on our own. Because of our sin, we are too far removed from God and he is so infinitely far above us as to be inaccessible. Recognizing that we were so utterly lost and without hope in this condition, God himself reestablished the "lifeline," if you will, by sending his own Son to become one of us and both satisfy the Father’s justice and extend his mercy by dying on the Cross. Because he was like us in all things except sin, he maintained that intimate face-to-face relationship with the Father that we all long for and will experience if we are conformed to him.  From that supernatural relationship, he was able to teach us to pray, even going so far as to give us the words to use:

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we also forgive our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
But rescue us from the evil one.

Matthew 6:9-13
Christ's model of prayer demonstrated explicitly the four stages or priorities, if you will, of how we are to pray:

1. Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be your name.  First, we are to put ourselves in the presence of the Lord.  By giving us these words, Christ both taught us and shared with us the privilege that is his alone: he allowed us to join him in calling on God as Father, a Father who cares so deeply about us that he was willing to send his only Son to die so that we might be reconciled to him.  In the same breath, however, we ackowledge the holiness and "otherness" of Him who is hallowed, who is so far above us that we cannot comprehend him and who is worthy of all praise.

2. Your kingdom come, Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.  After placing ourselves humbly and intimately into his presence, we rightly acknowledge his sovereignty in all things, places, and times, and pray for the coming of his eternal Kingdom into our the here-and-now.  Without acknowledging that sovereignty--that he, not us, makes the rules and has the final say in all things--we cannot be properly disposed to offer up the petitions for what we need to fulfill our role in the coming of the kingdom.
3.  Give us this day our daily bread, And forgive us our debts, As we also forgive our debtors.  As we prostrate ourselves before the throne of grace and lift our hands in praise to him, we also ask in return only what we need to accomplish the task for which he created us: First, bread for our journey, which encompasses both our physical needs for the day and more importantly the spiritual, Eucharistic bread that sustains, strengthens, and conforms us into the likeness of the Son in whose name we pray.  Second, we ask for the grace to forgive as we have been forgiven, to leave the bitterness and vengeance that we would otherwise carry around with us at the foot of the cross, because in carrying them we remain chained to our own sins and convicted by our own unforgiveness and are not free to take up the saving yoke of Christ.

4. And do not bring us to the time of trial, But rescue us from the evil one.  This plea acknowledges what is perhaps our deepest fear, of being found guilty in the end and condemned and ultimately consumed by evil.  It realizes in a concrete confession the reality that, despite every lie the evil one will try to sell us, in the end we cannot save ourselves.  If we try, we have already placed one foot inside the gate of hell.  That may sound grim, but it's the truth and the very possibility, if we contemplate it, should rock us to our core.  So it leads us as sinners to beg at the feet of him who has the power to save us.  He doesn't just have the power; he has already accomplished it if we only choose to turn toward him and acknowledge our faults and failures.

Sighs Too Deep for Words

Christ promised that after he had ascended to his heavenly throne, he would send the Spirit that "helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very same Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words" (Matthew 8:26).  And so he has made good on his promise.  The Holy Spirit, the personification of the intimate relationship between Father and Son, has now come to dwell with us and in us, and to draw us also into the relationship that humans, before Christ, were barred from entering.  By praying humbly and sincerely, we reach through the torn temple veil and open ourselves to be drawn into the bond of a loving relationship from which "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nordepth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us" (Romans 8:38-39).

Monday, March 1, 2010

When Is It Okay to Disobey: Catholics and Civil Disobedience by Fr. Frank Pavone

I finally had the chance during a 10-hour flight today to catch up on some magazine reading.  One article in particular really stuck out in my mind, so much so that I thought it's worth sharing here.  In "When Is It Okay to Disobey?: Catholics and Civil Disobedience," published in the March-April 2010 issue of This Rock magazine, Fr. Frank Pavone addresses many of the same issues as Dr. King and Pope Benedict XVI (see my previous posts from January 24 and January 31).  He writes from the same tradition and understanding of the relationship between divine law and human law as St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica and Dr. King in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail.  He references both, as well as the Catechism's firm assertion (in sections 1897-1904 and 2234-2243) that God's law supercedes any law created by man, particularly when the two are in conflict.  The following text and discussion have been posted to the Catholic Answers Forum.

When Is It Okay to Disobey?
Catholics and Civil Disobedience
By Fr. Frank Pavone

Imagine for a moment that a law were passed in our country outlawing attendance at Mass. What would you do? Certainly campaigns would be launched to change the law, to challenge the law in court, and to elect new leaders who would reject such a law.

But those processes could take years. The question is, what would you do in the meantime? Would you go to Mass anyway? If you are a priest, would you celebrate Mass anyway? Are there times when you would disobey the law and consider that disobedience to be morally justified?

This question goes to the heart of who we are as Christian citizens and of the relationship of the Church to the state.

The King Is Subject to a King
The Old Testament provides an excellent starting point for this question in 1 Samuel 8. The people of God are living on the land the Lord gave them. All around them, other nations are worshipping strange gods and engaging in strange rituals. One of the differences between God’s people and these other nations was that the other nations had a king. The people of Israel were always talking about the Lord, the Covenant, and the Commandments God gave to Moses, but they didn’t have a king.

So one day they go to the prophet Samuel, and ask, “Would you give us a king, please? All the other nations around us have a ruler that leads them into battle and fights their wars and provides for them, and we don’t have a king.” Samuel says, “What are you talking about? The Lord is your king!” “Yes, but we want a king like the other nations,” they reply.

So Samuel turns to the Lord, who tells Samuel to grant their request but also to warn the people that they’re going to suffer for it. And several chapters later we read the instructions that Samuel gives to the people. He says to them, "You said to me, no we want a king to rule over us. But the Lord your God was your king and now behold the king whom you have chosen, for whom you have asked. Behold, the Lord has set a king over you. If you will fear the Lord and serve him and hearken to his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the Lord and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the Lord your God it will be well. But if you will not hearken to the voice of the Lord and rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then the hand of the Lord will be against you and your king." (1 Sm 12:12b-15)

A hierarchy is established: The people obey the king. The people and the king obey the Lord.

If you read through the history of the Old Testament, you’re actually reading the history of two kingdoms interwoven one with another, the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah). And you soon discover that you are reading theological history. In other words, the events happened, but you are reading them from the perspective of God and understanding the God-related reasons why certain armies won the battles and others lost.

What Scripture is trying to convey is not the brilliant political strategies or the terrible blunders, but rather the fact that when the people and their king observed and obeyed the Covenant, things went well and God delivered their enemies away from them. But when they—often at the urging of their king and because of his sinfulness—violated the Covenant, God delivered them into the hands of their enemies.

The prophets arrived to admonish the kings and to instruct the people. The role of the prophets is very clear in the Old Testament: to reproach the kings, telling them again that they need to be faithful to the Covenant.

We Have the King’s Responsibilities
You and I are in a position today in America that gives us even more responsibility than the prophets had when they spoke to the kings. We too are prophets by our baptism into Christ. We have a prophetic role, not in the sense of telling the future but of speaking the present, interpreting present events in the light of the Word of God. We do it as clergy when we preach, but we all do it as baptized members of the faithful when we bear witness to the Word of God in our daily life. We bear greater responsibility because we have more than just the opportunity to speak to our “kings,” our rulers, those in government authority. We have the opportunity to choose them—an opportunity that the people in the Old Testament never had. We have the power to choose them. And if our system of governance works the way it’s supposed to work, we in fact govern ourselves.

What this means is that all the scriptural responsibilities that God places on the sovereign, on the king, on the ruler, are placed on us! If you read the Bible from the beginning to the end you see a whole series of very serious responsibilities placed on the shoulders of the ruler of the people. The ruler of the people was to do justice, reaffirm the Covenant, lead the people in the ways of the Lord, promote peace, defend life, and rescue the poor and the widow. All of the responsibilities of the sovereign and their people are now on us. We don’t only have the responsibility that belongs to the people; we have the responsibility that belongs to the sovereign because of our ability, our opportunity to take part in the political process.

The Church’s Yes and No
What, then, does the Church think about the state? Historically, beginning with Jesus himself, it has said to governments at the same time yes and no. And the Church maintains a delicate balance between her yes and her no. In his book, Church and State in Early Christianity, Hugo Rahner writes, “The Church has never confronted the state with a ‘no’ of inflexible refusal dictated by another worldly mysticism or with a ‘yes’ of unqualified acceptance based on political indifference. The Church of the martyrs with a sure political instinct illuminated by grace knew how to find a balance between ‘yes’ and ‘no.’”

Let’s look more closely at that yes and no.

First, the Church says a profound yes to the state, and this is rooted in a very simple fact: All authority, all power, comes from God. Therefore obeying earthly, civil authority becomes part of our obedience to God.

Scripture is filled with examples of this. Perhaps one of the most striking is in the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Even when the state and the powers of civil authority are persecuting believers, believers are exhorted to be good citizens. We read that God’s people are being taken into exile in Babylon. Yet they’re not told to create a revolution. They’re not called to overthrow the Babylonians. What are they called to do?

Thus says the Lord of hosts, to the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives, have sons and daughters. Take wives for your sons that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there, do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer 29:4-7)

Seek the welfare of the city even if the city is holding you in exile.

We’re even more familiar with the New Testament exhortations. Peter, for example says:

Maintain good contact among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers they may see your good deeds and glorify God . . . Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme or to governors . . . Honor all men, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the emperor. (1 Pt 2:12-13, 17)

And then of course we find the exhortation to pay taxes and the example of Jesus paying the temple tax and taking the coin out of the mouth of the fish to do so.

So to put it simply, the fact that we are citizens of heaven (Phil 3:20) does not give us the right to ignore our duties as citizens of earth. One of the old criticisms of religion is that because we focus on the world to come we are less concerned about this one. But the Church’s teaching has always been very clear: Preparing for the world to come makes us more concerned about this one. After all, we want to spend eternity with the person next to us. God is preparing for us new heavens and a new earth—not some kind of totally disconnected world that has nothing to do with the things that go on in this life.

Nonetheless, the Church also says a clear no to the state. That no is grounded in the very nature of a kingdom not of this world. When Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king, Jesus replied that his kingdom was not of this world (Jn 18:36). When Jesus was asked, “Is it lawful to pay the tax to Caesar? ,” notice what Jesus does in response. He asks whose image and inscription are on the coin. They say “Caesar’s.” “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he tells them (that’s the yes to the state) “but give to God what is God’s” (that’s the no; see Mt 17:24-27, 22:17-21). In other words there’s something higher here. There’s a duty to be given. Now, from where does that duty flow? Think of what he said. The coin belongs to Caesar because it bears the image of Caesar, so give it to him. But “give to God what belongs to God.” That belongs to God which bears the image of God, namely human beings—including Caesar himself! So Christ establishes the framework. Caesar himself belongs to God. The state itself belongs to God.

The Church has always taught that the state does not contain the fullness of human hope or embrace the totality of human existence. The state exists for the human person, not the other way around. Our destiny, ultimately, is the new heavens and the new earth. So we can never put our ultimate hope and trust in what the state can do for us. In this consists the Church’s no to the state. It frees us from the myth of some kind of political salvation. The Church is the first to say that we are not asked to put ultimate hope and trust in any political party, candidate or system. Those things do play a key role but never merit our ultimate hope or trust. Our destiny is not comprised by this world alone.

That does not mean, however, that we can shirk our responsibilities. We can’t walk away saying, “Oh, we can’t rely on those people anyway; they’re all crooked, they never keep their promises.”

God’s Law Comes First
In this context, then, we can return to the question with which we began. What would we do if a law were passed in our country outlawing attendance at Mass?

Hopefully, we would have the courage to disobey it.

The Catechism asserts in its own words the Church’s yes and no to the state in sections 1897-1904 and again in 2234 to 2243. It explains that we are “resident aliens.” Our citizenship is in heaven, and only there is our ultimate loyalty. Hence, if that loyalty conflicts with our loyalty to civic authority, loyalty to God must prevail.

Having said this, the Catechism then explicitly talks about the proper role civil disobedience can play, if circumstances warrant. We have to obey authority, it reminds us. But the role of authority “is to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society” (1898). Sometimes authority will fail in doing so.

It explains such a circumstance in this way:

Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself. It must not behave in a despotic manner, but must act for the common good as a moral force based on freedom and a sense of responsibility: A human law has the character of law to the extent that it accords with right reason, and thus derives from the eternal law. Insofar as it falls short of right reason it is said to be an unjust law, and thus has not so much the nature of law as of a kind of violence. (1902)

Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse. (1903)

Our duty in such cases is explained a bit later in the Catechism:

The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” “We must obey God rather than men”:

When citizens are under the oppression of a public authority which oversteps its competence, they should still not refuse to give or to do what is objectively demanded of them by the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and those of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority within the limits of the natural law and the Law of the Gospel. (2242)

The Right to Life
In our day, the most egregious example of the failure of civil authority to maintain the common good and protect human rights is in the legalization of abortion and euthanasia. Applying the Catechism’s teachings, Pope John Paul II wrote at length about civil disobedience in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life):

Laws which authorize and promote abortion and euthanasia are therefore radically opposed not only to the good of the individual but also to the common good; as such they are completely lacking in authentic juridical validity. Disregard for the right to life, precisely because it leads to the killing of the person whom society exists to serve, is what most directly conflicts with the possibility of achieving the common good. Consequently, a civil law authorizing abortion or euthanasia ceases by that very fact to be a true, morally binding civil law.

Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. From the very beginnings of the Church, the apostolic preaching reminded Christians of their duty to obey legitimately constituted public authorities (cf. Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pt 2:13-14), but at the same time it firmly warned that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). In the Old Testament, precisely in regard to threats against life, we find a significant example of resistance to the unjust command of those in authority. After Pharaoh ordered the killing of all newborn males, the Hebrew midwives refused. “They did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live” (Ex 1:17). But the ultimate reason for their action should be noted: “the midwives feared God” (ibid.). It is precisely from obedience to God—to whom alone is due that fear which is acknowledgment of his absolute sovereignty—that the strength and the courage to resist unjust human laws are born. It is the strength and the courage of those prepared even to be imprisoned or put to the sword, in the certainty that this is what makes for “the endurance and faith of the saints” (Rv 13:10).

In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it. (EV 72, 73)

Surveying these teachings briefly, we find that the Church first of all calls us to do everything we can within the law to correct injustices. That is why we must be politically active and fully utilize our democratic system to change laws that fall short of the very purpose of law.

Secondly, when circumstances justify acting outside the law, we are never justified in committing acts of violence or otherwise violating human rights. Moreover, in judging whether circumstances for civil disobedience prevail, we have to exercise the virtue of prudence and always seek the guidance of others so that we do not rely solely on our own judgment.

Finally, it is clear that civil disobedience is not in any way disrespect for the law, because unjust laws are not bad laws, but no laws at all. Defending human rights in peaceful ways outside “the law” is ultimately a form of defense of and respect for the law. Civil disobedience, in defense of human rights, is actually divine obedience.

No Longer Law but a Perversion of It

As Augustine says (De Libero Arbitrio i, 5) “that which is not just seems to be no law at all”: wherefore the force of a law depends on the extent of its justice. Now in human affairs a thing is said to be just, from being right, according to the rule of reason. But the first rule of reason is the law of nature, as is clear from what has been stated above. Consequently every human law has just so much of the nature of law, as it is derived from the law of nature. But if in any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law.
Some things are therefore derived from the general principles of the natural law, by way of conclusions; e.g. that “one must not kill” may be derived as a conclusion from the principle that “one should do harm to no man”: while some are derived therefrom by way of determination; e.g. the law of nature has it that the evil-doer should be punished; but that he be punished in this or that way, is a determination of the law of nature.
Accordingly both modes of derivation are found in the human law. But those things which are derived in the first way, are contained in human law not as emanating therefrom exclusively, but have some force from the natural law also. But those things which are derived in the second way, have no other force than that of human law.
—Summa Theologiae I-II:95:2
Bound to a Higher Law

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. . . . One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.  Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. . . .
—Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

Fr. Frank Pavone is founder of the Missionaries of the Gospel of Life, a society of apostolic life dedicated to the formation and training of priests, deacons, brothers, and seminarians who will devote themselves fully to the proclamation of the gospel of life. He is also the national director of Priests for Life, an officially approved association of Catholic clergy who give special emphasis to the pro-life teachings of the Church. Contact Priests for Life at