Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
For many years now “gay” activists (who do not speak for every American with same-sex attraction) have spoken extensively of tolerance and called for inclusion, acceptance, etc. They have lamented that they were victims of oppression and discrimination and often appealed to a “live and let live” idea. Yes, it was supposed to be all about tolerance and inclusion, or so they said.
But as of this writing, Kim Davis heroically sits in a prison cell since she refused to be compelled to obey what she considers an immoral and unjust law. Tolerance and inclusion, it would seem, have taken a holiday, along with “live and let live.” Legal compulsion is now the modus operandi for our formally oppressed activists. Kim Davis is only one example of the sort of oppression that is now righteously undertaken by them. The stories of bakers and photographers and others being compelled to serve and same-sex “weddings” are numerous and egregious.
The Kim Davis case is a bit more complex than the business owners since she is a government official who is paid by the government. However, she is also an elected official, and this may explain why she was simply not fired, which seems the more usual way that a dissatisfied employer handles things.
One school of thought is that if you take government money, whether as an employee or contractor, you have to play by their rules. If you don’t like it, then leave.
But another school of thought is, why should a person have to resign or accept getting fired because they refuse to obey what they legitimately think is an unjust or immoral law? Is this SCOTUS-imposed law not a place and time for civil disobedience?
Civil disobedience is the refusal to obey certain laws or demands of a government. The refusal can take a passive or an active stance. One can passively refuse by refusing to meet the demanded behavior. For example one might simply be to not comply with an order to provide abortion referrals. Sometimes the refusal of civil disobedience will take an active stance by intentionally breaking an unjust law. For example, many African-Americans in the 1950s broke laws that relegated them to certain seats or areas by sitting in the seats they were “forbidden” to occupy. Civil disobedience is a symbolic violation or refusal to obey certain laws not a complete rejection of the legal system as a whole. As such it is not anarchy or the approval of it.
There is a place and a time for civil disobedience and Catholic principles both permit and, in some cases, require it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives to guidance and distinctions that can be helpful. First of all the Catechism addresses what is meant by and unjust law:
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)
In other words, unjust laws do violence to the very nature of Law because they do not accord with human reason and do not conform to the eternal or divine Law. The entire concept of a “right” to same-sex marriage violates both Natural Law (right reason) and Divine Law. As such, the mandate to recognize same-sex marriages as marriages is an unjust and immoral law.
Some say that the Government has spoken and that this is the “Law of the Land” and it must now be followed. But here too the Catechism in the same place says,
Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself. It must not behave in a despotic manner…. 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. (nos. 1902 and 1903)
Therefore simply saying, “Well, the government says so”, is not of itself a legitimate argument. That said, we ought not to argue that it is right to reject every law we do not like. Rather, it is unjust laws that may at times require civil disobedience.
What makes the compulsory recognition of same-sex “marriage” so egregious is that five justices (with four others vigorously objecting) have issued a judicial fiat that binds every American. This judicial action provides no recourse and violates the existing laws of many states and legislatures. It also violates the professed will of the American People in many areas who expressed that will though plebiscites (votes), and it violates the ancient and deeply held religious beliefs of many Americans. This “law” has no exemptions. Everyone must legally recognize and comply. And Anthony Kennedy’s reassurances notwithstanding, there seem to be no religious accommodations other than to assure ministers that they don’t need to do them. But that will surely be tested and this writer is not optimistic.
Hence the sense that this is not only an unjust law but is also, to use the Catechism’s words, despotic and a shameful abuse is a reasonable conclusion.
However, civil disobedience is rarely the first recourse. It usually comes after other avenues are exhausted. One would also assume that the matter is serious and that there is some proportion between the egregious nature of the unjust law and the possible harm or disruption caused by the disobedience.
Yet here to, it seems that Kim Davis had no other recourse than to disobey. She could have quit her job. But as a citizen and a human being she does have recourse to civil disobedience. She ought not to be excoriated for exercising her human right to disobey a law she considers immoral and unjust. (For the record, the Statement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop Bishops called the decision of the Supreme Court immoral – see HERE).
Regarding Ms. Davis’ right to refuse to obey this unjust law, the Catechism says and distinguishes:
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)
There are times as well when Civil Disobedience is required of us. The Catechism says in the same place:
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": (2242)
So, I would humbly say that I consider what Kim Davis is doing is admirable. I say “humbly” because I know that not all Catholics or people of good will agree with this approach. Some say she should just quit. But I am not so sure that we who are conscientious objectors to the unjust and immoral SCOTUS decision should just sit by or let others tell us to “take our marbles and go home.” Accepting the “invitation” to just quit or go away, seems too defeatist.
I am glad that Kim Davis has chosen to fight. Perhaps others will join her. She says in effect, “No I will not just go away. I was elected to this job and have served proudly for years. I shouldn’t be compelled to follow and unjust law.” I think she is right and I admire her courage. Clearly her stance has consequences, and she accepting them admirably and fighting for justice.
I have little doubt that our turn in the Church is coming soon enough. The activists who marched under banners of tolerance are in no mood to compromise or make religious exceptions. I am not a bishop and will not likely be able to answer for the Church or any Diocese, but I hope if the day does ever come that I must personally decide to refuse an unjust law in this matter or another, I won’t just quit and go away, but I’ll stand and fight.