The State and the disobedient Christian

Religious liberty is promoted in a way that borders on blasphemy.

I recently attended an LGBTQ+ law conference. During discussions, some attorneys made a very interesting argument about the state of religious liberty in the law. Some religious liberty cases related to COVID, attorneys believe, may significantly undermine the credibility of religious liberty cases generally.

One of the most important roles is keeping the community safe. So what some LGBTQ+ activists see happening in these cases (such as the Catholic school that sued over a mask mandate because masks supposedly hide the image of God) is a general attack, in the name of religion, on the fundamental roles of government. Conservative religious activists are seen as repositioning “religious liberty” from being about a constitutional freedom oriented towards the common good, to being about undermining government generally.

I don’t think this argument is entirely unfair, especially when one takes the position of Catholic theology. I’ve argued before that the US bishops have gone beyond the vision of Catholic social teaching to advocate for a false version of “religious liberty” when it comes to LGBTQ+ discrimination. I now wonder if this misuse of religious liberty contributes to recent efforts to curtail the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That is, I worry that Catholic leaders’ use of a bastardized version of “religious liberty” in these cases has contributed to the American skepticism towards religious liberty (and religion) generally.

The Limits of Religious Liberty

Catholic Social Teaching has taught that the “foremost duty” of state leadership is to “make sure that the laws and institutions, the general character, and administration of the commonwealth, shall be such as of themselves to realize public well-being and private prosperity.” That is, state leadership should concern itself first and foremost with both the common good and private flourishing. The protection of religious liberty is required for the common good. A foremost duty, however, is the protection of human life, something threatened in the modern world. Pope John Paul II has written:

“The State is no longer the ‘common home’ where all can live together on the basis of principles of fundamental equality, but is transformed into a tyrant State, which arrogates to itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenceless members, from the unborn child to the elderly, in the name of a public interest which is really nothing but the interest of one part.”

The Church considers every innocent person’s right to life to be “one of the pillars on which every civil society stands.” A humane State, Pope John Paul II argues, is a “State which recognizes the defence of the fundamental rights of the human person, especially of the weakest, as its primary duty.” So included within the foremost duty of the state to advance the common good and private flourishing, is that primary duty to protect the rights of all, especially the weakest in society, and especially the protection of their right to life.

When the Church speaks in this way, she is concerned about a range of issues, from abortion to the tendency of the modern world to discard the poor and elderly. COVID disproportionately harms the marginalized, including those with downs syndrome, the elderly, pregnant women, and racial and ethnic minorities. And so calls by Christians to ignore or downplay community safety in the face of the pandemic can be a source of scandal. These calls are not only antisocial and anti-civic; they are anti-Christian. The scandal is even more pronounced when calls to wear masks or take other actions to protect the vulnerable are challenged in the name of “religious liberty.” These arguments tend towards a form of blasphemy, using God’s name to denigrate the dignity or curtail the rights of others. This might be one reason why the Archdiocese of New York, the Diocese of San Diego, and the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, among others, have instructed priests not to offer “religious exemptions” for the COVID vaccine. The Diocese of Lexington is now requiring pastors to disclose to their parishes if they are not vaccinated.

Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, writes about the dangers of an unbridled false “religious liberty.” Even back in 1965, the Council noted that “not a few can be found who seem inclined to use the name of freedom as the pretext for refusing to submit to authority and for making light of the duty of obedience.” This is a danger when it comes to rhetoric surrounding religious freedom in particular. So Dignitatis Humanae states:

“[S]ociety has the right to defend itself against possible abuses committed on the pretext of religion.”

The Council goes even further and says that such a defense is not only a right, but also “the special duty of government.” Many recent “religious liberty” arguments aren’t really about religious liberty, but are about the unbridled exercise of institutional power at the expense of the vulnerable. It’s a form of blasphemy that Dignitatis Humanae warns us about. I would argue that one thing we’re seeing is the way in which blasphemy on the part of Christians leads to a disrespect for religious liberty on the part of secular leaders. In this state of affairs, we all lose.

That being said, I’m inclined to agree with Charles Camosy that “there are understandable and coherent moral and religious arguments to refuse the vaccine.” Camosy points to the use of cloned baby cells to produce or test the most popular COVID vaccines. Though such cells were not used in the design, development, or production of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, they were used in some of the lab tests for both. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated that the COVID vaccines may be taken morally by Catholics, even if they “have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.” But non-Catholic Christians may have stricter requirements for ethical vaccine use and should be taken seriously. (If they object on these grounds, however, they should also reject the majority of medications currently in use.)

But even for those Catholics who disagree with the Vatican’s position on these moral matters, or who believe other mandates and state regulations are unjust, the Christian tradition still suggests a kind of compliance may be necessary. 

The Foundations of the State

I’ve written a bit recently about Critical Race Theory and ways in which Catholicism can speak to and benefit from it. But while I believe Catholicism can be compatible with many aspects of CRT, it’s important to note points of divergence. One point is the foundation of the state.

Like most modern theorists, critical race theorists tend to rest the source of the state’s power and authority in “the people.” Speaking about these theories in his encyclical Diuturnum Ilud, Pope Leo XIII argues that modernists believe civil society arises “from the free consent of men,” wherein “voluntarily each person has put himself into the power of the one man in whose person the whole of rights has been centered.” Each person then consents to hand over a portion of their rights to the political authority, and can take those rights back if “the people” will this.

In contrast, Pope Leo XIII outlines the Catholic tradition, which holds that political power and authority come from God. By nature, men and women are social beings. “[N]ature, or rather God who is the Author of nature, wills that man should live in a civil society.” And it is our social nature as members of political bodies which helps us to understand our rights and duties. When Jesus says, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” he is doing two things. First, he has explicitly empowered the State, even the unjust State, to exercise its political authority. Second, as Pope Leo XII writes in Immortale Dei, “Jesus Christ has Himself given command” to Christians to follow that political authority. That is, he empowers the state and commands obedience from his followers.

That obedience is not unqualified, however. Obedience is always subject to the dictates of justice. We can look back to Aquinas to examine the two ways in which a law might be unjust. On the one hand, a law can be unjust by directly opposing the Divine good. This would occur, for example, when the state commands that its citizens directly engage in idolatry. Aquinas says that these laws are never to be obeyed, because they are contrary to the highest law, the Divine law. 

On the other hand, laws can be unjust “by being contrary to human good.” This can occur (1) when an authority imposes burdensome laws oriented towards “his own cupidity or vainglory” rather than the common good, (2) when a ruler goes beyond his lawful authority, or (3) when “burdens are imposed unequally on the community.” Aquinas argues that these “are acts of violence rather than laws.” And, like Martin Luther King Jr. in the Letter from Birmingham City Jail, he quotes Augustine: “A law that is not just, seems to be no law at all.” 


But Aquinas argues that even when a law is contrary to human good, the Christian in conscience may still be obligated to obey it. Obedience may still be required “in order to avoid scandal or disturbance, for which cause a man should even yield his right.” Pope Leo XIII outlines the ways in which early Christians went to extreme measures to obey the authority of the State, showing by their example how they were even more devoted to the State than its leaders:

“[W]hen they were harassed in a very unjust and cruel way by pagan emperors, they nevertheless at no time omitted to conduct themselves obediently and submissively, so that, in fact, they seemed to vie with each other; those in cruelty, and those in obedience.” 

That is, the faithful obedience of Christians to their cruel leaders demonstrated that Christians were even more devoted to the good of society than those who ruled over them. The contrast showed that Christians were the true example of faithful citizenship oriented towards the common good.

Early Christians, Leo argues, were always scrupulous to avoid sedition and tumult, even when faced with laws contrary to the Divine law: 

“[W]hen they were ordered by the edicts of emperors and the treats of praetors to abandon the Christian faith… they were so far from doing anything seditious or despising the imperial majesty that they took it on themselves only to profess themselves Christians… But they had no thought of resistance, calmly and joyfully they went to the torture of the rack… [I]f anything dishonorable was required of him [in the army], as, for instance, to break the laws of God, or to turn his sword against innocent disciples of Christ, then, indeed, he refused to execute the orders, yet in such wise that he would rather retire from the army and die for his religion than oppose the public authority by means of sedition and tumult.”

Even when faced with laws that were commands contrary to the Divine law, the Christian is still called to respect political authorities. Neither Aquinas nor the writings of Pope Leo XIII on the constitution of the State consider revolutionary activity to be proper to Christians. Leo writes, “To cast aside obedience, and by popular violence to incite to revolt, is therefore treason, not against man only, but against God.” When political leaders enact unjust laws, they exceed the authority granted by God, but they do not lose the authority given them. They still hold legitimate authority. The example of the early Christians that both Aquinas and Leo look to are examples of Christians who disobey laws requiring idolatry and who faithfully accept the punishment proscribed by law, or who choose to retire from the army rather than actively disobey a dishonorable order. 

Writing on the binding effect of laws that inflict unjust hurt on their subjects, Aquinas elaborates on times when compliance is still necessary. He says that man is not bound to obeys such laws, “provided he avoid giving scandal or inflicting a more grievous hurt.” That is, if disobedience to the unjust law will cause greater harm to someone else, the Christian ought to obey that law. 

So the key tactics for Christians, when faced with an unjust law, seem to be (1) to humbly accept punishments for disobedience, (2) to remove oneself from the position which would require disobedience, or (3) to find a way to make obedience work. The key principles are to respect the authority of the state, and to obey the natural and divine laws. 

Sedition and Tumult

The American attorneys suing over mask mandates in the name of Christianity should be concerning to Christians. The actions of certain Christians, and their use of religious liberty, have suggested to many that we seek to undermine the power of the state and to set ourselves apart from the authority of the law. The fact that we are seen as antagonists of the lawful order of society should bother us. 

This should be all the more true for Christians who believe that this age has set itself up against the Church. If this is the case, the early Christians should be prime examples for us. When the Christian Church was actively persecuted, Tertullian wrote:

“The Christian is the enemy of no one, much less of the emperor, whom he knows to be appointed by God, and whom he must, therefore, of necessity love, reverence and honor, and wish to be preserved together with the whole Roman Empire.”

Leo also looks to the Epistle to Diognetus, “which confirms the statement that the Christians at that period were not only in the habit of obeying the laws, but in every office they of their own accord did more, and more perfectly, than they were required to do by the laws.” 

Of course, Christians working for racial justice have an answer to the charge that they are working contrary to the law. The answer, like that of the early Church, is to obey what is proscribed by their disobedience. Even their disobedience, paradoxically, promotes obedience to the state. 

And here we might see the weakness of so much disobedience on the part of Christians over the last couple of years. Religious liberty is touted in a way that borders on blasphemy. Disobedience to mask mandates is flaunted in ways that make the vulnerable even more vulnerable. Christians have been making a bad name for ourselves, and, in doing so, we have been abandoning our own tradition.