Question: In last month's Parish Bulletin you printed a speech by Charlton Heston. Although I agree with virtually everything he said, how can one be a good Catholic and be disobedient?
Answer: Mr. Heston's use of the word "disobedience" was, perhaps, unfortunate. Many people draw the simplistic conclusion that "obedience is good" and "disobedience is bad." Implicit in Heston's call to "disobey" is the truth that law and authority are hierarchical. When those lower in this hierarchy defy the orders of those above, one must "disobey" the lower in order to obey the higher. Ultimately, all authority and law, in the Church and in the state, come from God. "Disobeying" lower authorities who try to frustrate the law of God is nothing less than true obedience.
Lesser authorities can sin against higher authorities in several ways: they can order subordinates to do evil, or fail to order them to do necessary good; they can acquiesce to bad behavior in subordinates or in themselves, public bad example being a major cause of wider evil; they can deprive subordinates of the necessary means to do good or resist evil.
Much of what Mr. Heston spoke about concerned obligation to complain about officials who are not doing the job for which they are paid, and have sworn to do under oath. The Church and most states have legitimate laws on the books for dealing with those who commit or incite murder, mayhem, rape, robbery, and other such obnoxious behavior. Sometimes officials need to be reminded to enforce these laws, or that new laws are to be made only if they are in accord with higher laws. Sometimes they need to be reminded that common sense is a condition of further employment. And sometimes, as Heston points out, corporate officials need to be reminded of their position in the hierarchy of laws, just as much as the officials of Church or state.
Heston's speech was not a call to revolution or anarchy, but rather a return to "the rule of law" in the proper sense of that term. Catholics should recognize the obligation of fraternal correction in order to "win their brothers," just as Americans should recognize the need for an informed and active citizenry to secure the rule of constitutional law.
It goes without saying that standing up for the higher law against lesser authorities is not something to be done lightly. It is necessary, first of all, to know what the higher law has ordered. Just as Catholics are constantly exhorted to know their Faith and to form their consciences by it, citizens must make an effort to know and understand the fundamental laws of their state. Just as an elementary school knowledge of Baltimore Catechism #2 is inadequate for being an adult Catholic, having read the Constitution once in the seventh grade is inadequate for being an adult American.
Any exercise of what Heston calls "disobedience" ought not to occur without prayer and a firm resolve to follow the higher law faithfully one's self. It would be foolish to pretend to speak for God without consulting Him, or without being willing to keep the law in one's own actions.
It must be remembered that the objective it to bring about the rule of law as peacefully as possible. The ability of Church or state to govern under law must be safeguarded, not undermined. Letters to editors and officials, the support of good candidates, and conscientious use of the ballot box must come before any more radical methods.
Sometimes the price of legitimate disobedience is high. But being in the good company of martyrs and patriots is among the greatest of rewards for believers and citizens.