Civil laws govern the land, protect us, keep us from hurting each other. The laws of the land help to foster a good life for everybody. Our civil laws express our common ideas about the bounds within which we must live.
We believe in freedom—we Catholics, we Americans. We believe that leaving people to follow our own individual lights leads to the best society. But we can’t believe in absolute freedom. We need laws. We cannot co-exist in peace without laws.
One theory has it that the authority of laws comes from a “contract” among all the people who come together to form a community. Laws bind because each individual consents to their authority. This theory, however, does not quite convince on every point. An incarcerated criminal does not consent to the law that puts him in jail. He would likely prefer not to be there. But, if he’s guilty, he deserves to be imprisoned, whether he consents or not.
So let’s look for a more solid theory of where laws come from. Another theory proposes that human laws have authority because they express God’s law.
God governs all the world with justice. He concedes to individual communities the authority to express some of His laws for specific times and circumstances. When human laws stand on the solid footing of eternal justice and truth, then the laws produce as much peace and tranquility as we can have in this life. Good laws help us to approach the Final Judgment without fear for our souls.
According to this theory of law, civil laws bind us because they express God’s justice.
Now, generally speaking, neither you nor I have the authority to judge whether or not a given human law agrees with divine justice. If I get pulled over, I can’t very well say, “Officer, the Lord told me that this really ought to be a 45 mile-per-hour zone, not 35. I don’t agree that you have authority from God to give me a ticket.” To the contrary, a good Catholic citizen of our beloved United States makes a habit of abiding by all laws—local, state, and federal.
But: Law-makers are human. Law-makers are sinners, like everyone else. Sometimes law-makers make grave mistakes. They may try to make a law that is not just.
Our parents and grandparents remember when this country had laws requiring black people and white people to live separate lives. As Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out from his jail cell in 1963, these unjust “laws” actually did not count as laws at all. The segregation laws really amounted to acts of violence against the black race.
Now, being a public official is no picnic. That’s why one of our primary duties of prayer is to intercede for the people who govern the land. Public officials deserve our respect and support. They deserve our good will and the benefit of the doubt.
But: They do not deserve blind submission. They do not have the right to suppress honest communication about the truth. They cannot legitimately force any individual to act against his or her sober, educated conscience.
This summer we have two weeks of special prayer and fasting from June 21 to July 4. Our bishops have dedicated this fortnight to begging God to protect genuine freedom in our land. May the Lord bless us and preserve us from what is shaping up to become a genuinely historic crisis.
The Catholic Church has flourished in the United States and has made immeasurable contributions to the common good. We do that by staying true to our fundamental guiding lights. May God be pleased to let freedom ring, so that we can continue.
Let’s also pray that our nation will remain true to herself. As we read in the Declaration of Independence, our forefathers founded our nation on the idea that God gave to every human being the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
When civil laws have been enacted which contradicted this fundamental principle of America, people of conscience have stood up and calmly argued on behalf of the innocent and the defenseless. Because of this, the bad laws of the past have fallen away into the dustbin of history, and the United States has lived on.
Our country once again needs patriots like Martin Luther King, Jr. Patriots who pray hard, love generously, and stand up for the truth without flinching.
May it please God to spare us from the worst-case scenario of genuine persecution of the Church in the United States. Let’s pray that wisdom and prudence will guide our nation. Let’s pray hard that our country will continue to be a place where we, the Church, can do our work in peace.