“Jesus did civil disobedience,” argues Fr. John Dear, an internationally renowned peace activist who has been arrested eighty times. “Almost everything he did was illegal. Jesus was clearly upping the ante all the time and confronting the empire. The early Christian church was a movement of nonviolent civil disobedience.” The priest can no longer vote and can’t travel to some countries. Several Catholic dioceses have banned him from speaking. “From Jesus to Ghandi to King, history shows the only way to make change is from the bottom up,” he said. “Think about the abolitionists, the suffragists, the labor movement. In every one of these nonviolent movements there has been a front line of people who take risks by breaking bad laws and accepting the consequences.”
Writing in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas articulated a moral case for opposing civil authority. “Human law is law only by virtue of its accordance with right reason, and thus it is manifest that it flows from the eternal law,” he wrote in the Summa Theologica. The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites Aquinas on unjust laws in its treatment of Catholics’ responsibility to participate in social life. “If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order,” the Catechism reads, “such arrangements would not be binding in conscience.” Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, a landmark document of the Second Vatican Council, also underscores the importance of conscience, and defends the right of conscientious objection to military service. The U.S. bishops’ 1993 statement, The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace, specifically cites the right to participate in civil disobedience as part of a commitment to “resist manifest injustice and public evil with means other than force.”
San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, a moral theologian who also earned a doctorate in political science from Stanford University, distinguishes between two types of civil disobedience. The first category involves breaking a law that is clearly unjust and requires a citizen to commit an immoral act. In this case, the law is broken precisely to avoid moral wrongdoing. The second category of civil disobedience occurs when a citizen disobeys a morally neutral law in order to call attention to a moral wrong which is not specifically related to the law being broken. Protestors during the civil-rights movement, he said, broke laws regulating general assembly in order to point to the evils of segregation. The brutal reaction of civil authorities riveted the attention of the nation on the horrors of Jim Crow segregation.
“In the Catholic tradition, civil disobedience is called for when you’re placed in a position where an unjust law is forced upon you and is of such gravity that you can’t comply with it,” McElroy said. Depending on how Congress decides to handle cases of young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children after President Trump rescinded an Obama-era DACA policy (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), McElroy sees the potential for bishops participating in civil disobedience. “It’s possible that the government might require us as bishops to fire DACA employees. That is immoral and I would not do it,” he said. “I would be called to disobey the law.” In this example, it would be the compulsion by the government to do something that is morally wrong that provokes the act of civil disobedience. This is a different theological category, the bishop argues, then when someone takes part in a symbolic, prophetic action that calls attention to something unjust. “There are a variety of ways to escalate the public witness,” McElroy said. “Civil disobedience is not the only way. The question is how do we escalate and engage in strategies that highlight this terrible human tragedy facing immigrants. A lot of bishops are working to try to figure that out.”
Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, who chaired the U.S. bishops’ immigration committee from 2007 to 2010, has taken part in those conversations. “As a bishop, the question I think about is what is the most effective way for me to speak out,” he said. “I’m pastor to 350,000 Catholics. How would getting arrested affect my ministry? For example, we’re fighting against late-term abortion here. If I get arrested does it weaken my position with legislators on this issue and other issues? Bishops have to look at so many variables.”
Still, Wester agrees civil disobedience is a powerful moral tool. He has not ruled out risking arrest himself in the future. “In many ways, bishops have tried every avenue to defend immigrants and it hasn’t worked. You still see these mass deportations. As I think about it there are situations where it may become more likely.” At national meetings, Wester has also urged his fellow bishops to consider offering sanctuary to undocumented immigrants facing deportation by housing them in churches. Most bishops are leery of offering sanctuary in part because they don’t want to give false hope that an immigrant will be guaranteed protection in a church. Wester understands the complexity, but focuses on the urgency. “If people are being deported to certain death, we need to consider sanctuary,” the bishop said.
David DeCosse, a professor of religious studies who directs the campus ethics program at Santa Clara University, contrasts a “resistance” model of civil disobedience with an “institutional” approach. He views a resistance framework as more symbolic or spiritual. This model also views the civil law or the system it is opposing as largely corrupt and beyond reform. An institutional model, DeCosse argues, grows out of a broader social mobilization and has more hope in the ability to influence traditional political structures. He points to the United Farm Workers’ actions of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in the 1960s, which often included Catholic nuns and clergy, as an example of an institutional approach.
“I think it’s especially important now for the Catholic community in these politically charged times to move into the space of the institutional model of civil disobedience,” DeCosse said. “Whether it’s on account of our anti-government libertarian culture or identity-based tribalism on the right and left, civil disobedience can fall too easily now into an opt-out mode of being symbolic but ineffectual. It’s important to re-engage civil disobedience as a mode of opting into and re-affirming the American political community. Our theological emphasis on civil disobedience should also be balanced with an emphasis on running for office so that we not only encourage protest to change laws, but also encourage the political responsibility to pass and enforce them.”