When forty Catholics holding rosaries were handcuffed and led away by police at the U.S. Capitol in late February during a protest to show support for young undocumented immigrants facing deportation, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, prayed over the demonstrators.

“I ask God’s blessing upon those who are acting in civil disobedience, part of a longstanding tradition of not supporting unjust laws,” the bishop said as television cameras angled in and congressional staff watched from the rotunda balcony in the Russell Senate Office Building.

Catholic activists have a long history of taking part in nonviolent civil disobedience in the United States and around the world. But the bishop’s presence in Washington that day created a buzz. Compared to the 1980s, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released major pastoral letters on war, peace, and economic justice that received national attention, the Catholic hierarchy in recent years has put most of its advocacy muscle behind efforts to oppose birth control coverage in Obamacare, defeat same-sex marriage, and address a range of religious-liberty concerns.

In a sign of those shifting priorities, the last time the USCCB raised the possibility of civil disobedience for Catholics—and launched a major mobilization effort in parishes—came in 2012, as several Catholic institutions filed lawsuits challenging the Obama administration’s inclusion of contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act. “Some unjust laws impose such injustices on individuals and organizations that disobeying the laws may be justified,” the bishops wrote in church bulletin inserts used in parishes across the country. “When fundamental human goods, such as the right of conscience, are at stake, we may need to witness to the truth by resisting the law and incurring its penalties.”

In an interview, Bishop Stowe reflected on his decision to bless the Catholic activists arrested on Capitol Hill, and shared that he is in conversation with several bishops about ways to demonstrate greater public urgency in opposing the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants. (Full disclosure: I participated in the civil disobedience action.) Young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, often called “Dreamers,” are of particular concern to church leaders because their fate is now uncertain after Trump rescinded an Obama-era program that offered them protection from deportation. The USCCB has written letters to Congress, lobbied lawmakers behind closed doors, and in February hosted a national call-in day for Dreamers. The bishop thinks more dramatic action is needed.

Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky., speaks during a “Catholic Day of Action for Dreamers” protest to press Congress to protect “Dreamers” outside the U.S. Capitol Feb. 27 in Washington. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

“We’re not in a usual political situation, and bishops have to be more creative,” said Stowe, a Franciscan appointed by Pope Francis to lead the Lexington diocese three years ago. As for why he ultimately decided not to get arrested, he pointed to a bishop’s responsibility to be a sign of unity in his diocese, and a concern over potentially weakening his ability to be a teacher who can reach Catholics across political and ideological lines. “A sizable part of my diocese is in Appalachia, and it’s Trump country. I have to weigh whether or not as a church leader getting arrested might lead people to dismiss me as a radical and tune me out. I have to be attentive to how that action is received.” As a student at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Stowe was arrested with other Catholics during a civil-disobedience action in the early 1990s at a nuclear test site in Nevada. He cited Pope Francis’s use of symbolic public actions such as praying at the concrete wall that separates the Israeli-occupied West Bank from Jerusalem, and his first official papal visit to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, off which thousands of migrants have drowned, as examples of how “the visual image can speak.” Nonviolent civil disobedience, the bishop thinks, is something that church leaders should be considering.


The risks and opportunities some Catholic bishops are grappling with today over whether to engage in civil disobedience are far from new. In different eras, the role of conscience, and debates over what is morally required of a Christian in the face of unjust laws, military actions, or oppressive regimes have preoccupied everyone from church leaders and theologians to the everyday faithful in the pews.

Robert Ellsberg, the editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and a prominent chronicler of Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker co-founder who was arrested a number of times for civil disobedience, thinks such actions have lost much of their ability to shock and garner widespread media attention compared to past decades. But he sees the Trump era as fertile ground for a new generation of leaders.

“Civil disobedience can be strategically very important, and it goes to the heart of the Gospel,” said Ellsberg, whose father Daniel Ellsberg leaked the “Pentagon Papers.” “What is the leadership of the Catholic Church doing now to address the harshness, inhumanity, and cruelty we see from this president? We know bishops can mobilize and show outrage over contraception provisions in the Affordable Care Act. Where is the outrage when Trump and other Republicans cloak themselves in religious liberty while they violate basic human rights?” Ellsberg says his father was not a religious person, but when deciding to leak national security documents, he drew inspiration from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” remains an iconic defense of civil disobedience, and a searing challenge to clergy who view moderation as inherently superior to confrontation.

King later unnerved many Americans and even some of his closest advisors when he denounced the Vietnam War from the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York City. And it was Vietnam that led the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan and the rest of the “Catonsville Nine” to burn hundreds of draft files they took from the Selective Service Office in Catonsville, Maryland, in 1968.

The Vietnam War also inspired now-retired Detroit Bishop Thomas Gumbleton to participate in his first act of civil disobedience: unlawfully entering an Air Force base where pilots were trained for bombing missions. “The Christian tradition going back to the beginning says God’s law must come before human law,” said Gumbleton, now eighty-eight years old. The bishop estimates he has been arrested more than a dozen times over the years. When the United Nations imposed sanctions on Iraq in 1990, Gumbleton traveled there to deliver food, medicine and other supplies. For years, he has refused to pay federal income tax to protest military budgets. “We need more Catholic teachers, priests, and bishops educating Catholics that there are times when it’s appropriate or even an obligation to break the law,” he said.

Opposition to nuclear weapons has also inspired consistent civil-disobedience actions from Catholics. Since the 1980s, thousands have been arrested during nonviolent protests at a Nevada nuclear test site located about sixty miles northwest of Las Vegas. Pro-life activists, including some bishops in past decades, have also faced jail time for protesting what they consider unjust laws legalizing abortion.

Jesus was clearly upping the ante all the time and confronting the empire. The early Christian church was a movement of nonviolent civil disobedience.

“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.”

If your letters and rallies and talks don’t seem to be working, civil disobedience is the natural next step

On the ground level, Fr. Chris Wadelton, pastor of a largely Hispanic congregation in Indianapolis, doesn’t spend a lot of time parsing theological arguments. He decided to participate in civil disobedience for the first time in March. “If your letters and rallies and talks don’t seem to be working, civil disobedience is the natural next step,” Wadelton said.

When Sister Tracey Horan, an organizer with Faith in Indiana—a network with more than sixty congregations from various denominations across the state—called for blocking a downtown street to call attention to the plight of Dreamers, Wadelton eagerly participated. A few hundred activists shut down the corner of Pennsylvania and Ohio Street, near the offices of the state’s U.S. senators the group hopes to influence. Nineteen people, including Wadelton, were arrested. “I would encourage priests and bishops to consider civil disobedience,” he said. “It’s a strong public statement. It shows you’re willing to put yourself out there. We have complete control over whether we get arrested or not. But immigrants can go to work in the morning and end up in detention by the afternoon. It’s intolerable. We need to respond.”  


The possibilities for a resurgent Catholic activism will depend in part on whether or not more young Catholics fuse their generation’s commitment to service and social justice with a stronger faith identity. But with millennials increasingly detached from institutional religion, that’s far from certain.

Writing about the Catholic civil disobedience action on Capitol Hill in America, Colleen Dulle asked, “Where are all the Millennial Catholic activists?”

Religious sisters will always draw attention at protests—indeed, that is often a goal of including them in a demonstration. But seeing these older sisters arrested while advocating for undocumented people my age, in their early 20s, shocked me. Where were all the Catholic 20-somethings who should have been protesting for our peers alongside these sisters? Why is the face of Catholic activism today so often a Baby Boomer?

At thirty-three, Jason Miller is considered a “late Millennial.” Neither his weekly Mass attendance nor his experience with civil-disobedience actions are emblematic of his generation. The director of campaigns and development for the Franciscan Action Network, Miller acknowledges that in many cases he is often one of the younger Catholics at social-justice events. In part, he sees that as an indictment of Catholic institutions that never fully embraced the Second Vatican Council’s push to engage lay Catholics in reading the “signs of the times” and taking action to address injustices. “I think church leadership turned the clock back on Vatican II and forgot about our prophetic tradition. Many young Catholics don’t find what they are hearing in the pulpit relevant, and don’t understand the link between that kind of activism and our faith. But that’s hardly the fault of millennials. It’s a failure of church leadership.”

Christopher Kerr is the executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, a Cleveland-based organization that partners with Jesuit high schools and universities across the country to help cultivate faith-based advocacy. “The evolution of social media has changed the dynamic of how student activism plays out,” he said.

Civil disobedience and direct action in the streets are less a typical reference point for these young Catholics, Kerr suggested, than using digital platforms such as Facebook Live and Twitter to reach a wide audience. But young Catholics are still organizing. Kerr points to a student-led effort at Georgetown University, which successfully pressured the administration to increase pay for janitorial and food service workers. Organizers put out research reports, used digital media, and even staged a hunger strike to win their campaign. And in 2014, after Michael Brown was shot to death by police in Ferguson, Missouri, students at St. Louis University, a Jesuit institution, played a key role in forcing university officials to develop a detailed plan for addressing racism on campus and in the wider community.

Kerr also sees renewed energy among Catholics on campus in the Trump era, especially in defense of immigrant students now fearing deportation. This spring, the Ignatian Solidarity Network helped draw attention to a medical student at Loyola University in Chicago whose father faces deportation. At Brophy College Preparatory School, a Catholic boys school in Phoenix, students have rallied behind several of their classmates who are Dreamers. “Students recognize that many of those being targeted by the administration are their peers or their family members,” Kerr said.

Catholic activists have a deep well of theological and historical resources to draw from that can teach us about the best traditions of our past.

Michael Lee, a Fordham University professor who in the late 1980s protested against nuclear weapons as part of a Catholic Worker community, cites what he calls a “generational vacuum” among younger Catholics today. Boomer and Generation X Catholics, the fifty-year-old says, grew up with the long shadow of King, Dorothy Day, and the Berrigan brothers “Even if I didn't know much about them, they were part of the atmosphere of my Catholic child and young adulthood,” Lee said. “That my students today have to latch onto the same figures indicates a gap.” Even so, Lee has watched his students over the past decade become involved with Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and other forms of activism. Less visible is a sense of distinctive Catholic identity in that advocacy.

“As the struggle for LGBT rights dramatically shows, they often experience the Catholic Church and church leadership as an obstacle, not as a source of support for their activism,” Lee said. “More students see support for their activism in Pope Francis, but it is in a general or global sense. They don't have many local bishops, priests, self-identified lay Catholics to draw from, and the ones they do have are often getting a lot of heat from the conservative Catholic blogosphere. The deeper question is whether young Catholics view social transformation as integral to, not just a byproduct of, their faith. That is the question that requires introspection by Catholics of all ages.”

Richard Wood, a sociologist at the University of New Mexico who studies faith-based organizing and has consulted with the U.S. bishops’ conference, suggests that traditional or conservative Catholic institutions are often more successful in forging a stronger Catholic identity among young people than Catholic networks on the left. Catholic activism with a more liberal bent, Wood says, addresses core justice issues but often has less success in forming young people’s sense of deep Catholic identity. To fill these gaps, Woods thinks prayer groups, spiritual retreats, and liturgical experiences should make clear connections between faith and justice. This takes educating clergy and lay leaders who teach the faith to see spiritual formation and justice formation as linked.

A renewal of broad-based Catholic activism and organizing will require educating a new generation of leaders, institutionalizing justice advocacy into parishes and Catholic schools in a more intentional way, and putting financial resources behind these efforts. Successful grassroots movements that create social change don’t happen spontaneously. Rosa Parks made a decision not to give her seat up on a Montgomery bus in 1955, but she trained at the Highlander Center in Tennessee as an organizer before she made headlines. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other institutions provided structure for a movement. Catholic activists have a deep well of theological and historical resources to draw from that can teach us about the best traditions of our past. This rich legacy can also help inspire new ideas and creative ways to put faith into action at a time when the public square is in urgent need of moral movements that transcend political tribalism and tap into deep values that can resonate across race, class, and region.

Our current dark populism feeds on fear and the resentment stoked by demagogues who want to divide. White Christians, in particular, have too often been complicit in this betrayal of the Gospel. If Catholic bishops and lay Catholics are going to play a more potent role in resisting injustice and reclaiming the common good as a political virtue, there needs to be an honest reckoning with the limits of traditional advocacy efforts, such as lobbying and sending letters to Congress. Civility is important. But it can also become an unwitting capitulation to systemic evils. When immigrant children are being taken from their parents’ arms as a matter of federal policy and people of color face lethal police brutality every day, tempered statements of concern and calls for prayers ring hollow. It’s time for Catholics to rediscover our prophetic tradition of civil disobedience.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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Published in the September 21, 2018 issue: View Contents
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