The Limits of Law and Obedience

Obedience is not necessarily a virtue. It did not excuse the Nazis at Nuremberg, who were just ‘following orders’. Just as Serviam has its exceptions and nuances, so too Non Serviam can be firmly stated without its usual demonic overtones. 

So how do we know when obedience is good, and when not so? With Saint Peter, we must in the end obey God rather than men. Yes, God usually speaks through the authority of men and their laws – rare is the direct voice of the Almighty in our minds, and ‘God told me to do it’ is also not an excuse for evil. Here’s Thomas More, in Bolt’s play, responding to his son-in-law Roper, who wanted to break the law to get at King Henry:

Roper- Now you give the Devil benefit of law!

More– Yes, what would you do? Cut a road through the law to get after the Devil?       

Roper– Yes. I’d cut down every law in England to do that.

More– And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned on you…where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted with laws from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s, and if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the wind that would blow then?

We should take More’s warning into account when we’re pondering the breaking of laws. Even so, law is in the end a guide to our conscience, not our conscience itself. And it is on our conscience that we must act, and upon which we will be judged, for it is through our conscience where we are ‘alone with God’, to hear the ‘still small voice’ that Elijah heard on the mountain. We must act in accord with our conscience, which Pope John Paul II in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor calls the ‘proximate norm of morality’ (VS, 59-60).

More precisely, conscience is defined in our tradition as ‘a judgment of reason, whereby the human person recognized the moral quality of a concrete act’ (CCC, 1778). It is an act, discerning the morality of another act. This judgment is not something purely autonomous, made in a vacuum and on the spur of the moment. Rather, conscience must be formed in the truth, by a solid stock of a priori principles, which guide our way in truth and goodness. Pope John Paul II describes this as a ‘participated theonomy’ (VS, 41), a cooperation in God’s own eternal law. We all have some innate awareness of these moral truths written upon our hearts, termed synderesis (CCC, 1780). As Moses taught of old, and as the newer Catechism puts it: ‘No one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law’ (CCC, 1860).

Beyond these basic principles, there are many guides to our conscience for all the complexities of the moral life: Our families, first and primary, schools of various sorts, friends, counselors, the Church in the myriad of her teachings, literature, theologians, philosophers, pundits and prophets in all their stripes and, to the point at hand, the State in its laws. These are all of various degrees of authority by which they move our conscience, exhorting, educating, inspiring, or even coercing, either positively or negatively. 

The Church, mediated by the authority invested in the successor of Peter, can bind us in conscience on defined and infallible matters of faith and morals, but what of human law, those matters of directives and discipline, that are at times all-too fallible? Is it always a sin to skirt around the law, and might we do so in good conscience? Saint Thomas Aquinas asks this very question (I-II, q. 96, a. 4), and the principles he offers will help guide our own decisions, as we make our way ‘by the tangle of our wits’, as More advised Roper. 

Aquinas defines law as an ‘ordinance of reason, promulgated by him who has authority over community, for the common good’ (I-II, Q. 90, a. 4). Human law, as it is based on reason, ultimately has its binding force from the natural moral law, in turn defined as ‘the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law’. So law binds not from its own authority but from God’s, and we are bound to obey the law insofar as it carries the authority of God. 

Hence, if any law violates the law of God – the natural or divine law – then not only does it not bind in conscience, but we are rather bound to disobey such laws, at least by passive resistance (such as refusing to participate in abortion or euthanasia), and, if push comes to shove, to die a martyr rather than follow them, as did the first Christians of Rome, as did Thomas More himself, and as did countless witnesses against all the anti-Christian totalitarian regimes. 

Things get a bit more murky when laws do not – or do not so obviously – violate the natural or divine law, but are rather inane, overbearing or, at least at times, impractical. 

Take jay-walking: According to the letter of the law, we pedestrians are supposed to cross busy roads only at intersections, but who of us has not just made a mad dash for it, or sauntered to the other side like the proverbial chicken when traffic is light? 

Or, here in the Canadian province where I reside, the consumption of alcohol is only permitted in private houses and licensed establishments. What are we to say of those who take along some vino to a picnic, or perhaps a sip of Scotch after a hard day’s hiking in the hills?   

There are more serious cases, as in the increasingly burdensome Covid protocols, and the looming vaccine. 

Aquinas says that laws are binding if they fulfill three criteria: 

First, the ‘end’: The law must be for the common good of the particular society for which they are promulgated and intended, and not just ‘good in general’. It may be beneficial for students to do calisthenics, but it would be odd if a college were to require such as part of the morning regimen of each class. 

Second, the ‘author’: The law must be promulgated by the proper authority. A bishop can only decree liturgical and other laws within the geographical (or spiritual) boundaries of his own diocese. There are cardinals and archbishops who would like to impose their Covidian protocols to entire provinces, states or nations, but, well, too bad. 

Third, the ‘form’: The ‘burden’ of the law – for all law has its coercive dimension – cannot be disproportionate to the good sought, or the evil avoided, or fall disproportionately on one segment of the population than another. Taxes should be imposed fairly, along with conscription, jury duty, and no one should receive undue preferential treatment. All are equal before the law, without some being more equal than others. 

If a law fails in any one of these criteria, Aquinas says it does not, strictly speaking, bind in conscience. 

But – and there is always a but – he cautions that we should generally still obey such laws, in order to avoid ‘scandal or disturbance’. After all, to disdain a law is to disdain the authority which promulgated the law, at least to some small extent. Furthermore, we are not infallible, and should consider that we might not know all the facts, nor all the reasons for a law. Societies need to maintain cohesion and order, or anarchy quickly ensues – schisms and heresies always arise from those who think they know better than the Church, or whomever is placed above them.

There is a holiness in humble obedience, and the path to pride a quick and deadly one. The original sin was in large part the desire to decide for ourselves what is ‘good and evil’, and Saint Philip Neri used to quip that sanctity is found in the ‘space of three fingers’ – the width of one’s forehead, and mortifying one’s reason. 

Like all aphorisms, this has limits, as does obedience. If, after prayer and pondering and counsel, we truly judge in our conscience – the proximate and final norm of morality – that a law does not bind, and that a higher good moves us, then we may wiggle around the law, striving to avoid ‘scandal and disturbance’ as much as we might. It is one thing to act outside a given law in private, or while out in God’s vast wilderness – and there is plenty of it out there – and quite another to deliberately thumb one’s nose to authority. 

Yet there are times when we must resist publicly, when the powers-that-be have gone a bridge too far, when our God-given freedoms are compromised, laws become a burden beyond bearing, the common good vitiated, and we are called to cause a ‘disturbance’, even if it be a ‘scandal’ to some. As I write, it’s the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Justified? It seems so, in the mind of the many, even if the lost tea cost the Brits a small fortune, and the Intolerable Acts followed, along with the subsequent Revolution – well, you get the gist. 


We should recall that like the authority from which they derive, laws and obedience to them is hierarchical: That of a priest is countermanded by a bishop, which is in turn trumped by the pope, who is turn under Christ, whose vicar he is. And all eventually comes down to our conscience, which has limits in what it may endure. 


Aquinas warned five centuries before the tea was dumped, that overbearing laws will produce bitter fruit, even bloodshed, as the populace reaches a breaking point, from which it is nearly impossible to turn back. Revolutions in the time since have proved him right.

At this moment across the once-free world, many regions are under draconian lockdowns and virtual house arrest, with guests verboten even in or near private homes. Many, especially those abandoned and alone are being driven to despair, even suicide. Mental illness is on the rise. Families are divided, even torn apart. Schools are shut, with parents at their wits’ end. Churches are closed, partly open, then closed again, at the whim of medical periti with newfound pontifical powers. Bishops capitulate, wringing their hands. Some priests and faithful head to the ‘catacombs’ to receive the Eucharist. Many more, with little or no access to the sacraments or worshiping together, drift along as they might, some losing their faith, and their hope.

We are avoiding each other, even with eye contact. Demographics, already in free fall, are now imploding, as couples despair of bringing children into such a world so unwelcoming to them. Debts are skyrocketing to the stratosphere. Small and medium businesses are going bankrupt. All the while ‘essential’ government apparatchiks, who are impounding said businesses for ever-evolving minute ‘infractions’, continue to cash their hefty paycheques, enjoying freedoms denied the hoi polloi. Any dissent from the party line is censored by the ubiquitous social media, hand-in-glove with the government. All the while, the culture of death and deviant sexuality continues its long march nearly unabated.

Not a recipe for social cohesion and harmony. Will we return to some sort of quasi-normal? Or will it be, as one pundit put it, the faithful rebel alliance against the God-less empire and their death star? Might we hope for a Deus ex machina, the Almighty intervening in some surprising way? We should always hope for that. So, as much as you are able, stoke the hearth and fill the table. And be ye of good cheer, for it is for freedom that Christ has made us free (Gal 5:1).

And on that note of freedom, as far as our own response to overbearing and unjust laws and authorities – or, more properly, obedience to higher laws and authorities – I will leave this to the reader’s conscience, hopefully enlightened by the Holy Ghost, who leads us in the path of truth.