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April 2004

Country or Conscience

More Answers to Today's Moral Problems
by Very Rev. Francis J. Connell, C.SS.R., S.T.D., L.L.D., L.J.D.

Question: One of the questions sometimes put to Catholics in the United States is this: “In the event that there was a conflict between the laws of our country and the teachings of the Catholic Church, which would you obey?” What reply should a Catholic give to this query?

Answer: The question quoted by our correspondent is often intended to put Catholics in a situation in which they can be blamed, whatever answer they may give. If they answer that they would obey the civil law, they will be told that they are not consistent with the principles of the Catholic faith; if they answer that they would obey the teachings of the Church, they will be accused of disloyalty to their country.

I believe that the best rejoinder to this question is to question the interrogator: “What would you do if a civil law was passed that would be contrary to the law of God as your conscience dictates?” If the person questioned answers that under all circumstances he would regard the civil law as superior to every other form of legislation — in other words, if he accepts the principle “My country, right or wrong" — there would not be much advantage in arguing with him, since there is no common ground on which a discussion can be conducted. But I do not believe that there are many Americans who follow such an extreme view.

Most of the citizens of our land accept the principle that in a conflict between civil legislations and the divine law, the latter should be given precedence. Actually, the American government put this principle into operation several years ago, to refute some of the Nazi war criminals. When they claimed that they performed acts of cruelty because they were commanded to do so by their civil laws or by their superiors, they were told that there is a higher law (the law which is called the natural law by Catholics) which must be obeyed, even when it is contrary to the civil laws or the laws of superiors. Most of the citizens of our land accept this principle, whatever be their religious beliefs.

However, there is a divergence of views as to the way in which the law of God is to be discovered. The Protestant citizen believes that his own private judgment should interpret the divine law as to what is right and what is wrong. The Catholic citizen believes that the law of God is properly interpreted by the Catholic Church. But both agree on the fundamental principle that when it is certain that civil law is opposed to the law of God as one's properly formed conscience dictates, the law of God takes precedence.

Some of our fellow citizens seem to fear that this Catholic attitude could result in a wholesale rejection of civil legislation in favor of ecclesiastical law. They visualize the Pope telling Catholics that they must vote for certain candidates or certain measures or insisting on special favors for the Catholic Church. All this, of course, is absurd. The teachings of the Catholic faith will never interfere with the civic duties and rights of American Catholics. On the contrary, Catholic principles furnish a most effective protection to the democratic institutions of our land and promote the loyalty of our citizens. Thus, the statement of Pope Pius XII to the effect that a war of defense is justifiable and that a Catholic may not on the grounds of conscience object to serve in such a war endowed with the requisite conditions is surely a protection against erroneous forms of pacificism.

However, if some legislative act were passed in our land which the Church would officially declare contrary to the law of God, Catholics would accept the decision of their Church. For example, if any state legalized “mercy killing” (and attempts are being made to pass such a measure in some of our states) Catholics would be bound in conscience to refuse all participation in this procedure, which is simply murder. Thus, a Catholic judge would not be permitted to authorize the killing of a sick person, a Catholic doctor would not be allowed to administer a lethal drug, even though this were commanded by state law or civil officials. Catholics should not hesitate to explain these principles to their non-Catholic fellow citizens. We are not ashamed to declare our stand-that in the event of a conflict between civil law and God's law as authoritatively declared by our Church, we should give preference to God's law.

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