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“Sometimes God’s Law Supercedes Man’s Law”

By Br. Steve Herro, O. Praem.

One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust (Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”).

I have known Fr. Bill Ribbens, O. Praem., for 30 years. He once noted that his happiest experience in ministry has been serving the immigrant Spanish-speaking community in the Green Bay area (his ministry for the last 15 years). At a time when some national political leaders are justifying the separation of immigrant children from their parents as being legally justified within U.S. law, while faith leaders quickly counteract, I am reminded of Fr. Bill’s comment of yesteryear, but so relevant today:

Sometimes God’s law supercedes man’s law.

Fr. Bill Ribbens, O. Praem.

Fr. Bill Ribbens, O. Praem.

I never have been arrested for civil disobedience, but I understand Fr. Bill’s point. Our country has a long list of laws that eventually were replaced or thrown out after years of protests, negotiations, and advocacy:

  • enslavement of Blacks
  • restricting women from the right to vote
  • use of poisons on “unwanted” plant life
  • unchecked presidential wartime power

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated, I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” Fr. James Martin, S.J., was one of many faith leaders who immediately counter-responded:

Mr. Sessions is engaging in what is known as ‘proof-texting’ that is, cherry-picking Bible passages to prove a point without referring to (or even understanding) the overall context of the quote. Often, especially in political battles, this technique is used to weaponize the Bible.

The problem with proof-texting is that there is always another Bible verse, or in this case many Bible verses, that can be used to refute the one chosen. To rebut Mr. Sessions, one could easily respond with a line in that same passage in which St. Paul says, “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rm 13:8-9).

On June 14, Sr. Donna Markham, O.P.,  president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, wrote to Secretary of Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen:

As a clinical psychologist, I have also seen the consequences that not having a parent can have on a child, and it is deeply troubling that the administration has chosen to create a generation of traumatized children in the name of border security. Surely as a nation we can debate the best way to secure our border without resorting to creating life-long trauma for children, some of whom are mere toddlers.

What responses can we have? Prayer, letters to Congress (see S.3036, “Keep Families Together Act”) and our newspapers, financial support to organizations providing humanitarian and legal help to immigrants, and acts of kindness and support to immigrant families that we meet on a daily basis go a long way.

DISCLAIMER: This blog represents Br. Herro’s own opinions and experiences. It does not represent an official position or opinion of St. Norbert Abbey or of any other Norbertine.

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