The times we live in appear to have spawned broad disregard for public officials. Whether the blowback involves critical matters before our legislatures, or whether it involves policies pertaining to the COVID-19 epidemic, outcry on social media and in the news has been particularly sharp, taking the usual ad hominem attacks to new lows.
Our public leaders are far from infallible in their judgments, and our legislatures and courts have supported laws and policies some of us find objectionable. At the same time, there is a principle of civility that says we should respect the office even if we have disagreements with the officeholder.
What does the Church say about our relationship with government and public officials? What’s a Catholic to do? Here are a few guidelines from Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Respect your civil leaders. Did you know that respect for civil and political authorities is covered under the Fourth Commandment? The Church teaches that the mandate that children should “honor your father and mother” also extends to other relationships involving authority, including citizens to their country and to those in governance. (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2238).
The apostle Peter was very clear on this teaching. “Give honor to all, love the community, fear God, honor the king,” writes our first pontiff (1 Pt 2:17 NIV).
Jesus himself recognized the divine source of Pontius Pilate’s authority when he told Pilate during his trial: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11).
That is not to suggest that civil leaders always govern as God himself would govern, but that is where our role as Catholic citizens comes in.
Use your voice effectively. Respect for civil leaders doesn’t mean we give up our voice and passively wait for instruction. The Catechism also teaches that citizens are free to express their opinions to their government or public officials, especially when policies or proposals seem harmful to human dignity or the common good (#2238).
Catholic moral and social teaching is a valuable standard by which the faithful can evaluate public policy. The Catholic faithful, like all citizens, have the duty “to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom” (#2239).
Obey the law. Because governments and civil leaders derive their authority from God, we have a moral obligation to follow the laws and directives that govern us — unless, of course, they go against God’s law. If a civil law violates God’s law, then we must disobey it.
“The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel,” says the Catechism (#2242).
That doesn’t mean we can disregard traffic laws when they are inconvenient for us. However, it does mean we may protest against and must not cooperate with laws that support objective moral evils. It’s what Jesus was going for when he said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's” (Mt. 22:21).
Fulfill your civic duty. As good and loyal citizens, we have the obligation to pay taxes, to defend our country and to exercise our right to vote. We should also serve our communities in other ways through volunteerism, charitable works and even running for public office.
Besides Christ’s instruction to “render therefore to Caesar,” St. Paul also told his audience to pay taxes. Otherwise, they would risk not only the consequences from the civil authority, who is “God’s servant for your good,” but also displeasing God. “For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing” (Rom 13:6).
Pray for our public officials. St. Paul urged that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way” (1 Tim 2:1-2).
You will notice that we pray for our leaders at virtually every liturgy. We should do it in our daily devotions and family prayers as well, in the hope that our government, political and civil leaders might govern us and establish laws in keeping with God’s holy will.
Gerald Korson, a veteran Catholic journalist, is a member of the Knights of Columbus in Indiana. He has 11 children and 15 grandchildren.
Originally published in a weekly edition of Knightline, a resource for K of C leaders and members. To access Knightline’s monthly archives, click here. Or, share your story by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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