In response to criticism of the Administration’s policy of separating parents from their children at the border, the Attorney General has essentially demanded unquestioning obedience, referring to a verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” (Romans 13:1)n
This is a dangerous argument, one that implies that Christians and others should give blind obedience to the decrees of our rulers, regardless of whether they are just or not.
First of all, it grossly misreads St. Paul. Let’s look a the context in Romans itself.
In Romans 12, St. Paul exhorts his readers to live their lives purely, according to God’s will. He says, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2) and “love one another with brotherly affection” (12:10)
He then passes on to the question of how to live peacefully in his contemporary society. Remember that the government of Rome was a brutal military dictatorship, one that required its subjects to view the Emperor as a god and to make sacrifice to him. Rome had already murdered Jesus based on false testimony that he was claiming to be an earthly king, and had already taken Paul under a false arrest so he could face the likelihood of execution
So Paul had no illusions about the rulers of the world — in fact, he knew well that the ruler of the world was the Evil One and his minions (see Ephesians 6:12). Paul would be the last man to encourage us to accept blindly the rules set down by earthly kings. What Paul was clearly doing was encouraging Christians to keep their heads down, obey the law as best they can, and avoid any conflicts with their earthly rulers
But Paul was also doing something even more important, and in fact even more treasonous towards the Roman emperors. He was saying clearly and plainly that earthly rulers were not the real or final authority on earth — God is. He said “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (13:1) The Roman emperors would have no authority except that God permits them to exercise it — but not for any purpose, but for the common good of mankind by maintaining order. Our rulers are not God, but are subject to Him and to His law. Christ is the King, not Caesar or anyone else
And what does God’s law entail? Read on in Romans for the short version:
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (13:8-10)
Now Paul is referring there specifically to the Mosaic Law, but his point applies more generally to all human law, and this brings up the Attorney General’s second major error. The only legitimate way to read and understand Sacred Scripture is to read it with the Church, not by my own personal interpretation. The Bible is the Church’s book — she wrote it, preserved it, and teaches it. And that means we need to listen to what the Church has always said about the meaning of Romans 13
The Church has always taught that earthly rulers and laws must conform to the law of God, as made evident through revelation or the natural law and interpreted by the Church. If human law does not meet that standard, it is an abuse of authority and we are not bound to obey. This was clearly explained by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. This was the testimony of thousands of martyrs who disobeyed man so they could obey God — remember St. Thomas’ More’s famous saying, “I die the King’s good servant but God’s first”? Here is how the Catechism summarizes it:
1902 Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself. It must not behave in a despotic manner, but must act for the common good as a “moral force based on freedom and a sense of responsibility”: “A human law has the character of law to the extent that it accords with right reason, and thus derives from the eternal law. Insofar as it falls short of right reason it is said to be an unjust law, and thus has not so much the nature of law as of a kind of violence.”
1903 Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, “authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse.”
Our bishops have spoken clearly about the Administration’s policies to separate children from their parents at the border. The President of the US Bishops’ Conference plainly called it “immoral”. Cardinal Dolan, in a very powerful interview on CNN, has said that it is “wrong” and “goes against human dignity”, and stressed that “God’s law trumps man’s law”
Yes, we are generally obliged to obey the law and legitimate authority. But the Attorney General is way off base when he calls for obedience to the law without regard to its justice. To make that demand is to elevate human law above God’s law, and that way lies disaster