What happens when the law contradicts the word of God, his commandments, his moral norms, catechism, etc.

What prevails?

Is it legitimate to disobey the laws of the land to protect Christian values and “duties”?

2 Answers 2


Is it obligatory for a Catholic to obey all government regulations even if they contradict religious norms?

Depending on the graving of the situation, and in certain circumstances, Catholics are obligated not to obey certain laws of the land, when certai criteria are met.

St. Paul the Apostle encourages us to obey civil authorities, as we see in Romans 13.

Generally speaking, Catholics should obey the laws of the region that they reside in.

13 Let every soul be subject to higher powers: for there is no power but from God: and those that are, are ordained of God.

2 Therefore he that resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God. And they that resist, purchase to themselves damnation.

3 For princes are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good: and thou shalt have praise from the same.

4 For he is God's minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God's minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.

5 Wherefore be subject of necessity, not only for wrath, but also for conscience' sake.

6 For therefore also you pay tribute. For they are the ministers of God, serving unto this purpose.

7 Render therefore to all men their dues. Tribute, to whom tribute is due: custom, to whom custom: fear, to whom fear: honour, to whom honour.

8 Owe no man any thing, but to love one another. For he that loveth his neighbour, hath fulfilled the law.

9 For Thou shalt not commit adultery: Thou shalt not kill: Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness: Thou shalt not covet: and if there be any other commandment, it is comprised in this word, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

10 The love of our neighbour worketh no evil. Love therefore is the fulfilling of the law.

11 And that knowing the season; that it is now the hour for us to rise from sleep. For now our salvation is nearer than when we believed.

12 The night is passed, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light.

13 Let us walk honestly, as in the day: not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy:

14 But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences. - Romans 13

The Angelic Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas explains to us under which conditions we may not obey civil laws.

Aquinas’ Theory of Law

Aquinas’ potential justification of civil disobedience is rooted in his theory of law. He maintains that there are four types of law: eternal, divine, natural, and human. The distinction between natural law and human law is where conflict arises and civil disobedience becomes relevant. Eternal law is the unchanging moral law that Aquinas also holds is the law of God. Aquinas believes that “the received is in the receiver according to the mode of the receiver” (On Human Nature 136). That is, a being can only receive knowledge in a way and form that is suited to their own form of being. Therefore, humans cannot know God’s law as God does, given that humans and God are fundamentally different types of beings. Aquinas posits, “There are two ways in which a thing can be known,” either “in itself” or “in its effect” (Summa Theologiae I-II Q. 93 A. 2). Humans know eternal law in this second way. He states, “No one except the blessed in heaven . . . can know the eternal law as it is in itself. However, every rational creature knows the eternal law with respect to more or less what radiates from it” (ST I-II Q. 93 A. 2). By this, Aquinas means that humans cannot know eternal law in its essential form, but only through its derivatives and effects. This phenomenon is what gives rise to natural law, which is the rational human participation in eternal law; it is the law we arrive at via reason and adhere to on moral grounds. Yet neither of these laws are as readily apparent as human law created by the legislature, or divine law commanded by scripture or holy texts; they are not universal as eternal or natural law are. Indeed, it is obvious that there are different human laws and divine laws practiced and enforced around the world, as countries maintain their own governments and legal systems and religions feature differing holy texts. Human and divine laws are more accessible than eternal and natural law, as they are in all likelihood codified and therefore widely acknowledged. While humans cannot know eternal law, natural law is supposedly our rational participation in eternal law. How are we to know natural law? Aquinas asserts, “The first precept of law is that good ought to be done and pursued and that evil ought to be avoided” (ST I-II Q. 94 A. 2). This provides the foundation for all other precepts, which are the “practical precepts” or the general rules by which we might govern our practical actions. Aquinas describes humans as rational living substances who have multiple inclinations, or tendencies to an end, that are logically incorporated into natural law. As beings, humans have an obligation to preserve that state of being, meaning there is an obligation to self-preservation. Humans also have animal inclinations, namely to reproduce, protect, and teach our offspring. As rational beings, humans have an “inclination toward knowing the truth about God and toward living in society” (ST I-II Q. 94 A. 2). Though numerous precepts seem unwieldy, Aquinas maintains that each of these inclinations are regulated by reason and therefore fall under the single precept of reason. Aquinas believes that the will is necessitated toward a single natural end: happiness. Unlike more modern ideologies, Aquinas does not believe that the happiness of the individual is competing with the happiness of the community (ST II-II Q. 58 A. 5). They should, in theory, be in harmony, because “while a part, as such, belongs to a whole, so that whatever is the good of a part can be directed to the good of the whole” (ST II-II Q. 58 A. 5). The common good should be good for the individual and vice versa. Natural law can then be thought of in terms of the individual or the community. Conflict appears when natural law and human law overlap, as they will interact in one of two ways. In an ideal scenario the two will comply: the human law will affirm what is morally just and expressed in the natural law. Otherwise, the two can fail to comply. Aquinas maintains that natural law is superior to human law as it is humankind’s rational participation in God’s law, which is the highest and most absolute authority—it is difficult to imagine the rationale explaining how the arbitrary rule of humans could surpass the moral obligations we have derived from God’s law. Given this context, we can understand Aquinas’ statement: “If in any point [human law] deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law” (ST I-II Q. 95 A. 2). Aquinas does not intend to say that an unjust human law ceases to exist. Rather, he believes its authority is nullified. He writes, “Laws can be unjust . . . by being contrary to the divine good, as are tyrannical laws that induce men to idolatry or to do anything else that is contrary to divine law. It is not permissible to obey such laws in any way at all” (ST I-II Q. 96 A. 4). Natural law, as the human expression of eternal law, carries an analogous level of authority. One can logically infer that an unjust human law—one that violates natural law—is not only a law that it is morally permissible to ignore, but is a law that one is morally obligated to disobey.


In general no. There are examples where catholic bishops got into conflict with the state. During the Nazi regime, there existed different attitudes towards the regime. There are said to have been bishops that favored the Nazis, but I don't know any names. Another bishop, whose name I unfortunately forgot, opposed to the Nazis, but believed, that any power is given by God, hence also the Nazi's power. Other people like Bishop Frings and Cardinal Galen got into open conflict. In communism the Bishop of Krakow (if I remember correctly), had been imprisoned for quite some time. Yet in all these cases, it was rather instructions and commands than norms like laws, they violated. A more modern case is the secrecy of the confession in France and Australia. Unlike other countries, priests are obligated by law to inform the worldly authorities about cases of sexual abuse on minors. But the bishop's congregation in France made it clear, that there may be no breach of the secrecy of confession under any circumstances. While the basis for a conflict is layed out, I haven't heard of any case yet, where a priest had to decide between obedience towards the church versus the state.

In short terms: There are examples, where catholics didn't obey the government. There are also cases, where the norms of the state are in conflict with norms of the church, but I don't know of any actual case yet. Maybe someone else might know a case.

  • 1
    I hope, all the terms are correctly translated. If anything is unclear I can recheck. May 31 at 6:47
  • It's difficult to imagine that a priest would actually be caught violating the reporting law in France. Presumably, only the abuser and the priest know about the Confession, and it seems unlikely either party would divulge it to the authorities. I can only imagine this happening if an abuser is caught and questioned and says he confessed it, but he would need to know which priest he confessed to. Or, I can imagine a sting operation where undercover agents go into the confessional to set the priest up to break the law. This latter possibility seems like something out of a dystopian novel.
    – jaredad7
    May 31 at 14:53
  • @jaredad7 I also only see undercover cops as possible means to discover it. And the police probably won't do it easily as it is no actual gain in law enforcement and prosecution of committed child molestation. May 31 at 14:57
  • Yes, I agree. It seems the only reason undercover police would do this is if the state had some sort of vendetta against the Church, which of course has never happened throughout history.
    – jaredad7
    May 31 at 14:59

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