Face Masks, Riots, and Aquinas on the Power of Human Law

In this post, I will not be discussing:

  • How particular laws might need to change for the sake of racial justice and equity.
  • Medical or statistical issues about the spread of COVID-19.
  • Whether the particular laws in any given state are constitutional, or prudent, or the best possible.

Instead, I will be addressing a much more general question: whether a government, in principle, has the right to enact laws at all (and, by extension, particular decrees), and the moral responsibility of Christians in relation to these laws.

I’m writing on this question because I’m seeing Catholics and others increasingly making posts on social media saying or implying that the rules put in place by governors about COVID quarantines are tyrannical and unjust acts, and that it is not only acceptable but one’s duty to disobey them. I’m also seeing many posts justifying not only the protests for racial justice, but specifically the criminal violence and vandalism that have sometimes accompanied them.

Below I’ll be quoting and making a few comments on Summa Theologiae I-II.96.4 by St. Thomas Aquinas. The absolute insanity I’m finding in every corner of Facebook and Twitter is so severe it’s making me look to the middle ages for some clarity and balance of thought. Spoiler: Aquinas is neither a libertarian nor a Marxist, and aggressively so in both cases. Of course, this post isn’t attempting to argue that something is true just because Aquinas said it, but rather to present his calm thoughtfulness as an antidote to the hysteria that seems inescapable online right now. If that bothers you, you may prefer this website instead.

1. Human laws, when they are just, are binding in conscience:

Laws framed by man are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience, from the eternal law whence they are derived, according to Proverbs 8:15: “By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things.”

That means that when a government makes a law fairly, it is a sin to disobey it because the government has the right to make laws and you have the duty to obey them.

2. What makes a just law?

Now laws are said to be just, both from the end, when, to wit, they are ordained to the common good—and from their author, that is to say, when the law that is made does not exceed the power of the lawgiver—and from their form, when, to wit, burdens are laid on the subjects, according to an equality of proportion and with a view to the common good.

So three conditions need to be met for a law to be just:

A. That they are for the common good.

B. That they are within the power of the lawgiver.

C. That they are arranged fairly or equitably to all citizens.

Notice that he doesn’t say that a condition for a just law is you liking or agreeing with it. Your consent or enjoyment of a law is not a pre-requisite for the law to be just and therefore binding on your conscience. Neither is your convenience. Laws are for the common good, not always your personal good, and if the government determines that the good of your community requires you to do something that isn’t convenient or best for you, Aquinas says you act like a big boy and obey the law for the sake of others. You sometimes get to decide which country or city you live in, just based on your personal preference. You do not get to decide which laws to obey based on your personal preference.

That said, I should in full disclosure admit that I have never in my life obeyed the speed limit, which fits the criteria above for a just law.

3. What does common good mean?

For, since one man is a part of the community, each man in all that he is and has, belongs to the community; just as a part, in all that it is, belongs to the whole; wherefore nature inflicts a loss on the part, in order to save the whole: so that on this account, such laws as these, which impose proportionate burdens, are just and binding in conscience, and are legal laws.

Ok this is pretty dramatic. “Each man in all that he is and has, belongs to the community.” This is as far from American individualism and “what about my rights” Karen-ness as you can get.

To translate what he’s saying: Grow the hell up and realize there are other people besides yourself. And if you don’t, that’s fine, the law will make you because that’s its job. And it’s your job to obey it even if you throw a hissy fit. According to the Angelic Doctor of the Catholic Church.

4. What makes an unjust law?

On the other hand laws may be unjust in two ways: first, by being contrary to human good, through being opposed to the things mentioned above—either in respect of the end, as when an authority imposes on his subjects burdensome laws, conducive, not to the common good, but rather to his own cupidity or vainglory—or in respect of the author, as when a man makes a law that goes beyond the power committed to him—or in respect of the form, as when burdens are imposed unequally on the community, although with a view to the common good.

Ok parallel to the three conditions to a just law, an unjust law:

A. Is only for the good of a part of the community rather than the good of all, or

B. Goes beyond the authority of the legislator in question, or

C. Is imposed in an unequal or unfair way.

Letters A and C are where there’s a lot to say about racial justice and equity, and where there are important points to be made about reforming and improving the laws we have now. Which, I evasively repeat, is not the topic of this post.

Letter B is where a lot of the COVID quarantine debates come in. However, even the most libertarian-leaning small-government Republican (as if there is such a thing anymore) would admit that one of the duties of the government is to keep people alive. Whether or not the virus is as dangerous as it’s being treated, I evasively repeat, is not the topic of this post. Similarly whether the mask ordinances are an undue burden on individuals or whether some ordinances are an example of government overreach, not correctly estimating the relationship between the common good and an individual’s good. And you certainly have the right to disagree with the experts and politicians on this. And the government has the right to disagree with you, and make laws as it sees fit.

So the debate, if you’re at all convinced by the principles that Aquinas is presenting here, can’t be about whether the government has the right to impose laws to protect the life and safety of its people. It absolutely does. The debate is about whether the laws in question are just, which is an entirely different, and much more difficult, question.

5. Do I get to disobey an unjust law?

The like are acts of violence rather than laws; because, as Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5), “a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all.” Wherefore such laws do not bind in conscience, except perhaps in order to avoid scandal or disturbance, for which cause a man should even yield his right, according to Matthew 5:40-41: “If a man . . . take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him; and whosoever will force thee one mile, go with him other two.”

This is where things get challenging. An unjust law isn’t really a law at all, but an “act of violence.” Cool – score one for the libertarians. Then Aquinas does the unthinkable – he brings up the Bible while discussing politics, but not in a “Ten Commandments outside a courthouse” way, a “turn the other cheek” way, which is the last thing anybody wants to hear.

Aquinas says, right there (imagine an arrow pointing to the most recent quote), that you are bound in conscience to obey an unjust law and even give up your rights if that is what is needed to avoid scandal or disturbance. And the authority he quotes to justify that is this guy named JESUS.

This sounds horrible, but it’s not the same as passivity toward injustice. Aquinas is talking about the duty of citizens to obey the laws enforced by the state, not the possibility of changing those laws and doing what it takes to make them more just. There are even situations, Aquinas argues in other places, where the complete overthrow of a tyrant is justified. This would amount to a total revolution and change of regimes, which I’m not sure follows from ordinances about wearing face masks or adjusting city budgets to give less money to police. But what do I know.

Either way, putting pressure on politicians to change unjust laws is not the same as breaking those laws. It would actually make changing a law pointless if you’re announcing, by your actions, that laws don’t need to be obeyed in the first place.

6. Ok but when do I get to disobey a law? Because I really want to.

Secondly, laws may be unjust through being opposed to the Divine good: such are the laws of tyrants inducing to idolatry, or to anything else contrary to the Divine law: and laws of this kind must nowise be observed, because, as stated in Acts 5:29, “we ought to obey God rather than man.”

Fine, there is one scenario where you not only can, but must under conscience disobey a human law, which is when obeying that human law would itself be a sin. So if “they” were to make a law that you had to murder your child, or that I had to break the seal of confession, we would be bound by conscience to disobey that law. Outside of those situations, we’re stuck with stupid lame obedience, even when it’s not fair.

I guess I have to note that when a bishop dispenses you from physically attending Sunday Mass, he as a lawgiver himself has the right to do so according to his best judgment, and that dispensation means it is not a sin for you to do the weird livestream Mass thing. Nor is it a sin to have Mass outdoors (like we’re doing this weekend at St. Peter’s), or to stand six feet apart, or to wear a damn mask.

If you think some laws are racist or bad or imprudent or dumb or based on bad science, that’s very much your right. Protest, call your senator, make your voice heard. But obedience to human law isn’t the same thing as slavery or oppression; it’s a Christian duty. And making laws for the common good isn’t an infringement on your rights, it’s the government doing its job. If you’re acting otherwise, and encouraging others to do so, you might want to ask yourself some questions.

One thought on “Face Masks, Riots, and Aquinas on the Power of Human Law

  1. “So the debate, if you’re at all convinced by the principles that Aquinas is presenting here, can’t be about whether the government has the right to impose laws to protect the life and safety of its people. It absolutely does.”

    I know this is not what you want to debate about. There seems to me some blurring of the purpose of government in the recent century. Many claim it is their “right” to receive healthcare, welfare, or protection from the government. I’m from that small school of thought that believes the constitution simply protects your natural rights (Life, Liberty, and Property). So yes, the government protects its citizens 100%. There is another understanding that we are all rugged individuals and we are responsible for ourselves, and perhaps my understanding of government is eschewed by those very same western ideals of individualism, but I’ll move on.

    “The debate is about whether the laws in question are just, which is an entirely different, and much more difficult, question.”

    Recent laws that require you to wear masks, close businesses, and limit religious attendance all in the name of safety and saving lives are imo tyrannical. It is an ivory tower point of view to enact these laws “for the common good” in the first place. People are suffering. Who is to pay my father for all the lost business? He still supports a wife and 6 of my siblings. And for myself? I lost my job because the film company I work for is prohibited from operation. Doctors are increasing medication, not for Covid symptoms, but for depression. My own sister who has been a nurse for the past 15 years now can’t find work because hospitals are not as full as they predicted. All this in face of a sickness likened to the seasonal flu, with a minute percentile in fatalities. So, is it better for everyone’s “health” that we lock down? And all this based on faulty science and lofty opinions of saving lives?

    Again, the government protects lives, but it also protects freedom. I love this article, and I will try and turn the other cheek as best I can with the grace of God. I am not a murderer, and I want to save lives as much as the next guy. But I am sworn to give my life for my faith and well as fight for freedom in America.


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