Obedience to Illegitimate Authority

As Catholics, we believe that all human authority is derived from God and established by God, and therefore, we are to obey just laws and just orders from superiors. Suppose, however, authority is seized illegally: a military coup outside the law, a prince seizing the throne of a monarchy over someone who is ahead of him in succession, or a blatantly fraudulent election in a republic. Is Church teaching that rendering obedience to such a usurper is obligatory, permissible, or forbidden?

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Cardinal Mindszenty’s long history of opposition to both Nazi and Communist rule in Hungary sheds light on the complexites of Catholic teaching on this subject.

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If that’s where you’re going, I can assure you that you’ll still have to obey the law - and pay taxes - during the Biden presidency.

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In general, you can never obey a sinful order (“execute these Jewish people “).

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In such a case, we would expect the Church to make a pronouncement on the illegitimacy of such rule, through her bishops or the Holy See. It would probably not involve the Roman Pontiff and the College of Bishops extending congratulations to the usurper.

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Yes, depending on the circumstances.

No one answer fits all circumstances. “Permissible” is probably the most common answer to a real bad situation, with obligatory being the default position.

Actually, my question concerns the orders given to military and civilian government employees (and this extends to officers and judges appointed), and it’s not limited to purported fraud by Biden supporters, but also includes any legally dubious mechanism that Trump could use to stay in power.

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It depends. Over time, usurpations can become legitimate through consent, as St. Robert Bellarmine explains:

De Laicis, chapter 6

Add, moreover, that even if at the beginning those who founded kingdoms were usurpers for the most part, yet, by the passing of time, either they or their successors became lawful rulers of these kingdoms, since the people gradually gave their consent. In this way the kingdom of France is now lawful, in the opinion of all, though in the beginning the Franks unjustly occupied Gaul. And the same may be said of the kingdom of Spain, which began with the invasion of the Goths; of the kingdom of England, which began with the unjust occupation of the Anglo-Saxons; and of this very Roman Empire, which was founded by Julius Caesar, the oppressor of his country; which, nevertheless, afterward became lawful to such a degree that Our Lord said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, etc.”

It’s can be messy for a while. Pope Leo XIII discusses a similar principle in his letter to the Church in France, Au Milieu Des Sollicitudes, speaking of the various French governments that violently succeeded one another:

  1. And how are these political changes of which We speak produced? They sometimes follow in the wake of violent crises, too often of a bloody character, in the midst of which pre-existing governments totally disappear; then anarchy holds sway, and soon public order is shaken to its very foundations and finally overthrown. From that time onward a social need obtrudes itself upon the nation; it must provide for itself without delay. Is it not its privilege - or, better still, its duty - to defend itself against a state of affairs troubling it so deeply, and to re-establish public peace in the tranquillity of order? Now, this social need justifies the creation and the existence of new governments, whatever form they take; since, in the hypothesis wherein we reason, these new governments are a requisite to public order, all public order being impossible without a government. Thence it follows that, in similar junctures, all the novelty is limited to the political form of civil power, or to its mode of transmission; it in no wise affects the power considered in itself. This continues to be immutable and worthy of respect, as, considered in its nature, it is constituted to provide for the common good, the supreme end which gives human society its origin. To put it otherwise, in all hypotheses, civil power, considered as such, is from God, always from God: “For there is no power but from God.”(9)

  2. Consequently, when new governments representing this immutable power are constituted, their acceptance is not only permissible but even obligatory, being imposed by the need of the social good which has made and which upholds them. This is all the more imperative because an insurrection stirs up hatred among citizens, provokes civil war, and may throw a nation into chaos and anarchy, and this great duty of respect and dependence will endure as long as the exigencies of the common good shall demand it, since this good is, after God, the first sand last law in society.

So what about in the midst of the usurpation, when their is a clear legitimate claimant? I specified for the military coup scenario that it occurs outside the law, because there are countries whose law empowers the military to depose a leader who is abusing his authority, but what if that’s clearly not the case, yet the legitimate king, president, or prime minister is still alive and well?

It’s a good question and in a vacuum it seems clear that one would not have the obligation to obey a usurper. In practice, I’m gonna cross that bridge when I come to it. The way power is diffused in the US, I could only really see this being a real issue if you had a President and anti-President both giving orders to the military or other direct reports and it being unclear to all who was the real president. Even then, it would be settled by the courts.

What mechanisms would these be? I can’t think of any.

Do not concern yourself with the changes in the military. There are adequate safeguards in place to keep them from being used by a president refusing to leave office. The idea that he could flip electors has also been shot down by those governors in Republican states. They said the electors chosen by the people would be the ones to go. His only path was always through the courts by disallowing votes.

This is something I struggle with on a personal level sometimes. Many authorities are only authorities by the general societal tendendency to accept them. Many authorities in social groups are simply those who are willing out assert others, or were even gained by sinful means. So we must submit as long as enough time has passed to make their sin less meaningful… What if one simply says “no thanks”… what if these groups oppress others… These kinds of issues.

Exactly. That’s why “I was only obeying orders” is not a defense. It was a problem faced in Germany not once but twice, first by those who rose up against Napoleon and then by those who plotted against Hitler.

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