The Catholic Church, as any good parent does, implores her children to obey all lawful authority. In other words, provided that the law does not contradict one of God’s laws, they are to be obedient to it. This is true both in the case of someone in a position of authority within the Church and someone who has authority in government, in a classroom, or in the work place.
"Human society can be neither well-ordered nor prosperous unless it has some people invested with legitimate authority to preserve its institutions and to devote themselves as far as is necessary to work and care for the good of all." – Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section One, Chapter 2, Article 2, Part 1, Paragraph 1897
The Church recognizes that government in general is good and necessary for the prosperity of all, bringing order to what would otherwise become chaos and protecting the weak from those who would otherwise prey upon them. Therefore, as a responsible parent she teaches her children to obey lawful authority.
Knowing WhyPart of teaching a child to obey lawful authority, though, is teaching them the “why” behind the “what”, as we discussed in the last chapter, “Establishing Consequences”. Helping your child to see and to understand how the rules that are set help to protect them and to help them get along better with other people is all part of teaching children to obey authority, because this also helps them to discern when something they are being asked to do isn’t something they should do.
As a very young child, my mother taught me to be honest, to respect other people’s property, to live up to the commitments I made, and to obey her rules even when she wasn’t home. She taught me to obey my teachers and other adults she put in authority over me, and that if I had questions or doubts about what they had told me to do to obey first and seek her out to ask questions afterward.
Unfortunately for us both, she wasn’t always a great judge of character. When she married my stepfather, she didn’t realize she was letting the devil in the door. He was teaching me that it was okay to do what I wanted to do as long as I didn’t get caught, that stealing what you wanted was okay, that lying was necessary to avoid getting caught, and that obedience to rules was for lesser people. Although my stepfather was out of my life by the age of 10, that early training stayed with me well into adulthood, to devastating effect.
I struggled during my 20’s to learn to trust authority, especially that of the Church, and to submit myself to it. It caused many problems in my efforts to develop close personal relationships with others, and even led to problems in my marriage and definitely caused problems in my relationship with my son.
Testing for Lawful AuthorityTest everything. Hold on to the good. – 1 Thessalonians 5:21
Learning to obey lawful authority also means learning how to discern when authority is unlawful and how to fight back against injustice. The Church, being a very wise parent, realizes that there are those in the world who seek authority but do so out of self-interest and not out of a sincere desire to serve the needs of others. Thus, she also teaches her children to test any authority that presents itself.
She offers several ways that her children can test to see whether the person in charge is exercising lawful authority. The first test is, “Does the law violate any of God’s own laws?” If it does, it is not lawful authority. The second test is, “Is the law just?” An unjust law, for example, would be one which places undue financial burdens on one segment of society for the benefit of another. The third test is “Does the law promote the common good?” This question seeks to determine whether the law benefits all parties and removes obstacles in the path of their success or whether the law benefits some parties at the expense of others. These are good tests to teach our children, although we might want to add a fourth test to the list, “Does the law violate my parent’s laws?”
Fighting Back Against InjusticeWhen a law isn’t lawful and authority is clearly being abused, the Catholic Church teaches her children that this is a time to take a firm stand and fight against the injustice. However, she encourages them not to use violence as the first means of fighting but as a last resort. Her first line of defense in fighting against unjust laws and unlawful authority is civil disobedience.
Matthew 5:39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also
Now, most people look at that scripture verse and believe it means that we are to be passive in the face of someone abusing authority. This is a misunderstanding of the culture of the time. Back in the time of Christ, to slap someone with the palm of your hand was a sign that they were your equal, worthy of your respect but had done something to offend your honor. To slap someone with the back of your hand, though, was a sign of disrespect for who you were as a person – it was a sign that they considered you to be beneath them. By offering them the other cheek, you were literally forcing that person to acknowledge you as an equal if they wanted to slap you again. In other words, Christ was teaching the Israelites how to engage in civil disobedience.
Much like martial artists, who use the momentum of their opponent to their advantage, effective civil disobedience takes an evil and turns it back upon itself. It requires you to study the principles behind the unjust law in order to understand how to unravel it.
“and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well” - Matthew 5:40
Jewish law at the time required anyone passing by a person who was naked had to provide clothing to them. Most poor people of the time only had two garments – a thin cloak and a heavier outer coat. Thus, in giving your creditor your cloak as well you were causing him to break the law if he left without returning both to you.
“and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” – Matthew 5:41
Roman law at the time allowed soldiers to press common citizens into service as pack mules. However, the law prohibited them from requiring anyone to go more than what was asked initially. Thus, by going with them for two miles you were again turning the law against the one who had done this and were forcing them to be guilty of breaking the law.
Accepting the Consequences for DisobedienceFor the LORD disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child." – Hebrews 12:6
Part of teaching our children to obey lawful authority is teaching them to accept the consequences for disobedience graciously. After all, the consequences for disobedience are all part of our efforts to help them grow into men and women that are a benefit to society rather than a burden. They are given by us out of love for them and a desire for the very best that is within them to be seen by everyone else.
An example of accepting the consequences graciously is requiring that children not slam doors when angry, or that they not stomp their feet on their way to their room. Requiring them to come back and redo the action until such time as they have done it quietly is a way of enforcing the rule of accepting consequences graciously. Another way to teach children to accept consequences graciously is to require them to say “Thank you, Mom and Dad, for loving me enough to discipline me”. This is a bitter pill to swallow and will be hard words for them to say, but it is a good way to instill in them the fact that the consequences are given out of a genuine love for them, and not out of a desire to hold power over them. The Catholic Church encourages her children to see penance not as God exacting revenge but as God forming us and molding us more closely in His image, and therefore to be grateful for it when it is received.
This applies equally to times when your child finds they must engage in civil disobedience at school or at work. While in this case, the consequences are not being given out of love or a desire to truly improve the child’s life, teaching our children to accept them graciously will help them to endure whatever they must face without allowing it to make them bitter or jaded. It also helps others to see more clearly the injustice of the other party by providing a contrasting behavior.
Your TurnThank you for reading this chapter of Catholic Parenting: What the Catholic Church Teaches Us About Parenting. If you are just joining us, you can read the introduction and the first six chapters by clicking on the link above. I hope you will join us again for tomorrow's chapter: Set High Expectations, but Be Prepared for Failure.
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