December 29, 2023


On Obedience to the Social Order

By: Rodney Rios

Functioning societies must obey legitimate authority. Disobedience for disobedience’s sake is a danger to society. And yet, any observer of modern politics in America and most of the West may have noticed that for a while now, the spirit of cynicism and nihilism seems to dominate when it comes to government. The presumption in most of the political spectrum is that you can’t ever trust the government and that the government is automatically suspect and lying.

In other words, a presumption of evil intent, rather than a presumption of incompetence, dominates American political views toward the state. As the Pew Research Center explains, “Currently, fewer than two in ten Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right ‘just about always’ (1%) or ‘most of the time’ (15%). This is among the lowest trust measures in nearly seven decades of polling.” No wonder that current politics is filled with theories of all kinds, which makes it difficult to separate real threats from mere paranoia. No society can function this way for long.

The British statesman Enoch Powell once remarked that “the supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils,” though unfortunately, politics often faces fights against human nature, as problems that aren’t clear until they happen don’t get as much attention as the current, indisputable issues, causing a constant temptation to focus on the immediate. As such, one is tempted to ask where this line of excessive disobedience will lead in the future for the Western world? Probably anarchy. What are the remedies to social disintegration, and how to restore the social order? The key resides in the virtue of obedience.

An excellent resource for understanding the need for authority and obedience is Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Diuturnum Illud, which provides a refreshing balance between the extremes of political discourse. Let us apply its precepts to the American government. Before proceeding, it must be remembered that in the American context, power and sovereignty reside in the people, above all, codified in the Constitution. Yet, one must distinguish between how power is organized and where it comes from. As the encyclical explains, “who may be placed over the State may in certain cases be chosen by the will and decision of the multitude […] [and] by this choice, in truth, the ruler is designated, but the rights of the ruling are not thereby conferred.” In other words, one thing is the form of government. The other is the rights and duties of governing, which are derived from God.

What this means was explained by Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) in his first speech as Speaker of the House of Representatives, “I believe that scripture, the Bible, is very clear that God is the one that raises up those in authority.” For that reason, as Leo XIII explains, citizens have a moral duty to obey authority unless anything is demanded of them openly repugnant to the natural moral law. One should only disobey immoral or unlawful orders. The English historian Hilaire Belloc summarizes this point, “Where there is a conflict between civil law and the moral law […], [Christians] will resist the civil law and obey the law of the Church.” However, the proper way to do this is by avoiding sedition and tumult. Regardless, suppose a system of law or government is not contrary to the moral law (i.e., allows for the common good). In that case, there is a duty to obey and respect it. Additionally, suppose this system should, in some way, behave contrary to the moral law. In that event, statesmen must lessen the damage as much as possible and seek to repeal the unjust law and restore the social order or resign so as not to obey illicit orders.

In any event, is the United States a moral Republic? The answer is yes. As President Calvin Coolidge remarked regarding the 4th of July, “If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.” Since America recognizes in its founding documents the principles of human dignity, that rights come from God, and the Founders had a proper understanding of human nature, as well as allowing for local governments to rule local affairs and for men to know and seek God, America is a morally good nation. Despite her faults, statesmen throughout her history worked, and still work, to make it a more just place following those principles grounded in Christian truth. As such, American law is owed obedience and respect. That is also the moral difference between American democracy and communism, which is why one is due obedience, while the other is intrinsically evil.

In a few words, the American Republic accounts for its citizens’ common good, which is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” Now, as part of the requirements for the common good, there must be peace, that is, stability and security. Saint Augustine explained that peace is the tranquility of order, when everything is in its proper place. Naturally, society becomes disordered when things fall out of place, and the loss of respect for authority is part of that process. Thence, it follows that gratuitous disobedience leads to sedition and chaos.

As Leo XIII wrote, “a society can neither exist nor be conceived in which there is no one to govern the wills of individuals, in such a way as to make, as it were, one will out of many, and to impel them rightly and orderly to the common good; therefore, God has willed that in a civil society, there should be some to rule the multitude.” That is a definition of sovereignty. For society to function, a measure of obedience and the power of coercing obedience is necessary, especially when sedition breaks out. The French philosopher Joseph de Maistre defined sovereignty in this context as infallibility, in which when the state decides through law, it is the last authority. There is no further appeal. Of course, this is incomplete. When there is injustice, the citizen and the statesman must use all means within the state to promote change, as has happened often in American and English history. Therefore, there is a balance: rulers must behave with justice, while citizens must give due obedience to the state. For its part, the Church promotes the balance between the state and its citizens. And since it is a moral duty to obey authority, the presumption of citizens must be favorable toward the state and to obey unless obedience is contrary to the moral law. “​​The observance of the law is the greatest solvent of public ills,” as President Coolidge elucidated. 

In our days, cynicism has become too prevalent, and post-modernism, relativism, consumerism, critical race theory, and many other errors have slowly eaten away at our society. Nowadays, even the definition of a woman is not strict, nor is patriotism or the idea of truth. One symptom of social decay is the loss of obedience, which we see with the BLM riots of 2020, the behavior of pro-Hamas protestors, and the riots on January 6.

How do we begin to strive toward a renewed social order? The road starts with what Rod Dreher wrote in his book, Live not by Lies—refusing to go along with the lies of the age. It proceeds with forming families, the first social unit, which precedes the state. Lastly, it continues with the restoration of a spirit of obedience. Only then can society be somewhat stable. In short, this must be done if Civilization is to be saved. As Hilaire Belloc explained to Catholics in words that apply to all who would save the West:

“The true political vocation of the Catholic [is] to arrest, if it still be possible, the decline of civilization, to revive culture, to form of the Catholic body an army of leaders in the preservation and possibly the extension of our old glories now so grievously imperiled. We are the true heirs and guardians of civilization in the modern race to barbarism, and to reverse the current should be our privilege as well as our duty. The achievement is arduous but possible. It should be our glory to obtain it.”