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Keith D. Wyma argues that a coherent, well-grounded Christian perspective on civil dis- obedience is possible, and can be found in the work of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas gives crisp guidelines regarding when civil disobedience could be morally allowable—or even obligatory—and supplies a “test” to determine whether a given method of disobedience is morally appropriate. The article presents a brief summary of Aquinas’ account, notes some ways in which it skillfully navigates scriptural and historical controversies on civil disobedience, and offers a few observations on how Aquinas’ account could be useful to Christians, especially students, today. Mr. Wyma is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Whitworth University.


A while back, a former student now doing graduate work at UC Davis told me of his experience with the “Occupy” protest there. He had not joined the demonstration, but he happened to be on-scene talking to a friend in the protest when the infamous pepper spraying by the campus police occurred only a few feet from this student. That had my attention, but then he claimed that the news coverage had not captured the full event. What the public never saw, he said, was that the campus police had been trying to leave but that the demonstrating students had surrounded and then pressed in on them. The student was not trying to justify the pepper spraying, but only noting that the campus police may genuinely have felt threatened.

This incident highlights a critical aspect of the Occupy protests: they often took place through illegal squatting on public or private land, which created confrontations with authorities that sometimes resulted in violence, both by and upon the demonstrators. In other words, the Occupy movement often involved more than public demonstration; protesters broke laws and created public disturbance in conveying their message—in some ways doing so as part of that message. It might well be asked, does such activity constitute a morally justified civil disobedience, or is it, itself, an offense against justice and the public good?

I watched students struggle with this question as the Occupy movement swept the country during the fall of 2011. My university’s students considered staging an Occupy demonstration on the school’s main quad. Another Occupy protest ran for weeks in our city’s public land downtown, and some students joined it. Other students found themselves moved by the cause, but wondered if they could rightly participate in the demonstrations. Some of these latter were troubled by the particular Occupy methods, but others were concerned about the more general question of breaking laws, at all, to protest injustice. Breaking laws to highlight their injustice seems so much more direct and immediate than slowly working for change within the laws, but is it right to combat injustice with more law-breaking? These questions were heightened by the Christian mission of our university. Students struggled over where Christian teaching might draw the line on how to protest social injustice. Put more generally their questions become the driving theme for this article: can Christians formulate a coherent, persuasive rationale regarding civil disobedience?

Unfortunately, Christianity presents a confusing array of scriptural injunctions and historical precedents with respect to civil disobedience. As we consider Scripture, on the one hand, it holds this command:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.1

Yet on the other hand, it also includes this seemingly-contradictory claim, made to justify the apostles’ disobedience to the Jewish rulers, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”2 How should we reconcile these? Also, if we examine church history, we see that Christians have responded to civil injustice in a whole spectrum of ways, ranging from complicity to peaceful resistance to violent insurrection. And every one of those options has been criticized by other voices within the Christian body. To what precedent should we appeal? Thus neither Scripture nor church history present a clear-cut position on civil disobedience—on whether it is justified, and if so, when and how.

However, I argue that a coherent, well-grounded Christian perspective on civil disobedience is possible, and can be found in the work of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas addresses civil disobedience as part of his treatment of law in the Summa Theologiae. He gives crisp guidelines regarding when civil disobedience could be morally allowable—or even obligatory—and supplies a “test” to determine whether a given method of disobedience is morally appropriate. In what follows, I shall present a brief summary of Aquinas’ account, note some ways in which it skillfully navigates the scriptural and historical controversy, and offer a few observations on how Aquinas’ account could be useful to Christians, especially students, today.

The Thomistic View

To understand when and how Aquinas thinks civil disobedience is morally justified, we first need to see the four elements of his general definition of law. In grasping the requirements for what constitutes genuine law, we will uncover the places in which the supposed laws around us might fail and become occasions for civil disobedience. The basic idea unifying the elements is that law provides a “rule and measure” of action, which directs us to our good and obligates us to those directions.3 To reach our good is for us to flourish, to become perfected and attain happiness—a goal that is self-evidently valuable. That happiness is ultimately found in relationship with God but also involves our flourishing in community with other human beings. All the elements of law combine to create obligatory rules that lead to our happiness.

Law and Reason

The first requirement is that law must be a directive of reason. Power, alone, cannot make an issued rule a law. Instead, any law has to find its basis in “universal propositions of the practical intellect.”4 A law has to be rational, ultimately based in self-evident directives about the pursuit of our good. That holds true for all laws, even God’s—Aquinas is no divine command theorist. This origin in reason also yields law’s general form; reason is the faculty that allows us to work out general or universal rules, as in math, for instance.5 In fact, what we now think of as scientific laws, like Boyle’s Law in chemistry, Aquinas views as parts of “eternal law,” God’s rational plan for how all of creation should work. Aquinas calls eternal law “the type [or rationale or form] of Divine Wisdom… moving all things to their due end, bear[ing] the character of law.”6 So the workings of the universe are not just law-like, they are literally law-governed. What we understand as the moral law—whether we learn that through reason in the natural law, or from special revelation in the divine law—is really just the part of eternal law that deals with the good of rational creatures.7 God’s laws are always rational, since He is a perfectly rational and omniscient lawgiver. Human laws, though, may be imperfect in their rationality, which has important implications for civil disobedience, as we will see.

Law and the Common Good

The next aspect, and perhaps the most important for our purposes, lays out what a law’s reason must be. This requirement demands that a law must be “chiefly ordained to the common good.”8 In other words, laws need to be good for, or beneficial to, the community to which they apply. Moreover, Aquinas understands “common good” to imply not the good of the political state, nor even the good of the majority of the populace, but the good of each member of the governed community.9

It is not that the law cannot require sacrifice or hardship from the populace; it can. For human beings are benefited by living in community, and that gives the well-being of the community, itself, a claim on its members.10 Yet those “burdens”—such as taxes or mandatory military service—that laws impose must be “just” and “proportionate” to qualify as directing the common good.11 In other words, legal burdens have to be shouldered fairly across the community that will benefit from their being carried. For example, the U.S. might justly tax its citizens’ income, and perhaps even impose a graduated tax, since the rich may well reap more of society’s benefits; but it could not tax only the rich. Or the U.S. might justly institute a military draft on all able-bodied citizens, but not one applying only to African Americans. Thus, while people can be required to contribute to the state’s interest, they “cannot…be treated unjustly for any good of the state, real or pretended.”12

With those stringent requirements for the common good in mind, Aquinas identifies the three main ways laws can benefit their subjects. Laws should: (1) “further the common weal” by providing for and promoting people’s safety and well-being; (2) “foster religion” by, at the very least, offering no impediment to following God’s commands; and (3) “be helpful to discipline” by promoting and curbing virtuous and evil actions, respectively.13 The justification for (1) seems obvious, and Aquinas regards (2) and (3) as crucial because it is always beneficial to people to help them morally improve and develop their relationships with God. Indeed, as a Christian, Aquinas believes humans can attain true happiness and fulfillment only by knowing and loving God, which requires striving to be righteous as God is.14 Since morality directs us to safeguard the well-being of those around us and shapes our characters to be more like God’s, the goals of (1) and (2) are supported by (3). Aquinas writes: “Consequently it is evident that the proper effect of law is to lead its subjects to their proper virtue: …to make those to whom it is given, good.”15 On that account, the principal way that laws can promote the common good is by directing what is morally right—whether that is known from God’s revealed commands, such as “Love your neighbor as yourself” (which could lead to laws about charitable giving) or from our own reason, such as “Do not take heroin” (which implies laws against its use). Thus, true laws must enact justice, and from this essential element laws create moral obligations to obey them. We will come back to the implications of this point, but for now let us turn to the third essential aspect in the Thomistic definition of law.

Law and Authority

According to Aquinas, laws must issue from an authority that can rightfully command the governed community and enforce obedience. The activity of issuing law “belongs either to the whole people, or to someone who is the vice-regent of the whole people… [that is,] to a public personage who has care of the whole people.”16 For a law shapes the people’s interests toward a common aim.17 To do that, laws carry penalties for disobedience that are backed by sufficient coercive force to ensure obedience, generally speaking.18 This aspect is distinctive of law: my advice to drive no faster than 55 mph is backed by no more than my disapproval if you disregard it. The legal speed limit of 55 mph is backed by armed police officers and judges with the power to deprive you of money, privileges, and freedoms—and possibly even your life, for more serious violations.

Now to Aquinas’ mind, the only morally appropriate ways such coercion could be imposed on a people are if they themselves approved it, or if someone rightfully representing their will and interests—a morally legitimate authority—approved it. So laws must be issued either by a mandate of the people, or by the decision of a “public personage” the people accept as their representative. That public personage could be a monarch, a Senate, or any of many different kinds of political body. God, of course, counts as the highest rightful authority, because “the world is ruled by Divine Providence… [and] the whole community of the universe is governed by Divine Reason,” which makes Him the ultimate parent and sovereign.19 It is important to recognize, here, that God’s authority is not couched merely in His divine status or power but also in His reason, which informs His commands for the benefit of those commanded. For, Aquinas makes clear, law’s authority cannot be a tyrant.20 Anyone who has seized political power by illegitimate means, who holds power by means of corruption, who rules for his/her own benefit and not the people’s, cannot rightly issue laws or coerce obedience to them.

Law and Promulgation

The final requirement is a simple one: nobody can be held responsible for breaking a rule, unless the rule has been adequately made known, or promulgated. So laws, to obligate successfully their subjects, must be publicly proclaimed or somehow made apparent to those subjects.21 Note that this does not mean ignorance of a law always excuses disobedience. Some ignorance is negligent and culpable. If I am speeding because I was not paying attention to a “Reduced Speed Ahead” sign, I deserve my ticket. But if the sign was absent, or intentionally placed in an obscured spot as in a speed trap, that is a different story. Again, as mentioned above, the moral law is promulgated to us by God through either special revelation (divine law) or general revelation (natural law), and sometimes both (for instance, “Do not commit adultery;” it is in the Ten Commandments but we know it by reason, too).

The requirement of promulgation is unlikely to be the driver for civil disobedience—since intentionally disobeying a law as protest seems to imply knowing it is there—but it could, if, say, some group protested a law applying to some other group that was not being made aware of the law. Such cases have occurred recently in the U.S. regarding certain immigration laws.

To wrap up these points on the essential aspects of a law, Aquinas offers this implication for the requirements: any so-called “law” that fails to meet these requirements is not actually a law at all. In Aquinas’ words, any edict that, for example, does not come from a rightful authority or promote the common good “must needs be devoid of the nature of a law.”22 In fact, he says, “The like are acts of violence, rather than laws; because… a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all.”23 Or again, if a supposed law is unjust, either in what it commands, or in who commands it or how, it is not truly a law. We will pursue this crucial idea more in a moment, but first we need to return to the connection between law and morality.

Human Law and Moral Obligation

At this point, we have mostly exposed the foundations of Aquinas’ view on civil disobedience, but to complete that uncovering, we need to see a bit more about the connection between morality and human law, in particular. According to Aquinas, God’s law always morally obligates us to obey. God—as our Creator, Father, King—is obviously a rightful authority over us, with the might to enforce His will. And as wholly rational, righteous and loving, God only ever commands things that are good for us. Also, whether He promulgates those laws through the special revelation in Scripture (the divine law) or through the general revelation in our own reason (the natural law), they are effectively made known to us, and always consistent with each other, as well.24 Thus God’s commands necessarily are fully just and are truly laws to us; they are the moral law. Their complete justice entails that we are always morally obligated to follow them. So we can never rightly disobey God’s laws.25

However, that changes with respect to human laws. God, by necessity of His perfect nature and authority, may always morally obligate with His commands, but human beings do not. Sometimes people who are not legitimate authorities over us try to command and coerce us anyway. Moreover, sometimes, legitimate authorities issue edicts that do not promote the common good. A moment’s reflection will easily provide the reader with numerous examples of both cases.

Human laws, then, need to get their moral authority by ultimately finding their basis in God’s law, specifically the natural law.26 Aquinas does not want to violate the religious freedom of the individual’s conscience or to have human laws hold people to God’s (unreachably) perfect standard, so he does not see enforcing divine law as the state’s job.27 God can see into and judge the heart, but humans cannot; mentally-internal matters are for divine but not human law.28 Human lawgivers only need to stay out of the divine law’s way and not violate it, like Nebuchadnezzar did with his command to worship his idol. But human laws must still be just and directed at the common good in our human communities. And that goal is the end of natural law.29 Given this situation, Aquinas argues that

the force of a [human] law [that is, its moral obligation] depends on the extent of its justice…. Consequently every human law has just so much of the nature of law, as it is derived from the law of nature. But if in any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law.30

Thus human law gains its morally-obliging force from being grounded in the true, moral justice of the natural law. So when a human law commands us to do what is morally right, we are fully morally obliged to obey it. But, as we saw above, when a human law commands what is morally wrong, it fails to be truly a law. Moreover, we can now see the critical implication of that failure: such a “law” no longer morally obliges obedience.

Civil Disobedience

Keeping in mind the preceding requirements regarding the common good, authority, and moral obligation, we can now see how Aquinas’ general definition of law and conception of human law provide him with a well-grounded justification for certain kinds of civil disobedience. It might initially seem that civil disobedience against any unjust law would be morally appropriate, but the Thomistic position is more nuanced than that. For Aquinas recognizes two important qualifications.

First, a human law may fail to be just in different ways and gradations. A law may flatly oppose what God has told us is morally right, like Haman’s proposed law directing wholesale robbery and murder of the Jews.31 Or a law may actually—or at least be intended to—support the common good, but not do so as well as it should. Many might consider Prohibition in this category because it brought more trouble than benefit. Or again, a law might be just in its content, but come from an unjust source, like the rebellious English barons forcing King John to sign the Magna Carta. Or perhaps a law could fail because it is not adequately promulgated. These latter kinds of failure possess an “extent of justice” and proportionately have “just so much of the nature of law.”32 In short, even laws that fail to be fully just may still morally obligate us to an extent, as we will see in a moment.

Second, any time laws are broken—even unjust ones—it damages the common good. Breaking laws “is of itself prejudicial to the common good.”33 That is, human law gets much of its respect and authority from longstanding customs of observance. When laws are broken, then, precedents are set against those customs, and the general level of respect for law—including the good ones—declines. In Aquinas’ words, “the binding power of law is diminished, in so far as custom is abolished.”34 For that reason, breaking the law for civil disobedience needs to be carefully weighed against the undercutting effect that action will have on the general moral authority of human laws.

Moreover, breaking laws directly disturbs the peace, to some extent, through the illegal activity itself. If, say, a group protests a segregation law by staging a large, non-segregated sit-in at a supposedly segregated location, it may call attention to the unjust law. But the activity may also provoke fights, a large police response that ties up traffic in a wide area, and so on. The problems, of increased crime and sometimes-violent confrontations with police that have occurred in the Occupy movement also exemplify costs to the common good from civil disobedience. Aquinas calls this effect “scandal or disturbance” and points out that our own personal moral obligation to the common good—which is separate and more basic than a legal obligation—directs us to avoid this when possible.35

These two qualifications come together in considering whether it is morally appropriate to violate an unjust law. For in cases of laws with an “extent of justice,” we recognize that the unjust laws also do some good. Aquinas says such laws are “contrary to [the merely] human good”—that is, they do not promote human flourishing as well as they should.36 Perhaps they impose tax burdens unfairly, for instance, but we still recognize that the state is allowed to tax, and that the collected taxes will be beneficial to the community. Aquinas writes: “Wherefore such laws do not bind in conscience, except perhaps to avoid scandal or disturbance, for which cause a man should even yield his right.”37 In essence, we have to ask ourselves: is it more harmful to the common good if we follow, or if we break, the unjust law? So if a law fails to promote the “human” good, the law itself does not morally obligate obedience. However, our own obligation to the common good may still direct us to obey, if breaking the law would be a worse harm to the community.

Therefore, Aquinas holds that when a law deflects from the human good, civil disobedience may or may not be morally appropriate, depending on the particulars of the case. For example, imagine an overly progressive income tax by which a wealthy citizen is forced to pay an unjustly high percentage of her income, say 70% (this judgment of injustice is framed by my capitalistically-influenced understanding; I hope the reader will grant it for the sake of argument). If she still retains enough income to meet her needs and to have some—admittedly insufficient—level of reward for whatever benefits her labors created in the community, Aquinas would, I believe, regard obedience to the law as the more morally justified action over protests and refusal to pay the taxes. The law does not cause enough harm to her or its other victims to justify the harm to the civil order from her or others’ disobedience. She might well still protest to repeal the law, but she would have to do so within the system and while obeying it. As a contrasting example, consider the segregation situation, mentioned above; here, I think Aquinas would recommend civil disobedience. The law creates a grave injustice by denying significant benefits of society to large numbers of innocent people. Sit-in protests might be disruptive, but are not as damaging to the common good as the law is. Again, the justification of civil disobedience in this kind of case depends on the particulars.

However, when a human law directs action that flatly contradicts God’s commands, Aquinas says that not only is disobedience morally permissible, it is morally required. Aquinas writes that these laws are

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 [that is, to God’s revealed commands]: and laws of this kind must nowise be observed…38

After all, since God’s commands always morally oblige us to obey—as we saw above—they also oblige us to disobey any rule that would contradict them. So if a human law “opposes the Divine good,” that is, what we know from God to be morally right, we must disobey it.

That makes sense when we consider Aquinas’ view of law, noted above. It would always harm people to do what God has said not to do; that would be immoral and hurt their relationships with God—the most grievous harm possible. Therefore, whatever harm to the common good civil disobedience might produce would pale in comparison to the harm from obeying a human law that violates the divine law. Thus, for example, no matter how much scandal it caused the nation or how much punishment it brought them, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego rightly disobeyed King Nebuchadnezzar in not worshiping his golden idol.39

The Thomistic Test of Proposed Civil Disobedience

With Aquinas’ position on civil disobedience now in view, we can quickly lay out a straightforward Thomistic test to determine whether some proposed act of civil disobedience is morally justified. The test has two simple steps: first, we ask whether the law in question violates the divine good or the human good; second, we ask whether the proposed civilly-disobedient action is the option that will cause the least harm to the common good. If the answer to the first query is “no” to either possibility, then the law is just, and no matter how much it displeases us, we must obey. If the answer is “yes” to the first possibility, then we must disobey. A “yes” to the second possibility means we may disobey, depending on the answer to the next question.

The second query provides two important guides. On the one hand, it settles the method of disobedience against a law violating the divine good. Even if disobedience is mandatory, we must still choose the method that itself least damages the common good. On the other hand, for a law that violates the human good, the second question determines whether any civil disobedience is justified by comparing the harm from disobedient actions with the harm from obeying the law. Whatever causes the least harm—whether that is obedience or some particular type of disobedience—is what we morally ought to do. And, of course, even if we must obey the law, that does not mean we cannot work for its repeal while obeying it.

Advantages of the Thomistic View

Now we are in position to see how advantageous the Thomistic view of civil disobedience is. First, it has a thoroughly reasoned foundation, in Aquinas’ conceptions of law and of human law’s relation to morality. The Thomistic definition of law is widely respected and has played a fundamental role in the history of jurisprudence, even being appealed to in the decisions of U.S. Federal courts within recent years.40 Moreover, his requirements regarding the common good and rightful authority have deep roots in Americans’ understanding of government. Indeed, the U.S. Constitution’s Preamble declares the new government’s responsibility to the common good:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

And, of course, the rest of the Constitution details how the people’s rightful representatives will be chosen, and with what powers they will be invested. That is “exactly in accordance” with Aquinas’ view.41 Moreover, Aquinas’ thesis that the moral law stands above human law, and that the latter must find its justification in the former, has formed the driving ideal of powerful movements for civil reform. For instance, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. directly appeals to Aquinas’ position on this point in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”42 In short, Aquinas bases his position on civil disobedience in ideas that are respected and widely utilized in American politics. Adopting the Thomistic view then gives Christians a rational and persuasive platform from which to argue the merits of civil disobedience.

Second, Aquinas’ view helps reconcile scriptural and historical controversies regarding civil disobedience. Regarding Scripture, Aquinas interprets the passage from Romans 13, seen in the introduction, as referring to legitimate authority operating “in matters that are within its scope”; the passage refers to rightful authorities commanding actions appropriate to the common good. Such commands then are God-ordained and do bind us to obey.43 Yet that still allows him to affirm the apostles’ refusal to obey the Jewish rulers, from Acts 5; for they are reacting to human authorities who are ordering something contrary to God’s commands—in this case, to cease spreading the Gospel—which Aquinas has just pointed out requires such disobedience.44 Thus, seen from a Thomistic perspective, these scriptural passages no longer conflict.

Moreover, the Thomistic test gives us a good method of sorting and critiquing civil disobedience precedents from Christian practice. Without going into case details, I think we can see that, according to Aquinas, sometimes the right action would be simply to follow the law, when breaking it would cause more harm than keeping it. For example, since so-called “house churches” in China are widely viewed by Chinese authorities as subversive to the state, then publicly disrupting the government’s restrictive policies would confirm the already-present scandal against the Christian faith even more than the churches’ continued meeting already does (which meetings themselves would be justified since God’s revealed law directs Christians to gather). House Christians may endure their persecution—judging that more damage would be done to the common good, especially as it pertains to relating to God—rather than resist the injustice done to them. Non-violent protest and resistance might be justified sometimes, too, though, since injustices can demand that a law be broken. Hiding Jews from the Nazis would be an example of this kind of situation.

However, I do not believe the Thomistic test would condone violent insurrection as a method of Christian civil disobedience. My reasoning comes from Aquinas’ consideration of sins against the public peace, particularly scandal, strife, and sedition. I think the test would “fail” violent insurrection for two reasons. First, it has a nearly irresistible tendency to escalate, to prompt retaliatory actions or renewed oppression, which then brings about more insurrection, in a vicious cycle. Second, it lacks one of the proper qualifications to constitute a just war—declaration by a rightful authority—since violent insurrection would be an instigation to civil war. Both of these factors create “scandal and disturbance” that damage peace and the common good, and we have already seen that Aquinas holds that even in cases where laws have no moral obligation for us, we still have our own moral obligation to the public good. “Scandal” specifically refers to presenting others stumbling blocks or occasions for “spiritual downfall,” and importantly figures in why violent civil disobedience is problematic.45

Aquinas’ treatment of sedition at first seems to support the possibility of violent civil disobedience. Sedition “denotes actual aggression, or the preparation for such aggression.”46 Aquinas clarifies that sedition is distinct both from war, properly defined, in that the former is internal, and from strife, in that sedition is not just between individuals or small groups but “between mutually dissentient parts of one people, as when one part of the state rises in tumult against another part.”47 Sedition then covers the violence, and the preparation for it, that would undermine a state. Normally, that is against “the assembly of those who are united together in fellowship recognized by law and for the common good” and is sinful.48 However, Aquinas explicitly says that to conduct “seditious” action against the rule of a tyrant—who rules for personal gain rather than the good of the people—does not properly count as sedition.49 That analysis seems to favor, for instance, the plan by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others, to assassinate Hitler.

Yet in that very same passage, Aquinas presents a bright-line limit for opposing a tyrant in this way: “Consequently there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind, unless indeed the tyrant’s rule be disturbed so inordinately, that his subjects suffer greater harm from the consequent disturbance than from the tyrant’s government.”50 Here, Aquinas reiterates the prohibition of scandal and disturbance. Now, consider the scandal caused by Christians participating in an assassination cabal, like Bonhoeffer’s. Is not such action likely to present a stumbling block for at least some well-intentioned people who thereby question whether it is a good thing to be a Christian? More than that, how likely is it that such actions will actually end oppression or conflict? The Nazi regime had already shown that it responded to assassinations with brutally-escalated reprisals. And has not the history of guerilla and civil warfare confirmed this pattern? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems like a paradigmatic example. Granting for the sake of argument the justice of Palestinian claims of tyranny by the Israeli state, their violent insurrection has unquestionably escalated and perpetuated further violence. Given this tendency to escalation, Aquinas’ restriction of sedition against tyranny is more sweeping than it initially appears. Seditious civil disobedience might only be justified in the extreme when the tyrant is already making war on the people, and insurrection cannot make it worse. Even if violent opposition in the Nazi case could still turn out to be justified because of the Nazis’ genocidal attack on people under their authority, it really would be a case of the exception proving the rule that violent civil disobedience is not normally morally permissible.

Further support for that position emerges in the treatment of strife. Aquinas defines “strife” as “a kind of private war…being declared not by public authority, but rather by an inordinate will. Therefore strife is always sinful.”51 Part of what makes strife sinful is that it comes from an “inordinate will” aimed more at vengeance than justice. But that, itself, connects to the fact that this “private war” does not have a legitimate authority to declare it.52 Any just war must be declared by a rightful authority with the charge to defend, and the power to decide, these matters of the public good (like such an authority is needed to make a law).53 When private individuals make war—whether against individuals, under strife’s proper definition, or against the state in cases more like sedition—it is merely vengeance, not justice, because they do not rightly have the authority to make such decisions. Now, self-defense does not imply strife, so to defend oneself from unjust violence, even from the state, does not constitute strife.54 But self-defense seems distinct from civil disobedience, too. To protest in a violent manner against the state sounds like the “private war” of strife, which would be sinful. Consider Bonhoeffer’s cabal: who were they to decide a matter which, if they had succeeded, would likely have cost many more lives in punishments and reprisals? Again, the scandal and disturbance implications are obvious.

In short, the rule seems to be that other than in the most extreme cases, violent civil disobedience would not be morally allowable in the Thomistic understanding. Even if disobedience were morally justified in a certain circumstance, there would (almost) always have to be a less disruptive option than violence. Violent disobedience would itself do too much damage to the public peace and the cause of Christ to be a morally appropriate action. Now, I realize my interpretation is contentious. Certainly, there are Thomistic scholars who would disagree with me. But even in this disagreement, there is something important to note: a clear, basic standard to which both sides appeal and which can help to adjudicate the dispute. The argument is not over whether the standard is rational or justified, but only over the weighting of benefits and harms from violent civil disobedience. Common ground is present that may help settle the rest of the disagreement. Thus we can see the usefulness of Aquinas’ position in evaluating the various precedents of Christian practice.


Finally, now that we have seen the Thomistic analysis of civil disobedience, including its rational foundations and advantageous applications, we can conclude by noting how useful Aquinas may be to Christian college students. One of the characteristic experiences of college is growing awareness of the world’s injustices, and that often creates in students a laudable desire to fight those evils. Appealing to Aquinas’ view could, I think, help students discern appropriate instances and methods of combating injustice: when to work within the system because breaking the laws in question would disproportionately damage the public good, when to justify the law-breaking of civil disobedience, and how to act in those latter situations. The Thomistic perspective could help students avoid getting caught up in trendy, but pointless or violent, protests, and aid them in identifying the truly constructive activities in which injustice can be vilified in a manner that betters society.

To return to the opening illustration, Aquinas’ guidelines on civil disobedience can valuably contribute to the argument over the Occupy movement. Exploring that contribution would require another paper, and perhaps I will assign my Social-Political Philosophy students that exercise. I want my students, as they consider injustices in our economic system, to be well grounded. I want to help them direct their responses in ways that further justice while protecting the public good and honoring their Christian commitments. And I believe this Thomistic analysis of civil disobedience can importantly contribute to those goals, both for my students and Christian students, more generally.55

Cite this article
Keith D. Wyma, “When and How Should We Respond to Unjust Laws? A Thomistic Analysis of Civil Disobedience”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:2 , 157-170


  1. Rom. 13:1-2 (New Revised Standard Version).
  2. Acts 5:29.
  3. St. Thomas Aquinas, Treatise on Law [Summa Theologiae I-II qq.90-97] (Gateway Editions, 1991), q.90, prologue, a.1, resp.
  4. Ibid., q.90, a.1, resp., ad 2.
  5. Ibid.
  6. bid.,q.93, a.1, resp.
  7. Ibid., q.91, a.2, resp.; a.4, resp., ad 2.
  8. Ibid., q.90, a.2, resp.
  9. R. J. Henle, ed. The Treatise on Law: Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II; qq.90-97 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993), 80.
  10. Aquinas, TL, q.90, a.2, resp.; q.92, a.1, ad 3; q.96, a.4, resp.
  11. Ibid., q.96, a.4, resp.
  12. Henle, Treatise, 133.
  13. Aquinas, TL q.95, a.3, resp.
  14. St. Thomas Aquinas, Treatise on Happiness [Summa Theologiae I-II qq.1-21], trans. John A. Oesterle (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), q.1, a.8, resp.; q.3, a.8, resp.; q.4, a.4, resp.
  15. Aquinas, TL, q.92, a.1, resp.
  16. Ibid., q.90, a.3, resp.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid., q.90, a.3, ad 2.
  19. Ibid., q.91, a.1, resp.
  20. Ibid., q.96, a.4, resp.
  21. Ibid., q.90, a.4, resp.
  22. Ibid., q.90, a.2, resp.
  23. Ibid., q.96, a.4, resp.
  24. Ibid., q.94, a.5, ad 2.
  25. Ibid., q.93, a.3, resp.; q.94, a.5, ad 2.
  26. For more on how human laws must ground their authority in God’s, see Russel Hittinger, The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2003).
  27. Aquinas, TL, q.95, a.2; q.96, aa.2-4.
  28. Ibid., q.91, a.4, resp.
  29. Ibid., q.91, a.4, resp, ad 1; q.94, a.2, resp.
  30. Ibid., q.95, a.2, resp.
  31. Esther 3:12-13.
  32. Aquinas, TL q.95, a.2, resp.
  33. Ibid., q.97, a.2, resp.
  34. Ibid., q.97, a.2, resp.
  35. Ibid., q.96, a.4, resp.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Ibid., q.96, a.4, resp.
  39. Daniel 3:1-18.
  40. Henle, Treatise, 145.
  41. Ibid., 140.
  42. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,”
  43. Aquinas, TL q.96, a.4, ad 1.
  44. Ibid., q.96, a.4, resp.
  45. Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1948), q.43, a.1, resp.
  46. Ibid., q.42, a.1, resp.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Ibid., a.2, resp.
  49. Ibid., ad 2.
  50. Ibid.
  51. Ibid., q.41, a.1, resp.
  52. Ibid.
  53. Ibid., q.40, a.1, resp.
  54. Ibid., q.41, a.1, resp.
  55. I want to thank my colleagues, and particularly an anonymous referee for this journal, for valuable points and criticisms that clarified this article and tightened its argument.

Keith D. Wyma

Whitworth University
Keith D. Wyma is Professor of Philosophy at Whitworth University.