Project Logo

Protection of Conscience Project

Service, not Servitude
Religious Believers

Evangelium Vitae - The Gospel of Life

Encyclical of Pope John Paul II
25 March, 1995

Extracts concerning conflict between law of the state and conscience

"We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29)

Civil law* and the moral law

68. One of the specific characteristics of present-day attacks on human life . . . consists in the trend to demand a legal justification for them . . . Consequently, there is a tendency to claim that it should be possible to exercise these rights with the safe and free assistance of doctors and medical personnel . . .

69. . . . in the democratic culture of our time it is commonly held that the legal system of any society should limit itself to taking account of and accepting the convictions of the majority. It should therefore be based solely upon what the majority itself considers moral and actually practises. Furthermore, if it is believed that an objective truth shared by all is de facto unattainable, then respect for the freedom of the citizens - who in a democratic system are considered the true rulers - would require that on the legislative level the autonomy of individual consciences be acknowledged. Consequently, when establishing those norms which are absolutely necessary for social coexistence, the only determining factor should be the will of the majority, whatever this may be. Hence every politician, in his or her activity, should clearly separate the realm of private conscience from that of public conduct.

As a result we have what appear to be two diametrically opposed tendencies.

On the one hand, individuals claim for themselves in the moral sphere the most complete freedom of choice and demand that the state should not adopt or impose any ethical position but limit itself to guaranteeing the maximum space for the freedom of each individual, with the sole limitation of not infringing on the freedom and rights of any other citizen.

On the other hand, it is held that, in the exercise of public and professional duties, respect for other people's freedom of choice requires that each one should set aside his or her own convictions in order to satisfy every demand of the citizens which is recognized and guaranteed by law; in carrying out one's duties, the only moral criterion should be what is laid down by the law itself.

Individual responsibility is thus turned over to the civil law, with a renouncing of personal conscience, at least in the public sphere. . .

70. . . . Everyone's conscience rightly rejects those crimes against humanity of which our century has had such sad experience. But would these crimes cease to be crimes, if, instead of being committed by unscrupulous tyrants, they were legitimated by popular consensus?

Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality. Fundamentally, democracy is a "system" and as such is a means and not an end. Its "moral" value is not automatic, but depends on conformity to the moral law to which it, like every other form of human behaviour, must be subject: In other words, its morality depends on the morality of the ends which it pursues and of the means which it employs.

If today we see an almost universal consensus with regard to the value of democracy, this is to be considered a positive "sign of the times," as the Church's magisterium has frequently noted.(88) But the value of democracy stands or falls with the values which it embodies and promotes . . .

The basis of these values cannot be provisional and changeable "majority" opinion, but only the acknowledgement of an objective moral law which, as the "natural law" written in the human heart, is the obligatory point of reference for civil law itself. If, as a result of a tragic obscuring of the collective conscience, an attitude of scepticism were to succeed in bringing into question even the fundamental principles of the moral law, the democratic system itself would be shaken in its foundations and would be reduced to a mere mechanism for regulating different and opposing interests on a purely empirical basis (89) . . .

Even in participatory systems of government, the regulation of interests often occurs to the advantage of the most powerful, since they are the ones most capable not only of manoeuvring the levers of power but also of shaping the formation of consensus. In such a situation, democracy easily becomes an empty word.

71. . . . Certainly the purpose of civil law is different and more limited in scope than that of the moral law. But "in no sphere of life can the civil law take the place of conscience or dictate norms concerning things which are outside its competence," (90) which is that of ensuring the common good of people through the recognition and defence of their fundamental rights, and the promotion of peace and of public morality (91) . . .

72. The doctrine on the necessary conformity of civil law with the moral law is in continuity with the whole tradition of the Church. This clear once more from John XIII's encyclical: "Authority is a postulate of the moral order and derives from God. Consequently, laws and decrees enacted in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience . . .; indeed, the passing of such laws undermines the very nature of authority and results in shameful abuse."(95)

This is clear from the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, who writes that "human law is law inasmuch as it is in conformity with right reason, and thus derives from the eternal law. But when a law is contrary to reason, it is called an unjust law; but in this case it ceases to be a law and becomes instead and act of violence." (96) And again: "Every law made by man can be called a law insofar as it derives from the natural law. But if it is somehow opposed to the natural law, then it is not really a law but rather a corruption of the law."(97) . . .

73. Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection.

From the very beginning of the Church, the apostolic preaching reminded Christians of their duty to obey legitimately constituted public authorities (cf. Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pt 2:13-14), but at the same time it firmly warned that "we must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

In the Old Testament, precisely in regard to threats against life, we find a significant example of resistance to the unjust command of those in authority. After Pharaoh ordered the killing of all newborn males, the Hebrew midwives refused. "They did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live" (Ex. 1:17). But the ultimate reason for their action should be noted: "the midwives feared God" (ibid).

It is precisely from obedience to God - to Whom alone is due that fear which is acknowledgement of His absolute sovereignity - that the strength and the courage to resist unjust human laws are born. It is the strength and courage of those prepared even to be imprisoned or put to the sword, in the certainty that this is what makes for "the endurance and faith of the saints" (R v 13:10).

In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to "take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law or vote for it." (98) . . .

74. the passing of unjust laws often raises difficult problems of conscience for morally upright people with regard to the issue of cooperation, since they have a right to demand not to be forced to take part in morally evil actions.

Sometimes the choices which have to be made are difficult: they may require the sacrifice of prestigious professional positions or the relinquishing of reasonable hopes of career advancement. In other cases it can happen that carrying out certain actions, which are provided for by legislation that overall is unjust but which in themselves are indifferent or even positive, can serve to protect human lives under threat. There may be reason to fear, however, that willingness to carry out such actions will not only cause scandal and weaken the necessary opposition to attacks on life, but will gradually lead to further capitulation to a mentality of permissiveness.

In order to shed light on this difficult question, it is necessary to recall the general principles concerning co-operation in evil actions.

Christians, like all people of good will, are called upon under grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God's law. Indeed, from the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil.

Such cooperation occurs when an action, either by its very nature or by the form it takes in a concrete situation, can be defined as a direct participation in an act against innocent human life or a sharing in the immoral intention of the person committing it.

This cooperation can never be justified either by invoking respect for the freedom of others or by appealing to the fact that civil law permits it or requires it. Each individual in fact has moral responsibility for the acts which her personally performs; no one can be exempted from this responsibility, and on the basis of it everyone will be judged by God Himself (cf. Rom 2:6; 14:12).

To refuse to take part in committing an injustice is not only a moral duty; it is also a basic human right. Were this not so, the human person would be forced to perform an action intrinsically incompatible with human dignity, and in this way human freedom itself, the authentic meaning and purpose of which are found in its orientation to the true and the good, would be radically compromised.

What is at stake, therefore, is an essential right which, precisely as such, should be acknowledged and protected by civil law. In this sense, the opportunity to refuse to take part in the phases of consultation, preparation and execution of these acts against life should be guaranteed to physicians, health care personnel and directors of hospitals, clinics and convalescent facilities. Those who have recourse to conscientious objection must be protected not only from legal penalties, but also from any negative effects on the legal, disicplinary, financial and professional plane. . .


* Civil law, in this context, refers to the law of the state (as opposed to canon or church law). (-Administrator-)

88. Cf. Centesimus Annus, 46; Pius XII, Christmas radio message (Dec. 24, 1944); AAS 37 (1945), 10-20.

89. Veritatis Splendor, 97 and 99.

90. Donum Vitae, III.

91. Vatican Council II, Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, 7.

95. Pacem in Terris, II.

96. Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 93, a.3, ad 2um.

97. Ibid., I-II, q. 95, a 2. Aquinas quotes St. Augustine: "Non videtur esse lex, quae justa non ferit," De Libero Arbitrio, I.5, 11: PL 32, 1227.

98. Declaration on Procured Abortion, 22.


Print Friendly and PDF