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John Daly destroys a foundational pillar of false traditionalism

Faith and Authority:
When is Disobedience Legitimate?


One of the foundational pillars of the popular “recognize-and-resist” position of the Society of St. Pius X and their theological cousins is the idea that whenever a lawful ecclesiastical authority, such as the Pope, abuses his office by giving a command that ought not to be given, then his inferiors have the right, perhaps even the duty, to resist it, that is, they are permitted or required to disobey by refusing to carry it out. Conversely, the recognize-and-resist adherents maintain that if an action is laudable and profitable to the Church or to souls and yet it is being forbidden by a legitimate Catholic authority for an unjust or insufficiently good reason, then it is licit to carry it out anyway, despite the superior’s prohibition. The pseudo-traditionalist pioneer and SSPX apologist Michael Davies (1936-2004) was one of the greatest promoters of this idea.

There is only one problem with it: It is entirely false. While it is true that one is not permitted to obey a superior’s directive that would require the inferior to commit a sin, that is an entirely different matter altogether. The semi-trad resistance position, however, thrives on a confusion of these concepts, and thus it is necessary to set the record straight.

What follows below is an explanation of the true traditional Catholic teaching on the interplay between faith and authority, on licit commands and obedience, on resistance and disobedience. It is an excerpt from Chapter 8 of the book Michael Davies: An Evaluation by John S. Daly (2nd ed., 2015). The entire book is available for free download electronically here, and it can be purchased as a hardcopy in paperback here.


When is Disobedience Legitimate?

Now it is true that there can be occasions which justify a Catholic in disobeying instructions given by legitimately constituted ecclesiastical authority concerning even those matters which fall within its competence; it is true that such disobedience can be morally permissible and indeed of moral obligation. But these occasions fall into but a single category, namely when the authority in question gives an instruction which it is impossible to obey without committing definite sin. Then disobedience to the ecclesiastical superior is no more than an accidental effect of an act of obedience to a higher authority. To suggest that, outside that one exceptional category already envisaged and recognized by the Church, there are further categories in which, in order to retain the Faith, it is necessary for us to disobey legitimate authority, or, as is often claimed in traditionalist circles, that one is entitled to disobey any command coming from a legitimate authority which is, despite its legitimacy, engaged in actions harmful to the Church, is to postulate an impossibility. There is simply no Catholic answer to the question of whether one should choose the virtue of faith without obedience, or the virtue of obedience without faith; for the true Catholic knows that he must have both together and that any apparent need to sacrifice one to the other must result from a misreading of the situation. Faced with such a dilemma, he re-examines the circumstances which appear to present such a dilemma for as long as it takes him to ascertain what factor he is overlooking; knowing, by faith, that such a factor there must definitely be. And in the case we are considering, the solution he must eventually arrive at – a solution which is seen to be more than fully supported by independent evidence as soon as he starts looking in the right direction – is of course that the authorities of the Conciliar Church [=Novus Ordo Sect] are not lawfully constituted Catholic authorities at all, and are therefore entitled to no obedience whatsoever, even in respect of commands and laws which would have been binding had they been imposed by legitimate pastors.

In short, when we examine the position of Michael Davies on the subject of the obedience owed by Catholics to ecclesiastical authority, we encounter the tragic result of a refusal to re-examine the assumptions which had produced an impossible dilemma – a refusal which in turn leads to the abandonment of obedience in a vain attempt to preserve the Faith.

Before proceeding to analyse Davies’s position on the obligation of obedience to the laws and commands of Catholic authority, it must be made clear that, for the purposes of this examination, we shall once again have to assume as valid Davies’s false premise that the members of the Conciliar Church’s hierarchy hold legitimate authority in the Catholic Church. This is, obviously, because Davies himself believes they are legitimate and argues that Catholics may disobey them despite this presumed legitimacy. Normally it would be sufficient for a Catholic to reply to that they are not legitimate, and that they therefore have no entitlement to the obedience of anyone who wishes to be a Catholic. But for the purpose of analysing Davies’s doctrinal errors, it must be shown that even if the authorities of the Conciliar Church were, as he considers them, Catholic authorities, retaining their offices and jurisdiction but abusing them by issuing inexpedient commands and promulgating undesirable laws, his conclusion that one is entitled to disobey them at whim [5] and with impunity is certainly not a conclusion which is compatible with Catholic teaching.

Let us begin by establishing what Catholic doctrine on this subject is, an exercise which need not take us long. A good summary of the attitude of Catholics to the laws of the Church is presented by St. Robert Bellarmine in his De Romano Pontifice, lib. IV, cap. 15:

In the Catholic Church it has always been believed that bishops in their dioceses and the Roman Pontiff in the whole Church are the ecclesiastical rulers [‘principes’] who can, by their own authority and without the consent of the people or advice of the priests, pass laws which bind in conscience, give judgements in ecclesiastical trials after the manner of other judges, and, finally, impose punishment.

That is clear enough, and the principle should be almost instinctive to all Catholics. But of course, as has already been indicated, while this is what every Catholic should know from his Catechism-learning days, and is a truth which there can be no excuse for ignorance of, it is nevertheless true that the matter is more complicated than this. It is equally true that – as St. Robert himself makes clear in the same chapter – there are times when Catholics are entitled, and even obliged, to disobey the commands and conceivably even the laws of legitimate authority. In the case of laws only a brief summary is necessary, for the possibility of a law (i.e. a universal and permanent command) conflicting with a Catholic doctrine or requiring Catholics to perform some action which is not conducive to their spiritual welfare could only exist at local level. The Holy Ghost protects the supreme authority of the Church from promulgating such a law.

This is what one famous nineteenth century theologian, Fr. H. Hürter, has to say on this subject – and his teaching is confirmed by every Catholic theologian who addresses the same point. In his Compendium of Dogmatic Theology, Vol. I, p. 277, he informs us that “the Church cannot approve a general and universally obligatory discipline which is contrary to faith or morals or which causes grave harm to religion.”

Thus the only three occasions when it is permissible to disobey a universal law of the Church which has not been revoked are:

  • (i) When the law is physically or morally impossible to comply with. Moral impossibility, in this case, would mean that obedience to the ecclesiastical law would require disobedience to a higher law, as, for instance, if, to comply with the law requiring assistance at Mass on Sunday, one had to abandon a sick person in need of continual attention.
  • (ii) Automatic cessation of the law. This occurs whenever supervening circumstances make it impossible for a law to achieve any of the good ends for which the legislator instituted it. (It may also occur by virtue of a contrary custom where this custom is known and approved of by the legislator.)
  • (iii) Epikeia. This is the principle according to which a law which remains generally in force may cease to bind a particular individual in a particular case because wholly extraordinary circumstances render the law either harmful or excessively burdensome to that individual in that case. Since epikeia may never be invoked when recourse to the legislative authority is possible, it is evident that epikeia cannot be a sufficient pretext to justify traditionalists in withholding obedience from those whom they (erroneously) consider to be the legitimate authorities of the Catholic Church.

In the case of commands – that is, instructions given by ecclesiastical authority to particular groups or to individuals on particular occasions, as opposed to laws, which are general and permanent instructions – evidently epikeia and automatic cessation cannot apply, since the one giving the command will be aware of the circumstances at the time of giving it. Moral and physical impossibility, however, will continue to excuse, and there is in addition one other occasion when disobedience becomes permissible and indeed mandatory, an occasion which, it must be emphasized, does not affect ecclesiastical laws but only commands. This is when the authority gives a command compliance with which would involve a definite sin on the part of the person obeying.

Let us examine this exception in a little more depth. It is expressed succinctly in the Penny Catechism, question-and-answer number 197, where we read:

By the fourth Commandment we are commanded to love, reverence, and obey our parents in all that is not sin …. We are commanded to obey, not only our parents, but also our bishops and pastors, the civil authorities and our lawful superiors. (Emphasis added)

Similarly, Fr. Patrick Murray in his De Ecclesia, Disputatio XVII, Sectio IV, n. 90, teaches that “one is always bound to obey the (Roman) pontiff when he gives an absolute command, whether he does so infallibly or not, in everything which does not involve manifest sin.”

And of course what must be particularly noticed for our present purposes is that the duty of obeying our parents and lawful superiors, whether ecclesiastical or secular, is a binding obligation except where such obedience would be sinful for us. Thus it follows that if a case were to arise in which a lawful superior gave a command which it was sinful for him to command, but which involved no sin in obeying it, one would be bound to comply with it.[6] When, for instance, King David arranged for the command to be given to Urias the Hethite to stand in front of the battle line, mortal sin was undoubtedly committed by King David, since his purpose was to ensure that Urias would be killed in order that he, David, might continue his unlawful relationship with Urias’s wife. But on the part of Urias no sin whatever was involved in his complying with the sinfully given command, because it is the duty of a soldier – obliged like everyone else to obey, not only his parents, “but also his bishops and pastors, the civil authorities and,” as in this case, “his lawful superiors” – to take whatever position in battle his commanders assign to him. On the contrary, therefore, his obedience to the instruction was correct and virtuous and indeed it would have been sinful for him not to have obeyed.

In considering the subject of when it is permissible to disobey ecclesiastical authorities, it is of the highest importance to bear in mind this distinction: if one would sin by obeying a command, one may and must disobey it; but if the superior sinned by commanding something that the subject can nonetheless obey without sinning himself, obedience remains obligatory.

One other fine point needs to be considered before this summary of relevant Catholic doctrine will be complete, namely the question of how a Catholic should conduct himself if he is in doubt as to whether obedience to the instruction of a lawful superior is or is not sinful. The answer of the Church on this point is clear and definite – one is obliged to obey. The reason for this is that the presumption is in favour of the superior, so that any doubt as to whether compliance with his command is sinful or not should be resolved by presuming that it is not sinful. Moreover, this, it must be stressed, applies even when compliance with a command appears to be probably sinful. Only when definite sin is involved is one entitled, and obliged, to disobey, as is clearly stated by St. Ignatius Loyola when he writes:

When, in my opinion and judgement, the Superior bids me to do something which is against my conscience, or sinful, and the Superior thinks the contrary, I ought to believe him unless he is manifestly wrong. (Monumenta Ignatiana, series 1a, XII, 660)

And the same doctrine is taught by St. Bernard, St. Bonaventure, St. Benedict, and especially by St. Augustine, who makes it clear that it applies even in relation to the obedience due to temporal rulers – “to obey them [temporal rulers] with a good conscience, it is not necessary to have evidence that their commands are lawful, but it is sufficient that the contrary is not recognized with certainty.” (Contra Faustum Manichæum, book 22, chapter 75) This teaching of St. Augustine’s, St. Thomas Aquinas explains, is based on the fact that “it does not belong to the subject to decide whether a thing is possible or not, but to the Superior alone ….” (Summa Theologiæ, I, II, Q. 13, A. 5)

Finally, although there is no need to consider the case of immoral or unjust laws promulgated by the pope to be of general application in the Church, this does not necessarily apply to ecclesiastical laws of more restricted scope, such as diocesan laws. It is not impossible that a bishop might promulgate a law for his diocese which manifestly required a sinful act, such as would be the case if he demanded that priests take less than fifteen minutes in the celebration of Mass.[7] In such a case he should evidently be disobeyed. Nor is it impossible that he should promulgate a law which could be obeyed without sin but which was manifestly contrary to justice, for instance by forbidding priests of the Dominican order to write in public on theological matters, or by making clerics born in the month of April ineligible for certain ecclesiastical offices. In such a case, St. Robert Bellarmine teaches that the law would be invalid and not strictly binding in conscience, but he adds that it ought nevertheless to be obeyed if scandal would arise from disobedience to it. (De Romano Pontifice, lib. IV, cap. 15)[8] The proper course for the victim of such an injustice is, of course, if necessary, to appeal to the Holy See, but meanwhile to follow Our Lord’s counsel: “ … if a man will contend with thee in judgement and take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him.” (Matthew 5:40) What must never be forgotten is that the permission to disobey an unjust but not sinful instruction does not apply to general laws of the Church, for they are protected from such abuses; does not apply to particular commands given to individuals by popes or bishops, for here the only question is whether the person commanding has authority over the person being commanded in the matter of the command (a law must, by its nature, be just and useful, which is not so, however, of a command, which looks to the individual rather than to the community); and does not apply to cases where the instruction seems unjust, but only where it is manifestly and undeniably so, for it is the business of the superior to assess the justice of his commands, not of the inferior.



[5] The words “at whim” are not a gratuitous rhetorical flourish. On p. 6 of this Evaluation a statement by Dietrich von Hildebrand, quoted and approved by Davies, was analysed, to the effect that prelates who are guilty of certain misdemeanours “lose the right to claim obedience in disciplinary matters.” If they have entirely lost the right to be obeyed, in Davies’s view, evidently it is no injustice to say that he holds that they may be disobeyed at whim, for there can be no reason for granting or refusing obedience to those who have no right to it except personal preference.

[6] Cf. the following extract from Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Diuturnum Illud: “The only reason which men have for not obeying is when anything is demanded of them which is openly repugnant to the natural or Divine law, for it is equally unlawful to command to do anything in which the law of nature or the will of God is violated.” (Acta Sanctæ Sedis, XIV, 3 et seq.)

[7] Moral theologians agree that to say Mass in less than fifteen minutes is impossible without gravely sinful irreverence.

[8] “For if the Pope were to order the Lenten fast to be observed alike by children and adults, by weak and strong, by the sick and the healthy, the law would be unjust [and therefore, as has been pointed out two paragraphs earlier, no law at all]. The same would apply if he ordered that only rich men and nobles might be admitted to the episcopate, excluding the poor and commoners even if they were more learned and virtuous. This would be unjust absolutely speaking, even though it might be just in some particular place and time on account of some special circumstance. And although an unjust law is no law at all and hence does not of itself bind in conscience, yet a distinction must be made according to the kind of law involved. For when a law is unjust by its subject matter, i.e. it is contrary to divine law (whether natural or positive), not only does it not oblige but it must on no account be observed, in accordance with the words of Acts V ‘We ought to obey God rather than men.’ (…) But when a law is unjust by virtue of its end, its author, or its form, it ought to be obeyed whenever scandal would follow if it were not.”


This was an excerpt of pp. 293-300 of John Daly’s book Michael Davies: An Evaluation (2nd ed., 2015). Italics in original.

The entire book is available for free electronically or for purchase in hardcopy:

We express our gratitude to Mr. Daly for kindly permitting us to provide these excerpts and for making the electronic version of his book available to the public for free.