In Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII reflects on the relative merits of associations that were developed to promote social justice. He recognized both the potential benefits and hazards of such associations. Paragraph fifty-two provides a balanced view of how the government should respond to these organizations:
There are occasions, doubtless, when it is fitting that the law should intervene to prevent certain associations, as when men join together for purposes which are evidently bad, unlawful, or dangerous to the State. In such cases, public authority may justly forbid the formation of such associations, and may dissolve them if they already exist (52).
Nevertheless, Pope Leo XIII cautions against over-zealous prosecution of organizations whose goal it is to improve society.
But every precaution should be taken not to violate the rights of individuals and not to impose unreasonable regulations under pretense of public benefit. For laws only bind when they are in accordance with right reason, and, hence, with the eternal law of God (52).
Divine law, therefore, is the ultimate authority. Disobedience to unjust laws may reflect adherence to right reason and thus divine law. There may be times, especially those of extreme social injustice, when it is a Christian duty to disobey unjust laws.
Submitted by: N. Rademacher, Assistant Professor, Religious Studies