Breaking the Law
Fr. Frank Pavone
National Director, Priests for Life
I have never broken the law. I have never been arrested.
Yet I often think of Bishop Austin Vaughan, auxiliary bishop of New York, who
in the last years of his life of faithful service to the Church, was arrested and
imprisoned many times for rescuing unborn babies. He saw what Christians were
doing across the country as they peacefully blocked the doors of abortion mills to
put their bodies between the babies and the instruments of death. Then one day he
looked at his episcopal ring, and realized that the three figures on it -- St. Peter, St.
Paul, and the Lord Jesus -- had all been arrested and imprisoned! He no longer
hesitated to do so too, if it was the price to pay for saving lives.
Human reason, Scripture, and history teach us that while we are called to be law- abiding citizens, breaking the law is not always wrong. Take, for example,
someone who breaks down the door of a neighbor's apartment to put out a fire, or
jumps over a fence past the "no trespassing" sign into a neighbor's yard to save a
child drowning in a swimming pool. Those cases make it clear that saving life
takes precedence over laws the preserve less important values.
Lessons from Scripture abound. The apostles were given strict orders not to teach
in the name of Jesus (see Acts 4 and 5). Should they have obeyed? If they had, we
would not know the Gospel. Would we obey if that order were given to us? What
exactly would we say to the assembled crowd on Sunday morning if such a law
had been passed on Friday?
In Exodus, we read, "The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives...'When you
help the Hebrew women in childbirth ... if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let
her live.' The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of
Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live" (Ex. 1:15-17). They disobeyed
the king's order because it conflicted with a higher law, God's command never to
kill the innocent. Daniel went to the lion's den because he disobeyed a law
prohibiting prayer (Daniel 6).
History shows us Christians martyred for disobeying Caesar, people rescuing
slaves, protecting Jews from the Holocaust, and resisting segregation -- all in
violation of the law but in support of justice. The list of examples fills many
We risk failure if we ignore the lessons of history and the principles of Scripture.
It's easy to look back at those who broke the law in these cases and praise them.
But when the same challenges that they faced face us, we find it difficult to
acknowledge that sometimes the law must be broken. That's because now, the
sacrifices will be made by us.
I have never broken the law. I have never been arrested. But I simply cannot
guarantee that I never will.
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