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 that preserve less important values.
Lessons from Scripture abound. The Apostles were given strict orders not to teach in the name of Jesus (cf. 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 (Dn 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 volumes.
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.
Fr. Pavone is the Founding Director of Priests for Life. You may contact Priests for Life at PO Box 141172, Staten Island, NY 10314; Tel: 888-PFL-3448 or 718-980-4400; Fax: 718-980-6515; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www.priestsforlife.org.