Clodovis Boff – Towards an Ethic of Critical-Social Obedience (1980)

[Originally published in the November 1980 issue of Concilium Christian Obedience, by Stichting Concilium, T. & T. Clark Ltd. and The Seabury Press Inc.]


Obedience to the law and, more widely, to the social order, has recently become an acute problem for many sectors of the Church. The reason for this is a growing perception of the incompatibility between the Christian faith and certain social structures. This involves theological reflection starting from the reality perceived and experienced by Christians (first section), confronting it with the great principles of faith (second section), in order to draw some practical conclusions for Christian life (third section).

In this article I propose to examine the question both from the standpoint of the relationship between ideology and politics (superstructure), and that of the economic sphere (infrastructure). The limits of this reflection are obvious: it seeks first to establish a theoretical framework, and then to set out the processes of argument by which it might be possible correctly to pose and adequately to resolve questions relating to obedience in the social sphere.


(a) The Data of Reality: Seeing

The legal system in a society divided into classes necessarily reflects class interests, and the interests of the ruling class will logically predominate in it. The managerial classes, acting on behalf of the ruling class, are those who use the various organs of the State apparatus, the Parliament, the Law Courts, the police, in order to maintain or increase the domination of the ruling class.

Of course, the classes confront each other within an ever-changing set of circumstances and corresponding forces, and never simply in terms of the outright domination of one class by another. In fact, society will contain laws and forces favourable to the dominated classes, but these will exist as dominated laws and forces, that is, maintained under the control of the ruling bloc. So the morality of a society in no way comprises a homogeneous whole. Equally, the dominated classes have no fixed characteristics. Through struggle, they can impose more respect for their rights and interests. This is the normal process operating in a society divided into classes.

Nevertheless, in moments of crisis, when the status quo of the different classes is threatened with upheaval, the ruling classes seek to guarantee their hegemony through exceptional political and legal means. So in Latin America, the capitalist classes, threatened since the mid-sixties with growing movements of popular unrest, had recourse to their military arm—the army—in order to safeguard their class interests. They therefore evolved an ideology to justify such an undertaking. This is the Doctrine of National Security, which gave birth to a whole gamut of repressive legislation

(b) Frameworks of Faith: Judging

The traditional teaching of the Church with regard to State power has two sides: it requires obedience to the State, but within limits. These are the limits set by natural and divine laws, that is, by morality. The first expression given to them is lapidary in its simplicity: ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s’ (Mark 12:17).

These two slopes of the same hill are thematically developed in Romans 13 and Revelation 13. The first refers to the authorities as ‘ministers of God’, attending to justice; the second describes them as ministers of the devil. The first thesis is valid as a general principle: the truth of authority should be respected. The second is already a critical judgment: the reality of power, in this case Roman forces of occupation, should be rejected. This doctrine is vigorously expressed in Acts 5:29: ‘We must obey God rather than men’ (see 4:19).

The concept that the authorities deserve obedience within the limits set by faith and morals has been a constant tradition in the Church, from the confessions of the early martyrs, through the Fathers such as John Crysostom and Augustine, and the Scholastics, to the more recent ‘social doctrine’ of the Church, as expressed first and foremost by Leo XIII, whose political teaching is fairly advanced: ‘If the laws of the State are in open opposition to divine right . . . then resistance becomes a duty and obedience a crime’ (Sapientiae Christiane, 1890). Paul VI likewise admitted the possible legitimacy of revolutionary insurrection in particular situations (Populorum Progressio). The unanimity and constancy of the Church in affirming the principle of obedience with reservations to the State are really quite remarkable. It should, however, be remarked that this has not lessened the contradictions in the Church’s application of this principle.

Now, in the light of this firm and clear teaching, how do we judge existing political and legal systems? Surely we can say that, in so far as they enshrine the domination of one class by another, they are destitute of moral authority? And, in so far as they constitute ‘institutionalised violence’ (Medellín) and ‘structures of sin’ (ibid., and see Puebla 562, 452), they are to be condemned.

This immoral character of the system can be seen most clearly at times of crisis producing military coups and the unjust legislation that follows them (see Puebla, 549). And because this legislation can only be applied through the most brutal application of force (531), it is obviously neither legal nor just. At this point, laws lose the force of law, and with it, their right to moral respect.

It should, however, be said that all this is only valid in general terms, since any political and legal system will always include some aspects of legitimacy, which will probably be independent of their class content.

(c) Lines of Conduct: Acting

Given the social conditions described above, how should Christian conscience, or rather conscientious Christians, act?

First of all, it is important to note that we are not dealing here with simply one particular law or another, but with the existing framework of law as a whole. Then, it is also a question of the political system. And here again, we are not dealing with the ethical implications of one or another directive, nor even one government as opposed to another. It is a matter of calling the nature of authority into question, which means the nature of the class which exercises that authority and its very existence as a class.

In practice this means setting the prospect of revolution, understood as a changing of the bases or structures of a society, into an ethical perspective. But this is to say all and nothing, since, as Thomas Aquinas warns in the Prologue to the Secunda Secundae, ‘in morals, general considerations are of less use, since human actions have an individual and particular character’. Now, if the question of law and authority is a question of class, the reply to the question can only be given on the same level. So we are within the ambit of a class morality.

Speaking of a class morality, it is important to discount one fallacy at the outset: this expression in no way means that morality is subordinate to class interests (Lenin, Trotsky, etc.). Such a position destroys morality as such, degrading it and identifying it with mere strategy, thereby permitting the use of intrinsically wrong means, such as lies, calumny, torture, etc. Speaking of class morality implies simply that morality must take account of the class situation of an individual or a group, that is: class practices are always morally qualifiable. This, surely, is the exact opposite of the previous position? So it is not a question here of judging justice (or what is just or not) by the measure of class interests, but, on the contrary, of judging class interests (whether they are just or not) by the measure of justice. For this reason too, class morality is not and cannot be classist as such, in the sense that it can be reduced to that of one sole class—the oppressed, seen as the immaculate lamb who takes away the sin of the world. Class morality is as universal as is the proper object of morality itself: good.

Within the legal and political framework described above, each class has its social duty, or rather its ‘historic mission’.

The oppressed classes, excluded from independent political participation, have the right and the duty to resistance, and even to revolution. Such a right was not originally formulated by Chairman Mao, but is enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776. It is furthermore a most ancient right, with its basis in natural law theory, and therefore considered antecedent to man-made laws. The revolutionary imperative constitutes the basic morality of the oppressed classes as such. This historical task, however, is valid only in terms of the basic commitment to an alternative social structure (the end), and in no way applies to direct strategical application (the means). The precise strategy needs to find its way, obviously in the direction of the historical project envisaged, but always in the context of existing material conditions and in the light of the corresponding ethical principles. This approach absolutely rules out the ‘radicalist’ ethical-political position. This is characterised by rejection of any advance within the ruling system, by the doctrine of ‘the worse, the better’ and the adoption of the dogmatic alternative: ‘all or nothing’. Against this it should be stated that it is both possible and necessary to work within the system in order to obtain substantial advances, which will become essential steps in the great process of overthrowing the system itself. While the dominated classes continue to be dominated, their historic duty is limited to resisting domination; resisting means gaining strength—gaining strength until a radical change in the existing social order becomes possible. At this precise moment, the revolution can impose itself as the great ethical imperative. Anticipating the conditions that assure the probability of political success renders attempted revolution morally unacceptable, as Populorum Progressio declares.

As for the so-called ‘middle classes’, old and new, they too have their class morality to guide them. As far as the open and well-disposed sectors of this class are concerned, there are three courses of political action they are called on to undertake:

the critical course, through reasoned analysis, on the part of intellectuals;
the prophetic course, through faith, on the part of sectors of the Church;
the protest course, through alternative practices, on the part of the young.

It should be said that the moral significance and political effectiveness of these courses will depend on their organic links with the process of liberation of the oppressed popular classes.

Finally, the ruling classes in their exercise of authority through use of the State apparatus: do they too have a morality within the structure here proposed? Certainly they do.

To state that the duty of the ruling classes is not to oppress, that governments should respect human rights, etc., is easy and unrealistic. As things are, the ruling classes obviously do not have the same social and therefore ethical conscience as the oppressed classes. If they had, they would not be where they are. In fact, the basic problem of a class or social morality lies not in the matter, nor the will, but in the third element of moral imputability: conscience. Now any basic social theory is agreed that conscience is conditioned by one’s own class situation and practice, and in its turn conditions these. It is impossible for the individual to escape from this dialectical impasse, which is always shifting but also always tragic. So to expect the ruling class to possess the same moral conscience and adopt the same moral practices as the oppressed is not only contradictory but ridiculous. Only a moralising and idealist mind would be capable of imagining such a possibility. However, given that class morality does not apply to a class as a whole, but to the individuals who compose it, these always have the ethical and political possibility of operating within the room for manoeuvre that always exists in any social institution, including the State. This, however, is operating on the borderlines, and a dangerous political exercise that often ends in a moral break with the institution

Finally, it should be recognised that in a society divided into classes, the moral practice of an individual can be very little superior to his class practice. There, duty (ethical) virtually coincides with power (political). It will be the movement of history itself, as liberator of rationality, that will create the conditions for a more advanced moral conscience and practice for all, but especially for the ruling classes.


This part presupposes the argumentation put forward in the first part. It can therefore be very brief.

(a) The Data of Reality: Seeing

Obedience in the social sphere is not exhausted on the level of political relationships (with the State and its laws), but extends to the economic sphere (with the system of production). There is the world of power and there is the world of work. A moral system proportionate to its own object relates to the whole social system, that is, to the sum total of social relationships and practices, and not only to acts or some practices in the manner of traditional moral teaching.

Now, the social fabric rests on its means of production (infrastructure). These means involve social, and therefore human, relationships. And though they are established largely independently of the will and conscience of individuals, they are kept in being by individuals. So everyone in a position of authority in them is morally responsible for them, in his way and at his level.

On the economic level, the question of obedience must start from this basic premiss: the social system in which we live is based on the exploitation of one class by another. To fail to see the reality of exploitation is to fail to see society as it exists, and thereby to prevent oneself from setting the question of social morality in general, and of obedience in particular, in its proper context.

(b) Frameworks of Faith: Judging

In terms of a social system based, like ours, on relationships involving property, it is worth remembering that the teaching of the Church, for centuries, supported order in general, and defended private property in particular. So it was used as an ideology, in the sense of reflecting the status quo.

But when a realisation emerged that this order was in fact nothing more than ‘established disorder’ and that private property was simply the reward of rapine and theft, the teaching of the Church took another course. It still continued to defend order and property, but in a different way. It was now concerned with a true social order and with just and egalitarian distribution of property. This basic line emerges very clearly from the deliberations of the Church in Latin America, as the Puebla Documents show. There the ‘extreme poverty’ of this continent is condemned as ‘anti-evangelical’ (1159), and so is the system that produces it: laissez-faire capitalism (47, 64, 437, 542, 546).

(c) Lines of Conduct: Acting

In the economic sphere, individuals of different classes are called upon to fulfil a mission corresponding to their status.

The exploited must fight against the system of exploitation, within a plan of action that takes account of empirical conditions, not only for strategic or ethical reasons.

Those belonging to the middle ranks, to the extent that they recognise the movement of history and the challenges it brings, are called to take up a stance in favour of transforming the social system. Therefore, their function within the process of production should be concretely linked to the struggle of the exploited classes—the privileged agents of this transformation.

As for the capitalists, taken as a class, they evidently cannot do anything to revolutionise the system of which they are the beneficiaries. But, taken individually, they can always do something. But what? Do we need to have recourse to Marx to teach them lessons on their most elementary duties as citizens? There they would learn that their ‘involuntary’ function within the whole system can only be exploitationary. They would also hear, however, that as individuals, they can always do something to improve matters, as in the sphere of wages, working conditions, etc., and finally that their ‘chief efficacity’ is situated outside the enterprise, in public life, working, for example, for improvements in industrial legislation.


Christian obedience can never have any other proper end than hearing the Word of God and doing it. This is its first and basic objective. In this sense, obedience is a form of faith and is, therefore, theologal. Other obediences, such as social obedience, can be justified theologically only on the basis of obedience to God and to his will. Therefore, the authorities of this world, such as the legal, political and economic powers, only merit obedience to the extent that they show themselves to be mediators of God’s authority. So, the ethic of obedience relates to God, and the ethic of liberation relates to men.

For this very reason, the obedience of the Christian in the social sphere can never be absolute, but always relative—relative to God. It can never be blind, but always clear-sighted: this implies discerning the ‘signs of the times’ in so far as these are historical mediatons [sic] of the will of God. And it can only be a critical-social obedience, both in terms of theoretical analysis and in terms of ethical judgment.

Now, in a society organised on the basis of unjust relationships (classes and exploitation), obedience to God implies disobedience to men embodied in a ruling class. Christian obedience, which is always critical-social obedience, prescribes the imperative of revolution as a duty to struggle for the overthrow of social structures and the practices that govern them.

At this level, theological concern is not with an ethic of social obedience, but rather with an ethic of liberation, participation and creation. In terms of strategy, however, this ethic can require obedience to the existing order. In this case, obedience is imposed not so much as a virtue as through historical necessity, either for the sake of biological survival, or for the sake of political resistance.

In any case, critical-social obedience is obedience to the God of Moses and of Jesus Christ, to the God of the Virgin of the Magnificat, ‘the champion of the poor and humble’ (Mar. Cult., 37). And the decision that Christians have always taken historically in defence of divine rights, understood as religious rights when this does not mean merely ecclesiastical rights, is today the decision that Christians are called upon to take in favour of human rights, above all those of the poor, rights that should also be seen as divine because they are based on the Creator and Father. So, when the oppressed are on trial, the Christian can and must raise the same protest as the apostles raised against the Jewish authorities: ‘We must obey God rather than men’. Because the cause of the oppressed is the cause of the Crucified.

Translated by Paul Burns