When Human Law is NOT in Accord with the Eternal Law: St. Thomas Aquinas on Tyrannicide, Revolt, and Obedience to Unjust Laws.
When thinking about government and law and obedience or disobedience to government and law and, even, any act to overthrow a government, St. Thomas Aquinas, Universal Doctor of the Catholic Church, demanded that we think about the roots of all law, since law is that by which the rational mind orders itself to its proper ends.
In order to conceptualize how law plays a role in our human and civic lives, we have to, first, understand the hierarchy of types of law. We cite here, the information from the Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q. 90:
Eternal Law: This is the Plan, in the Divine Mind, by which God ordains all things that he has created to their proper, divinely determined, end. This type of law is "eternal" because it is part of the divine mind, which itself is eternal. It is unchanging, just as God Himself is eternally unchanging and utterly perfect.
Natural Law: This is the orientation that God impresses upon the natures that He creates. This is an internal law of orientation towards proper, humanly fulfilling ends, which is simply a reflection of the Plan in the Divine Mind that is the Eternal Law.
Divine Law: Since Man's vice and ignorance and wicked habits have clouded his appreciation of his natural and God ordained goals and purposes, God needed to reiterate those goals and the law ordaining them in the Divine Law and, especially, what we know as the 10 Commandments. These commandments are not additions to the Natural Law, "written in the hearts of men," but merely a clear articulation of what was always in and still is written in the very being, orientations, and desires of men.
From St. Thomas' discussion of law, it is clear that "law" is a thing of the mind and not of the will. While the Natural Law is Man's participation in the Eternal Law, Human Law is a specification of and. application of the Natural Law to the specifics of Man's historical and political circumstances. St. Thomas clearly says that if Human Law does not conform to the Divine and Natural Laws --- and hence to the Eternal Law --- it can be considered mere "violence," not having the character of "law" at all.
In I-II, Q. 93, Art. 3, St. Thomas cites the authority of St. Augustine, when he stated, "Therefore, all laws, insofar as they partake of right reason, are derived from the eternal law. Hence Augustine says (De Libero Arbitrio 1, 6) that in temporal law there is nothing just and lawful, but what man has drawn from the eternal law."
When we read the Reply to Obj. 2, it is even stronger with regard to "laws" contrary to the Eternal Law: "Human Law has the nature of law in so far as it partakes of right reason; and it is clear that, in this respect, it is derived from the eternal law. But in so far as it deviates from reason, it is called an unjust law, and has the nature, not of law but of violence."
Here is St. Thomas Aquinas' analysis:
1) All True Authority Comes from God:
a) "Christians are bound to obey the authorities inasmuch as they are from God; and they are not bound to obey inasmuch as the authority is not from God." But a ruler who is unworthy of his office because of a defect of his person is still a legitimate authority and must still be obeyed." "Defect of his person" seems to refer to some kind of personal vice, which would render his own actions immoral, but would not cause his to lose his governmental and divinely given authority. [Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, I Sent. D44, Q. 2, Art. 2]
2) Authority is Illegitimate and Invalid and an order needed not be followed when:
a) The authority is illegitimate because of a defect in the manner of acquisition, if the power was taken by violence, usurpation, or other illegitimate means. In such cases, no obedience is owed. If someone has the ability to bring it about, he can drive away the usurper. The usurper, however, can because, in the course of time, legitimate by the consent of the subjects or by recognition as such by a higher authority.
b) When the authority commands us to sin, we are not obliged to obey.
c) When there is a command that is outside the authority's purview and jurisdiction, he need not be obeyed.
[Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 114, Art. 5]
3) When Can an Authority be Rebelled Against?
a) If we characterize a Tyrant as a ruler who rules for his own sake and not the sake of those who are ruled, we can say that rebellion against a tyrant is not sedition, unless it causes greater disturbance than the tyrannical regime itself does. In this case, rebellion helps the achievement of the Common Good, because the tyrant is himself seditious in that he spreads discord among the people so as to control them more easily for his own gain.
[ST, II-II, Q. 64, Art. 2]
"If power is not held justly, but is rather a usurpation, or if laws are unjust, subjects are not bound to obey, unless perhaps in order to avoid scandal or danger." [II-II, Q. 104, Art. 6, ad 3]
In the text of St. Thomas' De Regno (On Kingship), Book I, chapter 7, he explains the ways that a legitimate revolt can take place, if the people as a whole face the rule of a tyrant:
a) "If a given community has the right to appoint a ruler, it is not unjust for the community to depose the king or restrict his power if he abuses it."
b) "If on the other hand, it is the right of a higher authority to appoint a king over a certain community, then the remedy for the wickedness of the tyrant is to be sought from that authority."
c) "If no human aid is possible against the tyrant, recourse is to be made to God, the king of all, who is the help of those in tribulation."
What if tyranny exists, but it can be tolerated?
"If there be not an excess of tyranny it is more expedient to tolerate the milder tyranny for a while than, by acting against the tyrant, to become involved in many perils more grievous than the tyranny itself.
Can we slay the tyrant if the excess of tyranny is unbearable? [On the question of tyrannicide, St. Thomas clearly disagrees with later Jesuit moral theologians.]
"If this excess of tyranny is unbearable, some have been of the opinion that it would be an act of virtue for strong men to slay the tyrant and to expose themselves to the danger of death in order to set the multitude free...But this opinion is not in accord with apostolic teaching. For Peter admonishes us to be reverently subject to our masters, not only the good and gentle but also the froward (I Peter 2:18-19).
Should private persons attempt, on their own private presumption to kill the tyrannical ruler?
"To proceed against the cruelty of tyrants is an action to be undertaken, not through the private presumption of a few, but rather by public authority."