With a nation reeling from inner city violence, the threat of jihadist terrorism, random attacks on police and a surge of illegal immigration, Donald Trump played the law and order card. He was strong in his support of the police and uncompromising in his promise to root out terrorism.
While every sensible person understands the need for the rule of law, it makes sense also to be wary of any political movement or ruling authority that promotes “law and order” as a slogan or rallying cry.
“Law and order” can become a euphemism for authoritarian government. Uncritical support for the police can become support for a police state. In the face of anarchy and terrorism it can be all too easy to accept a totalitarian regime that promises “law and order.”
One needs to remember Benjamin Franklin’s warning, “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”
If the laws are just and the legislators, police and judiciary are virtuous, then law and order is a social good. If the people are also essentially honest and seeking virtue, then law and order preserves the good, protects the innocent and promotes virtue.
However, if personal virtue is absent at every level, then the forces of “law and order” can just as easily be used to persecute the virtuous, promote injustice and protect the guilty.
History shows that totalitarian regimes of every political stripe have used strong-arm tactics with a ruthless police force and military to oppress their people, wage war, persecute and imprison the innocent and commit genocide.
Put simply, “law and order” is not a virtue, it is a tool. Just as a knife or a hammer can be used for their proper purpose or used as a murder weapon, “law and order” can be used to promote justice and peace or to promote injustice and violence.
When a nation’s people and their leaders are virtuous then law and order follow naturally. However, when a nation’s people and their leaders are not virtuous law and order must be imposed, and when it is imposed by force the danger is that laws will be made and order imposed in a way that favors those in power. Rather than protecting the people, it is the rich and powerful who are protected while the poor are oppressed.
Catholics should therefore be cautious in their support of naked appeals to “law and order.” Instead Catholics should call for justice and peace.
Justice and peace are the virtues that make law and order possible and reasonable. Justice is not simply the punishment of criminals, nor is it an arbitrary attempt to impose “fairness” on society and individuals. Instead it is the search for equity, opportunity and freedom for all.
Justice gives everybody the benefit of the doubt, an opportunity to prosper and the chance to exercise their God given rights as a human being. Justice seeks economic opportunity, opportunity of education, health care and employment.
Justice exercises a “preferential option for the poor” giving a helping hand to everyone who is disadvantaged. A society that seeks true justice at a profound level will eliminate the causes of social unrest that demand merely legalistic solutions.
At every level of society Catholics should also encourage peace. Peace is not simply the absence of war. Peace is the twin sister of justice. As St. Pope John Paul II said, “If you seek peace pursue justice.” Peace could be described as “everything and everyone in its proper place.”
The poet Dante wrote, “Our peace is in his will.” In other words, as individuals and society operate according to God’s intended order—following the intrinsic goodness of natural law and the enlightened goodness of divine law—individuals and society will find true peace.
Of course good Catholic citizens must support the maintenance of law and order, but when the agents of law and order become the enemies of justice and peace, rather than the servants of justice and peace, we must resist.
If “law and order” becomes an excuse for oppression, we must resist. If the officers of law and order become the agents of an authoritarian regime, then it is the duty of Catholics to peacefully resist. If law and order turns into violence against the poor, the unborn, the elderly, the minority group member or the members of a particular religion then we protest and we resist.