Ms. Davis claims that her refusal is based on her religious conscience. Rather than paraphrase, it is better to read her own words: “In addition to my desire to serve the people of Rowan County, I owe my life to Jesus Christ who loves me and gave His life for me. I am not perfect. No one is. But I am forgiven and I love my Lord and must be obedient to Him and to the Word of God. I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage. To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience. It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision. For me it is a decision of obedience. I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s Word.”
Again, Kim Davis is within her rights to believe anything she wants about marriage and God’s word. I have no reason to believe that she does not believe these things. Perhaps she really does believe she will go to Hell for putting her signature on a same sex marriage certificate. Who knows, perhaps she is right. And perhaps she is wrong.
Kim Davis’ situation is one that every Catholic, every Christian, has to face at some point in their lives. It may not be played out on the national stage as in her situation, but every follower of Jesus has to face the dilemma of obedience to civil law. This is something most Christians would not like to think about, but newsflash--- it’s part of the “job description”. In my years as a life coach working with believers I would be constantly amazed at the number of people who would sincerely state their faith but cringe at Jesus’ words like this: “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.” (Matthew 24: 9) It’s like taking a prescription without reading the list of possible side effects. Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away.
So what is the Catholic response to Kim Davis? What should a Catholic do if put in a situation like this? The answer as with all things Catholic, is much more nuanced than most knee-jerk reactions that people would think.
Catholics have the advantage of 2,000 years of tradition, thought, and examples. As always we go back to scripture. Jesus’ implicit directive “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” (Matthew 22: 17) acknowledges the dichotomy but doesn’t tell us the how, what where, etc. Paul fleshes out the responsibility of citizens in Romans 13: 1 – 7: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”
Well, that would seem to settle the question but it doesn’t. At the same time Paul wrote those words citizens of the Roman Empire were being martyred for their refusal to honor the authority of the Emperor by compromising and denying their faith in Jesus. The centuries are full of stories of saints who stood up to unjust, cruel tyrants as well as laws that were considered contradictory to Church teachings. St. Thomas More, anyone?
In fact the Catechism elaborates that ”Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good…If rulers were to enact unjust laws…such arrangements would not be binding in conscience.(1903)” This reasoning is behind the justification of the abolitionist movement of the 19th century as well as the non-violence movement of Dr. King. It is the spiritual fiber of the protests of Dorothy Day against Cardinal Spellman during the Catholic cemetery workers strike of 1949.
If we were to put ourselves in Kim Davis’ shoes we must first resolve for ourselves the issue if issuing marriage licenses fall under “unjust laws”. If it is unjust, for who is it unjust? If we look at the examples mentioned previously, all involved keeping people “out”. Whether by denying dignity of the person or access to a potential living wage, the aim of standing up to authority was to expand rights under existing laws. The question then becomes is the denial of the ability to obtain a marriage license just or unjust.
The final caveat of putting ourselves in Kim Davis’ shoes is the fact she is an elected official. She has sworn an oath to uphold the law and perform the duties of her office. Some offer the explanation that when she was elected same sex marriage was not part of her duties and therefore she should be exempt. Unfortunately very few jobs in this world remain stagnant. Technical and social changes often result in alterations to a person’s job duties. An individual draws a paycheck based on the ability to perform the job as it is currently defined, not as the employee wishes it was constructed.
Catholics have the reflection of recent leaders on how to resolve such a situation. In 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy was confronted on this very issue by the Greater Houston Ministerial Association: “But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do likewise.”
Likewise, Judge Antonin Scalia, while speaking specifically about the death penalty, explains what judges should do if they encounter a law they personally oppose: “In my view the choice for the judge who believes the death penalty to be immoral is resignation, rather than simply ignoring duly enacted, constitutional laws and sabotaging death penalty cases. He has, after all, taken an oath to apply the laws and has been given no power to supplant them with rules of his own.”
I have tried to lay out as many sides that a Catholic should look examine before answering the question – What would you do? Let me know.