Catholics cautioned on civil disobedience

Newly imported vehicles sit on Princes Wharf in Auckland awaiting distribution throughout New Zealand.

Catholics have been warned about the consequences of civil disobedience if they become involved in protest action over fossil fuel use next month.
The warning came in the April “Justice Matters” e-newsletter put out by Auckland diocese’s Justice and Peace Commission.

Newly imported vehicles sit on Princes Wharf in Auckland awaiting distribution throughout New Zealand.

Newly imported vehicles sit on Princes Wharf in Auckland awaiting distribution throughout New Zealand.

Under the heading “Peace and Justice events around Auckland diocese” was notification of an action scheduled for May 13 at Aotea Square in Auckland. This was described in the newsletter as “peaceful non-violent action to cut the funding to fossil fuels”.

The newsletter included a link to a website called, which is a United States-registered non-profit organisation.

The website mentions a “Break Free from Fossil Fuels” campaign from May 4 to 15 that will involve a “global wave of mass actions will target the world’s most dangerous fossil fuel projects, in order to keep coal, oil and gas in the ground and accelerate the just transition to 100 per cent renewable energy”.

Under the heading “Auckland” the following is stated: “We will be collaborating to close one of our region’s biggest financiers of the fossil fuel industry (guess who)!”

The same message is given under the headings “Wellington”, “Christchurch” and “Dunedin”, where assemblies  for action are scheduled for May 11, May 7 and May 12 respectively.  The campaign promises to “stop their business as usual”.

But it called for “peaceful, nonviolent civil disobedience”, and elsewhere stated that people involved in its actions must agree to “no violence, no property damage — yes to interference
of business as usual”.

In the Auckland commission’s newsletter, there is a “note to anyone interested in this action”.  It reads: “Catholics have a history of engaging in civil disobedience, but please make sure you understand any possible consequences before becoming involved.”

NZ Catholic asked Auckland diocese for a statement on the diocese’s official position on this event.

Auckland diocese spokeswoman Dame Lyndsay Freer replied: “There is no diocesan position on this matter per se, although the Auckland Justice and Peace Commission is an official body of the Auckland diocese.

“Peaceful protest is an essential freedom in any democracy and people are free to choose to protest or not on a matter that they feel strongly about,” Dame Lyndsay said.

“It is interesting to note that the Justice and Peace newsletter cautions people to be sure they understand any possible consequences before becoming involved. Does this mean that there are concerns that the protest may not turn out to be peaceful?” she asked.

NZ Catholic sought comment from the commission about the notification and the protest action, but were told responses to questions could not be made before press time.

One of the questions was how the Church can best put its own house in order regarding the use of fossil fuels.

NZ Catholic asked Auckland Police for any advice they would give to Catholics and anyone else contemplating civil disobedience, such as that advertised for Auckland by Break Free.

Police spokesman Kim Chambers replied: “Everyone has a right to opinions and to express them appropriately. Police respect people’s right to a peaceful protest as long as it is legal and does not disrupt the rights of others going about their daily business.”

In an article in American Catholic in 2010, Elaine Krewer listed three types of civil disobedience. These were:

1. Breaking an unjust law to protect others from injustice, to avoid committing or cooperating in an action one believes to be wrong, or to demonstrate the inherent injustice of the law;

2. Breaking a just law in order to prevent an imminent, greater evil; and

3. Breaking a just law purely to call attention to one’s cause.

Ms Krewer concluded that “the most genuine and fruitful forms of civil disobedience fall into the first two categories”.

“These kinds of actions may in some cases be morally obligatory and in most cases, I believe, would at least be morally justified.

“The third kind of action, however, may not always be morally justified, particularly if it causes disproportionate hardship to innocent parties.”

Among her criticisms of this third type of civil disobedience was “it may, intentionally or not, unjustly violate the rights of others or even endanger their safety. . .”.

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Michael Otto

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