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Edward Snowden and Catholic Social Teaching

On this blog and in Catholic moral discourse more generally, there have been a considerable number of critiques of libertarian principles on the basis that they directly conflict with Catholic social doctrine. I have been largely convinced by these critiques in so far as they take aim at static policy proposals at a general level. However, I want to suggest that the recent revelation of the scope of our government’s surveillance practices and capacities should make it clear that there may be certain times in which the defense of the common good will bring Catholics into alignment with libertarians on particular issues. I believe now is one such time.

I don’t want to rehearse the arguments for and against the NSA surveillance policy that have recently been offered in abundance in the media. I only wish to pose the following question, which I think is the most pertinent one for Catholic social thought and indeed the one that really matters most: Is Edward Snowden a traitor?

Has Edward Snowden betrayed his nation and endangered his fellow citizens through his actions? This question opens up all the relevant issues, I think. As one hired by our government and entrusted with the information which it believed to be essential to preserving the commonweal, he made a deliberate decision to violate the oath that bound him to maintain the secrecy of the surveillance data he dealt with on a daily basis. It would seem that justice demands that he be punished, both to correct the wrong done to the body politic and to deter any future acts of this kind. The military commentator and essayist Ralph Peters recently opined that not only should be Snowden be tried for treason, but that we should reinstate the death penalty for the crime. He thinks Snowden, if found guilty, deserves death. “When did it become cool to betray your country,” Peters asks.

It isn’t cool to betray your country, nor is it just to violate guidelines of secrecy that are a part of vital government work, assuming one trusts those guidelines to be in the service of justice more broadly conceived. What happens when one’s loyalty to policies of secrecy appears to conflict with what one’s conscience is telling one about the justice of those policies? What does one do when the “vital work” one does in the name of the republic seems to contravene and negate the central ideals upon which the republic has been founded? Perhaps even more importantly, what does one do if one believes that a civil authority’s actions are violating the basic conditions under which God has entrusted that authority with sovereignty over a human community? Is it unjust to disclose government secrets when one believes those secrets are deeply corrosive of the human goods that lie at the heart of the common good whose realization is the first and most important responsibility of government? Is one a traitor for doing so?

Ron Paul asked a very interesting question today: if Edward Snowden is truly threatening the safety of Americans by doing what he did, why can’t we treat him like Anwar al-Alaki and kill him with a drone strike? What is the difference between these two “outlaws” in the eyes of the government? The difference, I would submit, is that Snowden did what he did because he loved our country. We should not kill him; we should commend and thank him.

For what is at issue in this current debate is not just the enduring significance of the 4th amendment or even a meaningful defense of the “right to privacy” (which has its own problems for Catholic social teaching, of course). What is at stake here is the existence of the space within which civil society can function qua civil society. Though not absolute, the right to private property is essential to the common good because of the space it allows for the formation and development of the family, which is the “primary cell” of human society. While the family pursues and embodies intrinsic goods, it is also ultimately ordered to a form of communion that transcends itself. This is the way in which Catholic social thought conceives of “privacy” as essential to the common good.

While there may be legitimate disagreement about where we should draw the line that determines when the basic conditions required for private property and civil society have been violated, surely there is no doubt that such a line should be drawn. And if one should respond that thus far the massive and systematic collection of personal data does not yet cross that line, one should at least ask the question that so disquieted Edward Snowden: is the infrastructure in place for the government to cross that line at a moment’s notice? When we are dealing with huge and powerful social structures like the US security apparatus, is there a meaningful moral difference between the capacity to dissolve the sphere of privacy that makes civil society possible and the actual dissolution of that sphere?






  1. I strongly disagree. This issue gets to the old adage about the road being paved with good intentions. Mr. Snowden violated his oath, broke his contract and harmed the good of this nation and both citizens and others. Simply believing you are doing something out of “love of country” does not make it so. The devil is in the details.

    Libertarianism and the absolute worship of rights (civil) de iure, is wrong from a Catholic perspective. We cannot conveniently change this. The good, the common good must be weighed in conjunction with a positive right established by a society. Even the fourth amendment must be assessed in light of the natural law and the good.

    I would agree that society must deliberate when lines need to be drawn but the society must do this with eye towards the common good and the promotion of human life and dignity and not on the basis of an inviolable right to privacy.

  2. Thanks for your reply, VAThomist. The problem is that, both historically and in the present scenario, the deliberation about when and where lines need to be drawn does not even BEGIN unless the public is given some glimpse into what is going on secretly in their name, and of course this glimpse is never offered voluntarily by those who make the decisions about what to keep secret and when. Sen. Ron Widen, who is a member of the intelligence committee, directly asked the director of National Intelligence James Clapper whether the NSA surveillance was collecting data on millions of Americans, and Clapper said “no, not wittingly.” Sen. Widen knew the answer to his question, but he wanted the public to know it as well, and the director of the program refused to tell the truth. He uttered a bald-faced lie. Now lies are nothing new in politics, of course, but they are always corrosive- they are always a sign of a moral pathology at work. Why does the government not want the public to know about what they are doing to them, and in their name? Why does the government NOT want the public to engage in the kind of deliberation you acknowledge to be necessary? My point is that, invariably in cases such as this one, we would not have anything to deliberate over if it were not for whistleblowers like Edward Snowden.

  3. It should be remembered that Congress voted in favor of the Patriot Act which included this form of surveillance. In fact, this style of surveillance is actually not that new nor do I think the technology is really understood by society at large. Senator Wyden’s question was political in nature. This has more to do with Congress saving face in the media over a policy they actually supported. Now that the media is running with the story (the scandal), do they act all appalled. The same is true of the telecommunications companies who also, with knowledge, have supported this program.

    I do not believe the average American needs to know about all the classified activity and programs our nation employs. We live in a republic not a democracy. The citizenry elect people whose job it is to govern society for the good of the whole (at least in theory). If people are not happy with their elected officials they should stop supporting them and demand changes. It is important for the safety of the country and people around the world, that the public authority be able to operate at times, in ways that do not tip off those who wish to do society and its members harm which continues to be a daily reality. The public does not have right to know all the details. As I said, we live in a republic, not a democracy.

  4. Thank you Patrick for an important post in defence of whistle blowers such as Edward Snowden. I believe it is vitally important for civil society, for democratic rights, for civil liberties, and for the right of citizens to obey their conscience against state coercion that we all defend the liberty of these whistle blowers.

    This is an important issue of conscience, something of central importance in Catholic theology, and one which dovetails well with the US Bishops concern for religious freedoms.

    God Bless

  5. Patrick,
    I think you ask a very important question. I think even the most conservative speculation about this program suggests that the infrastructure is indeed in place for the government to cross that line of our privacy at any moment. Perhaps this makes me a more complacent American than I realized, but considering the nature of our current national security threat, as it is described to us anyway, I fully expected a program like this was in existence. What concerns me more is proper and ethical judicial oversight and fully protecting the rights of the suspects rightly or wrongly caught in its web. We cannot, as an ethical people, be content with saying that those who are not doing anything wrong have nothing to fear because we have been or have loved, someone who for racial, immigration or legal reasons, is at risk for being wrongfully swept up in this program. As with the Arizona Law SB 1070, to paraphrase the work of Kristen Heyer, we are in incarnational solidarity with those who now walk Arizona’s streets in fear of merely looking like suspected irregular immigrants. No one should live like that in our society.
    I have listened to various radio programs discussing this case with great interest and have been dismayed somewhat at the immediate acceptance of Snowden and all his claims. I am not attacking his integrity( yet) but I am cautious in accepting everything he says at face value and, worse, immediately buying into a narrative that makes Rand and Ron Paul, the same men at the center of a movement that has depended on racially coded messaging to create paranoia about “big government,” suddenly our political prophets or allies. Also, Snowden’s attorney has been featured on many programs and his messaging strategy, to demonize his opponents and elevate this as yet unknown threat to X-Files level conspiracy with ever ascending hyperbolic statements, grabs attention and headlines, but does not convince me of his integrity.
    I think we are right and responsible to ask the hard questions, investigate this matter and call upon our government to, somehow without compromising the effecrtiveness of this program and programs like it, open its doors enough to explain what it happening. I am anxious for some crack investigative reporters to tell me more about Snowden before I determine that he is either whistleblower, hero, treasonous actor or, simply, a confused but well meaning man who has tried hard and risked much to do the right thing. Again, I feel we are obligated, as a civil society, as you so correctly stated, to examine and manage how we engage in a dialogue about our society and how we treat those within society who criticize it or who break laws in the name of protecting it.

  6. For those interested, there are two great pieces of commentary on this issue that were published today: the first is from Kirsten Powers at the Daily Beast–

    and the second is from Peggy Noonan in WSJ–

    Also, I highly recommend reading Emily Reimer-Barry’s piece on Carrie Charlesworth as well–

    This is a perfect example of how our societal mania for security has demented our sense of moral responsibility and completely dissolved our bonds of solidarity with one another…

  7. Patrick, great connection between the NSA situation and the teacher’s firing in San Diego, I hadn’t thought of that.


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