The Limits of Obedience
One might initially think that absolute and completely unconditional obedience is due to one’s superior. However, it’s not quite that simple.
The Summa Theologiae on Obedience
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, II II, Question 104, Article 5, addresses this systematically and clearly. Sections taken below, and you can read the whole article here.
Objection 1. It seems that subjects are bound to obey their superiors in all things. For the Apostle says (Colossians 3:20): “Children, obey your parents in all things,” and farther on (Colossians 3:22): “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh.” Therefore in like manner other subjects are bound to obey their superiors in all things.
Objection 3. Further, just as religious in making their profession take vows of chastity and poverty, so do they also vow obedience. Now a religious is bound to observe chastity and poverty in all things. Therefore he is also bound to obey in all things.
On the contrary, It is written (Acts 5:29): “We ought to obey God rather than men.” Now sometimes the things commanded by a superior are against God. Therefore superiors are not to be obeyed in all things.
There are two reasons, for which a subject may not be bound to obey his superior in all things. First on account of the command of a higher power. For as a gloss says on Romans 13:2, “They that resist [Vulgate: ‘He that resisteth’] the power, resist the ordinance of God” (cf. St. Augustine, De Verb. Dom. viii). “If a commissioner issue an order, are you to comply, if it is contrary to the bidding of the proconsul? Again if the proconsul command one thing, and the emperor another, will you hesitate, to disregard the former and serve the latter? Therefore if the emperor commands one thing and God another, you must disregard the former and obey God.” Secondly, a subject is not bound to obey his superior if the latter command him to do something wherein he is not subject to him. For Seneca says (De Beneficiis iii): “It is wrong to suppose that slavery falls upon the whole man: for the better part of him is excepted.” His body is subjected and assigned to his master but his soul is his own. Consequently in matters touching the internal movement of the will man is not bound to obey his fellow-man, but God alone.
Aquinas’ Commentary on the Sentences on Obedience
St. Thomas further addresses this in his Commentary on the Sentences, Book II, XLIV, ii. 2. (Selected and translated by Thomas Gilby).
Obedience is commanded within the limits of due observance. The duty develops according to the gradation of authorities which have power, not only over temporalities, but also over the conscience. St. Paul says, “let every soul be subject unto the higher powers, for there is no power but of God.” Therefore a Christian should obey power that is from God, but not otherwise.
Power may not stem from God for two reasons: it may be defective either in its origins or in its exercise.
Concerning the first, the defect may lie either in the personal unworthiness of the man or in some flaw in the manner of obtaining high position—violence, bribery, or some other illicit practice. The former is no bar to the possession of legitimate authority; and because the duty of obedience, it follows that subjects are bound to obey such a ruler, though as a man he is a good-for-nothing. The latter, however, is a bar, for a man who has snatched power by violence is no true superior or lord, and whoever has the ability may rightly reject him, unless perhaps the power has been subsequently legitimized by the consent of subjects or by higher authority.
The abuse of power may take two directions. Either the ruler imposes what is contrary to the purpose for which authority is instituted, for instance if he dictates vices contrary to the virtues authority is supposed to promote and sustain. In that event, not merely is a man not bound to obey, he is also bound not to obey, following the martyrs, who suffered death, rather than carry out the wicked decrees of tyrants. Or the ruler may make demands where his warrant does not run, for instance in exacting tributes to which he has no title, or something of the sort. In such cases a subject is not bound to obey, neither is he bound not to obey.