On True and False Loyalty

On True – and False – Loyalty

Loyalty, Fidelity, Trust, and unswerving Devotion – these virtues are prized by almost every association, club, or group; by every business, church, or military organization; and by every society in every historical era. So highly regarded is loyalty that it is accompanied by a retinue of prepositions. Loyalty is said to be up, down, across, throughout, before, after, and during.

The Bible, too, speaks regularly about the covenant between God and man, assuring us that God is always faithful (Dt 7:9, Lam 3:22, 2 Tim 2:13, etc.) and urging us to seek friends of whose loyalty we can be sure. (Prv 3:3, 20:6; 1 Cor 4:2, etc.)

The U.S. Army Airborne captures this spirit in the greeting that soldiers with silver jump wings offer each other. “Airborne!” the enlisted member shouts while saluting. The greeted officer returns the salute with, “All the way!” The U.S. Marine Corps famously uses the Latin Semper Fidelis (usually rendered as “Semper Fi”) to express devotion to the Corps.

A few years ago, asked to speak to young Marine captains about military ethics, I suggested –tongue-in-cheek – that “Semper Fidelis” required one qualifier, paene, meaning “almost.” Officers should be almost always faithful. The young officers were shocked that “Semper Fi” required an “almost” to insulate it from ethical error.

I reassured them that I really was not advocating a change to a venerable motto. Nor was I, as an alumnus of the Fort Benning, Georgia, jump school, suggesting that the airborne modify “all the way.” You don’t have to be the philosopher of loyalty, Josiah Royce (1855-1916), to know that Christianity, international law, and common sense tell us that loyalty is necessarily circumstantial, conditional, contextual, and contingent. In other words, loyalty is given up to a point; it is cheerfully and generously rendered up, down, and throughout until or unless, for compelling moral reasons, it must be withdrawn or denied.

Illegal and immoral orders must be disobeyed, the war crimes trials at Tokyo, Manila, and Nuremberg decreed (see also the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2313). Moreover, the duties of loyal friendship do not extend to lending our car or rifle to a friend is who drunk or deranged – common sense.

Scripture offers good instruction here. Romans 13:1 puzzles many readers: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” It seems to suggest that God has created all authorities, who therefore deserve our loyalty. All authorities? Romans 13:7, however, adds a critical qualifier: We are to give taxes, toll, and loyalty to those to whom they are due. That is very much as if St. Paul were saying until and unless.

We obey authorities – we are loyal to them – up to a point. The act of loyalty is contingent upon the moral framework in which such loyalty is offered. The God-fearing Hebrew midwives disobeyed the king (Ex. 1); Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 3); Eleazar died for refusing the command to eat pork (2 Macc 6); and St. Peter boldly announced that we must obey God before men (Acts 5:29). All of these examples (and many more) tell us to be conditionally loyal to the powers-that-be. We must be almost always faithful.

As Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and many others have sought to teach us, the absence of that which is good is morally regrettable; but so is the excess of what is good. Starvation is bad. A proper appreciation for food is good because we eat to live well; excess, of course, is gluttony. The same is true of drink (1 Tim 5:23), and such examples are easily multiplied.

There is, then, a Paired Power Principle: that which can effect great good can also, like loyalty, effect great evil. “My honor is my loyalty,” (Meine Ehre heißt Treue) was the motto of the Waffen SS. But loyalty to the Nazi SS was morally evil. Compare: “The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil [or military] authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel.” (CCC 2242; see also 1903)

Of the Church, too, we may say that there is a kind of via media with regard to horizontal loyalty, by which I mean, not “vertical” fidelity to God, which ought to be constant, but fidelity to human beings, which must be both charitable and prudent. The appalling scandal of Father Marcial Maciel (1920-2008) – including illegitimate children and sexual abuse – was enabled by vows extracted from seminarians never to speak ill (i.e., truthfully) of him.

At any time when, or in any place where, what goes on behind “closed doors” (or, as is said in the military, “in the bush”- meaning on a mission in the wilderness) is supposed to be kept strictly private, shared only among those in the group, there ought to be a kind of probable cause for moral worry.

Even when secrecy and privacy are legitimately required in certain institutions, the behavior of human beings is, and must be, subject to review, at a minimum, by boards or councils of well educated, experienced, and respected supervisors, or “guardians.”

But who will guard the guardians? The persistent need for wise education in virtue, inculcating a mature, well-founded, loyalty to “the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons, [and to] the teachings of the Gospel,” rather than an immature, sycophantic, loyalty, ought to be paramount in the minds of all those preparing aspirants for responsibility in the ethically confusing time in which we live.

James H. Toner

Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary.