10 May 2011

The Conflict that Isn't: God and "Laws" Contrary to the Divine Good

I read a headline today that said: "When God and Law Collide".  That pretty much sums up the situation in what passes for civilization now. 

Of course, God and the law cannot collide, for He is the source and ultimate author of all authentic law. 

Favorably citing to St. Augustine's famous statement that "an unjust law is no law at all", the best thinker I ever read, the great St. Thomas Aquinas, has this to say (In ST 1-2.96.4) about the obligation imposed by the positive laws:

Human laws obligate-- bind in conscience-- when and only when they conform to the eternal law, and this eternal law is also manifested in the universal principles common to all men that we call the natural law.

St. Thomas says that a law, to be just, must be good from:

(1) its end: it must be ordered to the common good;
(2) its author: it must not exceed the authority of the one who enacts it;
(3) its form: it must be proportionate in the burden imposed and in its application.

A human law that fails any of these tests is not just, and does not bind in conscience.  But in order to help analyze particular laws, let's look at the flip side of the three ends of just law, and consider that a law is unjust:


(1) if it has an improper end, not conducive to the common good;
(2) if it exceeds the proper power and authority of the law-maker;
(3) if it fails in its form-- if it places undue and/or unequal burdens, even if the law is ordered toward the common good.  St. Thomas says these are "acts of violence rather than laws." 

St. Thomas does allow that when a law fails one of theses tests, one may obey some of these laws in order to avoid scandal.

However, this exception does not apply when the "law" violates Divine law.  For a law can be unjust either by failing one of the tests above, or else if it directly contradicts or opposes the Divine good, the Divine Law. St. Thomas is adamant that "laws of this kind must nowise be observed, because, as stated in Acts 5:29, 'we ought to obey God rather than man.'"

Take just the most recent, and not the worst, example of human law that contradicts the Divine Law, the U City ordinance mandating spousal rights for "same-sex couples".  The totalitolerance crowd uses labels of fairness or compassion to arrogate to a city council a power it does not have.  Such a law cannot bind in conscience for several reasons. 

First, it violates the Divine Law by equating sinful activity with the sacrament of Marriage.  It doesn't attempt to redefine marriage, as some laws do, but it does set up for equal treatment and protection under the law two morally opposite relationships.  Moreover, the law is not ordered to the common good in that it weakens the bonds of family that underpin human society (improper end); and it burdens those health care providers or employers who would uphold the sacrament of marriage with compulsion to comply against conscience (improper form).  Whether it exceeds the authority of the lawmaker may be arguable-- examined broadly, of course, no one has the authority to enact laws contrary to Divine law, but even as the act of legislating on contractual obligations among parties it may in and of itself exceed the authority of a city council.

The great hero of nearly everyone who would have applauded at last night's city council vote, Martin Luther King, Jr., agreed with the appeal to Divine and Natural laws as a basis to point out the illegitimacy of such unjust laws .  Dr. King chose the spirit of nonviolent resistance. 

This question-- how do we react to unjust laws-- is the looming question for all people of good will in a country that daily imposes more and more such "acts of violence rather than laws". 

 In the past, the groups of persons affected were small enough to discount-- Catholic doctors, pharmacists, innkeepers and such.  As the noose of unjust laws tightens, ensnaring more and more of us, the road map provided by one 13th Century Dominican monk may be our best link to sane decision-making in the Brave New World to come.

Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.
Our Lady, Mirror of Justice, pray for us.
Our Lady, Help of Christians, pray for us.
St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.

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