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Class 27

The relationship between the human and the natural law

We have stressed the importance of the human law on the natural law. But how far should the laws of the state incorporate the natural law? To what extent should the state prohibit vices? Saint Thomas gives us some clear principles on the matter, which Pope John Paul II cited in Evangelium Vitae. Should the good Catholic citizen fight that the state should punish all evil? The ideologies of the right and the left come up with ideas they want the state to impose on others. We are informed by the media of problems and the conclusion is that we must do something about it. But what is meant is that the state must do something about it. Instead of establishing a private institution or agency which on the basis of private funds would do something about it, the state gets involved and employs many bureaucrats. The competence of the state expands. These government agencies infringe on the human rights of people, ensuring people act in accord with the prevailing ideology. The right often thinks that the state has a duty to ensure that people are virtuous, that they won’t have access to pornography, divorce, contraceptive. Such an approach suggests a lack of faith in the power of grace. Do we really want the state to ensure that wives are not raped by their husbands? Do we want the state to give sex education?

Saint Thomas’s first principle is that the human law derives its dignity from its dependence on the natural law. If a human law is contrary to the natural law it is tyranny. The divine law prohibits all evil acts, though human law doesn’t. The state doesn’t have the means to look into all evil. God sees more of our goodness than the state can see. The next principle is that the human law prohibits only major offenses and only those that the greater part of society can avoid. The third is that human law prohibits only those sinful acts which infringe on the rights of other people; sins against justice. The next is that human laws have as their finality the leading of people to virtue, but they do so slowly. Human law leads people to virtue "not immediately, but step by step." The grace of Jesus can change a sinner into a saint immediately, but the state cannot do so.

These principles lead to important conclusions. The moral life is not a purely private affair. It’s important that the laws of the state are conducive to good moral living. In family questions, we can ask if the state supports family life — does the economic situation help the family. If the state begins to grant the same rights to homosexual couples as married ones, and gives special financial benefits to unmarried couples, this is a gross injustice. Saint Thomas is not a puritan. Not every sin must be forbidden by the state (like gossiping, or lying, or trying, or fornication, or blasphemy, or masturbation). That a particular sin is not punished does not mean that it is morally licit to do it. We must distinguish between a moral perspective and the legal perspective. We must distinguish between what the state allows and what the state can and should control. We Christians must learn to follow in our behavior not the minimum of the state, but the maximum of the Gospel. Christians live in the diaspora. People will commit many sins which go unpunished. We don’t live according to the values of the world, however. The Christians didn’t go to the Colosseum to watch. We Christians likewise should avoid immoral entertainment.

The decision about whether to outlaw a particular sin is a political one, not one about the moral qualification of the act. The political decision belongs to the intellectual virtue of ars, and it is not a question of moral knowledge. The decision about the penalization of an act is a political statement, not a moral doctrine. The political decision assesses the particular society, its possibilities, its moral awareness, and the technical and moral possibilities of the established state. The state might not be able to afford the vigilance. It’s possible that a particular sin can be punished in one country and not another, when the latter doesn’t have the same circumstances. It is always true that the use of contraception and abortion is a moral evil. It is possible in Ireland to forbid contraceptives, which cannot be introduced in Japan. To arrive at a political decision, we have to know the society and its capabilities. It is possible and morally licit to have various opinions about the penalization of evil acts.

A Catholic position cannot accept as morally good an intrinsically evil act. He cannot say he’s personally opposed, but that he thinks it’s good for another. But he can call it an evil act but that he’s of the opinion that the state is incapable of punishing it. The state may refrain from being involved in the issue, but it is still an evil act. The Catholic politician may be of the opinion that the penalization is not politically expedient. If he is convinced that the penalization will cause social upheavals, he can be of the opinion that the Church should not prohibit that evil act. The raising of a morally volatile issue may cause the destruction of a society. He may be of the opinion to refrain from a political implementation against a particular act.

It’s important that the politician should have magnanimity and not too dark an opinion of his society. The number of people who support basic moral values is always quite high. But the standards of political possibility is based on sociology and art, not strictly moral principles. The Catholic politician can be convinced that drunkenness is a moral evil, but think the prohibition of drunkenness may bring worse effects. He may be against contraceptives, but think it would be worse that they pick up contraceptives on the black market and then bear deformed children. We are not to treat the political question as a doctrinal question. The state should respond to moral values, however. If the state is penalizing drunken driving, it’s a question of justice, not of drunkenness. The control of evil by the state is not the only means good people have. The state may regulate an evil without directly promoting it. St. Louis legalized prostitution, without treating it as a right. We should never see evil as a right, but there is such a thing as the right of non-interference of the state. Certainly questions of family life and marital relationships, we don’t want the state to get involved.

The introduction of the penalization of a sin requires that the sin be against justice. It is not the task of the state to penalize sins against temperance or hope. The state punishes drunken-driving because it’s dangerous, not intemperate. There must be a substantial social and political force in the country to support the penalization of a sin. This doesn’t mean this needs to be a numerical majority, but that there are social forces strong enough to support the penalization. The state cannot penalize a sin if it creates an even greater social conflict. It is certainly wrong to advocate the legal permission of abortion, but if abortion is legal, the movement to penalize it is laudable; but it is also possible to limit cases. In the document on procured abortion (20-22), it says that human law can abstain from punishing, but it cannot claim to be right what is opposed to the natural law. A Christian cannot vote in favor of sinful law, or participate in its application.

We have to differentiate between the political and the moral order. The Church disposes of supernatural means to lead people to sanctity. The Church’s sword is a spiritual sword, distinct from the political sword Peter used with Malchus. The state has no other means than imprisonment, the death penalty, etc. They can contain vice, but they cannot really go far in forming virtue. The Church can go farther. The state must adapt its penalization to what is possible in society. If too high a moral order is demanded by the state, it will cause an overreaction. The state shouldn’t burden people with the morality of the heroes, lest they break into new and worse wrongs. If new wine is poured into old wine skins, men will break into even worse evils.

The revealed law

We have a destiny surpassing our natural possibilities, even though an inkling of our destiny is possible. The Bible gives us some names of pagan saints, praised by Jesus himself — Abel, Melchisedech, Job, the Queen of Sheba. They opened themselves to God. God out of his goodness undertook a dialogue with man to make communication easier. God didn’t want salvation to be elitist, to those who were capable of perception and self-gift from a purely natural law. The revealed law corresponds to our human nature. It’s finality is the same as the natural law, union with God. The revealed law differs from the natural law in promulgation, which was in stages, adapting itself to the capacities of the human mind. Since the revealed law is not contrary to the natural law, there is a correspondence between the dictates of human reason with the divine law. Naturally known precepts are strengthened by the revealed law, giving certitude where there was just probability.

The ways in which God has made known his eternal law has been accomplished in different states, original justice, fallen nature without grace, and supernatural renewal. The last is initiated and prepared in the Old Testament, and accomplished in its plenitude in Christ. Positive theology will study the historical stages of the renewal. In Saint Thomas, we do not find the Biblical theology that will present a history of divine revelation, but we find a grasping of the fundamental states and that which is essential to them. God entered at first into a special alliance with the chosen people; the other nations remained in the economy of the natural law. The Old Law was a charter of the alliance of God with Israel, but in its finality, it was directed to all humanity. The Biblical history of Israel is directed toward the salvation of all people in Christ. The Old Law guarded and guided us until Christ came.

The law that was given in the history of salvation was good, because it was given by God.[42] The Old Law was holy, but inefficacious in terms of salvation. The law itself cannot change man to make him a child of God. It touches only our reason, but it doesn’t enable us to live out what was in the law.[43] The fact we had the law didn’t assure us we could do it. When humanity had no revealed law, people tried to live according to the dictates of human reason. The revealed law, paradoxically, enslaved people, because of the awareness of our radical fault. The old law was adapted to the state of sinful humanity, taking into account the human race as it stood, to prepare it for the grace of Christ. We can argue that God chose only one people for Christ, and even one person, Mary, to respond in faith to the mystery revealed to her. We can compare the economy of the natural, old and new law to the stages of our spiritual journey. We are born in the economy of the natural law; then we need a time of formation, when the external law is dominant; as time passes, the personal trust in Jesus and a response based on love should dominate.

The old law was external, written in stone tablets; the new law written in our hearts.[44] The old law generated fear of the Lord,[45] but then the Israelites were grateful. The Old Testamentarian reception of the law was sapiential and not nominalistic. Today under the influence of Israel we find it hard to understand the awe with the reception of the law.[46] Who treats the law of the Church in the same way. Israel was aware of its moral superiority to the other nations. The law generated pride and thanksgiving, but an awareness of the threat of divine sanction. The political decline of Israel was interpreted as a divine sanction. Israel expected a temporal remuneration for keeping the law.[47] The finality of the law was to lead people to conversion of heart and love of God. In comparison with the New Law, we find the Old primitive. But we should respect it. It didn’t have to end with the Pharisees.[48] The finality of the Old was loving, intimate commerce with God.

For Saint Thomas, the law contained in the Old Testament was very complicated. It is a disordered library put together. It is difficult to introduce order to this collected material. Saint Thomas always looks for order. When he came to study the Old Law, the Summa’s structure capsized. The questions are very long, and there are up to ten or twelve objections. Saint Thomas is accused of not having a sense of history, whereas this treatise on the Old Law shows a thorough understanding of history. He is noted among his contemporaries with an awareness of history. St. Augustine often ignored the literary for the allegorical meaning. Saint Thomas tried to relate the meanings to the Jewish customs, to the extent he had access, to nature, etc. Saint Thomas doesn’t worry that Maimonides wasn’t a Christian in using him to understand Jewish customs. We can study the Old Testament abstracting from the theological context. Saint Thomas in his synthesis reminds us that the study of the culture of the Old Testament cannot be an end in itself. This treatise on the Old Law shows us the dynamism of the Old, leading to the New and the coming of Christ. Saint Thomas has a teleological vision, showing how the Old Law transcends the natural and disposes to the New.

The content of the Old Law is divided by Saint Thomas into three sections: the moral precepts, the cultic precepts (heralding the coming of Christ), and the judiciary precepts (expressing the governance of the state of Israel). The moral precepts are revealed to elevate the people for the coming of Christ. They coincide with the precepts of the natural law. The Decalogue have a universal character. They are not repealed after the coming of Christ, though the manner of their reception is different after the coming of Christ. Among the moral precepts, Saint Thomas said that there are the principles the natural reason is capable of perceiving immediately. There are others that require a subtle perception, which belong to the natural law but which must be taught by the wise. The third are those that require divine instruction, like taking God’s name in vain.

All the moral precepts of the Old Testament can be summarized by the Decalogue, and then further to the two precepts of charity or the principle of synderesis, to do good and avoid evil. The precepts of the Decalogue are such that they cannot be dispensed with reference to justice, but in their application, the matter of the action can be changed on the basis of divine authority or on human authority in those matters committed to human powers. Does it not seem that God tells Israel to violate the Decalogue? St. Thomas says that the prostitute was given to Hosea by God. God transferred the ownership rights of the Egyptian gold as a punishment. The moral precepts of the Old Law pointed out just action, and the fulfillment of these acts are just. They didn’t justify, or heal the interiority of man. We needed the grace of Christ coming from the sacrifice of Jesus.

There are many cultic precepts. The alliance with God required a social expression. The Old Testament cultic precepts defined the way the moral worship of God was to be fulfilled, and they also heralded the coming of Christ. After the coming of Christ, they became unnecessary. The symbolism involved in Old Testament sacrifices help us to understand the Eucharist. Saint Thomas introduces order to the Old Testament cult: the sacrificia, sacra (the sacred instruments used in worship), and the people who worshipped God, the chosen people with their priests, who were appointed through the sacramenta; the people had special observances distinguishing them from other nations (observantia). Saint Thomas studies all of these. Why was the eating of the meat of certain animals forgiven? Pigs played in dirt. Each outlawed bird represented a vice. We have the case of Ex 23:19, which still obtains for orthodox Jews.[49] St. Augustine thought it had no literal sense. Maimonides thought that it was a pagan ritual. Saint Thomas follows Maimonides. He also thought that it was simply cruel. He also finds a metaphorical meaning, that Jesus wouldn’t be killed in his youth. Today, after the archeological excavations, we know that the pagans had such a rite of boiling a kid in her mother’s milk.

We have the problem whether a Christian can follow the cultic requirements of the Old Testament, as if we have no confidence in Christ. Saint Thomas says that the sacraments of the Old Law pointed toward Christ. Presently the sacraments of the New dispensation draw their power from Christ’s sacrifice. A mortal sin would be incumbent on those who returned to the Old, out of lack of faith in the fecundity of Christ. We have in the Acts that the apostles retained the liturgical formulae of the Old Testament. We know that for a century after Jesus, there were Christians in Palestine. Saint Thomas sets aside two opinions on this issue. St. Jerome thought that the observance of the Old Law after the death of Christ became "mortua and mortifera", dead and brought spiritual death. The apostles, St. Jerome claimed, were only simulating so as not to scandalize the Jews. St. Augustine distinguished three epochs: before the Passion, after the spreading of the Gospel, and the intervening period. Before, they were neither mortua nor mortifera; after, they were both; in the intermediate period, they were mortua but not mortifera. The apostles could retain the cultural practices of the Old Law but didn’t put their hope in them. The conclusion from this argument is that if someone hasn’t heard the Gospel follows the cultic prescriptions, he doesn’t sin, but it doesn’t save.

The judiciary or civil precepts were based on the natural law, and didn’t have a figurative meaning like the cultic precepts, but they did stand as a sign for something coming. They are mortua now but not mortifera. They do not have obligatory power. If some prince were to make them obligatory on the basis of the divine law, this would be sinful, for he would be treating them as granting salvation.


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