Our relationship with God’s law is complex and we don’t often get it right. When it comes to God’s law we cannot forget that it is personal. That is, it is given to us by a loving God who wants to save us. Therefore, it is important to know both the law and the lawgiver, who is God.
In the Deuteronomic code, each law is often followed by the phrase “I am the Lord.” It is as if the Lord is saying, “This is God talking, the God who saved you, parted the Red Sea for you, and led you through the desert and into the Promised Land. I, the one who loves you, am telling you this.” The old rabbis put it this way: When God added to the law the phrase “I am the Lord,” He was saying, “Look, I am the one who fished you out of the mud; now come over here and listen to me.” J
So the law is personal and we must strive to know both the law and the lawgiver. Two errors are to be avoided when it comes to the law:
The first error is that of legalism, which elevates the law to the point of idolatry, such that one is kept “safe” by the law rather than by a saving relationship with God, the lawgiver. In such a system there is little room for understanding the Lord’s intent. There is also a failure to grasp the often general nature of God’s law, which covers common circumstances but does not address every specific situation perfectly. For example, the obligation to attend Mass is generally binding, but illness or the need to care for the ill can be a valid excuse.
The other error is assuming a kind of autonomy based on the claim that one knows God so well that the law is largely irrelevant. A common form of this is resorting to a “God is love” argument to set aside the moral law. Never mind that God Himself gave us the moral law. Making this error I claim that God doesn’t care if I skip Mass, live with my girlfriend, etc. He doesn’t care about that sort of stuff because He is a loving God, affirming and merciful, who is not uptight the way the Church is. A person with such an attitude dismisses large parts of the moral law based on his own authority and the exaggerated notion that he knows God better than even God’s very own revealed word. He claims that a loving and kind God wouldn’t ask difficult things or rebuke sin. But such a notion confuses true love with mere kindness. While kindness is an aspect of love, so are challenge, rebuke, and even punishment.
Neither error will do. The key is to find a balance such that both the law and the lawgiver are properly respected.
As usual, St. Thomas Aquinas provides great insight. And while the context of his remarks is the arena of civil law, the principles he sets forth are applicable to divine and ecclesial law as well. He takes up the question of law and the lawgiver in Question 96 (article 6) in the Prima Secundae of the Summa Theologica.
St. Thomas considers whether one who is under a law may act apart from the letter of the law.
St. Thomas answers with a qualified yes and, as always, provides important distinctions and premises. He begins with a helpful quote from Hilary of Poitiers, who notes that the limits of written law are subject to the limits of all speech, including in its written form:
Hilary says (De Trin. iv): “The meaning of what is said is according to the motive for saying it: because things are not subject to speech, but speech to things.” Therefore, we should take account of the motive of the lawgiver, rather than [merely] of his very words (I, IIae, Q 96, art 6, Sed contra).
St. Thomas goes on to note that laws are intended for the common good and speak to the general or common situations, but that no lawgiver can envision every circumstance, and this should be taken into account. Thomas writes,
Now it happens often that the observance of some point of law conduces to the common weal in the majority of instances, and yet, in some cases, is very hurtful. Since then the lawgiver cannot have in view every single case, he shapes the law according to what happens most frequently, by directing his attention to the common good. Wherefore if a case arises wherein the observance of that law would be hurtful to the general welfare, it should not be observed (Ibid, respondeo).
St. Thomas imagines the following example:
For instance, suppose that in a besieged city it be an established law that the gates of the city are to be kept closed, this is good for public welfare as a general rule: but, it were to happen that the enemy are in pursuit of certain citizens, who are defenders of the city, it would be a great loss to the city, if the gates were not opened to them: and so in that case the gates ought to be opened, contrary to the letter of the law, in order to maintain the common weal, which the lawgiver had in view.
I’m we can all think of more modern examples such as breaking the speed limit to rush someone to the hospital, or jaywalking to hasten across a street help someone in trouble. Charity is the highest law and saving life is more important than observing laws that are merely cautionary.
But St. Thomas next notes the important point that it is only in urgent cases that the law may be set aside without consultation with lawful authority:
Nevertheless, it must be noted, that if the observance of the law according to the letter does not involve any sudden risk needing instant remedy, it is not competent for everyone to expound what is useful and what is not useful to the state: those alone can do this who are in authority, and who, on account of such like cases, have the power to dispense from the laws.
If, however, the peril be so sudden as not to allow of the delay involved by referring the matter to authority, the mere necessity brings with it a dispensation, since necessity knows no law.
Thus urgency and necessity permit quick dispensations of the law, whereas ordinary situations require us to consult and defer to those to whom jurisprudence and legislation are consigned.
Now again, St. Thomas is referring here essentially to civil law. But if these truths and distinctions apply to human civil law, with all its imperfections, how much more so to God’s law. If civil law ought not be casually set aside without consultation and deference to proper authority, how much more so God’s law.
God has set forth a lawful authority in the Magisterium of the Church, to ponder His revealed law and teachings and to interpret them properly and authoritatively. He has also given the Church the power to bind and loose. What Thomas says regarding civil law (it is not competent for everyone to expound what is useful and what is not useful … those alone can do this who are in authority, and who, on account of such like cases, have the power to dispense from the laws) is also the case with respect to God’s law and Church law. No Catholic (except in urgent moments of grave necessity) should dispense with the moral law on his own. No one is a judge in his own case.
That said, even God’s law needs proper application to particular circumstances. St. Thomas (quoting Hilary) noted the following: The meaning of what is said is according to the motive for saying it, because things are not subject to speech, but speech to things. Therefore, we should take account of the motive of the lawgiver, rather than [merely] of his very words. He also commented, then the lawgiver cannot have in view every single case, he shapes the law according to what happens most frequently, by directing his attention to the common good. Therefore, the Lord left His Church to apply His word to particular circumstances. Without the remembrance that even God’s law speaks to the general and not to every specific case, the written law, univocally read without any reference to God’s overall will, could be reduced to obtuse absurdities and a hurtful legalism.
Consider the often bewildering legalisms in Jesus’ day related to work on the Sabbath. A law given to us by God for our sake became a kind of prison cell and often an occasion for a grave lack of charity toward others. Jesus had to remind people that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mk 2:27).
So law—especially God’s law—is essential, and it usually applies. But there are exceptional circumstances, and many laws can and do admit of certain exceptions. St. Thomas traces out for us a good balance to seek between legalism and a sort of autonomy that claims the personal right to be dismissive of law as one sees fit. This is good advice for a balance that many in the modern world get wrong.
Here’s a song that reflects the immature, rebellious attitude toward the law that is common today: