This concerns Christianity and the Law, according to the Catholic Church, which can be found in the chapter Christianity and the Law in the book: How Christ Changed the World: The Social Teachings of the Catholic Church by Msgr. Luigi Civardi of Catholic Action, published in 1961 (edited here by A. J. MacDonald, Jr. (.pdf here; html here.)
Moral liberty, as we have seen, finds its limitations in law. The aspects of law are manifold. In general: by law is meant a constant manner of being and of acting. This manner of acting is either necessary or free, according to the nature of different beings. Thus we have the first division of law into physical and moral.
Physical law is the manner of acting of beings devoid of reason. Their actions are necessary. The following are examples of physical laws: Bodies fall toward the center of the earth; fire burns; water wets. The moral law regulates, instead, the actions of rational and hence free beings, like human beings or people. Moral laws, for example, are those that oblige people to honor God, to respect his parents, to speak the truth, etc.
The moral law may be defined as a norm of human conduct promulgated by a legitimate authority for the common good. Moral law is divided into natural and positive. Natural law is so called because it is impressed on nature and made known by the very nature of man, that is to say, by his reason. The author of natural law is therefore, the author of nature himself, to wit, God. Natural law is universal, that is, it is bonding on all people without the need of revelation, divine or human; for, as has been said, it is the light of reason itself, the voice of conscience which tells us what is good (and consequently must be done) and what is evil (and consequently to be avoided).
All people have notions, however vague, of good and evil, of what is right and what is wrong. They feel, for instance, that it is unlawful to steal, to kill, to lie, and that it is right to obey their superiors, to keep their word, to pay their debts, etc. The whole of these commands of conscience forms in effect the natural law.
St. Paul affirms in his letter to the Romans that those without the revealed, written law (as had the Jews), “are a law unto themselves. They show the work of the law written in their conscience.” (Rom. 2:14-15). And he adds that in the Last Judgment they will be judged by God, according to this natural law which is prior to all written law and is known by all men.
Positive law is not made known by natural reason, but by an act of the legislator who promulgates it. It is divided into divine and human, according to whether the legislator is God or man. Divine positive law can only be known through revelation.
Divine positive law can only be known through revelation. We have the Old Law (Old Testament) that was revealed before Christ and the New Law (New Testament), which is also called Christian or evangelical, because it was revealed by Christ, the substance of which is contained in the Gospels and other books of the New Testament.Human positive law is either ecclesiastical or civil, according as it comes from religious or civil authority.
Between human law and natural law there are necessary relations. First of all human law has its foundation, itssource and its binding force in the natural law. Indeed, since people are by nature equal, no man by himself has any authority over another man. Therefore no man has the power to oblige, that is, to bind in conscience, his equal. But the natural law, the expression of the will of God, calls for a human authority in every society, and to this society it confers the power to command and to bind. For this reason, in the book of Proverbs, divine Wisdom affirms: “By me, kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things; by me, princes rule and the mighty decree justice.” (Prov. 8:15-16).
Human law has its sanction and its limitations in the natural law. That means the lawgiver must always be guided by and conform to the rules of the natural law, nor may he decree anything contrary to it. When a human law contradicts the natural and divine law, “it is not a true law” – declares St. Thomas Aquinas – “but a corruption of law.” [See: Aquinas on Law here; as well as M. L. King, Jr. on Aquinas and Law here.] In such a case, the law is obviously not binding in conscience. In fact, the binding force of law is wholly derived from God. Now how can God oblige one to do something contrary to his will? He would be contradicting himself.
From this we are able to understand the supreme importance of the natural law, without which the whole structure of human legislation would collapse. The existence of natural law is so evident, and its function so necessary, that nearly all the ancient philosophers – especially the highest like Plato, Aristotle and Cicero – recognized it and proclaimed its sovereign rights. Cicero called it “the true and chief law, and right reason of the Supreme Jove.”
In spite of this, many modern philosophers (naturalists, positivists, idealists), by denying God as a transcendent being consequently deny the natural law and acknowledge only human law. These make the State supreme and the only source of every law and every right. It is evident, for the reasons already mentioned above, that political authority is not thereby exalted, but debased, since it is stripped of its rightful claim to command; and at the same time, the laws are emptied of all their intrinsic efficiency.
These ideas about law – dictated by natural reason itself – are confirmed by the teachings of Christ and of the Church.
Jesus Christ could not have proclaimed the binding force of human laws with greater effect than by submitting himself to them. And that is what he did with exemplary exactness, although he was bound to do so because he, as God, was superior to all law. As a perfect citizen he observed the just laws of his country, both ecclesiastical and civil.
As a child he submitted to the prescribed ceremony of circumcision, and later to that of the presentation in the temple. When he was twelve years old, a child of the law, he went with his parents to Jerusalem for the Passover, according to another requirement of the Jewish code. At the beginning of his public life, some were of the opinion that the Messiah, by inaugurating a new kingdom, wanted to do away with the heavy burden of Mosaic law; but he disabused them by saying: “Do not think that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. I am not come to bring down the law, but to fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17)., that is to say, to bring the law to perfection.
In fact, he showed himself a faithful observer of the decrees and rites according to the law. He cured ten lepers, but since the Mosaic law required that the leper when healed should take himself to the priests with gifts according to the rite of purification (Lev. 14), he said to them: “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” (Luke. 17:14). Jesus observed the laws of purification. Among the Jews all men who reached twenty years of age had to pay an annual tribute of two drachmas for the temple of Jerusalem. The Son of God, too, paid this tribute; and for that purpose he performed a miracle when he sent his apostle Peter to fetch a fish from the sea in which he found the two needed coins (Matt. 17:23-26).
Jesus, the Son of God, was exempt from paying tribute for the support of religion. Nevertheless, he paid it! What an example of obedience to law! When he was asked “if it is lawful to pay tribute to Caesar” (who was considered a usurper by his countrymen), he simply replied: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:21); that is to say, give him the coin of the tribute because it belongs to him.
Jesus preached obedience even to wicked lawgivers, like the scribes and Pharisees, by saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on the chair of Moses. All things, therefore, whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do. But do not according to their works do not; for they say, and do not,” (Matt. 23:2-3).
But Jesus refused obedience to wicked laws, to unjust rules, to arbitrary requirements with which the Pharisees had padded the Mosaic law (like the requirements concerning the various ablutions, and the Sabbath rest that had become an unbearable and unreasonable burden). He publicly complained that the Pharisees “bind heavy and insupportable burdens, and lay them on men’s shoulders.” (Matt. 23-4). And he rebuked them severely, saying: “Well do you make void the commandment of God that you may keep your own tradition.” (Matt. 7:9).
The apostles, the immediate heirs of the thought of Christ, preached compliance with all just laws, even when made by pagan lawgivers or by persecutors of the Church. St. Paul made this recommendation to the Christians of Rome: “Wherefore be subject of necessity [to civilian authorities] not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For therefore also you pay tribute. For they [the lawgivers] are the ministers of God, serving unto this purpose. Render therefore to all men their dues. Tribute, to whom it is due; custom, to whom custom; honor, to whom honor.” (Rom. 13:5-7).
Hence it follows that the Christian must observe the law, not only through fear of punishment but also as a duty binding in conscience, that is to say, out of regard for God himself, since lawgivers are ministers of God, namely instruments of his will insofar as they promulgate just laws. St Paul’s conduct was in keeping with is teachings. Before the tribunal of Festus, he was able to defend himself with these words which no one could gainsay: “Neither against the law of the Jews nor against the temple nor against Caesar have I offended in any thing.” (Acts 25:8).
Tertullian in his Apologetic shows that Christians were an asset to the Roman Empire also because they paid their taxes, whereas the pagans defrauded the government. He writes: “You should be thankful to the Christians, who pay their taxes with exactness because it is forbidden them to defraud anyone.”
The Church has repeatedly taught the same doctrine, adding that in one case only is a Christian exempt from the duty of obedience: when there is a question of a law that is clearly unjust and, therefore, contrary to the will of God. Leo XIII says: “One reason only can men have for not obeying, namely if something is required of them that is clearly inconsistent with natural and divine law, for it is equally wrong either to command or to do anything in which the law of nature or the will of God is violated.
If it should happen, therefore, that one finds himself obligated to choose between these two things, that is to say, to despise the commandments of God or those of the rulers, he must obey Jesus Christ, who commanded to render ‘to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s’; and so following the example of the apostles one must courageously reply: ‘We must obey God rather than man.’ (Acts 5:29). Nor can those who behave in such a manner be accused of being guilty of disobedience, for if the will of the rulers is repugnant to the will and laws of God, they themselves exceed the limits of their power and thwart justice; nor can their authority avail in such case, for authority is null when their is no justice.” (Encyclical Diuturnum).
Recent Pontiffs have repeatedly condemned the error of those who deny natural law. Pius XII in his EncyclicalSummi Pontificatus says: “Once the authority of God and the sway of his law is denied in this way, the civil authority as an inevitable result tends to attribute to itself that absolute autonomy which belongs exclusively to the Supreme Maker. It puts itself in the place of the Almighty and elevates the State or group into the last end in life, the supreme criterion of the moral and juridical order, thereby forbidding every appeal to the principles of natural reason and of the Christian conscience.”
This same Pontiff calls our attention to certain injuries caused by this denial of the natural law in the following words: “Where the dependence of human right upon divine right is denied, where appeal is made only to some insecure idea of a merely human authority, and an autonomy is claimed which rests only upon a utilitarian morality, there human law itself justly forfeits in its more weighty application the moral force which is the essential condition for its acknowledgment and also for its demand of sacrifice.”
Christianity, therefore, while tempering scepters, gives strength to laws. That is another notable social blessing. On our part we should endeavor to obey human laws for conscience sake, as St. Paul exhorts us to do. We will thus acquire merits not only with men who do not always recognize them, but also with God, who always recognizes them and rewards them for all eternity.