Thursday, May 22, 2014

Thoughts on Catholicism and Human Law

I would like to expand on something I wrote a few days ago concerning the concept of legitimate and illegitimate law. I hope in this day and age (unfortunately, you never know) most people would recognize that governments can and do create unjust laws (whether actual laws, judicial rulings and executive orders) which are made binding through force—not just in totalitarian nations, but right here in the US as well.

Realizing that even in the Western Nations (which are always held up as the paragon of freedom compared to the rest of the world, fair or not) the governments can and do create unjust laws is important. It shows that no state government is impeccable in creating laws (human laws, to distinguish from Divine Law and Natural Law)—even if our own party of preference is in command.

I think that with this understanding in mind, the Catholic perspective should be explored. A lot of accusations have been made about us, and we need to have a basic understanding on how the Church views the authority of the state and the human law it creates.

We're not anarchists. We don't hold that the adage, the government that governs best governs least. Nor do we hold that government is a necessary evil. When it works as it ought, government justly holds authority and must be heeded. On the other hand, Catholicism is not a proponent of Big Government. The authority of the state certainly has limits as to what it can do.

In the Catholic perspective, the purpose of government is ensuring the common good. However, the government is not itself the common good. It can only be a means to this end. The government does not have the authority to redefine what the common good is, and the burdens of the law must not be unequally proportioned—such as favoring your friends and harming your enemies. (See Summa Theologica I II Q 96 a4). Finally, the laws passed cannot exceed the authority of the lawgiver.

This last point is important. While certain views of government exalt the power of the state, when the government decrees something it has no right to decree, the law it passes has no authority—much like if I were to pass a law that all the houses on my block have the obligation to pay me a 20% tax on their gross income. I would have no right to make such a law because I do not have the authority to even make a law. Maybe if I had my own private militia I could get away with it, but the law would have no authority on its own.

A government may decree a thing, but if the thing decreed goes beyond the authority of the government to decree, then the only way that the law can be binding is if the government uses force to carry out the law. There would be no moral  obligation to follow such a law.

When you see these principles, it becomes clear that sometimes the Church must necessarily be in opposition to certain acts of government but is not acting in a partisan manner in doing so.

The Church rejects the claim by a state that it can decide to change the definitions of what is good or evil. Thus when the state creates such legislation, she denies that the law has binding authority. If the law interferes with the ability to do good and avoid evil, then it is not a law at all. It is merely an act of coercion.

Thus the Church will challenge the state that decrees that it can make marriage anything other than between one man and one woman. The Church will challenge the state if it decrees that abortion is a "right." The Church will challenge the state if the state demands that employers violate their religious faith by paying for contraceptives.

When the state decrees such things, these laws lack the morally binding force that valid human law possesses. The government can use force to demand compliance—do it or be sued, locked up or dead.

Now while that threat of coercion may work on individuals within the Church, it doesn't work on the Church as a whole. The Church that recognizes the witness of martyrdom (which is not to be confused with the perversion of the term by those who blow themselves and others up to make a point).

Martyrdom in the Catholic sense says that it is better to suffer evil than to do evil—even to the point of dying rather than doing what God forbids. The Catholic faith, which says, " I would rather suffer as an innocent than to be guilty of doing what God forbids," does not accept the claims of the state to have the right to make good evil or evil good.

The reasons above also explain why the Church—contrary to the hopes of the media—will never permit abortion, woman priests, "gay marriage," contraception, or remarriage when the spouse of a pervious valid marriage is still alive. The Church is not an institution which arbitrarily makes up rules for Catholics to follow and can undo them whenever she likes. When God teaches us what is good or evil, the Catholic Church knows she does not have the authority to change that teaching.

When one understands these things, it becomes clear how the Church can be in opposition to the human laws of a government without being partisan. The Church can accept a government which seeks the true common good and does not seek to elevate itself to the greatest importance and does not seek to make laws it has no right or authority to make.

But it must seek to convert the government that seeks partisan gain for its supporters, that seeks to pass laws it has no right to pass.

This then is why the Catholic Church must sometimes be in opposition to our government.

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