Philip C.L. Gray
From the Sep 2000 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine
What is the purpose of law and order?
Law and order express the presence and will of God. In the absence of law and order, chaos exists. Obedience to lawful authority is an ordinary means of working out our salvation.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said . . .” (Gen. 1:1-3).
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of
every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen.
These passages are familiar to anyone raised within a Christian tradition. In fact, they are also an integral part of Judaism and Islam. If these passages remain only familiar, we fall short of understanding the wisdom within them. They provide a fundamental understanding of the necessity of law and order within any society, including our Church. Let us examine these passages, other relevant biblical teachings, and some basic points of moral theology in an attempt to better understand the role of law and order in society and within our Church.
Ordinance of Reason
When discussing law and right order, the Church distinguishes between two types of moral laws in respect to their author: divine law, given by God, and human law, given by man (cf. Catechism, no. 1952). Divine law can be distinguished as eternal, natural, or positive. Human law can be distinguished as ecclesiastical or secular. These can be further categorized in relation to what the law addresses, but this exceeds the purpose of this FAITH FACT.
Because the use of reason demands orderliness, law is a necessary consequence of the use of reason. To be reasonable protects truth and results in right order. To be unreasonable denies truth and results in chaos. Stated another way, law flows from practical reason. All law finds its first and ultimate truth in the eternal law, through which God governs the entire universe (cf. Catechism, no. phone: 1951). Natural law is an expression of eternal law. It is given by God to all creatures that possess free will and the use of reason. It is the law within each person that moves us to grace and inclines us to
salvation. Divine positive law is the law expressly revealed by God. The Ten Commandments are an example. All divine law, both natural and revealed, finds
its perfection in the Gospel of Jesus Christ (cf. Catechism, no. 1965).
Human laws, both ecclesiastical and secular, reflect our participation in divine law. We are created in the image and likeness of God. Because law and order reflect the perfect nature of God, man naturally desires orderliness. We are social creatures. Our laws are not eternal or infallible, but they are necessary for right order in society. Insofar as it respects divine law in its various forms and expressions, human law is good and protects truth. It
protects us from sin and guides us to heaven’s glory. Insofar as it does not respect divine law, it tends toward chaos and evil and does not protect right order. It leads to death. By necessity, as we grow in our understanding of divine law and as situations that humanity encounters change, human law requires reform and change.
St. Paul summarized the existence of laws as deriving from the existence of God when he wrote:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment (Rom. 13:1-2).
Orderliness is intrinsic to the nature of God. The existence of right order witnesses to the creative work and presence of God. He created the world in right order and gave it laws to govern its existence (cf. Gen. 1-2:4). He created man to govern the earth (cf. Gen. 1:26-28). Because man rules over the created order, the created order is subject to the blessings and curses of man. St. Paul expressed this beautifully when he wrote:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God (Rom. 8:19-21).
For Our Own Good
In Genesis 2:15-25, two critical points concerning law and right order are revealed. First, law in itself is not a result of sin. It is intrinsic to our nature. Even before sin, even before God completed the creation of man with the creation of woman, He demanded obedience or death from Adam. If Adam freely chose obedience to God, he would share in the fullness of revelation and glory. If he chose disobedience to the direct command from God, he would die. Second, laws must be passed from authority to those subject to authority. God is a refreshing study of Matthew’s Gospel that focuses on the “kingdom of
God,” which is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. What were Jesus’ contemporaries expecting? What is the relationship between the “kingdom” and the Catholic
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In the same way, God has given us revealed truth and granted lawful authority to the successors of the apostles. They are bound both to teach and to expound on the revealed truths for the right order of society. They fulfill these obligations by their words and examples, and by promulgating ecclesiastical laws that protect justice.
When Satan tempted Eve, he did so by attacking the one law God had given Adam. In the breaking of this law, sin and suffering entered the world (cf. Gen. 3). So began salvation history. This episode revealed two other principles concerning law and authority. First, authority is given to protect others. The laws given by authority are issued as a means of guidance and protection. Conversely, when human laws no longer guide and protect, when they no longer assist us to achieve heaven’s glory, those laws no longer bind. God gave Adam one command to protect his innocence and guide his freedom with responsible
obedience. Adam was obligated to pass this on to Eve to protect her from sin.
Second, when one in authority disobeys, all under their authority suffer. The disobedience of Eve did not result in a curse to all men until Adam’s disobedience. Her disobedience drew him to sin, but his disobedience resulted in the futility suffered by creation even to this present day. As God promised, Adam chose to sin and the consequence was death, for him and for all others.
Spirit of Love and Service
The highest fulfillment of all laws is love itself. As our Lord stated so eloquently in the following passage:
Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law? And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul,
and with all your mind. This is the great and the first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two
commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Mt. 22:36-40).
Recognizing this truth, St. Paul wrote:
Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. . .
. Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law (Rom. 13:3-4, 8).
St. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Galatians that those who are guided by the Spirit are not under the law. Rather, they have conquered their passions and the flesh. They have chosen virtuous living in obedience to God, and their lives reflect the fruits of the Spirit. They are not exempt from the law, but rather they fulfill the highest of laws-love for God and love for neighbor. They have crucified their passions and live not for themselves,
but for the glory of God. Though not under the law, they fulfill the law because of their obedience to God. This is true freedom: to choose God in perfect obedience and act responsibly in all affairs for love of God and love of others.
The application of these points is critical for the right order of society. Those in authority must use their authority to serve. They must be slaves of justice and stewards of the divine law. Most importantly, their actions and words must witness to the justice and truth that God requires of all men. The consequence of their disobedience to these obligations is sin and chaos. If they do not act justly, serve those entrusted to them, and live as examples of truth, they will lead others astray and encourage sin. Their judgment will be severe (cf. Mt. 18:6; 1 Cor. 8:10- 13; Mt. 7:15; Lk. 17:1).
The tremendous gift of freedom God gave us demands responsibility. The responsible use of human freedom has always required right order and conduct. Sin entered the world because of disobedience to a command of God. Death entered the world because of lawlessness. When the only law God gave Adam was struck down, death became the consequence for us all. As God’s Word attests, we must choose to follow the Lord and all His commands and so live, or forsake Him in disobedience to His commands and die in sin. In short, we are known by the acts we perform. If we live in chaos and darkness, our father is Satan; if we live in right order and obedience to God’s laws, we will share heaven’s glory as children of God (Lk. 6:45; Jn. 8:34-51).
Because the right use of laws and right order in society protect us from sin and encourage the grace of salvation, those in authority must use their authority wisely. Particularly in the Church, ecclesiastical laws can be a great blessing to the faithful if promulgated and enforced in a spirit of love and service. When authorities in the Church abuse their God-given authority by ignoring the true needs of their people or closing their minds to the voice of God, their authority and laws become burdensome and lead to dissent and chaos.
Several times after the Israelites left Sinai, certain men rose up to take the lead of the people and led them to sin. They did not doubt the law given on Sinai, they did not disbelieve the power of God. They were simply selfish and proud men who cared more for themselves than for the People of God. For this reason they and those that followed them perished at the hands of God (cf. Num. 14:1-38, 16).
It is not enough to have proper and good authority and laws; we also must follow them. Without laws to guide us, we are susceptible to our own imaginations and passions. As is evident in our world, one person’s imagination and desires differ greatly from another’s, thus causing chaos and conflict. Laws that govern proper living and regulate human affairs protect against chaos and conflict, thus protecting us from sin and death. If we are disobedient to the laws of justice, we could tempt our superiors to sin and fall prey to the curse of Adam. If we remain obedient for love of God and love of neighbor, we
receive the fruits of the tree of life, who is Christ Himself.
It would do us well to pray for those in authority (cf. 1 Tim. 2:1-4). It is a well-known fact that those in authority are not free from sin. In both civil and ecclesiastical societies, some leaders live in corruption and violate the laws of God. Many laws they establish do not promote the divine laws by which we were created. Within the Church, some in authority pay lip service to canon law and promote dissent by their own actions and attitudes. When decisions are made without proper consideration of the people they serve, they violate the necessary respect due each person. In short, lawful authority loses credibility in the absence of love and without witness to a desire for service of others. We have all witnessed this. Some of us have experienced it.
Likewise, we lose credibility when we wrongfully disobey lawful authority. Mother Church recognizes the right to question the decisions of lawful authority (cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 221; Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 24). If we follow the laws of the Church, we remain obedient to lawful authority and protect our consciences. Just as Adam’s fall led to the demise of all men, so does the fall of lawful authority lead to the demise of the people served. Let us pray for those in authority, that they will lead us to salvation by example and word. Let us pray for each other, that we might
remain obedient servants of God. In this way, may we live in peace.
This article first appeared in the July 9, 1997 issue of Christifidelis, the newsletter of the St. Joseph Foundation. It has been used with permission and edited to fit the style of a FAITH FACT . For information about the St. Joseph Foundation, call (210) 697-0717.
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