Where Does the Law Come From?

I attended a presentation presented by our diocesan tribunal entitled “Where Do Laws Come From?” by Emmett G. Wells, Lay Director of the Tribunal.

As the title indicates, the presentation examined the origin of “law” in general.

Today, many might see “law” as something put into effect by the proper authority.  Many may believe the law should be based on the utilitarian principle of the greatest good for the greatest number.  Others may see law as something that can change as leadership passes from one person to another.  This is “legal positivism.”

One problem with utiliitarianism is that the “greatest good” may often take a short-term view of the good, ignoring longer term consequences.  It may also ignore any concept of God.

In a Christian world view, there are three types of law.  The first is divine law that is defined by God.  God is the competent lawmaker and what God says goes.  But God doesn’t change his mind so divine law does not change.  Divine Law is a gift from God to us to help direct us to goodness.  Divine Law becomes the basis for all other laws.

The second type of law is natural law.  It is written on the human heart and can be known by reason.  Natural law applies to all and is unchanging.  While it is written on our hearts and can be known by reason, because of our sin, we still need grace and revelation to help us understand natural law.

Natural Law is evident in the natural order of things.  It also overlaps with divine law.  For example, the Ten Commandments are divine law, having been given to the people by God.  It is also natural law because it can be seen from reason in nature.  For instance, we know that the commandment not to steal makes sense.  How can we live normally in a society where we live in constant fear of theft.

The third type of human law.  These are laws that are made by the competent authority, where it be the church or, in civil matters, the government.  It can change but the change should be based on our ongoing efforts to grow closer to God.

Some believe that “law” is simply a legal code to maintain stability.  Where one goal of law is to maintain an orderly society, the law is ultimately meant to help us find out how we are called to live in union with God’s Will.  As such, the law does not exist simply as list of rules but finds its true purpose in helping us to become what is good, to help us know the truth as revealed by God in the divine law.

Truth.  For some, there is no universal truth.  You are free to believe whatever you want.  Again, in this view, law simply maintains order.  People who think this way may say “you can’t legislate morality.”  This is then used to say that the government can’t pass laws against homosexuality or other behavior that is seen as a “moral choice.”

As Catholics, we believe that there is universal truth.  It is determined by God!  To those who say you can’t legislate morality, I ask “Then, why is murder a crime?”

In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”  Jesus did not eliminate the Law.  Jesus came to help us understand what the law is all about.  The Law does not exist for itself.  The Law guides us to know how to live a good faithful life.  For more on how Jesus views the Law, read the Sermon on the Mount found in chapter five through seven of Matthew’s Gospel.


Fr. Jeff

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