Law and Conscience

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"The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good" (Rom 7:12).

When we look at the world we see that everything operates according to a certain plan or order.  For example, rivers flow toward the sea, birds build nests each spring for their young, and when we drop a stone it falls to the ground.  As Creator of the world, God has provided for all of his creatures.  In his providence he governs all things, directing and ordering each to its proper end or purpose.  This is the eternal law of God which encompasses all creatures on earth.

Physical Laws

God's eternal law is first divided into physical laws and moral lawsPhysical laws, also called laws of nature, are those which govern the nature and operation of all material things and natural forces.  The law of gravity or other laws of physics and chemistry are examples of physical laws.  The instincts of animals, which cause them to act in particular ways, are also physical laws.  The laws which govern the physical world can neither be disobeyed nor repealed.

The laws which direct our will toward the good are called moral laws.  Since human beings have free wills, the laws which guide our actions can be broken.  We are always free to choose good or evil.  Such laws help us to direct our wills toward their proper purpose - perfection on earth and, finally, happiness in Heaven.

Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord! . .  who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways! (Ps 119:1, 3).

The entire moral law comes to us from God.  Part of it comes directly from him, but another part of it comes indirectly from him through a human lawgiver.  The first part, divine law, is divided into two sorts - natural law and revealed law.

Divine Law

Natural Law

The natural law is the basic moral law which God has placed in human nature and which we discover through reason.  This law is written in the hearts of men, and its most basic principle is "Do good and avoid evil."  However, because of original sin, which has clouded our intellects, we do not always recognize what is good and what is evil.  Most people, even pagans, can easily see that certain things, like murder, stealing, or lying are wrong.  However, it is not so easy to see that at times it can be wrong to say something which is actually true.  For example, spreading facts that would deliberately harm or embarrass another person might be seriously wrong.

Revealed Law

Because human beings often find it difficult to know what is right and wrong on their own, God has also revealed certain commandments to us.  This is what we call positive or revealed law.  These are the commandments which are contained in the Old Law given through Moses at Mount Sinai and the New Law given by Our Lord when he was on earth.  The Old Law was given by God in the Old Testament - for example, the Ten Commandments.  This law was the first stage of God's revelation and by itself is incomplete.  This law was perfected in the New Testament.  Our Lord said: "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Mt 5:17).  Our Lord tells us to keep his law out of love rather than out of fear (Jn 14:15).  While the Ten Commandments are examples of revealed laws given in the Old Testament, the forbidding of divorce by Jesus (Mt 19:1-9) is an example of a revealed law from the New Testament.  It is important to recall that the Church's magisterium is the authentic interpreter of divine law, that is, of both the natural law and positive revealed law.

Many of the revealed precepts repeat and confirm points in the natural law which men might discover on their own.  God repeats these - for example, "Thou shalt not kill",  "Thou shalt not steal" - because of their importance.  Other precepts require God's revelation if we are to know them.  Thus, for example, God tells us that we are to worship him on a particular day each week.

Human Laws

Many moral laws are made by humans themselves and are called human laws.  Human laws are divided into civil laws and ecclesiastical (Church) laws.  Civil laws are those made by the civil authorities.  Laws regarding the payment of taxes or traffic laws are examples.

Ecclesiastical laws are those made by the Church.  There are many of these, and they are contained in the book of Canon Law.  However, seven of them are particularly important for all Catholics and we should know them.  They are:

1.  To keep holy the day of the Lord's Resurrection: to worship God by participating in Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation: to avoid those activities that would hinder renewal of soul and body, i.e., needless work and business activities, unnecessary shopping, etc.

2.  To lead a sacramental life: to receive Holy Communion frequently and the sacrament of Penance regularly: - minimally, to confess grave sins in the sacrament of Penance at least once a year (annual confession is obligatory only if serious sin is involved). - minimally, to receive Holy Communion at least once a year, between the First Sunday of Lent and Trinity Sunday.

3.  To study Catholic teaching in preparation for the sacrament of Confirmation, to be confirmed, and then to continue to study and advance the cause of Christ.

4.  To observe the marriage laws of the Church: to give religious training (by example and word) to one's children; to use parish schools and religious education programs.

5.  To strengthen and support the Church: one's own parish community and parish priests; the worldwide Church and the Holy Father.

6.  To do penance, including abstaining from meat and fasting from food on the appointed days:
- abstaining on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of Lent;
- fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

7.  To join in the missionary spirit and apostolate of the Church.

Sometimes the government and the Church repeat and reaffirm divine laws.  For example, a state may have laws against murder or stealing, and the Church also teaches us that these actions are wrong.  Such laws, though repeated by men, are not human laws.  They are divine laws.  It is important to understand this because these laws cannot be changed by men.

We must also realize that there is a hierarchy among laws; for example, God's laws are higher than man's.  Thus if a law of man is in conflict with or contradicts a law of God, we must follow God's law.  This was what Thomas More did when he opposed those created by King Henry VIII which placed himself as head of the Church in England so he could divorce his wife and marry another.

When we speak of laws we speak of both the spirit and the letter of the law.  The spirit is the understanding behind the law and the letter is the actual words of the law.  In following these laws we must follow both the spirit and the letter. 

There is a clear difference between the law and legalism.  Christ said, "It is easier for Heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the law to become void" (Lk 16:17).  On the other hand, he severely rebuked the Pharisees for their legalism.  They had forgotten all about the spirit behind the law, while holding fast to the letter.  Thus they made the law void.  For instance, there was a tradition among them that if you said to your parents that you were dedicating your goods to God, then you were no longer obliged to help and honor them.  Jesus said, "So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the Word of God.  You hypocrites!  Well did Isaiah prophesy of you when he said, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me'" (Mt 15:7-9).  Time and again Christ showed that the law of charity is supreme.  It does not void the law but fulfills it.  St. Paul reminds us: "Above all these things have love" (Col 3:14).

LAW: God - the Eternal Law
    Physical Laws - Laws for matter
    Moral Laws - Laws for human wills
        Divine Laws - From God
            Moral Laws in Nature - Natural Law
            Positive Moral Laws from God - Revealed Law
        Human Laws - From Men
            Ecclesiastical Laws
            Civil Laws


Besides the external guide of the moral law, God has also given us an internal guide to help us determine which actions are good and which are bad.  This is known as our conscience.  Many of us may think of our conscience as a 'little voice' - like Jimminy Cricket - which whispers in our ear, telling us what to do or scolds us when we do wrong.  This is a false understanding of conscience.

Conscience is a specific action of our reason, or intellect, by which we judge the rightness or wrongness of a particular action.  It is not a feeling or emotion.  Conscience is the application of certain principles - found in the moral law - to a specific, concrete moral situation.

In order to be of any use to us, our conscience must be correctly formed or taught.  We are obliged to follow our conscience, but we are also obliged to make sure that our conscience is properly formed.

When our conscience is correctly formed and the judgments which we make are correct, we have a true conscience.  If our judgments are incorrect we have a false conscience.  A false conscience is lax if it fails to see sin where sin actually exists.  For example, our conscience is lax if we do not think deliberately missing Mass on Sunday is a serious sin.  A false conscience is scrupulous if it magnifies the gravity of sin or finds sin where there really is none.  For example, our conscience is scrupulous if we think that missing Sunday Mass when we are very ill is a sin.  Such false consciences have not been correctly formed.

To form our conscience we must look to the Church, which speaks the Word of God to us today, and we must listen to her voice.  At the same time we should try to understand these laws of God so that we may be better able to follow them.

 Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534

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