Theology by the Slice: Divine, Natural, and Human Law
On November 5, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology Newman Center hosted an event titled, “Theology by the Slice.” Students were able to ask a panel questions about the teachings and traditions of the Catholic faith. The following is one of the questions. The panel included Bishop Peter Muhich; Father Mark McCormick, Newman Center chaplain; Sister Christine Hernandez, SCTJM, chancellor; Sister Rachel Gosda, SCTJM, director of Faith Formation; Sr. Maria Belen Musgrove, SCTJM, religion teacher, RCCSS; Seminarian Robert Kinyon; and Michael Pauley, director of the South Dakota Catholic Conference.
My understanding is that there’s the divine law, the natural law, and the human law. Maybe it’s a consequence of sin that they’re not in accord but how does our government make laws that we may be obliged to follow — speed limits, legal age of drinking, things that maybe the church doesn’t have an official teaching on? If you’re breaking this human law, are you breaking your moral obligation to serve God? How can we look to government and/or human law and institutions to trust that they will do what’s best for humanity even after seeing some of the broken things that they have done?
Robert Kinyon: The first category, eternal law, is the mind of God. God created the world with an intentionality to it. There are certain patterns of behavior, certain behavior patterns in nature and human interaction that we typically follow. There’s an intelligibility to the world. When we grasp that intelligibility, we are grasping eternal law. It means we’re tapping into some of that intelligibility which is first and always present in the mind of God. When we grasp that and say there are certain oughts —and we ought to do this, we ought to do that — we speak to those oughts. We put them in the form of prescriptions, a written form that people have to follow. That becomes what we call human law. Now that those patterns have been voiced, there’s a certain intelligibility that we follow, and we demand of other people.
On the whole, it actually works astonishing well, 99% of the time, but the problem is we’re not perfect. In our tapping into God’s mind and tapping into the patterns of nature as God’s created it, sometimes we error. We’ve spoken before about our fallenness. On account of our fallenness we’re not always perfect and that can create an occasion for people to take advantage of the system, demanding obedience of people through some bullcrap law. To counter that system, the church typically teaches that only those laws that are just, which means are defensible on a rational level, only those laws are the ones that demand our obedience. The 20th century is plagued with all kinds of examples of terrible laws which are not obviously in accord with the mind of God and therefore didn’t demand obedience. We can draw a legitimate distinction between civil law and moral teaching. If it’s not just, it doesn’t demand our obedience
Michael Pauley: Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and render unto God what belongs to God. That’s our framework for approaching those questions. St. Paul, in Romans 13, writes let every person be subject to the governing authorities for there is no authority except for God. So again, this is a question about which volumes have been written by political philosophers and theologians who have far more credentials than me.
I think you mentioned a speed limit in your question. That would be an example of Romans 13 coming into effect where I would say yes, a Christian is obliged to obey that law even if it might be irrational. Let’s just say for the sake of argument that the government decided the speed limit on I-90 is going to be 30 miles an hour. Would that be irrational? I think it would be, but is it intrinsically immoral for the government to do that? I think that’s the test that we need to apply. Just because we personally disagree with it doesn’t mean that that gives us license to disobey it; however, when we get into matters where the government is legislating laws that are immoral then my argument would be is that not only are you allowed to disobey that law that you would be morally obliged to disobey that law. If it truly is something that is impacting on a core matter of faith — an example would be the effort right now by the federal government to potentially require medical practitioners who receive government funds to participate in abortions. This would be an example of a Catholic physician being put into a position where it’s either obey the law and participate in the abortion or quit and unfortunately that physician is going to have to quit. That’s the only morally acceptable outcome or we’re going to have to work to overturn that law. Again, render and just Cesar what belongs to Caesar but God’s law comes first.