Think Like a Catholic: 7 Questions on the Four Laws

Listers, if we are to be Catholic we must think like Catholics. Too often Catholics – both sides of the American political aisle – try to be Catholic according to the precepts and philosophies of modernity and its intellectual trends. We push our Catholicism into the contraints of something alien to it and then wonder why our faith seems tenuous and conflated. The Catholic tradition has long rested on Aquinas’ treatment of the divinely ordered cosmos to answer questions of providence, Scripture, nature and politics. Catholics cannot thrive within philosophies and theologies marked by isolated stomping grounds and modern blinders. Catholics believe in one divinely ordered Creation. Catholics should not judge nor live their Catholic lives according to modernity, but should judge and live within modernity according to Catholicism. To accomplish this feat, one must understand the how existence is ordered and how harmony of these laws promotes the common good.

A law is “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.” St. Thomas Aquinas, ST I-II.90.4

1. What are the four laws?
The following summary maps the four laws of the divinely ordered cosmos.

Eternal Law – The Divine Wisdom of God that moves all things to their end; it has the common good of all things as its focus; thus God, as “Being-itself” is the only One capacious enough to promulgate such a law and move all things in existence toward their proper end.

Divine Law – The historical laws of Scripture given to man through God’s self-revelation.

The Old Law – Extrinsic focus, fear and earthly rewards – foreshadows the NT

The New Law – Intrinsic focus, love and heavenly rewards – Perfects the OT

Natural Law – The Eternal Law of God imprinted on all things, from which “they derive their respective inclinations to their proper acts and ends.”

Human Law – Laws of governments that are dictates of practical reason from the general precepts of Natural Law.

Whether These Four Laws Exist

2. Is there Eternal law?
Any law can be summarized as “nothing else but a dictate of practical reason emanating from the ruler who governs a perfect community.” If therefore this definition of law is applied to all existence or being, then, the Angelic Doctor explains, “granted that the world is ruled by Divine Providence” the “the whole community of the universe is governed by Divine Reason.” He continues, “wherefore the very idea of the government of things in God the Ruler of the universe, has the nature of a law.”

God’s Reason and God’s Wisdom Eternal Law is God’s Wisdom that governs over all existence. St. Thomas speaks of both “Divine Reason” and “Divine Wisdom,” but unlike created man in whom reason can differ from wisdom due to imperfection, God the Creator’s reason is also perfect wisdom.

3. Is there in us a Natural law?
If Eternal Law governs Creation, how does the creature participate? “Wherefore, since all things subject to Divine providence are ruled and measured by the eternal law, as was stated above; it is evident that all things partake somewhat of the eternal law, in so far as, namely, from its being imprinted on them, they derive their respective inclinations to their proper acts and ends.”

Further articulating the “respective inclinations to their proper acts and ends,” the Angelic Doctor states, “wherefore [the rational creature, i.e., man] has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end: and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law.”

What all Catholics should know about Natural Law: Aquinas will go on to address Natural Law in greater detail in both his question on the subject and in treating Human Law; however, the incredible importance of Natural Law should be summarized:

Natural Law is the imprint of God’s Eternal Law upon creatures, and that means that Natural Law serves as the universal and common general moral language of all rational creations – humans. Moreover, it also means – as touched on below – that all Human Law, all political laws of the State, should be specifications of Natural Law’s general precepts. Under no circumstances can the laws of the State be dictates of the arbitrary will of a ruler or the people. Laws are just or unjust according to nature not the human will.

4. Is there Human law?
Human Law is at the same time incredibly simple in its premise and incredibly arduous in its practicality. Human Law is nothing more than the general laws of nature specified via human reason into particular laws of the State.

The precepts of Natural Law are “general and indemonstrable principles,” and upon these general inclinations “human reason needs to proceeed to the more particular determination of certain matter.”

What all Catholics should know about Human Law: Nota bene: human law is not just an extension of the ruler’s will nor is Human Law a simple gemoetric deduction from Natural Law. All Human Law – all laws of the State (polis) – must be rooted in nature and nature’s general moral precepts. A law is just according to the standard of nature not the desire of the people or the command of a ruler. The rulers of the State must work to take the general moral precepts of nature and specify them into particular laws of the State, e.g., the natural repugnance of murder and its unlawfulness is legislated into several various degrees and corresponding punishments. Human Law seeks through nature and reason to clarify and determine the gray areas of Natural Law.

5. Is there a need for Divine law?
Divine Law is the revealed law of God to man, while Natural Law is the imprint of Eternal Law on the hearts of men. Natural Law is then demonstrable and intelligible in its principles and thus discernable by human reason. Divine Law, while accessible to human reason, is revealed to man and not necessarily demonstrable from nature.

An Example of Divine vs Natural Law: Divine Law was necessary to reveal to man such truths that were not able to be discerned from nature, e.g., the proper worship of God, God’s specific will for Israel, the Trinity, the Incarnation, etc. However, certain precepts are shared by Divine and Natural Law, such as “do not murder.” Certainly God did not have to reveal to man that murder was wrong for man knew this from the imprinted inclinations of Natural Law, but God did clarify many natural precepts in Scripture.

What is the purpose of the Divine Law? Therefore, Divine Law can be said to be given for many reasons, but in general it was given because Natural Law allows man to participate according to the capacity of his human nature with the Eternal Law – however, man was in need of something to lift him above his own nature so that he may fulfill his supernatural end. Moreover, Divine Law clarifies many particulars of Natural Law and reveals many truths man would have otherwise never known.

6. How many Divine laws are there?
There is one Divine Law manifested in two parts – the Old Testament and New Testament – and the latter perfects the former. The operative word is perfect – sometimes the terms “old” and “new” give the false impression restart. The New Law perfects the Old and both can be seen as a progression of the Divine Pedagogy.

Fear and Love: St. Thomas Aquinas gives several observations of the relationship between the two parts of the Divine Law. He states, “it belongs to the law to induce men to observe its commandments. This the Old Law did by the fear of punishment: but the New Law, by love, which is poured into our hearts by the grace of Christ, bestowed in the New Law, but foreshadowed in the Old. Hence Augustine says (Contra Adimant. Manich. discip. xvii) that “there is little difference [The ‘little difference’ refers to the Latin words ‘timor’ and ‘amor’—‘fear’ and ‘love.’] between the Law and the Gospel—fear and love.”

7. What of Sin?
Aquinas is addressing a confusing juxtaposition. One one hand, a law is “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated;” and under this definition, sin cannot be considered a law because sin is not rational nor is to for the common good. However, St. Paul states, “I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind.” What then is sin?

There is in man the Natural Law that prompts him to the good and his proper acts and end; however, sin is also like a law insofar as it has a “reason of a direct inclination” to lead men away from the good. Yet, “in man, it has not the nature of law in this way, rather it is a deviation from the law of reason.” Sin appears to be a law insofar as it inclines men to a certain action, but since it is irrational and to the detriment of the good of man, it is not a law – in essence, sin is a corruption.