by Arthur Devine, 1897
1. The necessity of a moral law.
2. The union of dogmas and morals.
3. (1) The nature and definition of law. (2) The division of law. (3) The eternal law. (4) The natural law. (5) The Divine positive law. (6) The old law and its precepts. (7) The new law and its precepts.
4. The obligation of laws. (1) The obligation of the natural law. (2) The obligation of the Decalogue. (3) The observance of the commandments possible and easy. (4) With the aid of grace. (5) Affirmative and negative precepts.
5. Motives for keeping the precepts of the law -- (l) Our duty. (2) Our interest.
6. The manner of keeping the law -- (1) Entirely. (2) Always. (3) Sincerely
In order to be saved, it is not enough to have been baptized, and to believe the truths contained in the Creed; it is also necessary to observe the law of God. Religion is made up, not only of truths to be believed, but also of precepts to be observed, which two things taken together constitute Christian morality. The word 'morality' is derived from two Latin words, morum lex--that is, the law of morals. Morality is, therefore, the doctrine or system of moral duties, of the duties of men towards God and towards one another.
Between dogmas and morals there is a very close connection. They are the two elements forming a whole, which is religion. Take away religion from morality, and you will have only abstract theories, without any real or serious influence on the actions or lives of men. Take away dogma, and you will only have a code of laws without a legislator. That which is spoken of by pretending philosophers as moral independence is a kind of morality without God. This is nothing more than a chimera, for without God we cannot conceive either an authority to impose a law, or a power to enforce or to sanction it. By nature all men are equal, and one cannot impose obligations on another unless we suppose a higher law and a higher authority. Human force is limited, and can offer only a partial guarantee to effect the observance of laws. It can only reach transgressors when they are seen and found out. Such a system would be one of entire servitude, which could never extend to all our actions, and which could not touch the heart. In such a case, the idea of duty and the idea of right would entirely disappear; so that without God we cannot conceive any moral system.
Both reason and experience lead us to this conclusion. It is also the Gospel teaching. Our Divine Saviour, side by side with revealed truth, has given us maxims of Christian morality and conduct. In sending His Apostles to announce His religion to the world, He said to them: Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world (St. Matt. xxviii. 19, 20).
2. Dogmas and morals are therefore so closely united that it is necessary not only to believe all revealed truths, but also to observe all the commandments. Faith alone is not sufficient. This has been defined by the Council of Trent. 'If anyone should say that a justified man is not bound to the observance of the commandments of God . . . as if the Gospel were a clear and absolute promise of eternal life, without the condition of the observance of the commandments, let him be anathema (Sess. VI. Can. 19, 20).
A Christian is one who, being baptized, professes the faith of Jesus Christ and observes His law. It is to him who observes the law that Christ has promised life, according to His own words: If thou wilt enter into life keep the commandments (St. Matt. xix. 17). To believe what is of faith and to observe the whole law is what every Christian must do in order to be saved.
Now, it is the law of God which I endeavor to explain in the following instructions on the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments of God. And in order to elucidate matters, it is necessary to explain beforehand some questions affecting laws in general, and the Divine law in particular. We have, therefore, to explain:
(1) The nature and division of law.
(2) The obligation of law.
(3) The motives for observing the precepts of the law,
and the manner of doing so.
3. (1) The word ' law' comes from the Latin word legere, to read, because it is given that man may read or be instructed in his duties. St. Thomas derives it rather from ligare, to bind, because it is, as it were, a tie or bond attaching an obligation to us. This seems to be the correct derivation of the word, because in this a law is distinguished from a counsel, that the former imposes on us an obligation. It is the external and remote rule of human actions--a rule prescribed by the supreme power for regulating the actions of men. It is defined by St. Thomas: 'A permanent rule prescribed as obligatory by the supreme power of a state for the common good' (Ordinatio rationis obligationem inducens ad bonum commune ab eo qui curam communitatis habet promulgata.). Promulgation is required in order that a law be binding--that is, it should be publicly notified to the community, although its obligation does not depend on its acceptance by the people or the community.
(2) In general, laws are divided into two great classes, Divine and human. Human laws are subdivided into ecclesiastical and civil. Of these we do not now treat. The Divine law is divided into eternal, natural, and positive.
(3) The eternal law is the dictate of the Divine mind, which prescribes or lays down what rational creatures are to do and to avoid. It is nothing else, according to St. Augustine, than the Divine and uncreated reason--the eternal will, which ordains the natural order of things, and forbids them to be disturbed or violated. I have here limited its meaning to rational beings, inasmuch as man is the only free being on earth, and he alone has the power of conforming himself to God's eternal law or violating it. Law in its more general and comprehensive sense may indeed be applied to all actions, whether animate or inanimate, rational or irrational; but here, as it is understood, I am treating of moral actions, and the rules prescribed for them by the Creator.
From all eternity there was in God the idea of the Divine mind, according to which creatures when they would come into existence should be directed and regulated; and it is in this sense the law is called eternal, although it only came into existence in time, after the creation, when it was promulgated to rational beings.
Every other law is derived from the eternal law as from an exemplary cause, inasmuch as it is the type and pattern of every law, and from it as from an efficient cause, inasmuch as all legislative power is from the eternal law, or, in other words, from God.
(4) The natural law, or the law of nature, is the eternal law as it is impressed upon man's reason, or it is the dictate of our created reason prescribing what we should do or avoid; because God, when He created man and endued him with free will, laid down certain immutable laws of human nature, whereby that free will is to be regulated and restrained according to the dictate of natural reason. This law is also called right reason--the light of reason. It is that which enables us to distinguish between good and bad, just and unjust, vice and virtue. This law is a reflex of the eternal law, and is one with it, in the sense that they both prescribe the same thing; but they differ in this, that the eternal law is in God, and the natural law in the created mind. This may be illustrated by the example of an image which is the same in the stamp and in the thing stamped. St. Paul refers to this law when he says: For when the Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature those things that are of the law; these having not the law, are a law to themselves: who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness to them, and their thoughts between themselves accusing, or also defending one another (Rom. ii. 14, 15).
The natural law, though one in itself, contains many precepts or principles, of which there are three classes-- namely, primary, secondary, and remote.
The primary principles dictate that we should worship God, that we should live honestly, should hurt nobody, and should render to everyone his due. To these Justinian has reduced the whole doctrine of law.
The secondary principles are those which may be easily deduced from the first, such as those contained in the commandments of God; and the remote are the precepts which are deduced from these by the light of natural reason, or those which are with difficulty deduced from the first principles of that law.
The natural law was promulgated for the human race from the beginning by the revelation made to our first parents, according to the words of Ecclesiasticus: God created man of the earth, and made him after His own image. . . . He created of him a helpmate like to himself: He gave them counsel, and a tongue, and eyes, and ears, and a heart to devise, and He filled them with the knowledge of understanding. He created in them the science of the spirit. He filled their heart with wisdom, and showed them both good and evil. . . . Moreover He gave them instructions, and the law of life for an inheritance. He made an everlasting covenant with them, and showed them His justice and judgments, and their ears heard His glorious voice, and He said to them. Beware of all iniquity. And He gave to every one of them commandment concerning his neighbor (Ecclus. xvii. I et seq).
Practically speaking, no one can be invincibly ignorant of the first principles or precepts of the natural law, inasmuch as they are clearly impressed on the mind of everyone. As to the secondary principles, no one can be practically invincibly ignorant of them, unless in the case of some illiterate and inexperienced persons, and in these, ignorance of the precepts can only be for a short time, and under some circumstances, apparently justifiable and honest.
As to the more remote principles and conclusions of the natural law, invincible ignorance may be found both in the man who acts and even in the man who teaches, as clearly stated by St. Alphonsus (P. 171).
The law of nature, as it is a necessary law affecting only those things that are intrinsically and of their own nature good or bad, cannot be changed or admit of dispensation, not even by God, who cannot contradict Himself.
In many cases, however, the matter about which the natural law prescribes an obligation may be changed in such a way that, under altered circumstances, the object may cease to come under the law of nature.
(5) The Divine Positive Law.--This is twofold--the old and the new law, or the Mosaic and the Evangelical law.
(6) The Old Law, or the Law delivered to Moses.--The natural law, having become through the passions of men obscured and nearly forgotten, God deigned anew to manifest His will to men through Moses on Mount Sinai, about 2,500 years after the creation of the human race. He caused it to be engraved on tables of stone, as men were no longer able to read it in their depraved hearts.
The precepts of the old law were threefold: 1. Moral, which prescribed to men that which was already contained in the law of nature, their religious and social duties--in other words, their duties to God and to each other. 2. The Ceremonial, which prescribed the external rites and ceremonies to be observed by the Jews in the Divine worship. 3. The Judicial, which prescribed the manner of administering justice amongst the Jewish people. The moral law was contained in the precepts of the Decalogue, and, as it was made up of the secondary precepts of the law of nature, it was binding on all people and at all times. The ceremonial and judicial precepts of the old law were binding only on the Israelites and on proselytes, or those from amongst the Gentiles who embraced Judaism and submitted to the rite of circumcision.
It is of faith that God was the Author of the old law, and it was therefore good and holy; but, like every other law, it was often made the occasion of sin by its abuse.
(7) The new or Evangelical law is no other than the old moral law, renewed, approved, and perfected by Jesus Christ, according to His own declaration: Do not think that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. The new law was given by Christ to all men and for all time. Although the moral law is the same, yet we must know that Christ also gave two other classes of precepts-- namely, sacramental and precepts of faith. These, unlike the ceremonial and judicial precepts of the old law that affected only the Jews, bind all men, and will remain always in force. And, again, the old law did not give grace (although grace was given in the old dispensation by virtue of the new): the new law does give grace through the Sacraments. The old law, as to its ceremonial part, was only a shadow and figure of the new; hence it ceased when this came into force.
The new law began to be solemnly promulgated, and to oblige, on the Day of Pentecost, for the Jews then dwelling in Jerusalem, and afterwards gradually throughout the world. The old law began to fail during the lifetime of Christ, although then it was obligatory on the Jews; it ceased or died at the time of the death of Christ. It became deadly or unlawful about the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. Then the synagogue was buried, and the legalia could no longer be observed without sin.
4. The Obligation of Laws.--It is necessary to remember that I speak here only of the natural and the Divine positive law.
(1) To the natural law all men are subject. An act against the natural law, e.g., blasphemy, impurity, is always sinful; at least, it is always a material sin, because the law always and necessarily exists for all.
To the Divine positive law all are subject, to whom that law is directed. The Jews were subject to all the precepts of the old law, and all men are subject to the new or Evangelical law.
(2) The precepts of the Decalogue are therefore binding on all, not only Christians, but Mohammedans, Jews, and pagans. These precepts are just and reasonable. They are possible, and even easy of observance, with the help of God's grace. The precepts are just and reasonable because they have God as their Author. He is the Legislator. Their justice must be recognized, their convenience must be felt, their utility experienced, and their wisdom admired. The spirit of the Christian dispensation is that of moderation. It tempers severity with moderation and excludes excess in both, and in all things it recommends sobriety and wisdom, according to the words of Ecclesiastes: Be not over-just, and be not more wise than is necessary, lest thou become stupid (Eccles. vii. 17).
(3) The commandments are possible, and even sweet and easy of observance. To pretend that the fulfillment of the Christian law is impossible would be impious and blasphemous, inasmuch as it would be imputing to God the injustice of commanding us to do something above our strength. On the contrary, the law of God is a law of love, according to the words of Christ: If anyone love Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and we will come to him, and will make our abode with him (St. John xiv. 23). And St. Paul tells us that the fulfilling of the law is love (Rom. xiii. 10). 'How,' says St. Augustine, 'can it be impossible for a man to love--to love his Creator, who has bestowed so many favors upon him; to love a Father so full of tenderness, and to love his own flesh and blood in his brethren?' The saints, in fact, kept the law, and it is through its observance they are now in heaven. Faith and experience teach us that the observance of the Ten Commandments and of the Christian law is not impossible. To maintain the contrary would be both impious and heretical, as declared by the teaching of the Council of Trent (Sess. VII., de justif, can. 18). It is not only possible to observe the law, but sweet and easy, as our Savior Himself tells us: Take up My yoke upon you, and learn of Me, because I am meek, and humble of heart; and you shall find rest to your souls. For My yoke is sweet, and My burden light (St. Matt. xi. 29, 30). St. John very formally tells us: This is the charity of God, that we keep His commandments, and His commandments are not heavy (I John v. 3).
(4) We must not, however, labour under any delusion when it is taught that to keep the commandments is possible and easy. It is true that this is the case, but with the help of the grace of God. It is narrated in the Gospel that one day a young man came to our Savior and asked Him the question: What shall I do to be saved? and Christ answered him: Keep the commandments; and that the young man had done, though perhaps not without difficulty. The Apostles also seemed to have taken the view that the observance of the commandments was not easy, and they said once to our Lord: Who, then, can be saved? Our Savior in His goodness explained the matter to them. Man, left to himself, is not able to fulfill the whole law on account of the weakness of his fallen nature, but he can easily do this with the help of God. With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible (St. Matt. xix. 25, 26). These words should not be forgotten. Whilst they give us confidence in God, they fill us with diffidence in ourselves, and enable us to say with St. Paul: I can do all things in Him who strengthened me (St. Matt. xix. 25, 26). We can keep the commandments if we wish to do so sincerely, because God always grants us the necessary grace to observe His law, and His grace enables our will not only to fulfil all the duties imposed by the law, but also makes us experience pleasure and happiness in their observance. All the difficulty in keeping the commandments arises from the evil dispositions of our nature. The light of the sun is beautiful and enjoyable, but hurtful to weak eyes; food, which is relished in a state of health, is disagreeable when one is sick.
(5) In treating of the obligation of the Divine law, we must, as in all other laws, distinguish between an affirmative and a negative precept. An affirmative precept obliges always, but not at all times and every moment (obligat semper sed non ad semper); that is, it must be fulfilled at prescribed times, such as the obligation of sanctifying Sunday, of making acts of faith, hope, and charity; but these acts, although binding always during life, do not bind at each moment. A negative precept obliges always and at all times--that is, at every moment, as, for example, not to steal, not to blaspheme. Obligat semper et pro semper. We have, furthermore, to notice that laws, even the Divine laws, bind under grave sin in a grave matter, but only under venial sin in a light matter. It is an error to suppose that every violation of the Divine law is a mortal sin, because this law may be violated only in small things, as, for example, to steal a small amount, to tell a simple lie.
The kind or quality of obligation involved in a law may be judged by the virtue on account of which the law was made. Thus, the obligation of adoring God is by the virtue of religion, the obligation of fasting is by the virtue of temperance, etc., and the transgression of the law and the nature of the sin may be judged also according as it is opposed to one or other of the virtues.
5. The Motives that should lead us to keep the Law of God.--The motives for keeping the law are, that it is (1) our duty, and (2) our interest to do so.
(1) Our duty. It is the duty of a servant to obey his master, the duty of a subject to obey his king, and the duty of a child to obey his father. Now, God is our Master, our King, and our Father. He is more; He is our God and Creator, and hence, in promulgating His law by the words, I am the Lord your God, He shows that He has authority over men, and the right to command them.
(2) Our interest. The second motive for keeping the law is that it is our interest to do so, because it means our happiness here and hereafter.
Moses on the part of God enumerates the miseries and punishments that would befall the Israelites if they kept not the law (Deut. xxvii., xxviii.), and he also enumerates the blessings that would result from its observance: Now, if thou wilt hear the voice of the Lord thy God, to do and keep all His commandments, which I command thee this day, the Lord thy God will make thee higher than all the nations that are on the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon thee and overtake thee; yet so if thou hear His precepts. Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy ground, and the fruit of thy cattle, the droves of thy herds, and the folds of thy sheep. Blessed shall be thy barns, and blessed thy stores. Blessed shalt thou be coming in and going out. . . . The Lord will raise thee up to be a holy people to Himself, as He swore to thee: If thou keep the commandments of the Lord thy God, and walk in His ways, etc. All these temporal blessings were suitable to the state and taste of the Israelites, and they were a figure of those more perfect and spiritual blessings which God proposes to and bestows upon Christians. These spiritual blessings regard the future life, as Christ our Savior clearly taught: If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments (St. Matt. xix. 17).
The observance of the commandments will obtain for us the following advantages: (1) To be saved from hell. (2) Blessings for body and soul here--namely, health, long life, so far as these may be of use for our salvation, and peace of conscience. (3) Hereafter the beatitude of heaven, which should make us exclaim with the royal prophet: The law of the Lord is unspotted, converting souls. . . . The judgments of the Lord are true, justified in themselves. More to be desired than gold and precious stones; and sweeter than honey and the honeycomb. For Thy servant keepeth them, and in keeping them there is great reward (Ps. xviii. 8 et seq.).
6. The Manner of Observing the Law of God. --It is necessary to observe the law entirely, always, and sincerely.
(1) Entirely.--In order to avoid evil and do good, it is necessary to be in the grace of God. Now, one cannot be in the state of grace unless he keeps the whole of the law. By one grave violation of any of the commandments the grace of God is lost; and whilst in that state of sin, the keeping of the other commandments cannot avail for the obtaining of eternal life, as St. James distinctly teaches us: Now whosoever shall keep the whole law, but offend in one point, is become guilty of all (St. James. ii. 10).
(2) Always.--That is, the law of God binding at all times, even to the end of the world. It binds us during our whole lives and under all circumstances. God is always our Lord; under every circumstance of life He retains His power and right to command, and whatever He commands is infinitely just and infinitely wise. We should therefore keep before us the words of Tobias: All the days of thy life have God in thy mind; and take heed thou never consent to sin nor transgress the commandments of the Lord our God. (Tob. iv. 6.) We should also remember the exhortation to the love of God and obedience to His law given in Deuteronomy: Hear, O Israel, and observe to do the things which the Lord hath commanded thee, that it may be well with thee . . . . Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole strength. And these words which I command thee this day shall be in thy heart: and thou shalt tell them to thy children, and thou shalt meditate upon them sitting in thy house, and walking on thy journey, sleeping and rising. And thou shalt bind them as a sign on thy hand, and they shall be and shall move between thy eyes. And thou shalt write them in the entry, and on the doors of thy house (Deut. vi. 3 et seq.).
(3) Sincerely.--Finally, the law should be observed with sincerity--that is, with pleasure and with pure motives. The Lord, says St. Paul, loves a cheerful giver. The pure motives which should be before the mind in keeping the commandments are the glory of God and the good of our fellow creatures. To observe the law in the true Christian spirit means an observance, not for particular human ends or advantages, and not through a purely servile fear of chastisements, but an observance through charity, through the love of God and our neighbour. It is in charity that all the Christian religion consists. It is that which distinguishes the true Christian; it is that which makes him truly a child of God, a member of the mystical body of Christ, the living temple of the Holy Spirit, an heir and citizen of the kingdom of heaven. Without charity all is useless, and profits nothing to salvation. Neither faith, nor miracles, nor the most exalted gifts, nor the most generous alms, nor even martyrdom in the midst of flames, can profit us anything towards salvation without charity, or the love of God. If I have not charity I am nothing, and it profiteth me nothing.
God, then, having created us rational creatures, we cannot be exempt from paying Him the due tribute of adoration and obedience. We should therefore meditate continually on the love of God, after the example of the psalmist, who said to God: All the day Thy law is my meditation. Let us imitate him with invincible fidelity, each one saying with him: Juravi et statui custodire judicia justifiae tuae. To enable us to do this, let us beg of God that His grace may be always with us: Justificationes tuas custodiam non me derelinquas usquequaque.