Dignity of the Law


Moralists emphasize that there are two fundamental norms of morality to which all others can be reduced in one way or another.

One of these norms is said to be "objective" and the other is said to be "subjective". The objective norm of morality is the law, in all its ramifications, and the subjective norm of morality is what we call "conscience". In this essay will consider some aspects of law; in the following essay we will go into the matter of conscience.

Today "law" in America does not have the respect of the people that it once enjoyed. There are many reasons for this development -- permissiveness, materialistic atheism, wrongdoing on the part of lawgivers and law enforcers. Many scholars trace a change in the attitude of the American people to law as a result of the fiasco with regard to prohibition in the 1920s. Some recent decisions of our courts in favor of abortion on demand, pornography and so forth, have also eroded respect for the law in religious, usually law-abiding citizens.

When we talk about law it is good to know exactly what we are talking about. The best definition of law was given by St. Thomas Aquinas. He said that law is "an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated" (Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 90, art. 4). The definition contains four basic elements that are common to all true laws: 1) reason; 2) the common good; 3) lawmaking authority, and 4) promulgation. Any discussion of law by a Catholic moralist will make use of this definition in one way or another.

This highest of all law is the eternal law which is God's divine plan, by which all created things are directed from all eternity to one supreme end. This eternal law is in the mind of God and actually identified with God. The eternal law is made known in time in many different ways, for example, in the physical laws of nature, in the natural moral law (through the function of the conscience), in positive divine law through revelation. God makes his will known immediately through human positive laws, whether civil laws or ecclesiastical laws.

There are those today who, hostile to the very notion of law, claim that the Christian is not bound by the Ten Commandments or by other laws. The supreme law for the Christian, they say, is the law of love: love of God and love of one's fellow man. Often they will quote, or misquote, that famous saying of St. Augustine: "Love, and do what you will."

God makes his will known immediately through human positive laws, whether civil laws or ecclesiastical laws.

The main difficulty with the "love" position -- a position that has attracted many followers -- is that it is contrary to the express teaching of Scripture, to the tradition of the Church and even to common sense. Our Lord said on more than one occasion, "If you love me, keep my commandments." He told the rich young man who asked him what he had to do to be saved, "Keep the commandments". When St. Paul spoke against the Jewish "law", he was not talking about the law of God and the law of nature expressed in the Mosaic law. He was talking about the perverted and inhuman legalism of the scribes and pharisees. Nowhere does he say or imply that the Christian, who is by grace free from the burden of the juridical and ceremonial requirements of the Old Law, is not bound to keep the Ten Commandments.

The law of God, the laws of nature and good human positive laws are all reflections of the eternal law which is in God himself. To the extent that they manifest, in some way or other, the divine plan for mankind, they are good and holy. They point the way for human fulfillment and happiness and ultimately to eternal salvation.

"God desires the salvation of all men and that all come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2:4). One of the basic ways in which God reveals himself to us is through his holy law. We see it daily in the laws of nature; we sense it in ourselves in our perception of the basic requirements of the moral law to do good and avoid evil; we hear it preached to us through the ministry of the Church which has been commissioned by Jesus Christ himself to preach the saving law of the Gospel.

Certainly the law can be abused by wicked men, but that does not mean that all law is to be repudiated. On the human level we need good law, in conformity with the eternal law, framed and promulgated by good and wise men. Legitimate Church laws must be respected and obeyed. Jesus was obedient to his Father; as a result he accomplished our redemption and is glorified at the right hand of the Father. We can do no better than to follow the example of Jesus.


See the index of chapters from Fundamentals of Catholicism
which have been reprinted to CERC here.



Kenneth Baker, S.J. "Dignity of the Law." In Fundamentals of Catholicism Vol. 1 Part II, Chapter 4 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983), 129-132.

Reprinted with permission from Father Kenneth Baker, S.J.


Rev. Kenneth Baker, S.J., has served for the past thirty years as editor of the Homiletic & Pastoral Review. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1947. In 1970 he served as president of Seattle University and in 1971 became editor of the Homiletic & Pastoral Review. In 1973 he published his translation of the Philosophical Dictionary and adapted it to American usage. In 1975 he became president of Catholic Views Broadcasts, Inc., which produces a weekly 15-minute radio program that airs on 50 stations across the United States. He has built and run three community television stations. In 1983 he published a three-volume explation of the faith called Fundamentals of Catholicism Vol. 1, Creed and Commandments; Vol. 2, God, Trinity, Creation, Christ, Mary; and Vol. 3, Grace, the Church, the Sacraments, Eschatology.

Copyright © 1995 Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.

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