Are Catholics Bound by Human Laws?

Is man obliged to obey the commands of human lawgivers? Do human laws bind men? The answer is yes. Just human laws are means to man’s final end. If man chooses to have the end, he must choose the means to it. So just human laws bind man’s conscience, obliging him to obey. St. Thomas says: “Laws framed by man . . . if they be just, have the power of binding in conscience from the Eternal Law whence they are derived.” Unjust laws do not bind in conscience except, as was mentioned earlier, it would cause a scandal or other disturbance out of proportion to the gravity of the injustice. Should the unjust human laws command things contrary to the law of God, then laws of this kind do not bind in conscience and are not to be obeyed. For man must always be free to choose the steps to his final end, and human laws such as one which would forbid him to worship God, cannot be a step toward God. Man is free in the depths of his conscience!

Pope Leo XIII, confronted with many false theories of human liberty, issued an encyclical on Human Liberty in which he gives to the world the teachings of the Church. When we consider that it was this same Holy Father who designated the teachings of St. Thomas as the sources from which teachers should draw in their presentation of Christian philosophy, it is not surprising to find in his document a very decided flavor of St. Thomas’s teachings.

In this encyclical Pope Leo points out that the liberty natural to man, that is, natural liberty, is the source from which flows all other liberties: political, economic, religious, and so forth. This natural liberty is due to man’s intellectual nature, and so ultimately the source of human liberty is the Creator of man. The Holy Father writes: “Natural liberty, though distinct and separate from moral liberty, is the fountain-head from which liberty of whatsoever kind flows by its own force and of its own accord. . . . When it is established that man’s soul is immortal and endowed with reason and not bound up with material things, the foundation of natural liberty is thus most firmly laid.”

Let us attempt to show from this encyclical that the obligatory power of law is not only an abstract principle, food for the mind alone, but a practical fact of Catholic teaching. In presenting St. Thomas’s teaching on obligation we said that laws oblige; that law and obligation have their proximate cause in man’s rational nature; that freedom is the soil from which obligation draws its nourishment; that the binding power of law is derived ultimately from the eternal law. Of these things Pope Leo writes:

The binding force of Human Laws lies in this, that they are to be regarded
as applications of the Eternal Law. . . . Since the force of law consists in
the imposing of obligations and the granting of rights, authority is the
one and only foundation of all law. . . . In man’s free will, or in the moral
necessity that our voluntary acts must be in accordance with reason,
lies the very root of the necessity of law. Nothing more foolish can be
uttered or conceived than the notion that because man is free by nature,
he is therefore exempt from law. Were this the case, it would follow that
to become free we must be deprived of reason; whereas the truth is that
we are bound to submit to law precisely because we are free by our very
nature. For law is the guide of man’s actions; it turns him towards good
by its rewards; it deters him from evil by its punishments.

Man’s rational nature is the proximate source of law and obligation; the eternal law of God is the ultimate source of them.

The note of obligation is struck again in this statement. Watch for it in the meaning of the word necessity. The Holy Father writes:

The nature of human liberty, however it be considered, whether in
individuals or in society; whether in those who command or in those
who obey, supposes the necessity of obedience to some supreme and
Eternal Law which is no other than the authority of God commanding
good and forbidding evil. And this most just authority of God neither
diminishes nor destroys man’s liberty but rather it protects and perfects
it for the real perfection of all creatures is to be found in the striving after
and attaining their end. But the supreme end to which human liberty
must ever aspire is God.

We could find great pleasure and profit, if we would, in seeking in the encyclical on Human Liberty more and more of the Thomistic teaching. This connection between the papal encyclicals and St. Thomas’s principles has been emphasized because first, it is the will of the Church that it be so emphasized, and further, that it may instill among the readers of this book a keen desire for deeper thinking into basic principles; so keen a desire, in fact, that it will
give them no rest until they seek the truths at their source. We hope that they will go directly to St. Thomas and find in his writings the sublimity and the simplicity, the depth and the clarity, the wisdom and the guilelessness that can
be found only in the mind and the heart of him who in his lifetime journeyed far toward Infinite Truth, and who could say, as Thomas said, to Infinite Love: “Only Thee will I have.”

Editor’s note: The above excerpt is taken from Christian Social Principles, available now from Sophia Institute Press.


Sr. Mary Consilia O'Brien, OP, was a Dominican nun. She penned Christian Social Principles in 1941.

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