A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Role of Law in the Catholic Church

by Fr Neil Vaney SM

A sanctuary in the city

Just a few kilometres from central Wellington is an extraordinary sanctuary – Zealandia – where dozens of endangered New Zealand species thrive. What makes it a sanctuary is the mesh fence that surrounds it, bending sharply outwards at the top and sitting deeply under the ground to keep out climbing and burrowing predators. Within Zealandia’s freedom, life doesn’t just flourish but kaka and tui also fly out to nest and sing all around the city.

The nature of law

Zealandia is an analogy of what Christian law should be – not a prison that confines, but a place of safety to escape to, somewhere you can start living your life in a new way. Jesus stressed that he didn’t come to earth to do away with the law but to fulfil it. For Zacchaeus (Luke 19.1-10) and the woman caught in adultery (John 8.3-11), Jesus deleted sinful pasts by opening up new futures full of hope.

At its best, Catholic faith kept this vision. St Thomas Aquinas, a great scholar and defender of tradition, pointed out that while the general principles of Christian law don’t change, the more difficult the situation, the greater the wisdom and latitude needed to apply them correctly. Sadly, when the Church felt it was being attacked it often ramped up its laws to defend its members.

A Pope’s vision

Pope Francis, shaped by forty years of hands-on ministry with the poor of Buenos Aires, is deeply aware of the sins of our world. He knows it’s pointless to chastise people for their broken families and addictions; they already live with these burdens. What he brings instead are mercy and love, in word and gesture, and also by providing shelters, jobs, and food. Bringing hope to people’s lives, he welcomes them to living faith.

Catholics are called to live with law, but most of all by the laws of mercy, love and justice.

What the Church Teaches

About the moral law

"The moral law is a rule of conduct established by competent authority for the common good. In biblical terms, the moral law is the fatherly instruction of God, setting forth the ways which lead to happiness and forbidding those which lead to evil.

"The divine or eternal law can be either natural or revealed.

"Natural moral law is inscribed in the heart, and known by human reason. It is unchangeable and permanent throughout history.

"Revealed law is found in the ancient law, in the Old Testament, notably in the ten commandments; and in the new law, the Law of the Gospel.

"The New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit received by faith in Christ, operating through charity. It finds expression above all in the Lord's Sermon on the Mount, which perfects the ancient law.

"The Law of the Gospel fulfills and surpasses the Old Law and brings it to perfection. The New Law is a law of love, a law of grace, a law of freedom".  

Adapted from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #s 1950 --1986.

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