Tag Archives: government

Separating human-made law from natural law

July 11, 2013


There's a reason behind every law--even ones governing ducks on the head. Not all laws have reason on their side, however. Photo/keepon. Licensed under Creative Commons.

There’s a reason behind every law–even ones governing ducks on the head. Not all laws have reason on their side, however. Photo/keepon. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Cross the Minnesota border with a duck on your head and you may face legal consequences. Tap your foot to the music in a New Hampshire tavern and you’ve violated the law. Throw pickle juice at a Rhode Island trolley (if you can find one) and you could receive a citation.

These old laws must have made sense when they were enacted but now we just wonder what legislators were thinking.

Those studying our laws 100 years from now might also scratch their heads at some of our statutes—and they may already feel the effect of some of our human-enacted laws that diverge from God’s natural law.

All human-made statutory laws are considered positive law. What exactly is positive law? What’s the difference between positive law and natural law? Do they have anything to do with each other? And what happens if positive law doesn’t align with natural law?

The term “positive law” was first used by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his 1651 work “Leviathan:”

Positive, are those which have not been for Eternity; but have been made Lawes by the Will of those that have had the Soveraign Power over others; and are either written, or made known to men, by some other argument of the Will of their Legislator.

Positive law also refers to the establishment of specific rights for an individual or group.

According to one legal definition:

Positive laws may be promulgated, passed, adopted, or otherwise “posited” by an official or entity vested with authority by the government to prescribe the rules and regulations for a particular community. In the United States, positive laws come in a variety of forms at both the state and federal levels, including legislative enactments, judicial orders, executive decrees, and administrative regulations. In short, a positive law is any express written command of the government.

Positive law can also be divine. Canon law and other Church laws are humanly instituted but inspired by God’s revelation. Natural law, on the other hand, refers to God’s laws governing the nature of things. Positive divine law can’t contradict natural law, instead it confirms and further defines it.

Separable or inseparable from our nature?

Natural law is proclaimed to us by the natural light of reason and is inseparable from our nature, whereas positive law is made known by outward signs—word of mouth or writing and is not inseparable from our nature.

Natural law is the foundation and root of the obligation of all positive laws. We can’t violate the natural moral law and the positive laws that are rooted in it without opposing God’s will.

Human-enacted positive laws can be amended or rescinded. Natural law, however, comes from the unchanging God and can’t be revised or avoided. When a positive law violates natural law, as sure as the former is temporal and the latter is immutable, there will be consequences.

A law governing pickle juice and trolleys doesn’t challenge the natural law, although maybe someone was spared inconvenience or even injury because of it.

Defying natural laws

But positive laws that disregard natural law are still subject to it, much the way someone who exercises a legal right to “fly” from a 15-story building will quickly become acquainted with the more established law of gravity.

In the case of some of our newer laws, especially those dealing with sexual morality, it just might take a little longer to hit the ground.

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Paul Ryan, Hugo Chavez and the Church’s view on right-sizing government

October 11, 2012


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Photo/www_ukberri_net.

Recently re-elected for a fourth term, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ran his campaign the way he runs the country: from the top down. He seldom met would-be supporters in Venezuelan cities and towns; instead he filled all the country’s TV channels, which he controls, with his own campaign propaganda. To be fair, he has had health issues.

In a freer country, citizens on his campaign trail might have complained that governmental control over basically everything was resulting in the nation’s slow disintegration through problems such as widespread shortages, increasing violence and rolling blackouts.

But he won anyway, which I think indicates that Venezuela isn’t a “freer country.”

Though Chavez was once an altar boy, his manner of running his country shows that he is not now practicing an important principle of Catholic social teaching called “subsidiarity.”

On the other hand, U.S. Rep. and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan says he does try to follow the principle in his role in Congress, though some have criticized his methods. So what exactly is subsidiarity? Derived from the Latin word subsidium, which means “support, help or assistance,” the Catechism describes it as:

 A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good. (CCC1883)

Essentially, we and the organizations closest to us, acting according to our dignity and responsibility, should be able to meet many of our community’s needs better than a huge national government that tries to cover everything. Under subsidiarity there is a positive role for national government–it should support community and local government efforts.  However, unchecked it could overextend itself and harm the family and economic system.

For subsidiarity to work, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church offers a list of requirements: respect for individuals and families; appreciation for local organizations whose work can’t be duplicated; encouragement of private initiative that enables social entities to serve the common good; pluralism and safeguarding of human rights; bureaucratic and administrative decentralization; a balance between public and private sectors and ways to encourage citizens to be more responsible politically and socially.

That’s quite a list and yet the Church has advanced this principle since the 19th century. A lot of popes have had something to say about it along the way. Pope Pius XI wrote:

 Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.

If a family in need can’t find help from their friends, neighbors or community organizations, they can seek it from the government but it would be a “great and pernicious error” for civil government to have intimate control over the family, wrote Pope Leo XIII.

Likewise the State and other agencies of public law shouldn’t seek control beyond the clear limits of what the common good requires, wrote Bl. Pope John XXXIII.  “Otherwise,” he wrote, “private ownership could be reduced beyond measure, or, even worse, completely destroyed.”

The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism, according to the Catechism, “It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies.” (CCC1885)

Subsidiarity recognizes private initiative and how it benefits the public, as well as personal responsibility, Bl. Pope John Paul II wrote.

It calls for citizens to find solidarity with others by serving them, which is part of their dignity.  Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others.”

Another reason subsidiarity is a good idea is because, as Venezuelans know, the government just can’t do everything well. According to Pope Pius XI: “The State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties.”

For as much as has been written about subsidiarity, to Paul Ryan’s defense and in hope for Mr. Chavez, there isn’t a manual on how to implement it.

People of good will, including Catholics who are trying to follow Catholic social teaching, may sometimes disagree on legislation or a course of government action, according to Christopher Kaczor writing on the CatholicCulture website.


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