Human Laws

Father Pegues continues his exposition of St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching on law by discussing a third type of law: human laws.

The first applications of the natural law concern (1) the perfecting of the individual, (2) the conservation of the human species, and (3) the welfare of man’s life as a rational creature. “All other precepts or determinations of the practical reason which affirm that this or that thing is or is not good for this or for that man, and binding him to do or to refrain from doing, are consequent more or less remotely upon these three first principles and their subordination.” These other precepts are not the same for all, because positive precepts “can vary almost without end according to the diversity of individual conditions of different human beings.” These various positive precepts are made by “the individual reason of each human being or by a competent authority in each of the different groups of human beings that form some society in particular.”

These various positive precepts are the subject matter of human laws. Human laws are “ordinations of reason made for the common good of this or that society of human beings, which are enacted and promulgated by the supreme authority of every society.” These laws must be obeyed by all who belong to this society. This obedience is “a duty of conscience that binds before God,” except in cases of impossibility or dispensation. “He only can dispense from obeying a law who is the maker of the law, or he who has the same authority as the maker of the law, or he who has received from this authority the power to dispense.”

“One is not bound to obey an unjust law, unless the refusal to obey cause scandal or grave trouble.” An unjust law “is one made without authority, or contrary to the common good, or one that injures the lawful rights of members of the society. If a law is unjust in that it offends the rights of God or the essential rights of the Church, one is never bound thereby. By the rights of God is meant whatever touches the honour and the worship of God, the Creator and Sovereign Master of all things; by the essential rights of the Church is meant whatever touches the mission of the Catholic Church as regards the sanctification of souls by the preaching of the truth and the administration of the sacraments.”

Quotations from Thomas Pegues, Catechism of the “Summa Theologica” of Saint Thomas Aquinas, trans. Aelred Whitacre (New York: Benziger, 1922).

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