Our beloved mentor, Brother Francis, used to remind us often of the importance of purpose. One way he did this was to tell the story, related in various ascetical treatises on the religious life, of the monk who used to look up at the sky from time to time. When asked by those unfamiliar with his custom what he was doing, the monk would reply, “I’m fixing my aim.”
The monk’s purpose was to become a saint, to go to Heaven, and in this bodily, sensible way, he recalled to mind this supernatural end. In doing such things, devout souls stir up holy desires and draw closer to their goal.
If I were to say that the purpose of law is identical to that monk’s purpose in looking up to the heavens, I would be taken for a fool by a good number of people. Yet, that is exactly the purpose of law according to Saint Thomas Aquinas.
Now the first principle in practical matters, which are the object of the practical reason, is the last end: and the last end of human life is bliss or happiness, as stated above (I-II:2:7; I-II:3:1). Consequently the law must needs regard principally the relationship to happiness. (ST, Ia, IIae, Q. 90, A. 2.)
Those familiar with Saint Thomas’ notions of happiness know well that the Angelic Doctor identifies it with heavenly beatitude. Mere human law is powerless to effect this end, so we need Divine Law in order to achieve it. But more on that further down. The point here is that law has as its purpose to direct man to his final end, which is Heaven. While human law cannot achieve that end — but, rather it aims at a merely temporal happiness that is not our true finality — it must not hinder it. (This is one of the reasons secular societies just do not work. The state inevitably makes itself the end of man.)
Modernity has given us various errors concerning law. By way of defect, we may consider the errors of the antinomians, who absolve Christians from following the moral law. By way of excess and misdirection, we have the legal positivists, who elevate all law to the same level, while equating law with the arbitrary dictates of whatever ruling class is in power — no matter how contrary such “laws” are to one another or to the moral law. The proponents of such errors, who plague the Church as well as civil society, do not much value Saint Thomas’ definition of law, with all four of its constituent notes:
[T]he definition of law … is nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated. (ST, Ia, IIae, Q. 90, A. 4.)
If it is not for the common good, it is not a law. If it is not an ordinance of reason, it is not a law. Roe v. Wade? Not a law. Some ordinance forbidding “discrimination” against sodomites who demand a wedding cake from a Christian baker for their post-abomination bacchanalia? Not a law. A statute decriminalizing usury? Not a law. Examples could be multiplied ad nauseam. Should Saint Thomas be given plenipotentiary veto power over our state and federal system of statutes and court cases, the weighty tomes found in law libraries would become suddenly lighter. And many a lawyer would not understand what happened, because the poor fellow is a legal positivist.
Even in the Church, it seems, there are those who would cut Saint Thomas’ definition in half and make law into the diktat of the lawmaker. But while such may come from “him who has care of the community,” and may be “promulgated,” if it is not an ordinance of reason for the common good, it is not a law. At least that is the opinion of Saint Thomas, and I, for what it is worth, have the temerity to agree with him.
Supposed laws, whether civil or ecclesiastical, that form obstacles to man’s salvation contradict the very purpose of law and therefore have no authority whatsoever.
Saint Thomas distinguishes the eternal law, the natural law, human law, and Divine law. There is some overlapping here, so to present them in sharper categories we distinguish between the Divine (positive) law, the natural law (which also comes from God) and human law. The Divine positive law and the natural law are included in the “eternal law,” because the eternal law is God’s own governance of the universe. Human law comes from a human authority, and it is distinguished into ecclesiastical and civil law. Canon law, while it pertains, in part, to divine things, is not Divine law, although it does, in places, cite the Divine positive law. Canon Law, and all ecclesiastical law, is therefore human law.
It remains to explain what the Divine positive law is. Saint Thomas distinguishes two such bodies of law: the Old Law and the New Law, corresponding to the Old and New Testaments of Sacred Scripture. The Old Law is divided by a threefold division: ceremonial precepts, judicial precepts, and the moral law. Of these three, the only part of that law that survives as binding on Christians is the moral law, which is none other than the natural law. The New Law of Christ, on the other hand, consists primarily in the grace of the Holy Ghost and only secondarily in the written law of the Gospel, which is summarized in the Sermon on the Mount.
Saint Thomas notes that if man had a mere natural end, then the natural law would be sufficient to guide him to that end, which would consist in natural happiness. However, man has an end that is above nature, and for that end he needs a higher law to guide him. This higher law consists in the twofold, supernaturally revealed word of God. The Old Law is a preparation for the New, while the New Law surpasses its predecessor by far, having the intrinsic power to justify man — that is, to make man holy. It has this power because, as Saint Thomas argues, the New Law is itself primarily the interior grace of the Holy Ghost.
Is it any mystery, then, that the treatise on grace follows immediately after the treatise on law in the Summa?
Such a lofty conception of law is no doubt foreign to some readers, but this is the language and accompanying worldview of the Ages of Faith, something that must be brought back if we are to have a restored Christendom.
Let us get back to purpose. The purpose of all this law is to guide man to his end, which is happiness. (And no, this is not selfish.) For this reason, then, we see the Beatitudes at the heart of the written (i.e., secondary) part of the New Law. The Beatitudes each have two parts, the merit and the reward. The merit pertains to this life, and the reward pertains imperfectly to this life, but perfectly to the next. By living according to the grace of the Holy Spirit in this life, and availing ourselves of the supernatural panoply of divine helps dispensed by Christ through His Church, we can, even in this vale of tears, enjoy an anticipation of heavenly beatitude.
Only in this way, by living according to the New Law of Christ, can man achieve his ultimate end, his happiness.
Far from being a burden to human nature and an indignity to a free man, the law of God is profoundly liberating and life giving. It helps us “fix our gaze” on a happiness that is infinitely higher than what we could have in this life, because it is a Divine life.
“The Lord is sweet and righteous: therefore he will give a law to sinners in the way” (Ps. 24:8).