De Laicis — Saint Robert Bellarmine’s Treatise on Civil Government

Chapter 11

Second proposition: The civil law is no less binding in conscience than the Divine law, even though the former is less fixed and stable than the latter. I will explain. The Divine law differs from the human law as to stability, since the Divine cannot be set aside by man, and the human can; but as to obligation they do not differ, for each obliges in conscience, under pain of either mortal or venial sin, according to the gravity of the case, so that there is no better rule for discovering whether a human law binds under pain of mortal or of venial sin, than to suppose that law to be Divine, and to see in what way the Divine law would oblige.

First, it is proved, because obligation is the essence or proper characteristic of law as was said in De Pontifice, 136 therefore, all law, whether made by God, by an angel, or by man, and if by man, whether bishop, king, or father, binds with an equal obligation. The consequent is proved in like manner; for since it is of man’s essence to be rational, and hence his proper characteristic is risibility, every man is rational and capable of laughter, whether he be created by God alone, as Adam, or by God from another human being, as Eve, or born of human parents, as Cain. The antecedent is evident, for law is the rule of conduct. But the intrinsic property of rules is so to direct that to break a rule is a sin against good conduct; just as a departure from the law of nature is said to be a sin of nature, as are monsters, so a departure from the rule of art is a sin against art.

Here it should be noted that just as other things depend upon a cause as regards their existence, but not as regards their essence, for essences are eternal, since they are certain possible participations of the Divine Essence, so also law depends for its existence on the legislator; for it will not be law unless it is promulgated by him who has authority; but it does not depend on him as regards its essence; for the binding force of the law is that in it which is eternal and immutable and a certain participation of the eternal law of God, which is the first and highest rule, and this seems to be what St. Augustine meant when he says: “Sin is a word or deed or a desire against the eternal law of God.” 137 For he who disobeys a law, whether natural or political, whether Divine or human, sins against the eternal law, since all law is a participation of the eternal law.

And although it cannot happen that any true law is not from God, since a law cannot be made except by one with authority, and there is no authority except from God, 138 yet if (by an impossibility) there were a law not from God, it would still oblige under pain of sin, just as if (by an impossibility) a man not made by God were to exist, he would still be rational.

It is proved, secondly, for if a law were to oblige solely because it is Divine, than all Divine laws would oblige equally, as is evident, for the reason for obligation would be the same in all. But this is false, for the law “Thou shalt not kill,” obliges more seriously than the law “Thou shalt not steal,” and the law “Thou shalt not steal” than the law “Thou shalt not lie,” and the law “Thou shalt not lie” than the law “Thou shalt not speak a careless word.”

Besides, thirdly, obviously that Divine law obliges more gravely whose infraction is more against the end of the law, that is, charity; therefore it is worse to kill than to steal, since it is more against charity; and therefore it is a mortal sin to tell a harmful lie, but a venial sin to tell a helpful one, for the former is against charity, but the latter, truly, is apart from charity; but the human law also has charity as its end, and ordains means to this end, for what St. Paul says, “The end of the commandment is charity,” 139 may be understood of every command; and it is clear, since the civil law is just, that it is always either the conclusion or the moral determination of Divine law; therefore they have the same end, and seem to differ only in this, that human law directs human acts in relation to external acts of love, that is, to the peace and preservation of the State. But the Divine law directs also in relation to internal acts of charity; therefore, there is the same principle in both Divine and human law, so far as obligation is concerned.

But you will object, if the gravity of sin arises from the nature of the thing and from the relation to charity, laws are superfluous. For the commandment binds us equally before and after the law, to flee that which of its very nature wounds charity, and to do that which is necessary to preserve charity.

I answer that I deny the consequent, for if there is no law commanding or prohibiting something for everybody, many actions which are evil in one man will not be evil in others. For example, if there be no law prohibiting the carrying of weapons, the carrying of weapons will be evil for him who is easily provoked to anger, and who has enemies whom he desires to kill; but it will not be evil for a peaceable man, who only desires to defend himself; yet, if the law forbids it, then it is evil for all, for the law should not consider what is good or evil for this one or that one, but what will profit or harm the State.

In addition, many things are necessary or harmful to the common good, which, nevertheless, are neither good nor bad for any one in particular, unless they are commanded or prohibited by law. For example, tribute is necessary for a king, yet, if there be no law, it is not necessary for me to pay it, for what I pay profits the king little, and it is not my business to look out for the needs of the State, and so might all say. Similarly, it is harmful for the State for gold to be exported from the province, yet it is not very harmful for me alone to export my gold, and so might all say. Law, therefore, is necessary which commands and prohibits to all in general what is for the common welfare.

Fourthly, positive Divine law, therefore, obliges under pain of sin, for it makes that act which it commands an act of virtue, which formerly it was not; for if a Jew, not from contempt, but from a desire for food, had eaten in moderation the flesh of swine prohibited by the law, without doubt he would have sinned; however, he would not have sinned against obedience, since he did not act from contempt, therefore, he would have sinned against temperance; but to eat the flesh of swine in moderation is not in itself against temperance, but, as it were, an indifferent act, therefore there was a law which made that abstinence a necessary act of temperance. And we see this same thing in human law; for the Divine law makes that to be an act of virtue which in itself was indifferent for no other reason than that it is a rule of conduct promulgated by Him Who has authority to command. But man also can command, and can make rules of conduct, as we have shown above. Therefore man can, by law, determine the nature of an act, indifferent in itself, to be an act of virtue, hence the Divine law and the human law are equal as to obligation.

Fifthly, the Divine law and the human law differ in the same way as the law of a king and his viceregent, or the law of the Pontiff and of his legate. But these oblige in the same manner, and differ only in strength, therefore, so do the Divine law and the human law. The proposition is evident, because the Scriptures testify in various places that kings are the ministers of God, and hold their authority from Him, and judge in His place. 140 The assumption is also evident, for the authority of the viceregent is from the king, and that of the legate from the Pope; and experience bears witness to the same thing, and it is confirmed by the holy Fathers Augustine and Bernard. Augustine says, 141 “When the father commands that which is not contrary to the law of God, he is to be heard as though he were God, etc.” Moreover, it is certain that the authority of a king is greater than that of a father, as the same St. Augustine says. 142 St. Bernard says, “Whether God or a man, the vicar of God, gives some command, certainly both must be submitted to with equal care, obeyed with equal reverence, provided, however, that the man commands nothing contrary to the law of God.” 143 Here he clearly states that laws differ in regard to matter, but not in regard to those commanding.

But you may object to this, for St. Bernard, speaking in the same place of the commands of men, says “Commands are not disregarded without blame, are not despised without sin, for culpable neglect and contempt are everywhere to be condemned;” here he seems to say that human law never binds under pain of mortal sin except by reason of contempt.

I answer that he is speaking of commands concerning light matters, for in such there can be no grave sin except by reason of contempt. For not even prelates can arbitrarily bind under pain of mortal sin.

Sixthly, it is proved, since this seems to imply a contradiction, namely, that rulers can bind with a penalty, and not in conscience, inasmuch as fault and punishment are correlative. And St. Augustine says, “All punishment, if just, is a punishment of sin.” 144 And he asserts 145 that God Himself would be unjust if He condemned an innocent man. How, then, can rulers condemn to death those who break their laws, if these latter have committed no sin, if they have incurred no blame in conscience?

You will say, “How, then, can some of the rules of religious bind penally and not in conscience?” I answer that they do not bind in the manner of law, but in the manner of agreement and contract, as do purely penal laws. Nor is that law properly penal, but the infliction of punishment is to be taken as a spiritual help.

Seventhly and last, from the doctrine of the Apostles, for St. Paul asserts 146 this in many ways; first, when he says, “Let every soul be subject to higher powers: for there is no power but from God.” Secondly, when he says, “He that resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God.” Thirdly, when he says, “And they that resist purchase to themselves damnation.” Both the Greek and the Latin Fathers interpret this passage as referring to eternal damnation. Fourthly, when he says, “Wherefore be subject of necessity;” fifthly, when he says, “not only for wrath, but also for conscience’s sake.” Sixthly, when he says, “For they are the ministers of God.” And St. Peter says, “Be ye subject . . . . for God’s sake,” 147 that is, not merely through fear of punishment. These passages show sufficiently what we have in mind: for if rulers have their authority to rule from God, certainly those who do not obey them offend not only the rulers, but also God; and those who resist the ruler resist the ordinance of God; certainly they sin in conscience just as if they were to violate Divine laws. And if those who resist “purchase for themselves damnation,” certainly they commit a fault deserving of that punishment. And if individuals are of necessity subject to rulers not only because of their wrath, but also because of conscience, how is it they do not sin in conscience who do not obey these rulers? Finally, if rulers are ministers of God and are to be obeyed on His account, undoubtedly they despise the majesty of God who despise the commands of the rulers. So much for the arguments against us.

In answer to the contrary arguments: To the first, second, and third I answer from this fact, that since political power is temporal, and its end is exterior peace, and man does not judge of internal things, it is rightly concluded that this temporal power cannot oblige except to temporal and exterior acts; moreover, it can bind in conscience; for even if that rule directs exterior acts, yet, since it is a rule, to deviate from it is a sin.

You may say, how can law, or temporal power, produce a spiritual effect, that is, bind in conscience? I answer, that granted that political power and law are called temporal by reason of their object, since they are concerned with temporal and exterior affairs, yet in themselves they are spiritual. Besides, to bind in conscience is not to produce some spiritual effect, but only to command another, and so to command that if he does not obey, he sins, and the witness of his own conscience knows, or at least is capable of knowing, that he sins. And so whoever can command can bind in conscience, even if he does not judge of internal matters, and does not examine the conscience of another.

In answer to the fourth and fifth arguments I say: A ruler cannot inflict eternal and spiritual punishment, nor can he remit a penalty of this sort; yet he can oblige with this penalty, since he does this with the authority of God, Who grants him the one power, and not the other; just as if a king would allow his viceregent to bind his subjects under capital punishment, and yet he would not allow him to exercise justice of himself, or to pardon a suppliant. Or it should be said that political power binds under penalty of eternal punishment not because it is the law of a man, but because it is the law of a minister of God. For he who offends a minister of God at the same time also offends God Himself; therefore if (by an impossibility) God were not manifest in the nature of things, and yet some political law (likewise by an impossibility) were to exist, that law would oblige in conscience, and to disobey it would be a sin, but no spiritual penalty or eternal damnation would befall the one who disobeyed.

In answer to the sixth argument I say that it is not absurd that the same sin should be punished by many, and in many places, when many offend, just as we see that often the hand of a murderer is cut off in that place where he committed the murder, and then his head is cut off in the place of public executions.

To the seventh I answer that it depends on the intention of the legislator, whether he wishes truly to command and to make a true law, or, indeed, only to indicate what ought to be done, without any command; but if he wishes to command in earnest, and to make a real law, there is nothing in the nature of his power to prevent the law from obliging under pain of sin, either mortal or venial, according to the gravity of the matter.

To the last I answer that the reason that human law yields to Divine law when they cannot both be obeyed at the same time, is not that human law does not bind under pain of sin, but that the foundation of human law is less firm; for in such cases it ceases to be law, and hence also to bind.

136 Book IV., ch. 16.

137 Contra Faustum, Book XXII., ch. 27.

138 Rom. XIII.

139 1 Tim. I., 5.

140 Prov. VIII., Wis. VI., Rom. XIII., 1 Peter II.

141 In Ps. 70.

142 De Verbis Domini, sermo 6.

143 Tract. de Praecept. et de dispensat.

144 Retract., Book I., ch. 9.

145 Epis. 105 and elsewhere.

146 Rom. XIII.

147 1 Peter II., 13.