PRINCIPLES OF A GOOD LAW
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ HEB 7:1-3, 15-17; PSALM 110:1-4; MARK 3:1-6 ]
There are two extreme groups of people when it comes to the question of laws in their lives. There are those who advocate strict observance of the laws, regardless of the context of the situation or the persons. For them, laws are objective and must be applied in all circumstances regardless. This was how the Pharisees and the Scribes saw the Law during the time of Jesus. Indeed, they were not only scandalized but also angry with Jesus for breaking of the Sabbath and other customary laws. They were so obsessed with keeping the laws that they became judgmental of those who did not keep the Law. So much so, they forgot the subjects of the laws as in today’s gospel. They were oblivious to the fact that the man was suffering from a withered hand. Instead, they were all out to catch Jesus breaking the Law so that they could have something to use against Him. In Jesus’ view, the human person and his needs must come before the laws.
The purpose of the laws is to protect the person and not destroy him. In their legalism, they forgot the real intention behind the laws, such as the observance of the Sabbath in this case. The Sabbath was to be observed for the good of man so that he can rest properly and at the same time, recognize that God is in charge of the world and his life. In this way, he can be freed from anxiety and simply do his best, leaving the rest to God and His divine providence. As the psalmist says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.” Ps 127:1f)
At the other end of the spectrum, we have those who advocate absolute freedom from all laws. They seek absolute autonomy. In the name of relativism, there are no laws that are right or wrong. They believe that they should be allowed to act according to their whims and fancies. Such people end in self-indulgence and lawlessness. This is not freedom but a new form of slavery. When one is not able to exercise his choice in such a way that brings about his ultimate good, he is not free but a slave. The truth is that there is no absolute freedom in life. The only absolute freedom is the ability to respond to the authentic call of God in our lives. Freedom means the ability to determine for oneself the pursuit of good over evil.
St Paul wrote to Timothy saying, “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” (1 Tim 1:8-11) Laws, therefore, are necessary. Indeed, St Paul in his letter to the Romans wrote at length that we are justified by faith, not by the laws. However, in the last four chapters, he detailed the laws to be observed by the Christians. These laws must be life-giving and serve the good of the people.
Indeed, the guiding principle of all laws is love. St Paul wrote, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom 13: 8-10) This was precisely what the Lord asked the people, “Is it against the law on the Sabbath day to do good, or to do evil; to save life, or to kill?”
Good Laws must serve what is good and they serve life. Otherwise, it is a bad or unwise law. When the law promotes evil or takes life away, it goes against the gospel. So, when the Lord healed the man on the Sabbath, He was not showing contempt for the Sabbath Law but bringing it to fulfillment because central to the Jewish faith are the two commandments of love. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mk12:29-31) Love of God and of neighbor must go together, not one without the other.
These principles provide the foundation for Catholic social teaching, which views man as a creature of God, possessing a unique value in himself because he is created in the image and likeness of God. He has intrinsic value by his existence and by what he does. His life is therefore sacred and must be protected at all costs. Even if it means breaking the laws to save life. Nothing is greater or higher than a person’s life. This is the basis for human rights. Indeed, we cannot speak of human rights unless we agree on who the human person is. This is because our understanding of the value of the human person grounds our reasons for defending the dignity of the person. If the Church defends the right to life for every human person, from conception to natural death, it is because she sees the human person as having an intrinsic value of his own and not just seen in a utilitarian manner. Man participates in the life of God and therefore, created in His likeness and image, his life is to be preserved at all costs. Thus, she opposes all forms of killing, murder, death penalty, abortion, stem cell research using human embryos or euthanasia. Unless we believe in the dignity of the human person, we cannot promote respect in other areas as well, such as freedom of conscience, integral education, holistic health, poverty, sexual morality and migration.
The second principle in formulating laws is that it must be for the common good. In other words, it must for the good of all and not bring about evil. Pope John XXIII defined the common good as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” (Pacem in Terris 55). This means that we have to make possible the conditions to achieve the potential realization of every human person which is to respond to his or her vocation in life so that he or she can find fulfillment. To achieve the common good does not mean individual sacrifice for the good of the whole. Rather, it means that both the individual and the group’s happiness are dependent on each other and so policies must help both the individual and the community to find their fulfillment.
However, the common good does not tantamount to “the sum total of particular interests; rather it involves an assessment and integration of those interests on the basis of a balanced hierarchy of values; ultimately, it demands a correct understanding of the dignity and the rights of the person.” (Centesimus Annus 47). In other words, the common good is not something that we vote for or what we all like. Truth is not based on consensus, popularity or votes. Rather, the common good rests on two principles, common and good. It is something that is common to all and it is something good. In other words, it is not satisfying what people want e.g. taking drugs, prostitution, pornography, gambling and all the other vices of society. Rather, the common good refers to what helps to make us more authentic, more human, humane and growing in truth and in love. The common good therefore refers to all that enables a person to fulfill his or her vocation in life and find fulfillment. This would include all the different dimensions of being human, namely, physical, psychological, emotional and affective, intellectual, spiritual, ethical and moral. Indeed, the ultimate common good is not simply reducible to earthly and human needs but that each person arrives at God, which is the ultimate good.
This common good entails that laws are enacted for the purpose of establishing peace, harmony, mercy and care for the poor. To ensure peace, the State must bring about a just ordering of society. Justice comes before charity. Social policies must be fair and just; and at the same time, care and protect the poor. Society must be gracious enough to look after the poor and the underprivileged. The rich have a duty to care for those who do not have the basic needs of life. The State should encourage social actions for the poor and the suffering. How the poor is to be helped will differ from place to place.
Today, we are called to be bridge builders. We are called to be peacemakers, bringing life to others. We must turn to Jesus and imitate Him in bringing life and love to all. Let us be conscious that we are God’s messengers of life. Let us be life-givers and always seek to do good. We must not allow narrow-mindedness or selfishness or fear to limit us from caring and loving people. Like Jesus, at times, we must go beyond the literal interpretation of the laws and attend to the needs of the person. In the final analysis, we are called to save life and give hope to others.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
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