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Chapter 11: The Moral Authority of Law

Question G: To what extent do Catholics have a moral obligation to obey the Church’s law?

1. In general, what has been said in questions D and E about the law of civil societies applies here, too. However, although law in the Church and law in other human societies are similar, the Church herself is essentially different from any other human society. Thus, certain points concerning the moral foundations and force of Church law deserve special notice.

2. The Church’s constitutional law is divine positive law, discussed in C above. All of the Church’s law rests on this foundation and shares in its sacred character. Moreover, since the common life of the Church is directed toward the great good of completing Jesus’ work, the obligation to obey the Church’s law is rooted not only in fairness but also in the good of religion.

3. The act of faith itself is the baptismal commitment by which one shares in the life of the Church as community. This baptismal commitment, and nothing less, grounds the duty to obey Church law (see DS 1621/864). Deliberate disobedience is therefore a sin against faith.

By way of the divine precepts and their act of faith, Christians are in a relationship of cooperation with the redemptive work of God. In this work, God has authority because decisions are necessary which only he can make. Divine authority was given to Jesus, and he transmitted it to the apostles, led by Peter, and their successors. Therefore, members of the Church are unreasonable and impious if they do not obey ecclesiastical authority.

4. Hence, although the part of the Church’s law which regulates her common life by authoritative decision has only the moral force of the authority from which it comes, this authority is different in kind from that of any other society. The Church’s law can be changed by the same authority which makes it, but while it is in force the members of the Church should treat it with reverence.

5. It is unlikely that the laws of the Church will be defective by requiring anything immoral or issuing from an abuse of authority. Several factors militate against this: the nature of the Church, the subject matter of her laws, the character of those who make them, and the care with which they are made. The likelihood of defect is further reduced in the case of laws issued by the pope’s authority. Moreover, even if there were a substantial defect in the procedure by which a Church law was made and issued, one subject to the law could hardly be morally certain of this. For all practical purposes, therefore, the possibility of moral defectiveness, which sometimes undercuts the authority of the laws of other human societies, can be discounted in the case of the law of the universal Church.

6. Like similar law in other societies, however, the Church’s law, which is made by authoritative decisions and could be changed by them, has limits in its application. Church laws can lose their point and fall into general disuse. Conflicts of duties can demand that an individual not fulfill some requirement of the Church’s law. And, within the very narrow limits of its legitimate use, epikeia applies to Church law.

7. Still, it should not be assumed too quickly that any of these conditions is fulfilled. Certain cases in which laws can be considered inapplicable are discussed in treatises on canon law; in other cases, dispensations can be obtained from the proper authority. It is a very common but grave abuse of epikeia to substitute one’s own judgment for the law of the Church. Epikeia is properly used only when one is morally certain that the very authorities who made a law would wish its letter set aside so that the common good which is its spirit might be better served (see S.t., 1–2, q. 96, a. 6, ad 2). Moreover, one ought not to suppose that a law is a dead letter merely because it is widely violated. Here only the practice of those who are most experienced, conscientious, and holy is a safe guide.

8. One widespread confusion among Catholics is failure to distinguish between the Church’s moral teaching and her law. Moreover, many take seriously neither the duty to form their consciences by the Church’s moral teaching nor the duty to obey the Church’s law. In this situation, exact obedience to the Church’s law is especially important; any disobedience is likely to be taken by some as an example and justification not only for contempt toward the Church’s law but also for dissent from her teaching.

There are several reasons why priests ought to be especially conscientious in observing Church law. First, compliance with the law maintains unity among the clergy and solidarity with the bishop; noncompliance is divisive. Division seriously impedes the work of the Church. Second, compliance (except in the rare case in which a law truly is inapplicable) serves the people; noncompliance arrogantly imposes upon them personal judgments instead of the proper authority of the Church. Third, compliance sets a good example of obedience; noncompliance sets a bad example of self-will.

These points can be illustrated by the many arbitrary, usually minor, and seemingly insignificant variations in the liturgy one encounters today. Such variations lead to disagreements, irritation, and uncooperativeness among priests. Virtually all of them are ill-considered, and they often compel the faithful to tolerate things they rightly find repugnant. Finally, an easygoing approach to the liturgy detracts from its sacred character, while at the same time suggesting that Christians may do as they please in very important matters.

This last suggestion is applied by some of the faithful to moral issues. There is a difference between canon law and moral norms, but not all members of the Church understand this difference.