by Rev. Alfred McBride, O.Praem

St. Thomas More was a lawyer. His son-in-law, Roper, wanted him to break the civil law to stop the traitor Richard Rich from harming him. More says, "Would you cut a road through the law to get at the devil?" Roper replied, "I’d cut down every law in England to do that." A roused and excited More declared, "When the last law was leveled and the devil turned round on you, where would you hide? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast - man’s laws, not God’s. If you cut them down--and you’re just the man to do it--d’ya think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?"

What More said about the value of human laws and freedom is an eloquent image of the reason why divine laws are so valuable for human freedom. If we cut down our nation’s laws we will have civil anarchy. If we repudiate divine moral laws we will have moral chaos.

"The Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may eat freely of every tree in the garden: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you may not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die"’ (Gn 2:16-17). The passage demonstrates that God gave the man a wide-ranging freedom. He could eat of every tree.

But his freedom was curbed by divine law. God forbade him to eat from one tree. "Revelation teaches that the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man, but to God alone.... But his freedom is not unlimited: it must halt before the ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’. . . . Human freedom finds its authentic and complete fulfillment precisely in the acceptance of that law" (No. 35).

The pontiff notes that some modern thinkers, including several within the Church, have separated divine law from human moral norms. Under the pretext of learned conversations with secular thinkers, these moralists have settled for ethics without God. They argue that reason can develop its own moral system without reference to divine law. it is only a small step from this position to denying the Church and the magisterium competence in the moral order.

The Holy Father speaks of this as unwarranted "autonomy." Humans create a system of ethics and decide what is moral. "Certain moral theologians have introduced a sharp distinction, contrary to Catholic doctrine, between an ethical order, which would be human in origin and of value for this world alone, and an order of salvation, for which only certain intentions and interior attitudes about God and neighbor would be significant" (No. 37).

This beguiling theory sounds appealing until you realize that religion and the Church are pushed out of the business of authoritative moral teaching and left with an advisory role. ‘The "moral professionals," the "humanistic ethicists," would take charge and marginalize the magisterium to a pale role of exhorting people with generalized platitudes. Hence, this kind of magisterium would not set any norms for Catholic behavior.

The roots of this deceptive proposal grow out of religious legalism where norms for behavior are often argued too much in rational terms. Sufficient attention to the continuum between practical moral laws and divine laws is not noted. Modern self-ism has accelerated this division.

"In such a context it is absolutely necessary to clarify, in the light of the Word of God and the living Tradition of the Church, the fundamental notions of human freedom and the moral law as well as their profound relationship" (No. 37).

Not only has the Church the divine mandate to teach the moral law and develop norms for its application in each age, the Church has the responsibility to do so. Just as moral truth provides human freedom with a moral compass, so divine moral law enhances human freedom precisely through the limits proclaimed.

In the civil order, when laws end, tyranny begins. In the moral order, when divine law is abandoned, humans become the slaves of their passions. Without law, freedom is lost. If we prize our freedom we will keep the divine moral law.

Father Michael McBride writes for Our Sunday Visitor. All quoted matter is from the encyclical, unless otherwise indicated. 1997 Our Sunday Visitor. Used by permission.

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