Comply or disobey? Priest explains just vs unjust laws
Editor’s note: The following homily was delivered by Father Steven Reuter, SSPX on January 1, 2021, which traditionally is the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord.
January 8, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) — “After eight days were accomplished, that the child should be circumcised.” In the name of the father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, amen. Dear faithful, on this eighth day after the birth of Jesus, we would like to consider: why was it that on this eighth day, the child needed to be circumcised?
In order to understand this, we first must understand: what was circumcision, and who was this child? Circumcision, we know, was a ceremony given by God to Abraham, a ceremony which would be an act of faith in Christ to come. By means of this ceremony, the patriarchs showed that they believed that from their offspring, the Savior, the Redeemer, would come into this world.
This ceremony, which was given by God to Abraham, was enshrined into the Mosaic law by Moses. All children, on the eighth day after their birth — all male children — would be circumcised to show the parents’ faith in the Redeemer, to incorporate this child into the chosen people, and this, of course, would be the foundation of the justification because faith precedes charity — an act of faith in Christ, so as to receive charity.
So that was the ritual and the law of circumcision. And who was this child? This child, we know, was the fulfillment of all of the prophecies of the Old Testament. All of the laws, all of the prophets pointed to this child. They found their completion, their perfection in this child.
And therefore, we can see why this child on that account would not need to be circumcised. This child did not need to make an act of faith in the Redeemer to come; He was the Redeemer. In fact, being that this child was God, Jesus Christ was God, He could not, in fact, even make an act of faith because He had the beatific vision. He was God.
If this is the case, if this child had no need to be circumcised, why does Scripture say that on the eighth day, this child should be circumcised? Why should He be circumcised? And the answer is, is because it was the law and because our Lord Jesus Christ came to put Himself under the law so as to redeem all those who are under the law.
As our Lord Jesus Christ loved the law of His Father, He wanted to willingly submit himself to the law to sanctify the law, so we could be sanctified likewise through God’s law. Our Lord loved the law, and if we want to be holy, we must likewise love the law. So, to know how to love the law, we must know what is the law, what is the nature, and what are the consequences of law.
The scholastic definition of law, we know, is an ordinance of reason. When we say ordinance, we’re speaking of an authoritative command; there’s authority behind it, an ordinance of reason. When we say reason, we mean that the lawgiver must use his reason to understand human nature, to understand the common good, to understand the end of society so it's a reasonable act.
It’s not just a blind act of force. He must make it reasonably and give it reasonably, and it must be received reasonably. So it’s an ordinance of reason for the sake of the common good. So every law to be a just law must be for the sake of the common good, not for the personal interests of those who are making the laws.
When we say common good, that is the very purpose of society. The purpose of civil society is the common good. And when we speak of common good, we’re speaking of peace and prosperity. By peace we mean the virtuous life. All laws to be just laws must promote virtue, prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. And likewise, the laws must support prosperity. They must be such to allow [encourage] a healthy, strong middle class to emerge or be sustained, because, as Aristotle even knew, society cannot exist without a healthy, prosperous middle class. So, the end of the law is the common good of society and a law to be a just law, to be a law at all, must be promulgated, made public by a person who has care of the community, a person who has a jurisdiction, who has power over that community to make a law.
And if all of these elements are in place, we have a just law and we must love this law, and this law becomes a road sign to happiness. A just law is a road sign to natural happiness and supernatural happiness. And we think of Scripture. “He has loved justice and hated iniquity.”
That must be our attitude in front of just laws. We must love justice but likewise hate iniquity, which is to say, to hate unjust laws. So, to understand this more, what is a just [and] unjust law, we will look at the hierarchy of laws.
In first place, we have what’s called the eternal law. The eternal law is God’s wisdom, directing all things to their perfection. God, in his wisdom, created the whole world. He gives each thing a specific nature, certain operations which flow from that nature. That's God's eternal law: immutable, eternal. It is God, in fact.
So, we have the eternal law, and every single just law is reducible to the eternal law in order to be a just law. Then we have what's called the natural law. The natural law is defined as man's rational participation in the eternal law.
So we have reason; we reflect upon our nature [and] we reflect upon certain first principles. For example, every effect must have a proportionate cause. Every faculty must have a certain end, a certain purpose. Nature abhors a vacuum. There are certain principles which we understand, and from [them] we can understand what activities must we do to be happy and holy — what activities must we avoid to be happy and to be holy. And in fact, man reflecting upon his nature can come to understand nine of the Ten Commandments.
So, in fact, nine of the Ten Commandments are nothing more than the natural law made explicit by God on account of our blindness from original sin. So even a man without revelation should be able to reflect upon his dependence and realize he must worship God. He must not blaspheme.
We could not know that there’s a specific day that we must worship God. So the Third Commandment we could not know by the natural law, but we could also know the Fourth, honor your parents, and so on. Do not kill. Do not steal. Do not commit adultery. Do not covet your neighbor’s wife, your neighbor’s goods. Do not lie. All these things can be known by man reflecting upon his nature, and that every faculty he has has a purpose.
So that’s the natural law. And then we come to the positive law — laws called positive, because it is posited; it is put forward by law-givers. We have divine positive law, which is God speaking through revelation, giving certain dictates — giving circumcision to Abraham.
So God has spoken. This is what you must do to be saved. And God, of course, is infallible. But we also have what's called ecclesiastical positive law — that is, the Church, reflecting upon her nature and her mission, gives laws to help people keep the commandments and go to heaven. And here, at least for those who have attended the traditional Mass for many years, they understand that the Church is able to put forward unjust laws.
And she's been doing it for fifty years. She puts forward things as laws which are not laws, because they contradict divine revelation, because they contradict the infallible laws of the Church from the past.
And we’re accustomed to disobeying these unjust laws. We know that as Saint Peter said to the Jews, it’s better to obey God than man. So we see there are times when we must disobey unjust laws even given by the highest authorities of the Church.
But that brings us to civil positive law, the final type of positive law — that is, when the civil authority promotes laws.
So again, for the civil authority to promote a just law, it must be reasonable, it must be for the common good, and it must be properly promulgated. And so, when the civil authority promotes and promulgates just law, it comes from God, and we are sanctified by obeying it. We must obey it.
But we know, especially in this modern world, that civil authorities put forward many unjust laws, laws which are not for the common good. And there are three types of unjust laws. The first is when the content of the “law” is unjust. For example, abortion. That is an unjust law, or any of these ideologies which so offend the natural law. These are unjust laws. And in such a case, we have a duty to disobey.
We cannot sin, we cannot offend God, to please the state. So [if] those laws are very clearly unjust, we must necessarily disobey them. But there are other types of unjust laws which require more discernment. We have laws which are unjust because they’re for the personal advantage or the agenda of the person who makes them and not for the common good.
Remember, each law to be a just law must be for the sake of the good of society — the peace and prosperity of this society. But if the legislator or the person in power is making them for his own personal advantage, making them on account of an agenda which is contrary to the common good, it is an unjust law. Likewise, a law can be unjust if it’s made by somebody who has no power to make the law.
For example, each legislator has power over their jurisdiction. He can’t make a law for another jurisdiction. Likewise, in the systems of government today, it is the legislative power, not the executive power, which makes laws. So the person must have jurisdiction to make a just law, and if the person does not have jurisdiction and tries to force something outside of his jurisdiction, it’s unjust.
We think, for example, of the civil society, if they’re trying to enforce laws inside, for example, the Roman Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic Church is an independent, perfect society founded by our Lord Jesus Christ with His own hierarchy and His own laws. She’s not subject to the civil authority in her domain of worship, in her domain of liturgy, faith, and morals.
So, we see that there [are] two elements here. We have somebody making a law for their personal advantage or making a law outside of their jurisdiction. And what is to be our reaction in front of such unjust laws?
Well, here, obedience, the virtue of obedience gives way to the virtue of prudence. So they do not bind our conscience directly. We have to prudently consider them. So the virtue of prudence, as we know, is the queen of the moral virtues. No action we do can be holy unless it’s prudent. And the definition of prudence is the “right reason of things to be done,” to rightly consider the whole situation, then see what is the best thing to do for my sanctification, for the good of the Church, for the good of society.
And there will be times when we externally comply to unjust laws because we can’t win in that case. There’ll be other times when we must be willing to suffer to disobey such unjust laws, because we recognize, for example, that this particular unjust law is merely the first or the second in a series of unjust laws which are coming and some will be coming, which will violate my conscience, which I can’t accept, and therefore it’s better to resist sooner than later.
For example, we know in revolutions, civil disobedience is a virtuous and good thing. And so even when we do obey these unjust laws, we must, at least internally, resist. Internally resist whenever we must externally comply.
So if there’s an unjust law, and we’re forced for some reason to obey it, we must internally resist, lest, as Solzhenitsyn warned, in regards to the communist revolution, we begin to participate, to believe in the lie. We must be careful in that. We must not participate and believe in lies, because once we do, these lies will destroy us. We’ll become slaves to these lies.
And so, the virtue of prudence considers all the elements at stake and decides: in which situation should we externally comply? In which situation should we not externally comply for the sake of a greater good, which is what’s best for my family, the Church, what's the best for civil society?
And then it can be asked, well, doesn’t this create a situation where we’re in a certain sense lying? We comply in one situation, but not in another. And the answer is no. We’ll give an example. For example, a priest in communist countries — and this happens even today, where externally, in public, they wear civil clothes, suit and tie, and they disguise, they hide, all elements of their priesthood so as not to be caught, because if they’re caught, they won’t be able to hear confessions anymore.
Externally complying in public, but they’re resisting internally, then as soon as they’re in a safe place, they even disobey externally by putting back on their clerical garb. That’s not a lie. That's just prudence: analyzing the situations and saying what’s the best thing for my faithful, for me, for the Church, and for the country. And there are times where it is very good to show unjust rulers that we are disobeying, that we won’t participate anymore in their lie.
So we leave you with these different principles so that you can take them in a world in which we live, analyze situations, and see what is the most prudent thing to do. What is the most prudent, the most holy thing to do? And we will certainly need in these times great wisdom. Wisdom is that virtue by which we see all things in light of eternity. That’s really key. We must look at everything in light of eternity, because that is the only true perspective.
Nobody gets out of life alive. We must look at all things in relation to our death to make sure that at our death, we have eternal life. So that’s already something to ask for and beg the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is the Seat of Wisdom. Ask her to see all things in light of eternity, and if we want a happy and peaceful New Year, that’s the way. Beg the grace to look at all things in light of eternity, not in light of time. So there’s wisdom.
We’ll likewise need supernatural prudence, the right reason of things to be done. Keep in mind, there’s a distinction between natural prudence and supernatural prudence. Natural prudence only considers this life and what’s best for me in this life. Supernatural prudence considers the next life as well. For example, that’s why the saints, there were times when they would hide from persecution and other times when they would embrace it. That was supernatural prudence. What is the best thing to do here and now for the Church? And Our Lady, we say in the litany, was most prudent. She really looks at all things considering the whole picture and wanting God’s glory in all things.
And likewise, we must really pray for a supernatural courage, this willingness to suffer for Christ’s sake. We must be willing to concede certain things when it’s really a question of convenience, but when it’s a question of God’s honor, there we must be very courageous and be willing to suffer for the sake of God’s honor. And if we want to know whether or not we’ll be courageous when the time comes, ask ourselves how much we hate sin now. If we don’t hate sin, we’ll never have the wisdom, we’ll never have the prudence, and we’ll never have the courage to do what we ought to do when it’s time to do it. We must learn to hate sin.
That’s the only thing which will give us the wisdom, the prudence and the courage, and who is more courageous than the Blessed Virgin Mary? Think of her Son, this wonder-worker who was so loved. It was easy to follow Him for those three years when everybody loved Him. But for those last few days, she followed Him. She saw Him spat upon, mocked, ridiculed, slapped, persecuted, and she still followed Him, because she had this great courage, and she had the courage even to stand at the foot of the cross. And that’s courage. She stood: stabat Mater. She didn’t fall down; she wasn’t in such anguish that she couldn't function. She was courageously accepting the death of her Son for the glory of His Father. So let us beg the Blessed Virgin Mary for this wisdom, for this prudence, and for this courage.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.