The letter and the spirit of the law

Posted by watchmen
February 5, 2020
Posted in OPINION

We obviously have to be governed by the rule of law. Without the law, we can only expect disorder and chaos, and all the forms of injustice. But we need to distinguish between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, and know how to understand and apply the law properly.

Ideally, both the letter and the spirit of a certain law should be in perfect harmony. But that is hardly the case in real life. The problem, of course, is that the articulation of the law is conditioned and limited by our human powers that cannot fully capture the richness of human life, considering its spiritual and supernatural  character that will always involve the intangibles and mysteries and the likes.

That is the reason why we can go beyond but not against a particular law, when such law cannot fully express the concrete conditions of a particular case.

But, first of all, we have to understand that all our laws should be based on what is known as the natural law that in the end is a participation of the divine eternal law of God, our Creator and the first and ultimate lawgiver. And that part of natural law that is specific to man is called the natural moral law that would recognize, as its first principle, God as our Creator and source and end of all laws.

A legal system not clearly based on this fundamental principle about laws would already be a system that is defective ab initio. A legal system that is based only on some human consensus would put the spirit of the law in full subservience to the letter of that law.

This kind of legal system is what is referred to as legal positivism. This means that the laws are valid not because they are rooted in moral or natural law, but because they are enacted by some authority and are accepted by society as such.

Thus, this system makes us the first and ultimate lawgiver. It is as if we make ourselves our own God, our own creator, an absurd assumption to make. It is as if we are so capable of knowing everything about man that we can legislate everything about him, that is, about us.

But even if a legal system recognizes God as the source and end of all laws, it is still highly characterized by our human condition. The articulation of the law in its letter has to be constantly animated by the spirit of that law that in the end is the spirit of God.

So the proper understanding and application of our law can only be achieved if we discern closely the spirit of God. Tackling our laws only by means of our common sense or our other ways of estimation  can open the possibility of missing the real intent of the laws. Our problem nowadays is that much of our legal culture is into legal positivism.

In the gospel, there is an episode where Christ clarified the real spirit of the law on the Sabbath. It is in the gospel of Luke 6, 6-11 where a man with a withered hand was healed by Christ on the Sabbath. Here Christ asked the scribes and the Pharisees who were such a stickler on the Sabbath law that nothing should be done on that day.

The pertinent part goes: “’I ask you, is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?’ Looking around at them all, he then said to him (the man with the withered hand), ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He did so and his hand was restored.”

We really need to go to Christ to know the real spirit behind a particular law!/WDJ


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