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(Trans. Alfred J. Freddoso)


The Force of Human Law



Does human law impose an obligation in conscience on a man?


It seems that human law does not impose an obligation in conscience on a man (non imponat homini necessitatem in foro conscientiae):


Objection 1:  A lower authority (potestas) cannot impose a law on the judgment of a higher authority.  But the authority of a man who makes human law is lower than God’s authority.  Therefore, human law cannot impose a law with respect to God’s judgment, i.e., the judgment of conscience.


Objection 2:  The judgment of conscience depends especially on God’s commands.  But sometimes God’s commands are voided by human laws—this according to Matthew 15:6 (“You have made void the commandment of God on behalf of your traditions”).  Therefore, human law does not impose an obligation in conscience on a man.


Objection 3:  Human laws often inflict fraud and harm on men—this according to Isaiah 10:1ff: (“Woe to them who make wicked laws, and when they write, write injustice in order to oppress the poor in judgment, and do violence to the cause of the humble of my people”).  But everyone is permitted to avoid oppression and violence.  Therefore, human laws do not impose an obligation in conscience on a man.


But contrary to this:  1 Peter 2:19 says, “It is worthy of thanks if, because of his conscience, someone endure sorrows, suffering wrongfully.”


I respond:  Laws that are humanly made are either just or unjust.
If they are just, then they have their power to oblige in conscience from the eternal law, from which they stem—this according to Proverbs 8:15 (“By me kings reign, and lawgivers make just decrees”).  Now laws are called just on the basis of (a) their end, viz., when they ordered toward the common good, and (b) their author, viz., when a law that is made does not exceed in its scope the power of the lawmaker, and ©) their form, viz., when they impose on those subject to them proportionately equal burdens in relation to the common good.  For since a man is part of a multitude, each man is such that what he is and what he has belongs to the multitude, in the same way that any part is such that what it is belongs to the whole.  This is why nature likewise inflicts a loss on the part in order to save the whole.  Accordingly, laws of this sort, which impose proportionate burdens, are just, and they bind in conscience, and they are legal laws (leges legales).
On the other hand, there are two ways in which laws are unjust.
First, in counterpoint to what was said above, they are unjust when they are contrary to the human good either (a) because of their end, as when the lawmaker imposes burdens on his subjects that contribute not to the common welfare but to his own greed or glory, or (b) because of their author, as when someone makes laws that go beyond the authority entrusted to him, or ©) because of their form, as, say, when burdens are distributed unequally over the multitude, even if those burdens are ordered toward the common good.  Laws of this sort are outrages (violentiae) rather than laws, since, as Augustine puts it in De Libero Arbitrio, “What is not just does not seem to be a law.”  Hence, laws of this sort do not bind in conscience (non obligant in foro conscientiae)—except perhaps in order to avoid scandal or social unrest (turbatio), because of which a man should cede his right, in accord with Matthew 5:40‑41 (“If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him another two ...... and if someone takes away your coat, give him take away thy coat, give him your cloak as well”).
The second way in which laws can be unjust is by being contrary to the divine good, as are tyrannical laws that induce men to idolatry or anything else that is contrary to the divine law.  It is not permissible to obey such laws in any way at all, since as Acts 5:29 says, “We must obey God rather than men.”


Reply to objection 1:  As the Apostle says in Romans 13:1ff, “Every human authority is from God, and so whoever resists that authority” (read: in the things that pertain to the scope of that authority) “is resisting God’s ordinance.”  And, accordingly, such a man is accused by his conscience (efficiter reus quantum ad conscientiam).


Reply to objection 2:  This argument goes through in the case of human laws that are directed against a command of God’s.  The scope of the authority [of human law] does not extend this far.  Hence, in such cases one must not obey the human law.


Reply to objection 3:  This argument goes through in the case of a law that imposes an unjust burden on those subject to it.  Again, the scope of the authority given by God does not extend this far, and so in such cases a man is not obligated to obey the law if he can resist it without giving scandal or causing some greater damage.





I-II, q. 90, The Essence of Law

I-II, q. 91, The Different Kinds of Law

I-II, q. 92, The Effects of Law


Eternal law

I-II, q. 93, Eternal Law

Natural law

I-II, q. 94, The Natural Law

Human law

I-II, q. 95, Human Law

I-II, q. 96, The Force of Human Law

I-II, q. 97, Changes in Human Law

The old law

I-II, q. 98, The Old Law

I-II, q. 99, The Precepts of the Old Law

I-II, q. 100, The Moral Precepts of the Old Law

I-II, q. 101, The Ceremonial Precepts of the Old Law in Themselves

I-II, q. 102, The Causes of the Ceremonial Precepts

I-II, q. 103, The Duration of the Ceremonial Precepts

I-II, q. 104, The Judicial Precepts of the Old Law

I-II, q. 105, The Nature of the Judicial Precepts

The new law

I-II, q. 106, The Law of the Gospel, called the New Law, in Itself

I-II, q. 107, The Relation between the Old Law and the New Law

I-II, q. 108, The Contents of the New Law