Can the rulers of the people give
dispensations from human laws?
It seems that the rulers of the people
cannot give dispensations from human laws:
Objection 1: As Isidore
puts it, law is established “for the common welfare.”
But the common good should not be overridden in favor
of any person’s private advantage, since, as the Philosopher
says in Ethics 1, “The good of the nation is
more divine than the good of a single man.” Therefore,
it seems that no one should be given a dispensation
to act against a general law.
Deuteronomy 1:17 gives this command to those who are
placed in charge of others: “You shall hear the little as
well as the great: neither shall you respect any man's
person, because it is the judgment of God.” But
‘respecting persons’ or favoritism (acceptio personarum)
seems to consist in conceding to a given individual what
is generally denied to everyone. Therefore, the rulers of
the people cannot give dispensations of the sort in
question, since this is contrary to God’s command.
If human law is to be upright, then it must be consonant
with the natural law and with divine law; otherwise, it
would not neither “agree with religion” nor “contribute to
discipline”—which, as Isidore says, are required for law (cf.
q. 95, a. 3). But no man can give a dispensation either
from divine law nor from the natural law. Therefore,
neither can any man give a dispensation from human law.
But contrary to this:
In 1 Corinthians 9:17 the Apostle says, “..... a
dispensation is committed to me.”
‘Dispensation’ (dispensatio) properly implies
a measuring out of something common to individuals.
Hence, the head of a family is called a ‘dispenser’
(dispensator) insofar as he distributes, in due
weight and measure, the tasks and necessities of life
to each member of the family. So, then, every
multitude is such that someone in it is called a dispenser
by virtue of the fact that he determines how a general
precept is to be implemented by each individual.
as is clear from what was said above (q. 96, a. 6),
sometimes a precept that is appropriate in most cases
for the multitude is not appropriate for this person
or in this case, either because it would prevent something
better or because it would lead to some evil.
However, as was explained above (q. 96, a. 6), it would
be dangerous to leave such matters to the judgment of
each individual, except perhaps in the face of an evident
and sudden threat. Thus, the one charged with
ruling the people has the power to dispense from a human
law that depends on his authority, so that when the
law fails for given persons or cases, he might permit
a precept of the law not to be obeyed. However,
if he granted such permission just by his own will alone
and without the sort of reason in question, then in
granting such a dispensation he would be either unfaithful
or imprudent—unfaithful if he did not intend the common
good, and imprudent if he knew of no reason for the
dispensation. This is why, in Luke 12:42, Our
Lord says, “Who do you think is the faithful and prudent
steward (dispensator), whom his lord sets over
Reply to objection 1:
When someone is dispensed from obeying a general law, this
should be done not with a prejudice against the common
good, but rather with the intention of promoting the
Reply to objection 2:
There is no ‘respecting of persons’ (acceptio
personarum) if it is not the case that persons who are
equal are being treated as unequals. Hence, when a
person’s situation requires that, in accord with reason,
something be observed in a special way in that situation,
then it is not favoritism if some special favor is granted
Reply to objection 3:
Insofar as the natural law contains general precepts
that never fail, it cannot admit of dispensations.
On the other, with respect to those other precepts,
which are like conclusions of the general precepts,
men can sometimes give dispensations—for instance, a
dispensation according to which a thing left in trust
need not be returned to a traitor to his country, or
something of this sort.
every man is related to divine law in the way that a
private person is related to a public law to which he
is subject. Hence, just as in the case of human
public law, the only one who can give dispensations
is the one from whom the law has its authority or someone
whom he has commissioned, so too in the case of the
precepts of the divine law, which come from God, no
one can give a dispensation except God or someone to
whom He Himself has given a special commission.