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(Trans. Alfred J. Freddoso)


Changes in Human Law



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.


Objection 2:  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.


Objection 3:  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.”


I respond:  ‘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.
Now 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 his family?”


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 common good.


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 him.


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.
However, 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.





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