THE LAW OF GOD AND ITS BREACH
WITHOUT going into any superflous details, we shall call the Law of God
an act of His will by which He ordains what things we may do or not do,
and binds us unto observance under penalty of His divine displeasure.
The law thus defined pertains to reasonable beings alone, and supposes
on our part, as we have seen, knowledge and free will. The rest of
creation is blindly submissive under the hand of God, and yields a
necessary obedience. Man alone can obey or disobey; but in this latter
case he renders himself amenable to God's justice who, as his Creator,
has an equal right to command him, and be obeyed.
The Maker first exercised this right when He put into His creature's
soul a sense of right and wrong, which is nothing more than conscience,
or as it is called here, natural law. To this law is subject every
human being, pagan, Jew and Christian alike. No creature capable of a
human act is exempt.
The provisions of this law consider the nature of our being, that is,
the law prescribes what the necessities of our being demand, and it
prohibits what is destructive thereof. Our nature requires physically
that we eat, drink and sleep. Similarly, in a moral sense, it calls for
justice, truthfulness, respect of God, of the neighbor, and of self.
All its precepts are summed up in this one: "Do unto others as you
would have them do unto you"--the golden rule. Thence flows a series of
deducted precepts calculated to protect the moral and inherent rights
of our nature.
But we are more concerned here with what is known as the positive Law
of God, given by Him to man by word of mouth or revelation.
We believe that God gave a verbal code to Moses who promulgated it in
His name before the Jewish people to the whole world. It was
subsequently inscribed on two stone tables, and is known as the
Decalogue or Ten Commandments of God. Of these ten, the first three
pertain to God Himself, the latter seven to the neighbor; so that the
whole might be abridged in these two words, "Love God, and love thy
neighbor." This law is in reality only a specified form of the natural
law, and its enactment was necessitated by the iniquity of men which
had in time obscured and partly effaced the letter of the law in their
Latterly God again spoke, but this time in the person of Jesus Christ.
The Saviour, after confirming the Decalogue with His authority, gave
other laws to men concerning the Church He had founded and the means of
applying to themselves the fruits of the Redemption. We give the name
of dogma to what He tells us to believe and of morals to what we must
do. These precepts of Jesus Christ are contained in the Gospel, and are
called the Evangelical Law. It is made known to us by the infallible
Church through which God speaks.
Akin to these divine laws is the purely ecclesiastical law or law of
the Church. Christ sent forth His Church clothed with His own and His
Father's authority. "As the Father sent me, so I send you." She was to
endure, perfect herself and fulfil her mission on earth. To enable her
to carry out this divine plan she makes laws, laws purely
ecclesiastical, but laws that have the same binding force as the divine
laws themselves, since they bear the stamp of divine authority. God
willed the Church to be; He willed consequently all the necessary means
without which she would cease to be. For Catholics, therefore, as far
as obligations are concerned, there is no practical difference between
God's law and the law of His Church. Jesus Christ is God. The Church is
His spouse. To her the Saviour said: "He that heareth you, heareth me,
and he that despiseth you despiseth Me."
A breach of the law is a sin. A sin is a deliberate transgression of
the Law of God. A sin may be committed in thought, in desire, in word,
or in deed, and by omission as well as by commission.
It is well to bear in mind that a thought, as well as a deed, is an
act, may be a human and a moral act, and consequently may be a sin.
Human laws may be violated only in deed; but God, who is a searcher of
hearts, takes note of the workings of the will whence springs all
malice. To desire to break His commandments is to offend Him as
effectually as to break them in deed; to relish in one's mind forbidden
fruits, to meditate and deliberate on evil purposes, is only a degree
removed from actual commission of wrong. Evil is perpetrated in the
will, either by a longing to prevaricate or by affection for that which
is prohibited. If the evil materializes exteriorly, it does not
constitute one in sin anew, but only completes the malice already
existing. Men judge their fellows by their works; God judges us by our
thoughts, by the inner workings of the soul, and takes notice of our
exterior doings only in so far as they are related to the will.
Therefore it is that an offense against Him, to be an offense, need not
necessarily be perpetrated in word or in deed; it is sufficient that
the will place itself in Opposition to the Will of God, and adhere to
what the Law forbids.
Sin is not the same as vice. One is an act, the other is a state or
inclination to act. One is transitory, the other is permanent. One can
exist without the other. A drunkard is not always drunk, nor is a man a
drunkard for having once or twice overindulged.
In only one case is vice less evil than sin, and that is when the
inclination remains an unwilling inclination and does not pass to acts.
A man who reforms after a protracted spree still retains an
inclination, a desire for strong drink. He is nowise criminal so long
as he resists that tendency.
But practically vice is worse than sin, for it supposes frequent wilful
acts of sin of which it is the natural consequence, and leads to many
A vice is without sin when one struggles successfully against it after
the habit has been retracted. It may never be radically destroyed.
There may be unconscious, involuntary lapses under the constant
pressure of a strong inclination, as in the vice of parsing, and it
remains innocent as long as it is not wilfully yielded to and indulged.
But to yield to the ratification of an evil desire or propensity,
without restraint, is to doom oneself to the most prolific of evils and
to lie under the curse of God.
IF the Almighty had never imposed upon His creatures a Law, there would
be no sin; we would be free to do as we please. But the presence of
God's Law restrains our liberty, and it is by using, or rather abusing,
our freedom, that we come to violate the Law. It is for this reason
that Law is said to be opposed to Liberty. Liberty is a word of many
meanings. Men swear by it and men juggle with it. It is the slogan in
both camps of the world's warfare. It is in itself man's noblest
inheritance, and yet there is no name under the sun in which more
crimes are committed.
By liberty as opposed to God's law we do not understand the power to do
evil as well as good. That liberty is the glory of man, but the
exercise of it, in the alternative of evil, is damnable, and debases
the creature in the same proportions as the free choice of good
ennobles him. That liberty the law leaves untouched. We never lose it;
or rather, we may lose it partially when under physical restraint, but
totally, only when deprived of our senses. The law respects it. It
respects it in the highest degree when in an individual it curtails or
destroys it for the protection of society.
Liberty may also be the equal right to do good and evil. There are
those who arrogate to themselves such liberty. No man ever possessed
it, the law annihilated it forever. And although we have used the word
in this sense, the fact is that no man has the right to do evil or ever
will have, so long as God is God. These people talk much and loudly
about freedom--the magic word!--assert with much pomp and verbosity the
rights of man, proclaim his independence, and are given to much like
inane vaunting and braggadocio.
We may be free in many things, but where God is concerned and He
commands, we are free only to obey. His will is supreme, and when it is
asserted, we purely and simply have no choice to do as we list. This
privilege is called license, not liberty. We have certain rights as
men, but we have duties, too, as creatures, and it ill-becomes us to
prate about our rights, or the duties of others towards us, while we
ignore the obligations we are under towards others and our first duty
which is to God. Our boasted independence consists precisely in this:
that we owe to Him not only the origin of our nature, but even the very
breath we draw, and which preserves our being, for "in Him we live,
move and have our being."
The first prerogative of God towards us is authority or the right to
command. Our first obligation as well as our highest honor as creatures
is to obey. And until we understand this sort of liberty, we live in a
world of enigmas and know not the first letter of the alphabet of
creation. We are not free to sin.
Liberty rightly understood, true liberty of the children of God, is the
right of choice within the law, the right to embrace what is good and
to avoid what is evil. This policy no man can take from us; and far
from infringing upon this right, the law aids it to a fuller
development. A person reading by candlelight would not complain that
his vision was obscured if an arc light were substituted for the
candle. A traveler who takes notice of the signposts along his way
telling the direction and distance, and pointing out pitfalls and
dangers, would not consider his rights contested or his liberty
restricted by these things. And the law, as it becomes more clearly
known to us, defines exactly the sphere of our action and shows plainly
where dangers lurk and evil is to be apprehended. And we gladly avail
ourselves of this information that enables us to walk straight and
secure. The law becomes a godsend to our liberty, and obedience to it,
He who goes beyond the bounds of true moral liberty, breaks the law of
God and sins. He thereby refuses to God the obedience which to Him is
due. Disobedience involves contempt of authority and of him who
commands. Sin is therefore an offense against God, and that offense is
proportionate to the dignity of the person offended.
The sinner, by his act of disobedience, not only sets at naught the
will of his Maker, but by the same act, in a greater or lesser degree,
turns away from his appointed destiny; and in this he is imitated by
nothing else in creation. Every other created thing obeys. The heavens
follow their designated course. Beasts and birds and fish are intent
upon one thing, and that is to work out the divine plan. Man alone sows
disorder and confusion therein. He shows irreverence for God's presence
and contempt for His friendship; ingratitude for His goodness and
supreme indifference for the penalty that follows his sin as surely as
the shadow follows its object. So that, taken all in all, such a
creature might fitly be said to be one part criminal and two parts
fool. Folly and sin are synonymous in Holy Writ. "The fool saith in his
heart there is no God."
Sin is essentially an offense. But there is a difference of degree
between a slight and an outrage. There are direct offenses against God,
such as the refusal to believe in Him or unbelief; to hope in Him, or
despair, etc. Indirect offenses attain Him through the neighbor or
All duties to neighbor or self are not equally imperious and to fail in
them all is not equally evil. Then again, not all sins are committed
through pure malice, that is, with complete knowledge and full consent.
Ignorance and weakness are factors to be considered in our guilt, and
detract from the malice of our sins. Hence two kinds of sin, mortal and
venial. These mark the extremes of offense. One severs all relation of
friendship, the other chills the existing friendship. By one, we incur
God's infinite hatred, by the other, His displeasure. The penalty for
one is eternal; the other can be atoned for by suffering.
It is not possible in all cases to tell exactly what is mortal and what
venial in our offenses. There is a clean-cut distinction between the
two, but the line of demarcation is not always discernible. There are,
however, certain characteristics which enable us in the majority of
cases to distinguish one from the other.
First, the matter must be grievous in fact or in intention; that is,
there must be a serious breach of the law of God or the law of
conscience. Then, we must know perfectly well what we are doing and
give our full consent. It must therefore be a grave offense in all the
plenitude of its malice. Of course, to act without sufficient reason,
with a well-founded doubt as to the malice of the act, would be to
violate the law of conscience and would constitute a mortal sin. There
is no moral sin without the fulfilment of these conditions. All other
offenses are venial.
We cannot, of course, read the soul of anybody. If, however, we suppose
knowledge and consent, there are certain sins that are always mortal.
Such are blasphemy, luxury, heresy, etc. When these sins are
deliberate, they are always mortal offenses. Others are usually mortal,
such as a sin against justice. To steal is a sin against justice. It is
frequently a mortal sin, but it may happen that the amount taken be
slight, in which case the offense ceases to be mortal.
Likewise, certain sins are usually venial, but in certain circumstances
a venial sin may take on such malice as to be constituted mortal.
Our conscience, under God, is the best judge of our malevolence and
consequently of our guilt.
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