I. WHAT COMMANDMENTS (OR LAWS) HAS GOD GIVEN US?
As God gave fixed laws to the heavenly bodies (Ps. cxlviii. 6), so He also gave commandments, or laws, unto men.
God has given us commandments in order to make us happy in time and in eternity.
God never commands anything except for the greater good of those to whom He gives the command. He only imposes laws on us out of kindness, that He may have occasion to reward us. A heathen sage says: “Without laws the human race would be no better than wild beasts of prey, the stronger devouring and destroying the weaker.”
1. God has imprinted the natural law on the heart of every man; this forms the fundamental rule of human actions.
A young child who has done something wrong lied, perhaps, or committed a theft, feels uncomfortable, frightened, or ashamed; though it may never have heard of the Ten Commandments, it is conscious that it has done amiss. It is the same with the heathen who knows nothing about God’s commandments. Hence we may conclude that there is a law of nature in every human heart, a law not written upon it, but inborn in it; an intuitive knowledge of right and wrong. St. Paul declares that the Gentiles do by nature those things that are of the law (what the Ten Commandments enjoin), and consequently they will be judged by God according to the natural law (Rom. ii. 14-16). The characters wherein this law is inscribed upon our hearts may be obscured but not obliterated; the Roman Catechism tells us no man can be unconscious of this law, divinely imprinted upon his understanding, “ This natural law teaches us the most important rules of morality, e.g., that homage is due to almighty God; that no man must willfully injure himself; that we must not do to others what we would not have others do to us; furthermore from this moral code certain inferences directly follow; these are the Ten Commandments of God (the observance of the Sabbath excepted). Thus the natural law does not consist of a series of truths founded on reason, but is a definite expression of the will of God, which it is binding upon us to obey, and of which in individual cases we are made acquainted by means of reason. This consciousness of God’s will is conscience. Hence it is erroneous to say reason is itself the law.
2. In addition to this natural law, God gave to man solemn precepts, more especially the Ten Commandments and the two precepts of charity. These are known as the revealed law.
To the revealed law appertain: (1). The pre-Mosaic law, given by God to Noe and Abraham; e.g., He forbade the former to eat flesh with blood (Gen. ix. 4), upon the latter He imposed the law of circumcision (Gen. xvii. 11). (2). The Mosaic law, which was given to the Jews through Moses. To this belong: The Decalogue; the regulations of divine worship, the civil law of the Jews. The Ten Commandments were not annulled by Christ (Matt. v. 17), but fulfilled, as the outline of a picture is not effaced, but filled in by the painter. The regulations of public worship (relating to the sacrifices, the Temple, etc.), were abolished at the death of Christ, because the ceremonial observances of the Old Testament were merely typical of the Redeemer. The civil law (regulating the social relations of the Jews) was exclusively suited to the Hebrew people. (3). The Christian law, comprising the two precepts of charity. This chiefly requires the practice of works of mercy, and interior spiritual worship (John iv. 24), whereas the Jewish law ordained the performance of exterior acts and ceremonies. The Mosaic law was written on tables of stone, but the commandments of charity are written within our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Heb. viii. 10); that is to say, the Holy Ghost enlightens the understanding that we may perceive them, and influences the will that we may follow them. The former laws were imperfect (Heb. vii. 19); the Christian law is perfect, for obedience to it brings man nearer to his ultimate goal, eternal felicity. The Old Law was given, on account of its imperfection, through the medium of an angel; the New Law was proclaimed by the Son of God Himself.
The revealed law is nothing more than a repetition, an exposition, and an amplification of the natural law.
Because the mind of man being darkened by sin, was no longer capable of discerning between good and evil, the natural law was explained and completed for him by God. Let us thank God for thus making His will plain to our understanding.
3. Finally, God gives us commandments through His representatives upon earth, through the ecclesiastical and secular authorities. These laws are called ecclesiastical and civil laws.
The Church lays her behests upon us in Christ’s name: “He that heareth you heareth Me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth Me” (Luke x. 16). The secular authorities also derive their power from God, as St. Paul tells us (Rom. xiii. 1). The ecclesiastical and civil laws are distinguished from the divine laws (natural and revealed) in that the former govern our exterior actions and words alone, while the latter regulate our thoughts and desires as well.
The laws God gives us by His representatives are, however, only binding upon us provided they are not at variance with the revealed law.
That is no law which is opposed to the law of God. Wherefore if we are commanded to do anything that God forbids, “we ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts v. 29). Witness the conduct of the three children and of the seven Machabees.
4. From the knowledge of the law comes conscience; the consciousness, that is, whether an act is permitted or prohibited by the law,
Our understanding indicates to us, in individual cases in which we are called upon to act, how to shape our conduct in conformity to the known law. Thus bv our understanding we attain to the knowledge of the law and of our duty. This knowledge is called conscience. Conscience is therefore a practical act of the intellect; it also impels our will powerfully towards what is good. Hence it is often called the voice of God within us.
Conscience makes itself heard in the following manner: Be fore an action it speaks either in encouragement or in warning; after the action it fills us either with peace or with disquiet, according as the action is good or evil.
Conscience filled Cain and Judas with unrest. Our conscience is either good or bad. A good conscience makes us bright and cheerful, it sweetens the bitterness of life; it brings rest and contentment. A bad conscience makes us morose and ill at ease; it is a worm, en gendered by the corruption of sin, and this worm never dies (Mark ix. 43). A bad conscience embitters all the joys of life; the man who has a bad conscience is like a condemned criminal, who, whatever the enjoyments offered him in his last hours, takes no real pleasure in anything.
A man’s conscience may be either tender or deadened.
A tender conscience shrinks from the least sin; a deadened conscience scarcely heeds great sins. The conscience of the saints was tender; they feared to offend God in the slightest degree; the conscience of men of the world is deadened; it glosses over sins that are unquestionably mortal. Yet such men will sometimes attach great importance to trifles; they strain out gnats and swallow camels (Matt. xxiii. 24). Thus the Jews who crucified Our Lord would not go into the court of Pilate lest they should be defiled (John xviii. 28). A man who has a tender conscience is called conscientious, while one whose conscience is blunted is said to be without conscience.
A man’s conscience may be either lax (unscrupulous) or timid (over-scrupulous).
He whose conscience is lax persuades himself that the greatest sins are permissible: once in a way does not count, he will say, to err is human; in consequence of his dissolute life he no longer heeds the reproaches of conscience; in fact he scarcely hears them. But an over-scrupulous conscience, on the other hand, makes a man see sin where there is no sin. Like a timid horse that shies at a tree or a stone, thus exposing his rider to the risk of falling, so a scrupulous person imagines there is danger where there is none, and is liable to fall into disobedience and other sins. Over-scrupulosity does not arise from any misapprehension, but from an ill-regulated mind, which has the effect of obscuring the reason. St. Francis of Sales says that it has its source in pride. The over-scrupulous are timid; thus they can never attain a high degree of perfection. They ought not to dwell upon their doubts, for these are like glue or pitch. The more they are touched, the more they adhere to one. St. Alphonsus bids us contemn our scruples, and do that from which they would deter us. The scrupulous should mistrust their own judgment and view of things; they must in fact renounce them altogether if they are to get rid of their timidity. “lie who would do great things for God,” says St. Ignatius, “must beware of being too cautious; had the apostles been so they would never have undertaken the evangelization of the world.”
A man commits a sin if he acts against the dictates of his conscience.
Conscience is nothing more than the law, applied to particular cases. In acting against our conscience therefore, we disobey the law even if we are under a mistake. For instance, if a man eats meat on a Thursday, thinking it to be a Friday, he commits a sin.
5. God’s commandments do not deprive men in any way of true freedom.
They rather serve to make him independent of creatures. It is the sinner who falls under the yoke of an ignominious servitude. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. iii. 17). Besides, liberty does not consist in the right to do whatever we will, but whatever is permitted. The word is much abused in the present day; many consider it to mean license, and they call the restraint which the laws impose on their evil work tyranny and despotism. Others think it signifies liberty for themselves and servitude for others. Hence we often find so-called liberals the most intolerant of mankind.
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