The letter and the spirit of the law
HINTS AND TRACES - Fr. Roy Cimagala (The Freeman) - October 13, 2018 - 12:00am

We obviously have to be governed by the rule of law. Without the law, we can only expect disorder, chaos, and injustice. But we need to distinguish between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, and know how to understand and apply the law properly.

Ideally, both the letter and the spirit of a certain law should be in perfect harmony. But that is hardly the case in real life. The problem is the articulation of the law is conditioned and limited by human powers that cannot fully capture the richness of human life, considering its spiritual and supernatural character that will always involve intangibles, mysteries, and the like.

That is why we can go beyond but not against a particular law, when it cannot fully express the concrete conditions of a particular case.

First of all, we have to understand that all our laws should be based on the natural law that in the end is a participation of the divine eternal law of God. And that part of natural law specific to man is called the natural moral law that would recognize, as its first principle, God as the source and end of all laws.

A legal system not clearly based on this fundamental principle would already be a defective system ab initio. A legal system based only on some human consensus would put the spirit of the law in full subservience to the letter of that law.

This kind of legal system is what is referred to as legal positivism. This means that the laws are valid not because they are rooted in moral or natural law, but because they are enacted by some authority and are accepted by society.

Thus, this system makes us the first and ultimate lawgiver. It is as if we make ourselves our own God, our own creator, an absurd assumption to make. It is as if we are so capable of knowing everything about man that we can legislate everything about him, that is, about us.

But even if a legal system recognizes God as the source and end of all laws, it is still highly characterized by human condition. The articulation of the law in its letter has to be constantly animated by the spirit of that law that is the spirit of God.

So the proper understanding and application of our law can only be achieved if we discern closely the spirit of God. Tackling our laws only by means of our common sense or our other ways of estimation can open the possibility of missing the real intent of the laws. Our problem nowadays is that much of our legal culture is into legal positivism.

In the gospel, there is an episode where Christ clarified the real spirit of the law on the Sabbath. It Luke 6,6-11, a man with a withered hand was healed by Christ on the Sabbath. Christ asked the scribes and the Pharisees who were such sticklers on the Sabbath law that nothing should be done on that day.

“‘I ask you, is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?’ Looking around at them all, he then said to him (the man with the withered hand), ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He did so and his hand was restored.”

We really need to go to Christ to know the real spirit behind a particular law!

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