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When Laws/Duties Conflict: A Catholic Perspective


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Sometimes in the moral life we find ourselves in a situation in which there seem to be two or more duties that are binding on us, and we cannot fulfill all of them. By fulfilling one, we would not be fulfilling another. For example, suppose that a pregnant woman is diagnosed with uterine cancer. She is told by her doctor that unless she undergoes a hysterectomy, she will die. However, if she does undergo the hysterectomy, the baby will die. So, it seems that she has conflicting duties: she ought to get the hysterectomy in order to save her life, yet she also ought to forgo the hysterectomy in order to preserve the life of her baby. Clearly, this woman cannot fulfill both of these duties in this situation.


What to do? Given that God does not command impossibilities (such would be an affront to His justice and wisdom), it follows that such conflicts of duty must be apparent only and not actual. God does not place us in situations in which sin is inescapable and keeping the commandments is impossible (cf. Deuteronomy 30:11-14, Sirach 15:15, Matthew 11:30; 19:17, 1 Corinthians 10:13, 1 Timothy 2:4, 1 John 5:3, CCC 2848-49). As St. Augustine taught, “God therefore does not command impossibilities; but in His command He counsels you both to do what you can for yourself, and to ask His aid in what you cannot do” (On Nature and Grace, Ch. 50). Thus, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” has no place in the moral realm.


In Catholic moral theology, the solution to this difficulty lies in the precept that we are to follow the higher law or duty in cases of apparent conflict between laws or duties (cf. Moral Theology, Vol. I, pg. 107-111). We are, in such cases, exempted from the lower laws or duties. Thus, we do no wrong in fulfilling the higher law or duty over the lower laws or duties. The late Protestant philosopher and theologian Norm Geisler defends this view and labels it as graded absolutism (“Any Absolutes? Absolutely!”; cf. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, pg. 437). This is a principle that is often implicit and sometimes explicit in Sacred Scripture. Our Lord Himself, for instance, recognizes a hierarchy of duties when He chastises the scribes and Pharisees for neglecting “the weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23, emphasis added).


To begin our exposition of this solution, we need to get familiar with what law is and what the different categories of law are in Catholic moral theology. “Law is a rule of conduct enacted by competent authority for the sake of the common good. The moral law presupposes the rational order, established among creatures for their good and to serve their final end, by the power, wisdom, and goodness of the Creator” (CCC 1951). The different categories of law are as follows: the eternal law, the natural law, divine positive law, and human law: ecclesiastical law and civil law (cf. CCC 1952).


The natural law is the moral law written on our hearts (cf. Romans 2:14-15) and can be known by the light of natural reason. It is a law that is rooted in our nature as human beings and the ends set in place for us by that nature. Our nature itself, of course, is a creation of God in accordance with the most fundamental law, the eternal law. The eternal law is the complete and eternal divine plan of governance (cf. Psalm 45:6, Wisdom 7:22-8:1, Isaiah 46:10, 1 Timothy 1:17). In relation to the eternal law, another way of characterizing the natural law, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is as the “participation of the eternal law in the rational creature” (Summa Theologica, I-II, 91, 2). The natural law is the aspect of the eternal law that is most relevant to human morality.


The divine positive law consists of the explicit commandments of God that are made known to us by special divine revelation (e.g., Sacred Scripture). The example par excellence of divine positive law is the Ten Commandments (cf. Exodus 20:1-17, Deuteronomy 4:5-8; 5:1-21), but in general it includes the Mosaic Law under the Old Covenant and the Law of Christ under the New Covenant (cf. John 13:34, 1 Corinthians 9:21, Galatians 6:2). It should be noted that natural law and divine positive law can overlap. For instance, the duty to not murder is both a precept of the natural law and a precept of divine positive law.


Human law consists of those laws made by human authority. Civil law is law made by civil and political authority (e.g., the government of the United States), and must be recognized by Christians as a legitimate category of law (cf. Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). Ecclesiastical law is law made by the Magisterium of the Church (e.g., Acts 15:29, 1 Corinthians 7:12-13; 6:1-4; 11:4-5, 1 Timothy 5:9-12), and is today found in, for instance, the Code of Canon Law. Just as with divine positive law, human law (both ecclesiastical and civil) can overlap with other categories of law. For instance, the duty to not murder is a precept of natural law, divine positive law, and (we always hope) human law.


Now that we are acquainted with what law is and the different categories that it falls under, we are ready to see how apparent conflict between laws is to be adjudicated. When there are conflicting duties from different categories of law, the order of precedence is as follows: (1) natural law takes precedence over divine positive law; (2) divine positive law takes precedence over human law in general; (3) ecclesiastical law takes precedence over civil law in spiritual matters (the Church, as the household of God and the pillar and bulwark of spiritual truth (cf. 1 Timothy 3:15), has full rights and jurisdiction over spiritual governance); (4) civil law takes precedence over ecclesiastical law in matters purely civil and political (separation of Church and State with respect to purely civil and political governance).


So, for instance, if there are two apparently conflicting duties, one from divine positive law and one from human law, the duty belonging to divine positive law is to be followed over the duty belonging to human law. The truth of this order of precedence can be seen by reflecting on the fact that the more fundamental, primordial, urgent, and important law ought to take precedence. It can also be seen by the testimony of Sacred Scripture:

  1. Natural law over divine positive law: David, in order to preserve his life, was permitted by natural law to eat the showbread, which was forbidden by divine positive law. The same law permitted Jesus’ disciples to pluck heads of grain to eat on the Sabbath (cf. 1 Samuel 21:1-6, Matthew 12:1-5, Mark 2:24-28).

  2. Divine positive law over human law: The commandment of Christ to the Apostles to preach His name (cf. Matthew 28:19-20) had to be obeyed rather than the commandment of the Sanhedrin to the contrary (cf. Acts 5:27-29).

  3. Ecclesiastical law over civil law in spiritual matters: From the fact that Christ built His Church on the foundation of the Apostles (cf. Ephesians 2:20), especially St. Peter (cf. Matthew 16:18), even giving Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matthew 16:19) and the Apostles in general the power of binding and loosing (cf. Matthew 18:18) and the authority to speak on behalf of Christ on spiritual matters (cf. Luke 10:16), and from the fact that such authority has been passed down to the Apostles’ successors (cf. John 20:21, Acts 1:15-26; 14:23; 20:17-28, Galatians 2:9, 1 Timothy 5:17-22, 2 Timothy 2:2, Titus 1:5-11), we can confidently conclude that in spiritual matters, the Church is to have precedence over the State. Hence, in spiritual matters, ecclesiastical law has precedence over civil law.

  4. Civil law over ecclesiastical law in purely civil and political matters: St. Paul teaches that everyone ought to be subject to civil authority on the basis of God’s Providence putting in place such authority (cf. Romans 13:1-7). St. Peter teaches similarly (1 Peter 2:13-17). In particular, we are to pay taxes and give due respect to civil authority (Romans 13:6-7). In this way, it seems that even if there were an ecclesiastical law forbidding the paying of taxes to civil authority (clearly a purely civil and political matter), this would not take precedence over Paul’s insistence that we are to pay taxes that are due to civil authority on the basis of that civil authority commanding such taxes. As Pope Leo XIII expressed, “Whatever is to be ranged under the civil and political order is rightly subject to the civil authority. Jesus Christ has Himself given command that what is Caesar's is to be rendered to Caesar, and that what belongs to God is to be rendered to God [cf. Matthew 22:16-21, Mark 12:14-17]” (“Immortale Dei”, par. 14). Hence, we can conclude that in purely civil and political matters, civil law has precedence over ecclesiastical law.



If there are conflicting duties within the same category of law, then the duty that is more urgent or more important within that category takes precedence. This follows from the same reasoning for the order of precedence with respect to the categories of law themselves. So, for instance, the duty of the natural law to preserve life takes precedence over the duty of the natural law to not take what is under someone else’s possession (e.g., a starving man who takes an apple from his neighbor’s abundant applecart in order to preserve his life; cf. Proverbs 6:30). As St. Thomas Aquinas explains,

Since…there are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all to be succored by means of the same thing, each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need. Nevertheless, if the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another’s property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery… It is not theft, properly speaking, to take secretly and use another’s property in a case of extreme need: because that which he takes for the support of his life becomes his own property by reason of that need (ST II-II.66.7).


If the duties in conflict are of equal weight, then it is a matter of prudence which of the duties one ought to fulfill. (The opening example of the pregnant woman with uterine cancer falls into this category). If one cannot discern which of the conflicting duties has greater weight, then one must act in accordance with conscience and choose to fulfill the duty that seems safest. The result may be a material sin, but even so, it will not necessarily be a formal sin; in other words, the act may be objectively bad, but the negative moral quality of the act will not necessarily be imputable to the agent as guilt because his conscience and lack of voluntary consent to the badness of the act will have (either fully or perhaps only partially) excused him (cf. Luke 12:47-48, John 9:41, Romans 2:15, CCC 1735-36).


To conclude, since God does not command impossibilities, apparent cases of conflict between laws or duties are just that: apparent. There therefore must be a principle of adjudication that informs us objectively how we are to act in such situations of apparent conflict. The principles of Catholic moral theology outlined above (what Geisler, to recall, refers to as graded absolutism) provide a satisfactory and, to my mind, correct solution to this tricky problem in the moral life.


References:


Aquinas, T. (1981). Summa Theologica (Vol. 3). Christian Classics.


Augustine. On Nature and Grace. New Advent. Accessed March 6, 2022.


Geisler, N. L. (2009, April 17). Any Absolutes? Absolutely! Christian Research Institute. Retrieved


Ignatius Press. (2005). The Holy Bible (RSV2CE).


Libreria Editrice Vaticana. (2019). Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.).


McHugh, J., & Callan, C. (2014). Moral Theology: A Complete Course (Vol. 1). Veritatis Splendor

Publications.


Moreland, J. P., & Craig, W. L. (2017). Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (2nd ed.).

InterVarsity Press.


Pope Leo XIII. (1885, November 1). Immortale Dei. Rome, Vatican City; St. Peter's.

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