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Chapter 11: The Moral Authority of Law

Question F: What is the difference between the Church’s moral teaching and her law?

1. The teaching authority of the Church, although unique, is called “authority” in the first of the senses distinguished in A above. The Church’s competence to teach is different in various ways from that of experts and scholars; but its authority is like theirs insofar as it is a competence to make judgments which reasonable, believing persons should accept as true. At the same time, its teaching authority is unique in that it deals with the interpersonal truth of faith and has the task of shaping the Christian community and its life in the light of faith. This situation will be explained more fully in chapters twenty and thirty-five.

2. As for the Church’s authority to make law, it is special insofar as it is conferred by divine positive law upon the pastors of the Church (see LG 18–22, 27, 37). However, this pastoral authority is analogous to the ruling authority of any human society. It is a social capacity to give directions to members of the Church.12

3. Those with teaching authority in the Church have no choice about whether and what to teach but only how to teach. Their teaching communicates a truth they did not create and cannot modify, namely, the truth of Jesus whom they are committed to serve (see S.t., 2–2, q. 1, aa. 9–10). In exercising governing authority, however, the pastors of the Church do have a choice about what directives to give. Their decisions direct the Church’s common life to the common good of completing Jesus’ work throughout the world. With the light of faith and within the framework of divine positive law, how the Church is to complete this task has been left to the discretion of the apostolic pastoral authority (see S.t., 2–2, q. 88, a. 12).

4. When a Catholic violates a moral norm taught by the Church, the wrongful act is not of itself disobedience to the Church. The act is wrong because it violates a moral truth and the goods which this truth represents. For instance, when wealthy Catholics violate the Church’s teaching that they should pay their employees fair wages, the sin is not of itself disobedience to the Church; it is a violation of justice and of the well-being of those who are cheated.

5. When a Catholic violates a pastoral directive, however, the wrongful act is disobedience. For instance, those who do not bother to observe prescribed days of fast and abstinence fail primarily in obedience. At the same time, some laws of the Church forbid acts which, even apart from the Church’s law, should be recognized by all as immoral. Such acts include canonical crimes: for example, the procuring of abortion. Those who deliberately and freely procure abortion are doubly guilty, for they not only violate justice and life, but also disobey the law of the Church.

12. For a concise general introduction to canon law, see J. M. Buckley, “Canon Law,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 3:29–34. A fuller treatment of Church law in the context of a general theology of law: Jean-Marie Aubert, Loi de Dieu, Lois des Hommes (Tournai: Desclée, 1964), 177–234. A clear treatment of the distinction between the Church’s teaching and law: Alvaro del Portillo, Faithful and Laity in the Church: The Bases of Their Legal Status, trans. Leo Hickey (Shannon, Ireland: Ecclesia Press, 1973), 56–60. A brief theological treatment of the obligation of obedience to bishops, including the universal law of the Church: Joseph Lécuyer, C.S.Sp., “Obedience to the Bishop,” in Karl Rahner, S.J., et al., Obedience and the Church (Washington: Corpus Books, 1968), 57–74.