(“We are the State’s Good Servants but God’s First”)
THESE days most Filipinos are glued to the Corona impeachment trial in the Senate. Already the clearest realization that impacts us all is the priority of morality over civil law. In fact, civil lawyers, judges and people in the media, both those who favor either the Chief Justice or the prosecutors, talk of taking ‘the high moral ground’ in charting the direction of the trial. Problem is, morality for most of them is whatever serves the law or its enforcement best.
I have no quarrel at all with the civil law of the country. Like all Filipinos, I do recognize its necessity as an instrument of justice, peace and order among us. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum nor is it based solely on what most Filipinos agree on through their lawmakers. What most of us take for granted is that our civil law is itself ultimately based on another law, something more fundamental, more prior, more universally binding and more permanent—the moral law. It is this law that not only determines right (which we should pursue always) and wrong (which we should shun all the time) but also leads us in the direction of the real ‘daang matuwid (straight path), a road which is never ‘matuwid’ or right if it does not lead to God.
But the issue of moral law over civil law reminds me of a question we argued about in high school: “In any given town who has the higher position, the parish priest or the mayor?” I remember a fellow teener saying that it’s the mayor because he has under him not only Catholics but also non-Catholics. But there was a well-thought out answer from another teenager who said, “The parish priest is in a higher position because he represents the Lord and the Church while the mayor only represents the people in the town. That is why a priest can go any place and still be a priest but a mayor cannot go to another place and be a mayor there.”
We can also, at this point, ask: “Which is higher? Civil law or moral law.” But we have to define our terms first. Moral law is the law which tells us in our conscience what is right and to follow it as well as tell us what is wrong and to avoid it. Morality is something that comes from God and which we come to know through the Scriptures (the Bible) and Apostolic Tradition as taught by the Church. That’s the Catholic perspective. It may not, and this fact we accept, be positively received all Christians, let alone by all people. But we know we have solid bases for making such claims. On the other hand, civil law refers to a body of laws passed or written and decreed by a body of human lawmakers regulating human behavior or conduct in a certain place (whether town, province, state or country). For us Christians the answer to the question should be obvious and firm: The Moral Law being from God is higher than Civil Law. Civil Law can only be worthy of a believer’s obedience if it conforms to the Moral Law. When it violates the Moral Law believers have the right and the duty to oppose it and to campaign against it.
In the first book of Samuel we are told of how the vocation of Samuel as a prophet all started with a prayer of his own mother for a child (1 Sam 1:10-12). It was a prayer heard by God and of which the priest Eli had knowledge. Consequently, as a sign of gratitude and discernment of God’s higher purposes for her son, Anna the mother offers and consecrates her son back to the God who gave him to her. This action by Anna speaks volumes of her faith. But it also speaks of the reason why human beings must follow God and his ways. The human person comes from him and is bound to return to him. Therefore God and his ways must be the clear and constant source of guidance and direction in human living. The words of Anna are a code of conduct for all believers: “As long as he lives, he will follow the Lord” (1 Sam 1:28).
In her Magnificat (song of praise) in the gospel of Luke Mama Mary, in an eternal paean, teaches us not only the primacy of God and his ways but also how God favors the humble and the lowly instead of the powerful, the mighty and the wealthy (Lk 1:46-55). She reminds us how the things that God holds dear often run counter to ours. For instance, remember the three Gs of GUNS, GOONS, GOLD? Or, shall we say, ‘Violence, power and money’? These are the things that most people, not the least Filipinos, consider as means to reach the top as far as our society is concerned. But this is not so with God, not so in heaven, and ergo, not so in that society which is the “seed or beginning of the kingdom of heaven” on earth, namely, the Church. Mama Mary tells us that she who was lowly, powerless and money-less was showered by God with “great things”. What’s more, God does not only favor the humble and the lowly. He also shows his power over the powerful and, in God’s own time, deposes the abusive and arrogant power-wielders. “He has shown might with his arm; he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty kings from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly” (Lk 1:52).
What does this tell us? First, that God and his ways must be prior in our minds and hearts because God is higher than any other authority in heaven and on earth. Pope John XXIII’s encyclical ‘Pacem in Terris’ (Peace in the World) he states that civil “authority is a postulate of the moral order and derives from God. Consequently, laws and decrees enacted in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience” (PT, II). St. Thomas Aquinas reaffirms this by saying that every “law made by man can be called a law insofar as it derives from the natural law. But if it is somehow opposed to the natural law, then it is not really a law but rather a corruption of the law” (I-II, q. 95, a. 2).
Why are these considerations important for you and me? Because in our present realities, the order is often reversed. Sadly, we Christians and people of faith do not even give this pass so much as a murmur. What is legal or secular is held dearer by the elite of Philippine and world society. Which is why it is entirely possible that our civil authorities may pass laws that oppose God’s law or the moral law as we know it, such as the RH Bill, or certain laws may be passed allowing divorce, euthanasia or homosexual unions as well as qualified abortions.
In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Blessed John Paul II, declares: “Christians, like all people of good will, are called upon under grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God’s law. Indeed, from the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil” (EV 74). It is true, the Holy Father says, that in the NT Christians are “reminded” of “their duty to obey legitimately constituted public authorities (Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pt 2:13-14)” but they are also taught that “ ‘we must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29)” (EV 73).
When Henry VIII separated from Rome and founded the Church of England he decreed that all his subjects obey him. One of his most trusted aides, his Chancellor, a man named Thomas Moore, opposed the king because in conscience he felt the king was in the wrong. He was put in prison and eventually executed. When he was asked to explain his opposition to the king, he said: “We are the king’s good servants, but God’s first”. That is why, as Catholics, if and when our own civil laws are against the moral law, we can and must also say, “We are the state’s good servants, but God’s first.”