2nd Sunday of Lent (B)
February 24, 2018
Fifty years of grace
February 24, 2018

The law and moral suasion

The fear of punishment for transgressions against the law has served as a deterrent for many who might be wavering in their resolve.

A monthly column by the Emmanuel Community: 46 Rosalino Street, Woodbrook.Tel:628-1064; emmancommtt@gmail.com

In general, our behaviour is regulated by both the law and our moral principles.  And in general, we expect the law to be indistinguishable from our moral principles.

A major distinction between the two, however, is that the state has the power to impose punishment on those found to be in breach of the law, whereas the only punishment for breaching a moral principle is condemnation by other members of the society and one’s own conscience.

In countries where the criminal justice system is based on the Judeo-Christian tradition, people generally expect the law to promote and command what is ‘good’ and ‘virtuous’, and to forbid what is not. That is, the means by which the state ensures the well-being of individuals and order in society.

Even though experience has taught us through the ages that the mere existence of a law is not sufficient to preclude the breaking of it, we have nevertheless tended to cherish the role of the law in teaching virtue and restraining vice.

Certain laws have served as a standard to which we might aspire, and the fear of punishment for transgressions against the law has served as a deterrent for many who might be wavering in their resolve.

For decades, this approach had not been a problem. In more recent times, however, in the words of Archbishop Gordon, “hedonism and materialism have become the national value system”. And with the advance of demands for previously inconceivable “rights”, the idea that “one cannot legislate morality” has taken hold in such a way as to embolden calls for the decriminalisation of actions deemed by some to fall within the realm of “personal choice”.

We refer here specifically to the current challenges to the laws relating to abortion and buggery, laws that can be traced to the Biblical commands, “Thou shalt not kill”, and “Thou shalt not commit adultery”.

It should be noted that the relevant laws are not generally being enforced, except in conjunction with other infractions. This fact alone teaches us primarily that it is perfectly alright to break laws that we find inconvenient. On the other hand, experience has also taught us that outlawing certain activities simply does not work.

Several years ago, Fr George Pritchett, one of the founders of the Emmanuel Community, shared some reflections on this issue in an article to the Catholic News (‘Education, Exhortation and Moral Suasion’, March 15, 2012).

He pointed out then that according to Fr James M Gillis (1876–1957), founder of the Paulists, the passage of the Prohibition Law was “a psychological blunder, and a moral calamity”.

The Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal William Henry O’Connell (1859–1944), also said in relation to the Prohibition: “Compulsory prohibition, in general is flatly opposed to Holy Scripture and Catholic Tradition”.

What then is our recourse? Fr George continued, “He (Fr Gillis) gave an alternative to the law: We must come back to the original and only true plan for improving the world—education, exhortation, moral suasion. … It does, perhaps, seem ridiculous to attempt the moral and spiritual regeneration of mankind by the infinitely tedious method of addressing the individual, converting him, and keep him right. But that was the method of Christ. “Preach to every creature,” was His commission to the Apostles. Only when the individual is convinced, can you be sure of his conversion…

Fr George concluded: “We all need to take seriously the task that the Lord has given to us. We prepare ourselves for the Church’s mission by receiving education, exhortation and moral suasion.”

We pose again his closing remark: “We need to become a ‘purer and more committed remnant.’ We must prepare. Will we?”