When the Law Falls Short

Matthew Brower - Law


Since I entered the legal profession I have often recalled simple but wise words shared by a professor during a first year course. I remember him telling our class filled with bright-eyed aspiring attorneys to never forget that “the law is a blunt instrument.” Of all I learned during law school, these words, more than anything else stuck with me and I have found them to ring true throughout my years of practice. This has proved to be particularly true recently as various issues of great social import have risen to the fore with persons on various sides of the issues calling for legislative or judicial action of one form or another. The HHS mandate, economic policy and care for the poor, same-sex “marriage,” euthanasia, etc., the list goes on and on and the sense I have is that Catholics and others who seek to approach these matters from a traditional natural law perspective are slowly losing the battle in the arena of positive law.

Although this is cause for alarm it also serves as a reminder that these matters are not best and most thoroughly addressed by way of legislative response or judicial process. As essential as the positive law is to the protection and advancement of a just society, it ought not be our starting point and, standing alone, is insufficient. It is the culture we must seek to transform and doing so requires tools far more precise than the blunt instruments of law.

Too often in recent years we, as a Church, when faced with seismic moral shifts in the legal landscape, have drawn our line in the sand far too close to the precipice waiting too long to rouse the troops and catechize even our own. The accepted morality of a culture is similar to a moving object; it, too, enjoys the force of momentum. Just as it is impossible to stop a moving car instantly by applying the brakes so too it is impossible to expect that by virtue of votes and carefully crafted legal arguments we can stand in the breach and maintain, let alone advance, a just and moral society. Such battles must be fought well in advance or cultural momentum will simply carry us over the cliff.

Without question, working to promote a just society through advocacy and participation in the legislative and judicial process is both necessary and efficacious. For example, the Church and countless individuals, both Catholic and non-Catholic, have done great work in bringing about meaningful legal change on the issue of abortion. This work must and will continue. However, the future success of such work depends, in part, on our unceasing efforts to infuse society with the truth that is the person of Jesus Christ, not only reflected in our laws but woven into the very fabric of our culture. The positive law, while it serves to shape a culture is more a reflection of the culture within which it functions.

Transforming the culture requires that we work to ensure that our laws serve the common good, but more foundationally it demands that we fulfill our baptismal call to evangelize. In order to effectively bring the message of Christ to the world and serve as that essential “leaven” as called for in Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), we must first commit ourselves to growing in faith and understanding for we cannot share what we do not possess. However, whatever our level of understanding or station in life make no mistake, we are ALL called by virtue of our baptism to share in some manner in the Church’s mission to evangelize.

I think it’s safe to say that for most of us evangelization begins in the home as we share the faith with our family members and commit ourselves to forming our children in the faith, recognizing that as parents we are the ones first and primarily charged with this sacred duty. Recall the Lord’s words to the Israelites in speaking the Great Commandment, “Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children.  Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).

For most of us, such a responsibility is daunting enough when we consider as our audience immediate family and fellow church members. The thought of extending our reach beyond into our social circles and workplace can be downright terrifying. And have no doubt, Satan desires that we convince ourselves to be incapable and poorly equipped to evangelize. We need to remember our confidence lies not in ourselves and our perceived abilities but in Christ himself and scripture is full of examples: Moses, Jeremiah, St. Peter, St. Paul, etc. What God promises us is not some magic formula or gifts beyond our capacity but simply the grace necessary to fulfill our baptismal promises. Remember, each one of us promises we will take our faith into the world and allow it to breathe life into a sinful world that left to itself withers and dies. We reiterate this promise every time we pray the Creed, receive the sacraments, and humbly proclaim ourselves “Catholic.”

If we are to effectively spread the “good news” we must learn to communicate with our increasingly secular culture through use of a shared (or at least understandable) language. I suspect that effective evangelization often calls us to use the language of reason rather than the language of religion. We know “truth” is in fact not simply a concept or set of intellectual propositions to which we assent. Truth is a person—Jesus Christ. When spreading the gospel message we should consider whether or not it might be prudent to allow the hearer to know the person of Christ before learning His name.

However, it would be seriously naïve and dangerous to think that simply through well articulated reasoned arguments alone we can transform the culture and weave into the fabric of our society the truth that is Jesus Christ. For example, despite the light of reason and the Church’s great efforts to foster a legal foundation which reflects a traditional and natural definition of marriage, those who seek to redefine this most basic and ancient institution appear to be gradually prevailing. This isn’t because the Church doesn’t have the better argument. We know that sin causes a dulling of the intellect so that, to some extent, even the light of reason, bright as it is, can at times be choked out by sin to the point where even the self-evident is rejected and the cloud of sin blots out the light of reason and rational thought.

Nevertheless, there is hope and cause for joy.

Evangelization calls for first and foremost the witness of a lived faith.  A life that reflects the theological virtues can, by God’s grace, create a crease through which the light of Christ can begin to seep in and slowly dispel the darkness. One living in such a way is attractive. There is a reason Tertullian wrote that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” (Apologeticus, Chapter 50). Words spoken by such a person carry weight and point to something (someone) beyond the mere words. Some will listen and believe while others will not, but seeds are planted and they will eventually bear fruit.

This provides us great reason for hope. Although we witness cultural decline and see our society slowly slipping further into the abyss of a godless secularism where autonomy and relativism are worshipped and revered as the greatest goods, the fact our laws may increasingly reflect the darkness does not render us powerless. We will continue to fight the good fight on the legal and public policy front but we will not be deterred when the blunt instrument of law fails to promote the common good. We will instead remove the bushel basket from the light of Christ we each bear and carry that light into a dark world relying on the precision of the Word of God which, as scripture reminds us, is “living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). Then, by God’s grace, we will enjoy a world that more perfectly reflects the justice and mercy of the world yet to come.

© 2013. Matthew Brower. All Rights Reserved.


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5 thoughts on “When the Law Falls Short”

  1. Pingback: Conflicted about Fasting and Abstinence - Big Pulpit

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