Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Hidden Law, Society and Catholic Teaching

(An earlier version of this post first appeared in March 2014. Please visit the linkup for Worth Revisiting Wednesdayhosted by Elizabeth Reardon at, and Allison Gingras at

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure . . . 

Bl. Mother Theresa of Calcutta and St. John Paul II
     I’ve heard it said that once you need to pass a law prohibiting something, it’s too late.  In other words, it is better if less formal, more personal factors like family, religion, custom, etc. prepare people to want to do the right thing beforehand, rather than having the state or some other external authority come in to clean up the mess afterwards.  
     This seems to be the thesis of a discussion by columnist Jonah Goldberg about (among other things) what he refers to as “Hidden Law” [link].   He describes it as the intricate complex of customs, attitudes, prohibitions, licenses, etc., that arise from culture, family, and shared experience that shape, and are shaped by,  the vast majority of our interactions with each other.   It is not imposed (directly, anyway) by any official authority, particularly not the state, and is far more effective than any formal laws or statutes for maintaining an orderly and prosperous society.  Leftists are particularly prone to deny or try to override this law, but such recklessness is by no means limited to the left.  Goldberg is arguing (as I have in other places, here for instance, albeit using different language) that we disregard this Hidden Law at our peril.

The Dignity of the Human Person

    Jonah Goldberg is a secular commentator, and I do not share all his views or concerns.  I take serious issue in particular with a passage he quotes from Jonathan Rauch that uses assisted suicide as an example; I may be naïve, but I’m not convinced that there was a long tradition of doctors “helping people to die”, at least not in the sense he seems to mean.  Also there is a huge (decisive, in fact) difference between letting someone die and causing them to die (and let me add that letting them die by withholding food and water is in fact causing them to die). 
     Having said that, it’s very helpful to understand, in a particular way for Catholics, this idea of the Hidden Law.  It illuminates not only much of Catholic teaching, but also helps us to understand some important ways in which God interacts with His creation.  The concept of the Dignity of the Human Person, for instance, is inseparable from our gift of Free Will, and from our right to exercise it within appropriate bounds, which we see formulated in the importance of Conscience, in the Principle of Subsidiarity, the right to form associations such as labor unions and fraternal groups, and so on [link].  We can see that the Church has long recognized in the working out of all sorts of individual human decisions something very similar to what Goldberg means by Hidden Law (with the important addition, in the Catholic understanding, of the importance of God’s Grace).

"The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27)

     One thing that comes through, both in Catholic teaching and the secular understanding of this unwritten law, is an emphasis on human individuals, not on things, institutions, or programs; it relies on people, properly prepared to conduct their own lives and to order their relations with each other.  I see a correspondence in the way God is revealed both in Sacred Scripture and in His Church.  God always seems to act through individual people, doing their human best (in most cases) under His guidance. In fact, he Bible is all about people, that is, individual persons, starting with Adam and Eve, through Noah, Abraham and the other Patriarchs, David and the other kings, Elijah and the prophets up through the God-Man himself, Jesus, with whom we are explicitly called to have a personal relationship.  Jesus (born of a woman, Mary) chooses to act through his Apostles, whose names are all carefully preserved, and whose authority has been personally handed on to their successors, the Bishops.  A constant feature of the formal passing on of authority from the earliest days has been the laying on of hands, one man physically touching another.  Furthermore, a very large part of Catholic practice has always been the Cult of the Saints, whose individual lives are held up for emulation and who are called upon, individually and by name, to intercede for us with the Father.  It amazes me how many people I know personally who have met Saint John Paul II or Blessed Mother Theresa (very often they have met both), and this in a church of one billion people.  Isn’t it interesting that the Catholic Church, probably both the largest and oldest existing Institution in the world, depends so much, and focuses so much, on individual human beings?
     It’s for this reason that I have become increasingly distrustful of a reliance on programs and structures, and of those who put their faith in man-made solutions rather than the action of God’s Grace working  through those who love him.  There is certainly a place for such things, but in a supporting role, not a leading one.  Jesus says: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27).  If it's true that it's an inversion of right order to give a Divine Institution such as the Sabbath precedence over people, how much more so it must be of merely human institutions.