Before we understand the purpose of our law, we should ask, “What does it mean to be free?” Is it simply the ability to choose whatever we want to do even if what we want is not morally sound? St. John Paul II would say that such permissiveness would actually destroy our freedom because sin actually enslaves us. It is with this in mind that St. John Paul states, “True Freedom is liberation not from external ‘constraint’ that calls me to good, but from the internal constraint that hinders my choice of the good.”
Sin is selfishness and breeds more selfishness. Because of this, sin will cause one to turn more and more in on one’s self, perniciously hardening the heart, making it unable for us to turn to others in true charity. In this way those who choose sin, even in the name of the freedom of choice, will restrict themselves from eventually desiring the good. Furthermore, it will be impossible for them to think of anyone but themselves as they will be locked in a cage of egoism and self idolatry, only helping others if it somehow serves themselves.
Good sound moral laws are meant to lead people away from sin toward the good so that they can continue to desire true good. The ultimate goal of course is that these boundaries set up for this purpose are not truly needed as all citizens living in grace desire only to love and serve others, never hurting. This is like driving a car through the mountains where a guard rail protects the cars from going off a cliff. The driver does not want to get close to the rail, let alone crash into it. However, concupiscence does exist so the rails are up to protect us from falling off a cliff.
In the realm of politics we see that just laws can protect people under a democratic government from tyranny and oppression. In imitation of St. Thomas Aquinas, I would like to go to Aristotle who, around three hundred fifty years before Jesus, wrote:
“When states are democratically governed according to law, there are no demagogues, and the best citizens are securely in the saddle; but where the laws are not sovereign, there you find demagogues. The people become a monarch… such people, in its role as a monarch, not being controlled by law, aims at sole power and becomes like a master.” (Aristotle)
A demagogue is one who gains power by appealing to what is popular or emotionally conducive, but we can analogize this as a deterrent from establishing laws based merely on emotions and what is fashionable at the time. Just like a house built on sand, any system of government, whether set over a country, a household, or place of business, will eventually break down and fall if it is based on something as fleeting as emotional desires and trends, both of which themselves never last. A governing body would best serve the people if it is based on reason and logic and setting the governed on a trajectory toward achieving what is truly good.
Furthermore, in a nation where good laws based on reason and logic are not set to lead citizens to good, sin will fill the void. People have disordered passions and sometimes we are going to want what is bad for us. The law, and punishment for breaking it, should dissuade us from giving in to those desires. If laws like that don’t exist, the popular opinions fueled by disordered desires will become the new tyrant and instead of having just laws, the nation will have bad laws leading the people away from what is good for them.
Consequently, when sin is what is found through these bad laws and committed over and over again, reason and perception are clouded. Sin makes it more and more difficult to choose the good and so it is harder to choose the best citizens to be placed in the saddle. Thus, a vicious cycle is perpetuated in laws leading away from good and bad leaders elected to steer the nation to dissipation and ruin.
We have seen this in our own day with what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism.” We have seen our culture slowly accept what is contrary to truth, goodness, and justice more and more. After the acceptance of sin became normalized, we have seen more sin pushed on us. More voices are calling out, “Well if that’s okay, then this is too!”
Accepting sin in this way will only lead to suffering and despair. Brief glimpses of pseudo happiness might be seen, but it is only a matter of time before the darkness of dissatisfaction, anger, and sadness take over. We are made good for the good, so when we live for what is bad, we destroy ourselves.
This is why God gave us His Law, to help lead us to the good. Even more, He gave us His grace to help us accomplish His Law. God is not a tyrant who merely wants to control us. He is a Good Creator who desires to show us what we are created for, so we can choose it and He can help us achieve it.
He gave us free will so love, which can never be forced, can exist and then spelled out in His Law (i.e., the commandments and the Gospel) what to do so that love is realized in our lives. The ten commandments, summarized by Christ Himself as Love of God and Love of Neighbor, lead us to happiness, as do the Beatitudes. What better way to establish and govern a society than through Laws based on these?
For those persons (or governments) who have lost their way and have found and wallow in dissipation, Jesus gives hope. Particularly, He gives it with His parable of the Prodigal Son, the son who also set out on a similar course that brought him humiliation, sorrow, and dissatisfaction. God is a Good Father and He is not only waiting to accept those persons or governments who have lost their way, but deeply desires to help set them on a new path. One that leads to the Ultimate Good, to the Ultimate Satisfaction, and to the Ultimate Happiness.