A few years ago I was invited to a conference on law and religion at St. John’s. One of the highlights of the conference for me was a dinner with Mark Movsesian and Perry Dane. Mark has expertise in the role of law in the Islamic tradition and Christianity; Perry in Judaism. I was raised as a Catholic, albeit bereft of expertise. During the dinner, Mark and Perry argued that the law played a stronger role in Islam and Judaism than it does in Catholicism. I fought them off, arguing that this argument downplays the role of canon law, the myriad classifications of what to do and what not to do, the determinations of what was a venial or mortal sin, and the theorizing of what was an appropriate penalty. What can I say? Perry and Mark showed me that the aspects of human activity regulated by Catholicism were dwarfed by the aspects of human activity covered by Islam and Judaism. And another speaker at the conference gave a paper emphasizing the centrality of interpreting Jewish law to the Judaic tradition.
On reflection, I wish I had asked Perry and Mark about natural law in the Islamic and Judaic traditions because law plays a more central role in traditional Catholic philosophy than I appreciated at the time even though it does not end up in precisely regulating human life as pervasively as the other two traditions. As James Gustafson explains in his outstanding book, Protestant and Roman Catholic Ethics, according to the Catholic perspective, “the moral law was grounded in creation, and thus was a gift of grace. The moral law in nature participates in the eternal law in the mind of God. The civil law and the customary law participated in the natural law. The revealed moral law in scripture was a clear expression of the natural law; it did not establish a different morality. The ‘new law,’ the law of the Gospel is preponderantly ‘the grace of the Holy Ghost, which is given through faith in Christ’; it is primarily an inscription in the heart and only secondarily a written law.” Id. at 13. I assume from what Perry and Mark said at dinner that this last point marks out a profound difference in the conception of law of the different traditions, but I wonder if it can be said that law however differently understood plays a central role in the three traditions.