Letter of the Law and Spirit of the Law?


What is the difference between the letter of the law and spirit of the law? Is it better to follow the letter or the spirit of a law?


What context is this in? Both are bad at times. People who follow the letter of a law are often looking for loopholes and trying to go against what the lawmaker actually meant by the law. Following the spirit of the law…well…the spirit of Vatican II comes to mind.


Vatican II was needed.


I take the letter of the law as the basic guideline that we should live by. But this guideline can become rigid and lifeless, even cruel, when the spirit of the law is forgotten. One example that comes to mind, and is obviously difficult for people to take, could be how we deal with mothers who kill their infants due to postpartum depression.

Obviously the Commandments and the secular law tell us that this is wrong, immoral and warrants punishment. People are horrified by the killing of a child by the mother. But, when a woman is suffering from postpartum depression she can become delusional, actually unaware of what she is doing, hallucinate, hear voices and believe that her infant/child is a rat, possessed or evil.

In a case like this one could find true medical reason to declare the mother temporarily insane and not responsible for her actions. Rather than put her in jail, she needs to be hospitalized and treated medically. But we have a greater tendency to just go by the letter of the law and lock her up as if it was a premeditated event.

In some European countries mothers who are going home with new infants have daily visits from nurses, specifically trained to recognize possible issues with postpartum depression, they also are treated for the disorder, and in the awful event they do harm or kill a child while so affected, they are not put in jail, but are hospitalized and treated.

The letter of the law tells us it is wrong to kill, the spirit of the law, I believe, allows for deeper understanding of the law and its general intent to protect people from wrong doing. I think the spirit of the law is what allows for changes in the law and tempers the tendency to become vindictive. If truly understand it also prevents the law being used to oppress the people for the benefit of a few.


Often some will seek to disregard say moral teachings by claiming they are still following “spirit of the law” …

Not the way to go.


It really depends on what triggered your question. The general answer is to follow the letter of the law, since they are usually clear enough.

But take traffic laws like coming to a complete stop at a stop sign. Say I am approaching one and in the intersection there is an unconscious man lying there and an unattended tractor mower is barreling down towards him, I would run the stop sign and interpose my vehicle. The law is not about this situation and any city official would do the same as I.

But you can’t go with that laws are meant to honor God or to make us happy or whatever and so you can disobey Church moral teaching because you are better honoring God or making yourself truly happy, etc.


Jesus reprimanded the Pharasees for giving greater attention to the letter of the law, than to the spirit of the law. They loaded the people with many laws regarding the washing of hands, and external ritual and leaving the more serious matters of the law like acting honestly instead of hypocritically. They covered up their immorality with external ritual and ignoring the more important moral conduct.
We have our civil laws and we can’t always abide by them due to unforseen circumstances. We may have to break a civil law to get someone to the hospital, so we speed, and do our best to avoid endangering traffic, or people (abiding by the spirit of the law.)

Of course all legitimate authority comes from above, but all civil laws are not perfect, so we abide by the general principles that govern the law, well being of people eg. and abide by that spirit not necessarily the letter of the law. We have to discern the situation

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