On the Law
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time - Cycle B
I've always had a strong sense of justice, but I never had any fondness for excessive rules and regulations. So, as a deacon when I was trained in Canon Law, I was surprised by my attraction to the Law of the Church. Rather than simply a set of rules and regulations, what I found was a systematic approach to 'Applied Theology' whose laws exemplify God's Mercy.
In all legal systems there are two types of laws: laws that grant privileges and laws that impose restrictions. Laws that grant privileges are interpreted widely, applying to the widest possible audience. Thus a person entitled to a privilege cannot be prohibited by a mere technicality.
One of the greatest privileges we are granted is our freedom. This is a fundamental and essential component of Divine Law - starkly opposed to many civil laws that intrude on our lives and seek to imprison us under the rule of power.
Under Canon Law, as Catholics, we have the right to marry, the right to a good reputation, the right to receive the Sacraments, and many other privileges. The first three of the Ten Commandments describes a right relationship with God: to worship God alone, to honor the Sabbath, and to honor our parents who gave us life.
Laws that impose restrictions are interpreted narrowly. Every requirement, every detail, of the law must be met in order for the restriction to apply. The last seven Commandments are examples of restrictions. However, even these reflect God's Mercy. They provide for an orderly society, protect our souls, help keep us in a state of grace, and maintain our communion with God.
The Law of the Church is based on moral principles. Likewise, systems of civil law are normally founded on basic moral precepts. Our own democracy, for example, was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. But over time, many legal systems lose their moral basis, and instead, reflect personal preferences and the influence of power politics. In the Scriptures, this was Jesus' objection with the Jewish authorities, who manipulated the law to take advantage of the poor and powerless.
For Jews, there were 613 commandments, not ten: hence the discussion in today's gospel on their relative priority. Jesus tells us that the entirety of the law can be summed up into two commandments: love of God and love of neighbor. And then, a scribe, thought by many to be Joseph of Aramethea, speaks with such humility, sincerity, and understanding, that Jesus says to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." 1
According to a Gallop poll, in the 1950's seventy-five percent of Catholics regularly attended Sunday Mass. Today, only about 45 percent regularly attend Sunday Mass. Other polls, such as the Pew Research Poll, rate regular mass attendance as low as 22 percent.
So, what happened between then and now that caused this decline? There are many factors: the drug culture, the feminist movement, the sexual revolution, the popularity of birth control, the availability of abortion, a decline in the number of marriages, and the promotion of sexuality, without commitment or responsibility, in entertainment, in music, and in the media are just a few.
Given these societal changes, coupled with the Church's continuing stand against contraceptives and sex and cohabitation outside of marriage, it is not surprising that over the last seven decades many Catholics have taken issue with the teachings of the Church, expressed a general disdain for religion, and become cafeteria Catholics or abandoned the faith completely.
Many of those, who have abandoned the Church, claim that the Church has no business in the bedroom. But, in reality, if God is excluded from one part of our lives, it's only a matter of time before God is excluded from all parts of our lives. Instead of seeing God's protective hand in His laws, they see the Church as a threat to their freedom. They act on impulse and personal appetites. But, the true threat is their own deafness to enlightenment, which leads to their own moral impropriety.
Throughout the centuries, there has been no greater defender of individual freedom than the Catholic Church, but it takes an enlightened soul to see this reality. Wittingly, or unwittingly, these souls have have adopted the values of society, put their salvation in peril, and separated themselves from the Kingdom of God.
So, my question for today, especially for those who object to a particular teaching, or to the authority of the Church in general, is this: “What do the laws of the Church mean to you?” Are they a code of restrictions? Or, are they the pathway to freedom? Are they an imposition on your lifestyle? Or, are they the pathway to God's Love and Mercy?
However you view the Church and Moral Law, be sure of this: there is no middle ground. We take our stand, on one side or another, in all that we say or fail to say; in all that we do or fail to do. We cannot claim to follow our Lord and disobey His commandments or abandon His Church. We cannot claim His Love and Protection, and oppose His Will. We cannot speak with understanding if we refuse to form our conscience and seek spiritual enlightenment.
Jesus said, “I love you just as the Father loves Me; remain in My love. If you obey My commands, you will remain in My love, just as I have obeyed My Father’s commands and remain in His love.“ 2
And in the Gospel we read, “And when Jesus saw that [the scribe] answered with understanding, He said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." 3
So, what do the laws of the Church mean to you? The Psalmist said, “[Lord] I love Your commands“ 1 Can you pray this Psalm whole-heartedly? Are you willing to examine your soul, enlighten your mind, and form your conscience in the decrees the Lord has given us? And if not, why not?