Over 29 years ago, as I was finishing seminary and about to be ordained, my spiritual director at the time gave me some advice on seeking a new one in my diocese. “Look for someone who has suffered,” he said. At the time I wondered about this but have come to find that it was good advice.
If it is endured with faith, suffering brings profound wisdom. As much as I have hated any suffering I have endured in my life, I must admit it has brought gifts, though in strange packages. I discovered gifts and strengths I did not know I had. I experienced things I would have avoided. I learned to seek help rather than always trying to depend on myself. I became better equipped to help others in their struggles. Through suffering my faith grew as did my compassion and generosity for others who have struggled.
Scripture says, A broken humbled heart the Lord will not scorn (Ps 51). A few years ago, my spiritual director shared a strange saying with me: Everything needs a crack in it; that’s how the light gets in. Yes indeed, the light gets in through a broken heart, one with fissures or openings. Rarely does the light get in through a perfect wall, a strong barrier.
This is a painful truth to be sure, and it makes me want to run, but I have learned that it is so. God has done more with my brokenness than with my strength. In a paradoxical way, my brokenness has become my strength. Have you experienced this? Where would we be without our crosses and sufferings? What do we have of true value that has not come at the price of suffering?
Now let me get out of the way and let a Saint explain it. The following is from St. Rose of Lima, whose feast we celebrated yesterday. Here is an excerpt of what was in the breviary:
Our Lord and Savior lifted up his voice and said with incomparable majesty: “Let all men know that grace comes after tribulation. Let them know that without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace. Let them know that the gifts of grace increase as the struggles increase. Let men take care not to stray and be deceived. This is the only true stairway to paradise, and without the cross they can find no road to climb to heaven.”
When I heard these words, a strong force came upon me and seemed to place me in the middle of a street, so that I might say in a loud voice to people of every age, sex and status: “Hear, O people; hear, O nations. I am warning you about the commandment of Christ by using words that came from his own lips: We cannot obtain grace unless we suffer afflictions. We must heap trouble upon trouble to attain a deep participation in the divine nature, the glory of the sons of God and perfect happiness of soul.”
Suffer well, fellow Christians. Beg deliverance, but realize that even delaying our relief, God is up to something good.
This motet by William Byrd says, “O Lord, according the multitude of the miseries of my heart, your consolations have gladdened by soul.”
For those looking for the “Wuerl Record” webpage, we have taken it down. Our effort in posting it was not to minimize the information from the grand jury report, but to ensure that Cardinal Wuerl’s full record was treated fairly. I can certainly understand the criticism, so we have taken it down. Our taking down the site, similarly, isn’t an effort at not being transparent. We made a mistake; we’re acknowledging it. Moving forward, some of that information will be housed on our Media page.
We are in times of strident political protest that includes a lot of harsh language, personal attacks, name calling, and even debased and profane terms. There are tweets, and angry monologues, harsh commentary on news networks, and interruptive press conferences and news interviews that sound more like a brawl than a debate. To put it all more pleasantly, these are times of “colorful” discourse.
What is the overall teaching of Scripture when it comes to this sort of colorful language? Are there some limits and ground rules? Let’s take a look.
The word “civility”dates back to the mid-16th century and has an older meaning that referred to one who possessed the quality of having been schooled in the humanities. In academic settings, debate (at least historically) was governed by a tendency to be nuanced, careful, cautious, formal, and trained in rhetoric. Its rules often included referring to one’s opponents with honorary titles (Doctor, Professor, etc.) and euphemisms such as “my worthy opponent.” Hence as the word entered common usage, it has come to mean speech or behavior that is polite, courteous, gentle, and measured.
As one might guess, there are a lot of cultural variancesin what is civil. And this insight is very important when we look at the biblical data on what constituted civil discourse. Frankly, the biblical world was far less dainty about discourse than we have become in 21st-century America. The Scriptures, including the New Testament, are filled with vigorous discourse. Jesus, for example, really mixes it up with His opponents—even calling them names. We shall see more of this in a moment. But the Scriptures also counsel charity and warn of unnecessarily angry speech. In the end, a balance of the scriptural witness to civility must be sought along with an appreciation of the cultural variables at work.
Let’s examine a few of the texts that counsel charityas well as a modern and American notion of civility:
Anyone who says to his brother, “Raqa” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell(Matt 5:22).
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen(Eph 4:29).
Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged(Col 3:21).
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be (James 3:9-10).
Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry(James 1:19).
Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt(Col 4:6).
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up(1 Thess 5:11).
But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips(Col 3:8).
Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips(Eccl 10:12).
The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools(Eccles 9:17).
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification(Rom 14:19).
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother(Gal 6:1).
Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort [the repentant sinner], so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow(2 Cor 2:7).
All these texts counsel a measured, charitable, and edifying discourse. Name-calling and hateful or unnecessary expressions of anger are out of place. And this is a strong biblical tradition, especially in the New Testament.
But there are also strong contrasts to this instruction evident in the Bible. And a lot of it comes from an unlikely source: Jesus. Paul too, who wrote many of the counsels above, often engages in strident denunciations of his opponents and even members of the early Church. Consider some of the passages below, first by Jesus, then by Paul and other Apostles:
Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?”(Matthew 12:34)
And Jesus turned on them and said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. “Woe to you, blind guides! … You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. … And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”(Matt 23 varia)
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. … He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:42-47).
Jesus said, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”(Mark 7:6).
And Jesus answered them, O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long must I tolerate you?(Mark 9:19)
Jesus said to the disciples, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11)
Jesus said to the crowd, “I do not acceptpraise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts”(Jn 5:41-42).
So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables(John 2:15).
Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!”(John 6:70)
Paul: O senseless Galatians, who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth … As for those circumcisers, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!(Galatians 3, 5)
Paul against the false apostles:And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Cor 11:11-14).
Paul on the Cretans:Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith(Titus 1:12-13).
Peter against dissenters:Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. … They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. … They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! … Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud”(2 Peter 2, varia).
Jude against dissenters:These dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings….these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; … These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. … These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage(Jude 1:varia).
Now most of the passages above would violate modern norms about civil discourse.Are they sinful? They are God’s word! And yet they seem rather shocking to modern ears. Imagine getting into your time machine and going to hear Jesus denounce the crowds and calling them children of the devil. It really blows a 21st-century mind!
I want to suggest to you that these sorts of quotes go a long way toward illustrating the cultural dimension of what it means to be civil.The bottom line is that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures there is a greater tolerance for anger. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive debate are common. But in the upper-Midwest and parts of the Deep South, conversation is more gentle and reserved.
At the time of Jesus, angry discourse was apparently more “normal,”for as we see, Jesus Himself engages in a lot of it, even calling people names like “hypocrites,” “brood of vipers,” “liars,” and “wicked.” Yet the same Scriptures that record these facts about Jesus also teach that He never sinned. Hence at that time, the utterance of such terms was not considered sinful.
Careful, now—be careful here. This does not mean it is simply OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then; we live now; and in our culture such dialogue is seldom acceptable and often backfires. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity. Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard-to-define things is “I know it when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility. But clearly we tend to prefer gentler discourse in this day and age.
On the other hand, we also tend to be a little thin-skinnedand hyper-sensitive. And the paradoxical result of insisting on greater civility is that we are too easily “outraged” (one of the more overused words in English today). We take offense where none is intended and we presume that the mere act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful, or even hateful. We seem so easily provoked and so quick to be offended. All of this escalates anger further, and charges of hate and intolerance are launched back and forth when there is merely sincere disagreement.
Balance– The Scriptures give us two balanced reminders. First, that we should speak the truth in love, and with compassion and understanding. But it also portrays to us a time when people had thicker skin and were less sensitive and anxious in the presence of disagreement. We can learn from both biblical traditions. The biblical formula seems to be “clarity” with “charity,” the truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness. An old saying comes to mind: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”
Here is a video that depicts the zeal of Jesus and a bit of his anger.
At Mass for Wednesday of the 10th Week in Ordinary Time, we read a crucial question from Elijah. It came at a time of widespread apostasy among the Jewish people. Elijah summoned a multitude to Mt. Carmel in the far north of Israel:
Elijah appealed to all the people and said, “How long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.” The people, however, did not answer him (1 Kings 18:21).
The Baals were the gods of the Canaanites. It had become expedient and popular to worship them because the ruling political leaders, the apostate King Ahab and his wicked wife Jezebel, had set forth the worship of the Baals by erecting altars and sacred columns. All who wished their life to go well and to have access to the levers of prosperity were surely “encouraged” to comply. Jezebel funded hundreds of prophets of Baal and the goddess Asherah. She had many of the prophets of Israel killed and forced others into hiding. Through a policy of favoritism and fear, the true faith was suppressed, and false ideologies were promoted.
At this critical moment, Elijah asked his question. In effect he told them that they needed to decide whether to serve the Lord God out of courageous fidelity or the Baals out of cowardly fear.
We, too, must decide. In our times, the true faith has been undermined in the hearts of many by plausible liars, cultural war, and political correctness. Those who strive to hold to the true faith are called hateful, bigoted, and intolerant. A legal framework is growing that seeks to force compliance to the moral revolution and abandonment of the biblical worldview. Social pressures are at work as well, seeking to compel compliance through political correctness, through suppression of speech and ideas, and through the influence of music, cinema, and art.
The same question must be asked of us: How long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow him at any cost. If Baal is your god, follow him! If you prefer what is popular, politically correct, and safe, go for it; but understand that if you do so, your decision is increasingly for Baal, not the Lord. In a culture that insists you celebrate fornication, homosexual acts, transgenderism, abortion, euthanasia, and all sorts of intemperance, realize that your decision to comply amounts to a choice for Baal.
Some claim that they are not really making a fundamental choice against God and for the modern Baals. Rather, they prefer to think that they are being “tolerant,” that they are pleasant moderates seeking to “build bridges” and keep the faith “mainstream.”
The lines are starkly drawn. The choices required of us are clear. The ancient maxim has never been more true: tertium non datur (no third way is given). Jesus says, You cannot serve God and mammon (Mat 6:24). James adds, Adulterers! Do you not realize that a friendship with the world is enmity at God? (James 4:4) Elijah’s question cannot be watered down. There are two sides in the moral battle of our times: choose one.
The people of Elijah’s time did not want to answer. The text says that they just stood there silently. But a lack of response does not make the question or the choice go away. Prolonged silence to so fundamental a question becomes an answer in itself. Silence and fence-sitting are not valid answers when the lines are so clearly drawn.
Here is a warning to “fence-sitters” in the form of an old story:
A man once refused to take sides in the critical and disputed matters of his day, nobly declaring that he was tolerant of all views. Taking his seat on the fence he congratulated himself for his openness; others did too. One day the devil came and said to him, “Come along now, you’re with me.” The man protested, “I don’t belong to you. I’m on the fence!” The devil simply replied: “Oh, but you do belong to me. You see, I own the fence.”
“How long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.”
I was explaining to a new Catholic recently that the color purple (violet) used during Lent symbolizes its penitential quality. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fasting and abstinence, and all Fridays of Lent are days of abstinence. These remind us that during Lent we are to give special attention to our sins and our need for salvation.
Long gone are the days of a forty-day fast beginning on Ash Wednesday, but we still delight in the carnival of Fat Tuesday! Carnival literally means “farewell to meat” (carnis + vale)). Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) was so named because the last of the fat was to be used up before the fast began the next day.
The fasting and abstinence in those days were far more than the token observances common today. In most places, all animal products were strictly forbidden during the entirety of Lent. The rest of the details varied by region. While most areas permitted fish, others permitted fish and fowl. Some prohibited fruit and eggs. In some places (like monasteries) little more than bread was eaten. On Fridays during Lent, some areas observed a complete fast; in others believers ate only a single mean; in most places, however, the practice was to abstain from eating until evening, at which time a small meal without vegetables or alcohol was eaten.
Yes, those were the day of the giants — when fasting and abstinence were real sacrifices.
Our token fast on just two days during Lent really isn’t much of a fast at all: two small meals and one regular meal — is that even a fast at all? And we abstain from meat only on the Fridays of Lent instead of all forty days.
What is most remarkable to me is that the fasts of old were undertaken by men, women, and children who had a lot less to eat than we do. Not only was there less food, but it was far more seasonal and its supply less predictable. Further, famines and food shortages were more a fact of life than they are today. Yet despite all this people were able to fast and abstain for forty days. Further, there were ember days sporadically through the year, when a day-long fast was enjoined. And Advent back then had a more penitential nature than it does today.
Frankly, I doubt that we moderns could pull off the fast of the ancients or even the elders of more recent centuries. Can you imagine the bellyaching (pun intended) if we were obligated to follow the strict norms of even 100 or 200 years ago? I’m sure we would hear that such demands were “unrealistic” or even unhealthy.
Perhaps this is a good illustration of how our abundance enslaves us. The more we get the more we want; the more we want the more we think we can’t live without. We are so easily owned by what we claim to own. We are enslaved by our abundance and experience little freedom to go without.
I look back to the Catholics of 100 years ago and before and to me they seem like giants compared to us. They had so little compared to what we have yet they seem to have been so much freer. They could fast. Though poor, they built grand churches and had large families. They crowded into homes and lived and worked in conditions few of us would tolerate. Sacrifice seemed more “normal” to them. I have not read of any huge outcries from that time that the “mean, nasty Church” imposed fasting and abstinence during Lent and Advent. Nor have I read of complaints about the required fasting from midnight until receiving Holy Communion. Somehow, they accepted these sacrifices and for the most part were able to undertake them. They had a freedom that I think many of us lack.
Imagine the joy when, for a day, the fast was lifted: Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Gaudete Sunday, Feast of the Annunciation, St. Joseph’s Feast day, and Laetare Sunday. For us, the pink candle of Guadete Sunday just makes us wondering, “Rejoice? Over what?” For them these were literally “feast days.”
I admit I am a man of my time. The fasting and abstinence described above seems nearly “impossible” to me. I do undertake certain Lenten practices, but when I look back to these “giants” of old, my sacrifices feel pretty small.
The video below is a comedic depiction of our tendency to ignore things that we think don’t matter to us. If we aren’t careful we can live a self-centered life in which the sufferings of others are too remote; if it doesn’t affect us directly we are content to ignore it. Some have called this an “arousal gap.”
While we can’t carry everyone’s burdens and it’s impossible to be well-informed on every calamity in the world,
There should be no division in the body, but that its members should have mutual concern for one another. If one member suffers, every member suffers with it; if one member is honored, every member rejoices with it (1 Cor 12:25-25).
In the sketch below, a woman drives to work as the car radio broadcasts reports on one calamity after another, some of them of biblical proportions. Of course the over-the-top nature of the calamities is what makes for the comedy. The woman driving takes no notice of the disasters being described until one comparatively minor problem is announced that directly affects her. Suddenly she becomes agitated and begins to complain loudly.
The situation laid out in this sketch should lead us to ask ourselves a few questions:
What gets our attention?
What gets us worked up?
Are we as aware of the problems of others as we are of our own?
Are we concerned enough with the problems of others or do we just tune them out?
In the reading at daily Mass for Thursday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time, we encounter an envious Saul. Upon David’s return from slaying Goliath, the women sing a song praising him. Saul should rejoice with all Israel but instead he is resentful and envies David:
Saul was very angry and resentful of the song, for he thought, “They give David ten thousand, but only thousands to me. All that remains for him is the kingship.” And from that day on, Saul looked upon David with a glaring eye. Saul discussed his intention of killing David with his son Jonathan and with all his servants (1 Sam 18:6-9).
Saul’s reaction is way over the top; this is what envy does.
What is envy? Most people use the word today as a synonym for jealousy, but traditionally speaking, they are not the same.
When I am jealous of you, there is something good that you have or are, that I want to have for myself. Jealousy is sinful when one desires something inordinately or unreasonably.
In traditional theology, envy is quite different (cf Summa Thelogica II, IIae 36.1). Envy is sorrow, sadness, or anger at the goodness or excellence of someone else because I take it as lessening my own.
The key difference is that with envy (unlike with jealousy) one does not merely want to possess the good or excellence of another but rather to destroy it.
Notice in the reading above that Saul wants to kill David because he thinks that David’s excellence makes him look less excellent, less great. Saul should rejoice in David’s gifts, for they are gifts to all Israel. David is a fine soldier, which is a blessing to everyone. The proper response to David’s excellence should be to rejoice, to be thankful to God, and where possible, imitate David’s courage and excellence. Instead, Saul sulks. He sees David as stealing the limelight and possibly even the kingdom from him. Envy rears its ugly head when Saul concludes that David must die. The good that is in David must be destroyed.
Envy is diabolical. St. Augustine called envy the diabolical sin (De catechizandis rudibus 4,8:PL 40,315-316) because it seeks to minimize, end, or destroy what is good. Scripture says, By the envy of the Devil death entered the world (Wis 2:24). Seeing the excellence that Adam and Eve (made in the image of God) had and possibly knowing of plans for the incarnation, the Devil envied Adam and Eve. Their glory lessened his — or so he thought — and so he set out to destroy the goodness in them. Envy is ugly and diabolical.
The virtues that cancel envy: The proper response to observing goodness or excellence in others is joy and zeal. We should rejoice that they are blessed because when they are blessed, we are blessed. Further, we should respond with a zeal that seeks to imitate (where possible) their goodness or excellence. Perhaps we can learn from them or from their good example.
Envy is ugly, even when it masquerades as kindness and fairness. For example, the modern tendency to give everyone an award or to not keep score and instead say, “everyone is a winner,” may be rooted in subtle forms of envy cloaked in kindness. Such approaches diminish the truth that some are gifted, some are better than others in certain areas. I will not always be the best nor will I always be the winner. Rather than hide goodness and excellence, we should celebrate it. The proper response to excellence and goodness is joy and zeal.
Saul went to dark places because of his envy; we, too, must beware this deadly sin.
In the story Snow White, the wicked queen envied Snow White, who was “the fairest of them all.” Considering the young girl’s beauty as a threat, the evil queen cast a spell on her to remove her beauty. Envy consumed the evil queen and the satanic-like qualities of this scene well illustrate the darkness of this diabolical sin.
In the Gospels we are reading this week at daily Mass we see Jesus coming into conflict with the religious authorities of His day, who accuse Him of violating the law.
In Monday’s reading Jesus is accused of not following the fasting rules observed by the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist. Jesus rebuffs them by saying, in effect, that rejoicing with the Lord (the very giver of the law) is a weightier matter than the observance of fasting traditions (Mk 2:18ff).
In Tuesday’s reading Jesus is accused of permitting His disciples to violate Sabbath norms (by shelling grain as they walked along). The Lord rebuffs their argument by saying, in effect, that feeding the hungry is a weightier matter than observing a lesser Sabbath norm (Mk 2:23ff).
In Wednesday’s reading Jesus is once again accused of violating Sabbath laws by healing a man on the Sabbath. He rebuffs their claims by teaching that works of charity outweigh lesser Sabbath laws.
Perhaps a way of summarizing Jesus’ replies is in the old Latin expression Caritas suprema lex (Charity is the highest law). In other words, laws are meant to regulate our relationships with God and with others. The law is for something and someone, not merely against things.
Indeed, our relationship with God’s law is complex; often we don’t get it right. When it comes to God’s law we cannot forget that it is personal. That is, it is given to us by a loving God who wants to save us. Therefore, it is important to know both the law and the lawgiver, who is God.
In the Deuteronomiccode, each law is often followed by this phrase: “I am the Lord.” It is as if the Lord is saying, “This is God talking, the God who saved you, the God who parted the Red Sea for you, the God who led you through the desert and into the Promised Land. I, the one who loves you, am telling you this.” The old rabbis put it this way: When God added to the law the phrase “I am the Lord,” He was saying, “Look, I am the one who fished you out of the mud. Now come over here and listen to me.”
So the law is personal and we must strive to know both the law and the lawgiver. Two errors are to be avoided when it comes to the law:
The first error that we can make is that of “legalism,” which elevates the law to the point of idolatry, such that one is kept “safe” by the law rather than by a saving relationship with God, the lawgiver. In such a system there is little room for understanding the Lord’s intent.
There is also a failure to grasp the often general nature of God’s law, which covers common circumstances but does not address every specific situation perfectly. For example, the obligation to attend Mass is usually binding, but illness or the need to care for the ill can be a valid excuse.
The second error we can make is at the other end of the spectrum: assuming a kind of carte blanche based on the claim that “God is love” and doesn’t really care if we follow the moral law. Never mind that God Himself gave us the moral law. Making this error, some claim that God doesn’t care if they skip Mass, live with their girlfriend, etc. He doesn’t care about that sort of thing because He is a loving God, affirming and merciful, a God who is not uptight the way the Church is. A person with such an attitude dismisses large parts of the moral law based on his own authority and the exaggerated notion that he knows what God wants better than even God’s very own revealed word. Such a person claims that a loving and kind God wouldn’t ask difficult things or rebuke sin. Such a notion confuses true love with mere kindness. While kindness is an aspect of love, so are challenge, rebuke, and even punishment.
Neither error will do. The key is to find a balance such that both the law and the lawgiver are properly respected.
As usual, St. Thomas Aquinas provides great insight. While the context of his remarks is the arena of civil law, the principles he sets forth are applicable to divine and ecclesial law as well. He takes up the question of law and the lawgiver in his Summa Theologica.
St. Thomas considers whether one who is under a law may act apart from the letter of the law.
He answers with a qualified yes and, as always, provides important distinctions and premises. He begins with a helpful quote from St. Hilary of Poitiers, who noted that the limits of written law are subject to the limits of all speech, including in its written form:
Hilary says (De Trin. iv): “The meaning of what is said is according to the motive for saying it: because things are not subject to speech, but speech to things.” Therefore, we should take account of the motive of the lawgiver, rather than [merely] of his very words (Summa Theologica I, IIae, Q 96, art. 6, Sed contra).
St. Thomas goes on to note that laws are intended for the common good and speak to the general or common situations, but we must take into consideration that no lawgiver can envision every possible circumstance.
Now it happens often that the observance of some point of law conduces to the common weal in the majority of instances, and yet, in some cases, is very hurtful. Since then the lawgiver cannot have in view every single case, he shapes the law according to what happens most frequently, by directing his attention to the common good. Wherefore if a case arises wherein the observance of that law would be hurtful to the general welfare, it should not be observed (Ibid, respondeo).
St. Thomas presents the following example:
For instance, suppose that in a besieged city it be an established law that the gates of the city are to be kept closed, this is good for public welfare as a general rule: but, it were to happen that the enemy are in pursuit of certain citizens, who are defenders of the city, it would be a great loss to the city, if the gates were not opened to them: and so in that case the gates ought to be opened, contrary to the letter of the law, in order to maintain the common weal, which the lawgiver had in view.
I’m sure we can all think of more modern examples such as breaking the speed limit to rush someone to the hospital, or jaywalking in order to help someone in trouble. Charity is the highest law and saving life is more important than observing laws that are merely cautionary.
St. Thomas next notes the important point that it is only in urgent cases that the law may be set aside without consultation with lawful authority:
Nevertheless, it must be noted, that if the observance of the law according to the letter does not involve any sudden risk needing instant remedy, it is not competent for everyone to expound what is useful and what is not useful to the state: those alone can do this who are in authority, and who, on account of such like cases, have the power to dispense from the laws.
If, however, the peril be so sudden as not to allow of the delay involved by referring the matter to authority, the mere necessity brings with it a dispensation, since necessity knows no law.
Thus urgency and necessity permit quick dispensations of the law, whereas ordinary situations require us to consult and defer to those to whom jurisprudence and legislation are consigned.
Again, St. Thomas is referring here to what is essentially civil law, but if these truths and distinctions apply to civil law with all its imperfections, how much more so to God’s law! If civil law ought not to be casually set aside without consultation and deference to proper authority, how much more so God’s law.
God has set forth a lawful authority in the Magisterium of the Church, to ponder His revealed law and teachings and to interpret them properly and authoritatively. He has also given the Church the power to bind and loose. What Thomas says regarding civil law (it is not competent for everyone to expound what is useful and what is not useful … those alone can do this who are in authority, and who, on account of such like cases, have the power to dispense from the laws) is also the case with respect to God’s law and Church law. No Catholic (except in urgent moments of grave necessity) should dispense with the moral law on his own. No one is a judge in his own case.
That said, even God’s law needs proper application to particular circumstances. St. Thomas (quoting St. Hilary) noted the following:
The meaning of what is said is according to the motive for saying it, because things are not subject to speech, but speech to things. Therefore, we should take account of the motive of the lawgiver, rather than [merely] of his very words. He also commented, then the lawgiver cannot have in view every single case, he shapes the law according to what happens most frequently, by directing his attention to the common good.
Therefore, the Lord left His Church to apply His word to particular circumstances. Without the remembrance that even God’s law speaks to the general and not to every specific case, the written law, univocally read without any reference to God’s overall will, could be reduced to obtuse absurdities and a hurtful legalism.
So law—especially God’s law—is essential and it usually applies, but there are exceptional circumstances; many laws can and do admit of certain exceptions. St. Thomas traces out for us a good balance to seek between legalism and a sort of autonomy that claims the personal right to be dismissive of the law as one sees fit. Many in the modern world get this balance wrong.
Here is a song that reflects the immature, rebellious attitude toward the law that is common today: