In truth, there are not that many rules at all in the Church, when we consider that we are a society of over a billion members globally, with a history…
In truth, there are not that many rules at all in the Church, when we consider that we are a society of over a billion members globally, with a history spanning several thousand years (if we include our pre-Christian biblical roots and traditions).
In a sense, the question is like asking why a car’s GPS system keeps telling the driver when to turn right or left: Is it providing guidance or giving a rule?
Pope John Paul II reminded us when he promulgated the Church’s current Code of Canon Law in 1983 that the Old and New Testaments form the first source of law for the Church. Turning first to the Bible, then, let’s consider what St. Paul taught about living the message of Jesus.
In the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul takes the first 11 chapters to present a well-developed theology of grace and redemption, culminating in the gift of salvation that is ours in Christ Jesus, through the mercy of our heavenly Father. Then, Paul presents a challenge: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2). The challenge is to allow our faith to change our behavior: since God has done so much for us, we should respond by conforming our behaviors to the higher standard of God’s grace.
Mercy and Grace
If we understand the depths of God’s mercy and grace, we cannot but be compelled to examine our behaviors in response. In other words, we can’t go on living as unbelievers. However, this change in our external behavior arises from within, a grateful response to all that God has done and continues to do for us. It is a change motivated by loving God and understanding His loving will for our lives. It is not a change mandated by law, but by love.
This was also the message of Pope John Paul in giving us the current Code of Canon Law. “The Code is in no way intended as a substitute for faith, grace, charisms and especially charity in the life of the Church and of the faithful,” he said.
Jesus commissioned the Church to go into the world and teach, not to legislate. For all of the Christian centuries, that is what the Church has done. The teaching of the Church, flowing from Divine Revelation in the Bible and through the Holy Spirit in the tradition of the Church, leads to the development of doctrine and dogma.
At the same time, as the Church has grown and encountered new questions, it has dealt with questions of Church organization and discipline. This led to the development of law in the Church. We call this canon law, from the Greek word for a measuring rod. Canon law is always a servant of theology, however, and as the final canon of the Code of Canon Law reminds us, the salvation of souls is the supreme law of the Church.
Doctrine and Law
There is a difference between doctrine and law. They call for two different responses. In the end, though, they should both have an influence on how we live our lives.
Doctrine, or Church teaching, helps us understand the meaning of the Gospel and the action of God in our daily lives. Doctrine may be purely theological — that is, focused on the mysteries of God such as the Divine Trinity, or the nature of Christ (Christology), or Divine Revelation. Doctrine may also deal with the practical application of the Gospel to daily life, as in moral theology, or the social doctrine of the Church. It may deal with the nexus between God and humanity, as in sacramental theology, or divine worship, or the nature of the Church (ecclesiology).
The Church asks us as Catholics, first of all, to understand doctrine. We’re asked to inform our minds by reading the doctrinal statements of the magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church. Only then, after we have read and understood the teaching, does the Church next ask us to assent to the teaching intellectually. This is the basis of a properly formed conscience: knowing, understanding and assenting with our minds to the teaching of the Church. Next follows the impact of that teaching in our lives — namely, putting it into practice.
A Catholic employer who understands and assents to the long history of Catholic social doctrine would want to respect the dignity of workers and provide a decent salary and working conditions. However, there is no “rule” that specifies exactly how to do this. Canon 222.2 says, generally, that the Christian faithful are “obliged to promote social justice,” and Canon 1286 obliges many Church employers “to pay a just and honest wage,” but these general provisions flow from the broader history of social teaching.
Similarly, a lengthy history of doctrine on responsible human sexuality and the gift of life asks Catholics to understand and give assent to the fact that artificial contraception is incompatible with Christian morality. This doctrine is repeated in many teachings of the Church, but scour the Church’s legislative texts and one discovers that there is no law which explicitly proscribes artificial birth control (except for the result of abortifacients). The clarity and persuasiveness of the doctrine should lead us to understand the teaching and to choose to put it into practice in our lives, in an evolution from mind to conscience to action. Immoral does not mean illegal since the role of law in the Church is very narrow compared to the broader roles of doctrine and conscience.
Law is different. Law does not ask that we first understand it and then give assent to it. Law asks instead that we obey first and then look for the values and teachings behind the law. The Ten Commandments, for instance, are law, not doctrine. However, it helps us as Christians to try to understand why avoiding these 10 behaviors is important to God. What is the history behind these commandments? What is their context in the Bible? That kind of questioning is also helpful in understanding some of the disciplinary norms and practices of the Church. Why are these behaviors so important to my spiritual or religious growth that they are mandatory?
Jesus himself did not avoid giving His disciples guidance on how to live their lives, whether dealing with paying taxes or forgiving others. But Jesus put law in its proper context for His followers: “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love” (Jn 15:10).
The Church is not free to ignore the teaching of Jesus in the Bible, and certainly not free to ignore the rules that He gives us. His teaching on divorce and remarriage often causes people to express concern about the “rules” of the Church: “But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Mt 5:32). However, this is a rule of Jesus and cannot be ignored.
Doctrine exists to help guide our understanding of God, the Church and the life of grace. Both doctrine and law are given to us by the Church not as roadblocks or hindrances in our life, but as helps to us in our spiritual journey. They are actions to do (the obligation of Sunday Mass) or things to avoid (desecration of the Holy Eucharist) so that we can arrive more easily at our spiritual end — namely, the salvation of our souls.
If I ignore my car’s GPS direction to turn right at the next corner, it takes a moment to recalculate how I can get back on track. Depending on the route, I might have to make a detour or U-turn. In the same way, if I ignore a rule of the Church I can recalculate how to get back on track in my religious or spiritual journey, and if need be go to confession when I’ve sinned.
It is important when we encounter a “rule” in the Church to ask first if it is really a rule at all. Perhaps it is instead a practical application of a moral or theological doctrine. Either way, we ought to try and understand the teaching and reasons for it before questioning a “rule” of the Church.
The Issue of Penalties
There is another important point to keep in mind when we consider law in the Church. Very few rules carry a penalty. Only those few actions that injure the life of the Church or seriously imperil the soul of the offender carry a penalty. For instance, a completed abortion carries the penalty of excommunication from the Church. A priest’s direct violations of the seal of confession or the sexual abuse of minors are other examples of acts requiring severe penalties. You can see that these rules exist to protect the most important values of the Church.
Most Church “rules” don’t impose a penalty for violating them. For example, it is a spiritual and penitential practice to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent. If I were to eat a hot dog on one of those days I would not be excommunicated or otherwise punished by the Church. I may have violated a rule, but the rule exists to help guide me spiritually in understanding that I can depend on God’s goodness and providence while denying myself something of this world. The sin in eating meat is not about ignoring the rule as much as ignoring the opportunity to grow in my dependence on God.
Some Catholics question why there are so many “rules” in the Church. When asked to identify a problematic rule, it is often not a “rule” at all but a matter of teaching or doctrine that is at issue.
Msgr. William King is a priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa.
Often many who do not believe in the divinity of Jesus argue that there is not one place in the Scriptures where Jesus explicitly states that he is God. That,…
Often many who do not believe in the divinity of Jesus argue that there is not one place in the Scriptures where Jesus explicitly states that he is God. That, however, imposes contemporary linguistic standards on an ancient culture that appreciated subtlety of language — a subtlety we do not appreciate today. There are, in fact, numerous places that Jesus claims to be God: “Before Abraham came to be, I am” (Jn 8:58); “The Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30); “… who, though he was the form of God …” (Phil 2:6) etc.
How Jesus understood his oneness with the Father, in the context of his humanity, is a topic for another day, known as the problem of the consciousness of Jesus. What is abundantly clear, though, is that Jesus understood his uniqueness as the Son of God and that the early Church clearly worshipped him as God.
It is from Jesus’ own revelation that he shares in the divine nature — as does the Holy Spirit — that the Church slowly developed and crystalized its Trinitarian dogma. Yet this did not stem the tide of various misunderstandings about who he is, and so came many heresies about Jesus’ divinity.
Sure, we worship Jesus, but is he really God? This question boggled many early Christians who were influenced by Greek philosophy and who struggled to see how difference could be the basis of unity. Is he God, or God’s son? God can have no difference because if he does, he has parts, and is, therefore, not a simple unity and, thus, not God. This was no easy problem to overcome and came to a head with the heresy of Arianism, which claimed that Jesus is a sort of mashup of divinity and humanity — a demigod.
It its fight against Arianism, the Church finally clarified her understanding of the person and role of Jesus based on the revelation we received from him. In the Nicene Creed — the fruit of the conflict with Arianism — we profess that Jesus is “God from God … consubstantial with the Father.” Thus everything the Father has Jesus has. There is nothing lacking, second-class, or different in the divinity that both Jesus and the Father possess. No, Jesus is not some mixture of humanity and divinity, nor is he only God or he only man. He is both God and man, each fully and completely.
What does this mean for us? First, it means that Jesus has all the qualities of God and they are never absent from him in the Incarnation. Jesus never loses his divinity at any moment. He has all the powers and properties of God in his Incarnation. Yet, and this is the important point, this does not entail any sort of overwhelming or annihilation of his humanity. He is fully God and fully man, the divinity never overwhelming his humanity, the humanity never limiting his divinity. The two natures live in a perfect communion.
Second, we know that in becoming one of us, God touches every aspect of our humanity and indeed, all of creation so that it can slowly be brought back into communion with God. If Jesus is not fully God, then humanity is still stuck in sin because God has not touched creation to draw it back to himself. Only when Jesus is fully God is redemption truly possible.
Suffering and death
Jesus’ union with us included even suffering and death. This does not mean that God’s being is subject to suffering. Rather, it means that the Person of the Son, whose humanity perfectly is united to his divine person, dies on the cross, and where the Son is, God is there. Thus when Jesus dies, God enters in the realm of the dead, bringing to life those who are dead and separated from God. When Jesus suffers, God is in the midst of the suffering. He is not suffering in his being, but now present, in the humanity of Jesus, in all human suffering.
And, finally, alongside Jesus’ claims of divinity came the promise that he would rise from the dead. That, in fact, gives credence to all of his claims because it makes possible what only the power of God can accomplish.
Father Harrison Ayre is a priest of the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia. Follow him on Twitter at @FrHarrison.
Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, / did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. / Rather, he emptied himself, / taking the form of…
Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, / did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. / Rather, he emptied himself, / taking the form of a slave, / coming in human likeness; / and found human in appearance, / he humbled himself, / becoming obedient to death, / even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8).
This Scripture passage from St. Paul summarizes the humility of Jesus Christ and his self-emptying, also called kenosis in Greek.
The question of Christ’s self-emptying is very urgent today as there are many who question the traditional doctrine taught by the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) concerning the nature of Christ. This applies even to professional teachers of theology, who sometimes teach that Jesus is just a good man who is engraced in the same way any other human being is and therefore is an adopted, not a natural, son of God. There are two basic clarifications which must guide any truly Catholic understanding of Christ. The first concerns what the union of God and man is in Christ. The second concerns how the first doctrine is reflected in certain actions of Christ — for instance, His cry, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” from the cross (see Mt 27:46).
God and Man
When God became man in the Christ, this was a true self-emptying in humility. But what was exactly given up? Did Jesus cease to be God? What did He assume? Where does the union of God and man take place?
The attempt to explain this belief puzzled the early Christians. They used terms taken from Greek philosophy to attempt to explain the mystery in which they believed. Not that they could exhaust this mystery. That is not possible as it is a part of the ineffable wisdom of God. But since this mystery is received in a human mind, the early Christians used philosophy as a tool to help clarify what they actually believed in. The principle terms they used were: person, nature and relation.
In Greek philosophy a nature is a principle of a kind of activity which sets one being off from another. The way a dog acts differs from a tree. This demonstrates that a dog has certain powers different than a tree and so is a different being, possessing a different nature. The individual who possesses a nature which is shared by all the individuals of its species is called a hypostasis. An individual who possesses a rational nature (a hypostasis with a rational nature) is a person.
Once the divinity of the Word was determined, the question arose as to how the Word was present in Jesus of Nazareth. Many attempted to explain this by saying that God and man were united in nature in Christ. This did not do justice to what Christians believed or the Christ to whom they prayed. If the union took place in nature, Jesus would have to be really God and only seem to be man, really man or seem to be God, or be a strange monstrous mixture of the two. The heresy which teaches that the union takes place in the natures is Monophysitism, which derives from the Greek words mono(one) and phusis (nature). This would mean that Christ would, in some sense, be just a good man somehow identified with God, or only seem to be man.
Instead, the Council of Chalcedon taught that the union takes place in the person. The divine person of the Word who shares the divine nature with the other two persons, at a certain point in time, took unto himself a new way of acting, a human nature, but not a human person. God was not changed by this action, but the world was. What had been called to union with God in nature by a quality of being called sanctifying grace became a new and unheard of relation, and the world was united to God in the person of the Word. The union in person is thus called “the hypostatic union,” which is a grace unique to Christ. Christ does not assume a human person, but only a human nature, a perfect and complete one nonetheless. He has a human soul, intellect, will, passions and body.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church recounts for us the definition from Chalcedon: “We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation. The distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis” (No. 467).
This means that the emptying of Christ in being consisted in His will to join human nature to His actions as a divine person, to act through it and to only hide the glory of His divine nature so that He might suffer the passion: “What he was, he remained; what he was not, he assumed” (Catechism, No. 469).
The one divine person, Jesus, thus acts in two natures. In Scripture, He even demonstrates this because He speaks in both natures as one person often in the same verse. “Now glorify me [human nature], Father, with you, with the glory that I [divine nature] had with you before the world began” (Jn 17:5). This new relation between God and the world is a sheer grace, and it is also a miracle.
St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians continues the passage about the nature of the self-emptying: “God greatly exalted him” (2:9). Does this mean Christ was not exalted in being before the Passion? Often, things are said to occur in Scripture when they come to our knowledge. Before the Passion, Christ rarely demonstrated His divinity. But after the Passion, in the Resurrection and the Ascension, His divinity becomes clearly demonstrated to the apostles. They come to know it.
What Did He Give Up?
One of the difficulties with this position is how one can dogmatically explain the cry of Christ from the cross: “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” Many theologians today hold that Jesus was forsaken because He had no idea He would rise from the dead, that He threw himself into a kind of existential darkness characterized by faith and just accepted the meaninglessness of life. So, His experience of death would be the same as ours.
This is impossible. In what sense can Christ be forsaken on the cross? He cannot cease being the Word of God within the Trinity. This is His personhood. He cannot cease being the Word made flesh. This union is permanent once embraced. He cannot sin as this would war against His mission, which is to atone for our sins by His perfect obedience on the cross.
The traditional teaching of the Church is that Christ enjoys the beatific vision from the moment of His conception in the womb of His mother in His human intellect. This is not formally defined de fide, but has always been considered proxima fide, meaning that to deny it entails so many problems for other doctrines that it must be affirmed. If Christ were not to have this and therefore have faith on the cross, this would mean that He would have to merit it for himself as man and, in principle, could sin. In fact, faith is never attributed to Christ in His earthly life, and the ability to sin would again compromise His mission.
The only way Christ can be abandoned by His Father on the cross, then, is by external protection. Many times Christ’s enemies sought to put Him to death, beginning with Herod, when Christ was a baby, and God protected Him. The dogmatic difficulty here is resolved if one considers that “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the opening verse of Psalm 22 (RSVCE). If one reads the whole psalm, it is very far from a cry of despair and existential angst. The psalmist does suffer intensely, but the psalm ends with a hymn of thanksgiving to God and confidence that God will vindicate his sufferings. This will, of course, happen in the resurrection of the dead. Moreover, Thomas Aquinas thought that no one could freely give himself to the kind of suffering Christ embraced on the cross unless he knew about the resurrection of the dead.
The self-emptying of Jesus then is only a self-emptying in being in the sense that God should choose to take to himself a human way of acting and suffering. Psychologically this emptying does not involve sin. It is not even done in faith.
Rather, in this suffering Christ experiences the greatest pain possible. This is the case physically because His body was more sensitive than a normal body as it was perfectly fashioned by the Holy Spirit. He therefore suffers more in the bruises, the scourging, the nails and the hunger and thirst.
He also suffers mentally because he personally experiences all the human sins which will be committed and have been committed in the history of the human race. He knows these through the beatific vision He has on the cross. He does not allow this vision, or His glory as God, to enter into His lower self precisely so He can suffer the Passion. He feels abandoned by God, but knows internally He is not. This is a cause of acute pain both physically and mentally. But the internal union of the hypostatic union is preserved.
So, in Jesus, we see how much God loves us. We should therefore be caught up in love of the God we cannot see (see Roman Missal, Christmas Preface).
Father Brian Mullady, O.P., S.T.D., earned his doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.