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.
If what we believe begins with Jesus and Scripture, what about the Church? Certainly, belief in the Church belongs fundamentally to Catholicism. We say each Sunday in the Creed, “I…
If what we believe begins with Jesus and Scripture, what about the Church?
Certainly, belief in the Church belongs fundamentally to Catholicism. We say each Sunday in the Creed, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” There is no such thing as Catholicism without the Church. But why? How does belief in Jesus and Scripture fit with belief in the Church?
First, though, what does the word “Church” mean? In Latin the word is ecclesia, ekklesia in Greek, kirche in German, iglesia in Spanish. These words mean, roughly, “assembly” or “called meeting.” In secular Greek ekklesia named the demos or the polis, the people or the city. For Christians, what made their ekklesia distinct was that it was an assembly in Christ. These words likely correspond to the Hebrew word qâhâl, meaning “called assembly” — of either soldiers, or prophets, or elders and so on. “Qoheleth,” the name given as the author of Ecclesiastes, may come from this Hebrew word, and it means something like “preacher” or “caller.”
All of this gives us, at the very start, a basic image of the Church to help us conceptualize its nature. It is a body of people called into being, called together to form a community. The Church is described many different ways, employing many different images. Nonetheless, here at the start we get an idea of what the Church is from the very word itself: the Church is a called body.
But this raises further questions already. Called by what? Called by whom? For Christians, the answer is God in Jesus Christ. The Church is that assembly called together by him. When Jesus called the first disciples by the Sea of Galilee (Mk 1:17), when he called Levi (Mk 2:14), when he summoned the Twelve (Mk 3:13; 6:7), when crowds gathered around him and heard him say that his family is “whoever does the will of God” (Mk 3:35), that’s what he was doing — calling believers together into an ekklesia. And this, to put it simply, is how our belief in Jesus and Scripture leads to our belief in the Church. We believe the Church is called into existence by him and in him, by the Christ we discover in Scripture.
To see this connection between Jesus and the Church most clearly, it is helpful to read John 17. Speaking personally, for me as a Christian, this passage changed everything. Without wrestling with it, I would never have become Catholic. It remains a text that helps me see and think through almost everything. Now, that’s saying a lot, I know. But from this passage, I think it is possible to see the whole of Christian history, theology, and all Christian experience. Reading John 17 closely is like discovering the genome of the Church. It reveals, in a sense, the Church’s DNA. And that’s because when Jesus prayed that his disciples be one, as the Father and the Son are one, he revealed the form this called body, his body, should keep. Just as when he prayed that his disciples be consecrated and sent, he revealed the Church’s holiness and apostolicity.
So, what we read in John 17 is fundamental and of lasting importance for understanding the Church today. As Pope St. John Paul II argued, “This unity, which the Lord has bestowed on his Church and in which he wishes to embrace all people, is not something added on, but stands at the very heart of Christ’s mission” (Ut Unum Sint, No. 9). Jesus’s prayer that his disciples be one belongs to the essence of the Church and to the essence of our understanding of it. What Jesus prayed for in John 17 — that the disciples be one, holy and apostolic — matters for the whole of Christian history. We see it in the Church in Acts 4:32 — which was “of one heart and mind,” an image St. Augustine loved so much — when St. Irenaeus argued against Gnostic rivals, that his readers avoid such heresies and “join themselves to the Church,” in St. Cyprian’s blunt teaching that “God is one, and Christ is one, and His Church is one; one is the faith, and one the people cemented together in harmony,” which “cannot be divided.” “Be my soul with the saints!” St. John Henry Newman cried out before converting to Catholicism, realizing this fundamental truth.
But why John 17? Because it’s what Jesus prayed for that final night before his death. It’s what he prayed as he was being betrayed by Judas and as the other disciples scattered in fear. A prayer to his Father just before the end, before his crucifixion: it belongs to his final expression, the testament of his final desire just before his death. By next sundown, he would be dead. John 17 offers us some of his final words. It is a special moment, an important passage of Scripture to say the least. As I said, it is important for understanding everything else we believe. Which is where we’ll turn next, to this special prayer of Jesus to his Father.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books. Read more from the series here.
The Catechism No. 766 says: “ ‘The origin and growth of the Church are symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of the crucified Jesus.’…
The Catechism No. 766 says: “ ‘The origin and growth of the Church are symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of the crucified Jesus.’ ‘For it was from the side of Christ as he slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth the “wondrous sacrament of the whole Church.”’ As Eve was formed from the sleeping Adam’s side, so the Church was born from the pierced heart of Christ hanging dead on the cross.”
Some have called Pentecost the “birthday of the Church,” but that is more of a pious custom and is not an official teaching or declaration. The image is used since, in a way, the Church comes forth from her initial formation in the “womb” of Galilee during Christ’s public ministry. She comes forth now to begin her mission to the ends of the earth.
The problem with this image is that the Church that comes forth is no infant. She has been formed and is now clothed with power from on high to begin a mission, having been schooled, prepared and enabled. The image of birth falls short here, since birth bespeaks a helpless infant in need of complete formation. But the Church at Pentecost was far more mature.
One might argue that in the image of Eve coming forth from Adam’s side she came forth as an adult, not an infant, and thus “birthday” here can be understood in that manner. And this may be fair enough, but it is not the usual manner in which we speak of birthdays. At some point an image with too many qualifiers suggests a possible flaw in the image itself.
What Pentecost surely is, is the commissioning of the Church to go forth unto all the nations. She has been formed, purified, taught, equipped and enabled to go forth with joy and confidence. On the day of Pentecost, a fire fell on the Church. Those who had been frightened, confused disciples went forth with confidence and holy boldness, their minds made clear.
Rev. Msgr. Charles E. Pope is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
What you were taught in your catechism classes is indeed still valid, although it is not commonplace today to hear the description of the various states of the Church as…
What you were taught in your catechism classes is indeed still valid, although it is not commonplace today to hear the description of the various states of the Church as you describe them.
The church triumphant describes the Church in heaven. In the kingdom of God — the realm in which the holy Trinity, the angels and saints, and the abode of all those who have reached the fullness of salvation in Christ — the Church already exists. But it will have its fullest being at the end of time, when all of creation and (we hope) all human beings will be conformed to Christ and all reality will be one of divine praise and glory.
The term “church triumphant” underlines the truth that in the glory of heaven all human sin will have been transformed, death and suffering will be no more, and the glory of God will have triumphed over all the imperfections of human history.
The church militant refers to the Church on earth. The term “militant” can suggest an antagonistic relationship between the Church and the world. Nevertheless, it refers to an authentic reality: that the Church on earth works to overcome the imperfect and sinful dimensions of human existence.
The Church’s mission is not to oppose the world and society, but to work for their transformation by the convincing preaching of the Gospel and by the edifying power of the good works and example of those who are baptized into Christ. The Church’s best asset is the saintly activity and example of those who have chosen the Christian way of life.
The church suffering refers to the church in purgatory. Purgatory is not a kind of temporary hell. It is rather the threshold, the antechamber of heaven. In purgatory, all those — whether Christian or not — who have reached the gates of death without reaching the full perfection of life represented in Christ are cleansed in a kind of ongoing baptism and are purified by the enlightening fire of the Holy Spirit. The suffering of purgatory is not one of destruction, but the suffering that comes from leaving the old self behind and taking on the new.
It seems apropos at this difficult and strange hour for the Church in the United States to write about how scandals in the Church can deter people from becoming Catholic…
It seems apropos at this difficult and strange hour for the Church in the United States to write about how scandals in the Church can deter people from becoming Catholic and discourage already practicing Catholics from growing deeper into their faith. Many responses are possible to disclosures like those released by Archbishop Viganò. Which responses will lead to Christ, even in the midst of such turmoil, and which will lead away from Him?
The just anger, sorrow, and fear that people are experiencing should be acknowledged. This is not weakness, but only acknowledges the harm done. At the same time, however, it is not helpful to anyone—not the victims, nor those seeking to make reparation—to stay focused on the emotional response we have. Instead, allow truth to bring healing. The work that must be done goes far beyond the emotions, and they cannot bear the brunt of the labor. We have to use our minds and wills to make choices about what to do next.
Many voices have called for accountability. The faithful have a desire for faithful, integral leadership. Accountability and responsibility ought to be established in the clearest and most direct way possible. It seems that we need to answer three questions: What happened? How did it happen? How does the Church ensure that it does not happen again?
As an individual member of the Church, what are some possible choices that can be made? One is to leave. But this strikes one as wrong-headed and more destructive, rather than salvific and life-giving. Why? The Sacraments are not at fault—Our Lord is not at fault in all this mess. To avoid Holy Mass, the Sacraments, and the Eucharist especially, is to deny oneself the One Person who can help make sense of evil in the Church. Not only that, but in difficult times a “back to the basics” approach can be very helpful. What is the Mass? What are the Sacraments? Are they still valid if the priest or bishop who is celebrating is bad? The Church has given a resounding “yes” to this question—the principle is that the Sacraments give grace ex opere operato. See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1128:
This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.” From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister.
Less drastic, but still damaging, is discouragement and disappointment. This is understandable, but discouragement is never from the Holy Spirit. Discouragement and sorrow at the good that the Church is, underneath all the sins of her members, drag us away from God and deaden our relationship with Him. Everything becomes gray and drab, rather than vibrant and full of life. What is the proper response to discouragement and desolation? Fight it. Don’t avoid it, and don’t avoid the root of it. Again, truth plays a major role in healing the sorrow of discouragement. One can put the mind to work about the truth, like what can be done to help my own faith and the faith of those around me right now? That may be more time for prayer or a specific prayer or fasting for those who have suffered abuse. It may mean taking a walk to lift your spirits or talking with a friend that you trust. Don’t be afraid to face discouragement squarely and act against it.
Related to discouragement is resentment, which breeds bitterness. Our Lord wants healing to reach to all the members of the Church. Resentment and bitterness will block that, and Satan wins again. He had a role to play in all this, and anything destructive to the Body of Christ only adds to his victory.
A fruitful response in the face of a grave trial of faith is precisely to make acts of faith, hope, and love. The virtues of faith, hope, and love have been given to us to be used and enjoyed. Now is the time to engage them. It is as easy as saying, “I believe in you, O Lord. I hope in You. I love you, my God.” The battle for truth is a spiritual battle, and we have the weapons to fight for the truth effectively. That starts by activating the virtues that have God as the source and final goal.
As a Catholic, you might be asked in the next few months why you are still in the Church after all these scandals. Saint Peter told us, “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence…” (1 Pt 3:15). In other words, don’t get defensive. Simply be ready and ask yourself: Why am I Catholic? Why do I believe? Why have I been created? How have I come to know God over the course of my life? Does any of this change with the revelation of sin? No, it does not. Belief in God, hope in Him, and love for Him are personal acts that no one can take away from you and no one but you can make.
Finally, make a space in your heart for hope and integrity. Integrity needs to be recovered and embraced. Hope needs to be placed in God alone and deepened there. Perhaps these words from then-Cardinal Ratzinger, his meditation on the 9th Station of the Cross on Good Friday 2005, need to be heard once more:
Lord, your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side. In your field we see more weeds than wheat. The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them! It is we who betray you time and time again, after all our lofty words and grand gestures. Have mercy on your Church; within her too, Adam continues to fall. When we fall, we drag you down to earth, and Satan laughs, for he hopes that you will not be able to rise from that fall; he hopes that being dragged down in the fall of your Church, you will remain prostrate and overpowered. But you will rise again. You stood up, you arose and you can also raise us up. Save and sanctify your Church. Save and sanctify us all.
Sister Anna Marie McGuan is with the Religious Sisters of Mercy in Alma, Michigan.