08. Law as a Gift

Man could have been created a lawless creature in a lawless world. It would have been a miserable state: a living being without purpose or direction, at the mercy of random external forces and enslaved to conflicting internal desires and passions; a being with no bond or norm - neither of love nor of justice - by which to relate to others; nothing but meaningless strife inside and outside.

            God did not make man so. He placed him in a world that has a basic order expressed in physical laws; and he put him there to shape it further. In doing so man was to humanize the world, and to humanize himself, giving created things a moral character and purpose that would be a further reflection of God's wisdom and goodness.

            God made man rational and free: capable of discovering the divine plan and potential of creation, of freely shaping creation according to that plan, and so fulfilling himself. God made man for a definite goal. He gave him the gift of freedom to control his actions, and the gift of law to guide his freedom. Freedom needs law. Freedom that does not know what to choose or where to go, is useless; or, worse, self-destructive. Freedom calls for trustworthy directions. It calls for law.

            Law is a gift of God to man. It is a gift by which God indicates to man his loving designs. We can distinguish three levels or stages of this gift: the Law of Nature, the Law of Moses, and the Law of Christ.

The Law of Nature

            This is the Natural Law which, as the Apostle Paul says, is written on all men's hearts; to which fact, he adds, conscience bears witness (Rom 2:15). Through intelligent reflection and through listening to his conscience, man discovers the law of his nature; the way he should live, the direction he should follow, in order to fulfil his natural human potential.

            Conscience is the echo of the Natural Law, its first spokesman. Conscience too is an inestimable gift of God, a divinely designed security system to guide us along the right way, to alert us to the danger of moral harm, to safeguard us against straying into roads of self-frustration and self-destruction.

            Conscience is to be respected and obeyed. If one does not obey conscience, if one subordinates conscience to pride or selfishness, (if one does not subordinate it to the truth), if one manipulates conscience, one rejects the gift of law, one sins against the light, one commits moral suicide and is left defenseless against self-centeredness and the whole process of human frustration.

The Law of Moses

            God's purpose, however, was not that man should just live on the level of nature. He had further and higher designs for man: designs that were not, as such, written into human nature. They had to be revealed.

            The Revelation began with the Patriarchs. The Law of the first Covenant was given by God to Moses and through Moses to the nation of God's choice. It was the law to guide Israel in its life as the people selected to receive the fullness of God's promises in due time.

            By the standards of the Law of Christ, by which it was eventually to be replaced, the Mosaic Law is imperfect. Yet we have much to learn from the Old Testament: not so much from the dispositions of the Law itself as from the dispositions of the Chosen People towards the Law.

            The Israelites were deeply penetrated with the conviction that the Law, which they had received as a Pilgrim People wandering in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, was a sign and a proof of God's special favor towards them.

            Possession of the Law make them privileged among the nations, as Yahweh himself reminded them: "What great nation is there that has laws and customs to match this whole Law that I put before you today?" (Deut 4:8). This law is a gift no other nation has, and its superiority will be a cause of envy among other peoples: "When they come to know of all these laws they will exclaim: No other people is as wise and prudent as this great nation!" (Deut 4:6).

            For the Jews, the Books of the Law contained the wisdom of God revealed to men (cf Sir 24:23-29). Knowledge of the Law was a privilege and an urgent duty. Observance.of the Law was a source of blessing, and marked each one's free response to God's Covenant. For the pious Israelite the Law was not a yoke but a divine favor and a privileged gilt to be jealously guarded: "'This is the book of the commandments of God, the Law that stands for ever; those who keep her live, those who desert her die. Turn back, Jacob, seize her, in her radiance make your way to light: do not yield your glory to another, your privilege to a people not your own. Israel, blessed are we: what pleases God has been revealed to us" (Bar 4:1-4).

The Law of Christ

            The Law of Christ is the supreme gift, the final revelation of God's wisdom, goodness and purpose. It points out to man a new way; it makes of him a new being and gives him a new life. The new People of God are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart, called out of darkness into God's wonderful light (1 Pet 2:9), so as to share the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4), and thus become possessors of the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8:18-21).

            The Law of Christ makes us freer - for a far greater destiny. The Law of Christ is a divine gift, like the Law of Moses, though incomparably superior. If the Jews, in their better moments, were grateful for the Law of Moses, we should be far more grateful for the Law of Christ. But our gratitude has to rest precisely on the fact that the Law of Christ is a law, telling us what to do and what not to do. The Law of Christ, as any other law, has its objective content and its demands: at times hard demands.

            Some people, as we have seen before, seize on St James's phrase describing the Gospel law as "the law of perfect freedom" Jas 1:25) as if this meant that the Christian had a license to do whatever he felt like. This of course is totally false. The Christian law of freedom makes demands that are very explicit and far from easy. For instance:

            we must keep our hearts free from all covetousness (Lk 12:15; Mt 6:19-21, etc.)

            we must forgive others and avoid judging them (Mt 6:15; 7:1)

            we must avoid impure looks and desires (Mt 5:28)

            we must respect the indissolubility of marriage (Mt 19:6)

            we must obey Christ speaking to us through those in authority in his Church (Lk 10:16)

            we must receive his Body - but never unworthily (Jn 6:53; 1 Cor 11:27-30).

            The Commandments are the way of freedom because they are the way of truth. In John's Gospel we are told that if we know the truth, the truth will make us free (Jn 8:32); but to that must be added the clear rider of John's first letter that the truth is not in the person who does not keep God's Commandments (1 Jn 2:4).

The privileges of Christians

            Unless we observe the obligations of the Law of Christ we are not entitled to enjoy its privileges. Great indeed are the privileges of this law, and worth dwelling on - much more than on its obligations.

            Christians have the right to all the means of becoming God's children (cf. c. 213). As a result of their personal sanctification, they have the right and mission to exercise their royal priesthood, lifting up the world to God (cf. c. 225).

            The gift of law and the need for law appear precisely in the fact that the law expresses and protects our access to Christ. We will look on that law as a gift in the measure in which we want to come to Christ and possess what he has to give us.

            God offers himself to man! This is the incredible gift that Christ reveals and that Christ represents. Christ is God offering himself to men, in and through his Church. The Church lives with the life of Christ and communicates his life. Communion with Christ is only properly achieved in and through the Church. The fuller our communion with Christ in all the aspects of the Church's life and worship, the more we enter into the glorious freedom he has won for us.

            If we are hungry for God's gift of himself, for communion with Christ, then we will want this gift in all its sources.

            We will seek it, wonderingly and gratefully, in his Word in Sacred Scripture.

            We will seek it with no less wonder in the sacraments; above all - with the greatest reverence and gratitude - in the Holy Eucharist.

            We will seek communion with Christ's Mind, with his Truth, in the teaching of the Church.

            And we will seek communion with his Will in the law and discipline of the Church.

            If the Israelites of old felt privileged at being possessors and followers of the Law given to God through Moses, how much more privileged should we feel at possessing the law given by Christ, that comes to us through his Church and brings us to Him through his Church.

            How is it that this sense of privilege - and even more than privilege: of awe and wonder - seems to be lacking in the Church today?

            Should we too not have a sense of amazement at being God's chosen people; and at God's closeness to us: a sense of awe at being able to offer to God something much more than the Paschal Lamb; at being fed by something much more than Manna: awe, especially, at being taught and led by God through those in the Church who teach in his name and exercise authority in his name?

            If today we too often see a careless approach to the Eucharist, is this not a sign of weakened faith in Christ's Presence in this sacrament? Many people do not seem to realize that it is Christ whom they touch when they touch the Eucharist; Christ that they are fed by when they eat the Eucharist.

            If we too often come across a hesitant or reluctant approach to church authority - to the Magisterium, to church law - is this not also a sign of a weakened faith in Christ's Presence in his Church? That reluctant response to church authority is, in the end, a loss of sense of being led by Christ; or an unwillingness to be led by Him.

            Faith enters here; of course it does. Faith enables one to discover the sanctifying presence of Christ. The Eucharist is Christ; that is why it is the Holy Sacrament. The Bible is not Christ; yet it too is holy, because Christ - God - speaks to us in it. Only those who regard it with faith see in it the Holy Bible. And in a real way - however different the order - the law of the Church is holy; holier than the holy Law of Moses.

            The law of the Church is holy. It is not inspired, as Scripture

            is. It is not infallible, as the Magisterium is. But it is holy, because it speaks to us with the authority of Christ and behind it stands his holy will. "Whoever listens to you, listens to Me...". "Whatever you bind on earth will be considered bound in Heaven"....

The Law of the Cross

            But (the objection may come) surely it is not being suggested that Christ stands behind every single church law and every expression of church authority? No, not quite. But, precision is needed if we are to answer this objection adequately.

            There may be in the present (there certainly have been in the past) exercises of ecclesiastical authority which are unjust, and which a person should oppose in conscience. Joan of Arc's resistance to the church authorities trying her is a case in point that shows how such resistance may even be a sign of holiness.

            But I would suggest that such cases are rare, extremely rare; and that, such cases apart, an essential condition of true communion with Christ, which is also a condition of apostolic fruitfulness, is wholehearted and joyful acceptance of authority in his Church.

            Christ's Truth stands behind the teaching of his Church, just as Christ's Will stands behind the authority of his Church. Christ's Truth cannot lead men into error; we have that guarantee. But we have no guarantee that Christ's Will may not lead men into trials and hardship: the hardship, among others, of being called on to obey in something that they find unreasonable and perhaps personally repugnant. He himself went that way. He became obedient unto death (Phil 2:8) even though he found it repugnant in the extreme (Mk 14:33-36). Vatican II says that the Church, and therefore all Christians, "must walk the road Christ himself walked, a way of poverty and obedience, of service and self-sacrifice even to death" (AG 5).

            Christ learned to obey, and found it hard. We also have to learn obedience. It is not easy, but it is made easier if we contemplate Christ's example and reflect on the great value he attaches to obedience. Contrariwise, it becomes very hard indeed if we see no reason for obeying, if obedience remains for us just an imposition or a limitation.

            Christ made no promise either that his Church would always be governed with perfect prudence and wisdom, at least to human eyes.

            An ecclesiastical law may easily appear - to me - unwise or imprudent. Does that impression of mine give me any grounds for thinking that God is not behind that law, or that he wants me to ignore or disobey it? Or could it be that I have yet to learn that God has foolish ways - foolish to our human eyes - that are wiser than human wisdom (cf. 1 Cor 1:18-25)?

            Only the certain and absolute conviction that an ecclesiastical law is unjust, and that fulfillment would be displeasing to God because it would cause real injustice (not mere hardship) to others, could legitimize or compel disobedience. Anyone tempted to think he is faced with such a law would do well to reflect and ask himself if the hardship he senses - for himself or for other~ - may not be the simple Christian burden of the Cross - which Christ wants all men to carry, and which saves. "It is for us to glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which we are saved and set free"[1]. The Law of Christ - the law of freedom - is also the Law of the Cross.

            The key to so many difficulties lies here. We have no guarantee from Christ (nor should we need any) that every single law in his Church will be timely, wise and prudent. But we do have a guarantee not only that we will not be going wrong in obeying church laws, but that we will be doing something very good and very pleasing to him, by obeying.

            "Whoever listens to you, listens to me". Divine words that we might well paraphrase as: "If you have a superior who issues an unreasonable, burdensome, trying, stupid law or order, then have I not given you enough grounds, in the Gospel and in my own example, for you to suppose that that order, with its clear element of the Cross, comes from me, and that I want you to accept it?"

            It is always easy for a subordinate (who necessarily has only a partial view of things) to see a lack of judgment in a superior's decision. It is true that if the superior - Pope, Bishop or whoever - is guilty of imprudence or injustice in enacting or applying a law, he will have to answer for it to God. It is also true however, to go once more to that pregnant passage from St Paul, that God uses the foolish things of this world for his own divine purposes.

            Perhaps what most often frustrates the divine purpose is not the possible foolishness of the superior so much as the actual lack of faith and love of the subordinate.

            Faith and love: these are the first virtues that church discipline should call forth in those subject to it. This is the ultimate reason why church law is a gift: because it makes it easy for us to prove our faith and love towards our Lord. It provides us with the Opportunity to exercise faith and see his authority behind a human decision; and to answer his will with our love.

            "Love means deeds"[2]. It means doing the will of the loved one. If we want to prove our love for God, church authority never makes it difficult for us to do so; just the contrary. If we are really keen to love Christ, then obedience to His Church becomes easy. If we find obedience to the Church difficult, it almost always comes down to a lack of keenness to love Christ.

Joy and evangelization

            This suggests a point that we will have occasion to enlarge upon later (cf. Chapter 13): reluctant Christians will never evangelize the world. Why should anyone be attracted to a Church whose members appear to be permanently discontent and in constant protest against their own leaders? This is a major obstacle to evangelization: that Christians seem incapable of giving to the world the proof of joy in service, in obedience, in self-denial, as Christ found his joy in serving, obeying and denying himself.

            If the Gospel spread like wild-fire in the first centuries, it was also because the early Christians gave the impression of being bearers of Good News: the joyful followers of One who carried the Cross out of love, who learned obedience through suffering (Hebr 5:8), and so saved us.

            The early Christians were joyful people in a sad world; and their joy came from their freely following the demanding law of Christ as he had freely followed the demanding will of his Father.

            It is in the context of how "God loves a cheerful giver" that Paul praises the Corinthians for their generosity towards those of Jerusalem, by which "you show them what you are, and that makes them give glory to God for the way you obey the Gospel

            and they are drawn to you on account of all the grace that God has given you. Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!", the gift of joy in the fulfillment of the Law of Christ (2 Cor 9:7-15).

                        *          *          *

            The Law of Moses has been superseded. Man is left with the Lex Naturae, the Law of Nature, on which is built the Lex Gratiae, the Law of Grace or the Law of Christ.

            Despite apparent contemporary resistance to the idea of natural law, it is not hazardous to affirm that the moment is here, or will very soon arrive, for a strong reawakening of a desire for a natural law.

            As the sense spreads that everything which most matters to man - order, loyalty, respect, honesty, integrity, love, marriage, friendship, community - is tottering, so will men turn to look for a strong common basis on which to rebuild truly human values and a coherent social life (cf. Appendix 2).

            Yet it is probably not hazardous either to affirm that the restoration of the natural order, of the lex naturae, can only be brought about by those who adhere most firmly to the lex gratiae.

            It is a truth of always, but one that has special force today, that a fully human life can only be lived with the help of divine grace.


[1] Entrance Antiphon for Holy Thursday; cf. Gal 6:14.

[2] Josemaria Escriva, The Way (Dublin, 1986), no. 933.