09. Law and the Holy Spirit

A longing for the Spirit would seem to characterize many Christians today. The upsurge of charismatic movements since the Council is but one sign of this. Now, there is no doubt that the thought of the Holy Spirit calls up a sense of freedom, movement, joy, spontaneity, enthusiasm, that seems to fit ill with the idea of law.

            Some writers absolutize the contrast, and claim that the life and development of the Church, which have hitherto been subjected to law and legalism, must now be entrusted to freedom and the Holy Spirit. Phrases such as "the Church should be led by the Holy Spirit" are frequently heard; behind them is the implicit suggestion that the Church should be led by something "freer" than law, that the People of God should be led along charismatic ways of joy and freedom rather than along juridical ways of coercion or legal power.

            The direct answer to this is that the Church is led by the Holy Spirit, but that part of the Spirit's leading is precisely through law. The Spirit does not rely on coercion, but does rely on our capacity to perceive the value of law, and on our free response to it.

Marching orders

            Salvation history exemplifies this throughout. The Pilgrim People of old were led by the Holy Spirit (who, we should add, often led them along ways that must have seemed devious and illogical to their human eyes). But the Spirit was practical, and sent them both leaders and laws, as well as the constant exhortation to obey.

            A pilgrim people, a people on the move, needs to move in good order, so that no one if possible gets left behind; so that all, especially the weaker, are cared for. A marching people needs marching orders, passed on by leaders who themselves are moving in unity of purpose and direction.

            This applied in the Old Testament; and continues to apply in the New. The very spiritual dynamism of the new People of God calls for laws and leaders - to safeguard its life, to protect its members, to foster its unity, to ensure its expansion.

            Who gives the marching orders in the Church? Who marks the rhythm and direction in which the people of God should move? The Holy Spirit? - Agreed.

            And who in the Church possesses the Holy Spirit? Through whom does the Holy Spirit speak? These are in fact two quite different questions that require separate and distinct answers.

            Who in the Church possesses the Holy Spirit? The obvious answer is: every Christian who has retained the grace of Baptism, or recovered it if it has been lost. The Gospel phrase, "the Spirit breathes where he wills" (Jn 3:8) underlines the fact that only God knows those whom he has chosen and the individual gifts he bestows on each one for his or her personal salvation and sanctification. No one can claim a monopoly of personal graces or charisms; that is clear. It is also clear that if each one responds to the grace given to him personally, he in turn becomes a channel of grace for others.

            Looking down the centuries, we see how the Holy Spirit has spoken - and speaks - giving good guidance and inspiration to the faithful, through many individual voices, through the work and words of saints, founders, spiritual authors, theologians....

            But what if these voices are in disagreement? This, as we know, has happened and does happen. Then it is clear that not all speak with the voice of the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit of Truth (cf. Jn 15:26) cannot disagree with himself; he cannot leave his people bewildered by contradictory marching orders. Hence arises the great public gift - so essential to the welfare of God's People - of the divine protection of revealed Truth. Where this gift is concerned, the Spirit has willed to breathe in a particular direction and through a definite organ.

            So we come to the second question, giving it a very concrete formulation. When it is a matter of clarifying the truth, of resolving a debate or disagreement about the truth, of declaring the truth definitively, who speaks with the voice and authority of the Holy Spirit? The answer is also concrete and clear: the Magisterium. The infallible Magisterium is a peculiar gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, and it has its specific organs: the Pope, and the College of Bishops in union with the Pope. The Magisterium is given by the Holy Spirit as a service to the People of God.

            A step back in time could be helpful here. Let us place ourselves in the shoes of the ordinary members of the faithful in, say, sixteenth century Germany or England. People were perplexed; and their perplexity was caused by some theologians and preachers who, with raised voices, were saying that man's nature is intrinsically corrupted, that grace does not make us truly pleasing to God, that Matrimony or Penance are not sacraments, that the Eucharist is merely bread and wine given a religious significance, that the Mass is blasphemy.... These were new voices, new opinions, in clear contradiction to the voices Christians had been hearing for centuries.

            In such a situation, where confusion threatens, the thinking Christian asks himself: "But where is the Spirit of Truth, whom Christ promised us, in all of this? What does he have to say?" Those who heard the voice of the Spirit in the Magisterium remained in the Church. Those who listened rather to the voices of dissenting theologians and preachers left the Church.

A "second" magisterium?

            Some theologians in recent years have attempted to stake a claim to a special and privileged share in the assistance of the Holy Spirit, such as would promote theologians to the level of a sort of"second" magisterium.

            The suggestion they put forward is that church leadership - at least in doctrinal matters - is now to be divided between two elements: one, the hierarchy, generally more conservative; and the other, the theologians, more liberal.

            The point at issue, however, is not which element or agent is conservative or liberal, but which possesses the Holy Spirit in the strict sense of possessing a divinely-backed mandate to speak and teach and guide the People of God in the name of Jesus Christ.

            The Hierarchy possesses that special mandate[1]; the theologians do not. The work of theological research - if it is truly theological - is indeed a great service to the Church. But the claim made by some theologians that their work represents a second or parallel magisterium has no foundation whatever in Scripture or Tradition.


            Everyone in the Church has a peculiar charism or grace, i.e. a special gift of the Holy Spirit, to help him fulfil his peculiar role in the life of the Church (cf. 1 Cor 7:7). It would be presumptuous for any person or category of persons to say that his or their charism is of greater utility to the Church than that of others. The hidden charism exercised by St Teresa of Lisieux, in her own lifetime alone, probably served the Church at least as much as the work of the most renowned catholic thinkers of her time.

            What must be said is that possession of a charism carries no guarantee that it will be used well. Whether a gift of the Spirit is used well or badly depends on the dispositions of each one, especially on humility and docility (essential virtues if one is to respond rightly to the working of the Spirit), on an attitude of service and a readiness to subordinate one's own interests or preferences to a higher concern for the good of the community. That is how Paul concludes his remarks on the use of charisms: "Let everything be done with propriety and in order" (1 Cor 14:40).

            So the good use of a charism is not something automatic or guaranteed - with one exception, a very important exception, which is in regard to the service or teaching charism of the Magisterium in its mediation of the truth to the faithful. The Church has a constitutional guarantee that the Holy Spirit will not allow that charism to be used to deceive the faithful or lead them into error.

            Therefore, if there is a conflict between the Magisterium and a theologian about a point of doctrine, a Catholic should have no hesitation about which view God is calling us to heed. The Holy Spirit's protection covers the message relayed by the Magisterium to the faithful: "This is right; that is wrong. This is in accordance with the message of Christ; that is not".

            It is true that the protection of the Holy Spirit does not extend to the prudence or even the justice with which the theologian personally may be treated. We should feel certain about the truth of the doctrinal issue; we can feel as we choose about the handling of the case, the propriety or otherwise of the tone of monitions addressed to the theologian, of sanctions inflicted on him, etc.

            If a theologian feels that he - as distinct from his views - has been unfairly handled, without due process, by the church authorities, he may - or may not - have a case. The Holy Spirit does not necessarily guarantee that perfect justice will be done to the theologian or protect his interests. The Spirit protects the truth. He protects the interests of the broad body of the faithful.

An interior law?

            There is a fringe area to this theme of Law and the Spirit that is full of vague affirmations; for instance, that the law of the Spirit (or the law of Christ) is "primarily an interior law"; or that the law of the Spirit is the law of freedom "precisely because its demands are not imposed from outside" .... While it is not easy to pin down the precise meaning of such statements, they do suggest a few points worth clarifying.

            What exactly is meant, in this context, by the "law of the Spirit"? If it means something more than conscience, if the law of the Spirit is ultimately the law of Christ, then of course its demands are imposed from outside.

            The law of Christ is something objective, just as Christ himself is Someone "objective". He exists, to begin with, as an "Outsider" to each one of us, though, by his grace and our free response, he wishes to become an Insider in our lives; i.e. to enter into us - if we let him - with his liberating law.

            It is true that the law of Christ speaks to the heart, and response to it is meant to come from the heart. But the law of Christ is not an internal law in any sense that it comes from the heart[2]. The law of Christ is not "imposed" from outside, but it certainly comes from outside. Like the Incarnation, like Revelation (all work of the Spirit), it is something objective, something given, which men accept as it is, or reject; or try to turn into something different.

            The Holy Spirit gives the gift. He also ensures that it is preserved in its purity and that men can always find it so, provided they know where to look and provided they are prepared to look for it there. But He will not stop individual men (except one) from making counterfeits of his message. If that happens all he does is to point out clearly - clearly, to those who have faith and humility - where his genuine message is to be found; and leave those whose vision is blurred with the counterfeit they prefer.

The grace of obedience

            The fulfillment of the law of Christ is not a matter of enthusiasm, nor is it normally done without effort. The Holy Spirit can indeed facilitate our fulfillment of the law of Christ. The main way he does so however is by speaking clearly, by putting that law to us in plain and unmistakable terms, and by communicating to us the inspiration and strength to obey. One of the most typical graces of the Holy Spirit is the grace of obedience. One of the commonest inspirations of the Holy Spirit is the inspiration to obey. These are also the graces and inspirations to which pride offers most resistance.

            Here we can trace a clear sequence of gifts and graces. Law, as we saw in the last chapter, is a gift of God. Preservation of the law, in its purity, and in its sources, is a special action of the Holy Spirit (LG 27). Furthermore, observance of the law and, better still, response to the law, are particular gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit. Here again there is a gradation. Observance of the law could be no more than mechanical or external: mere servile obedience. The Holy Spirit inspires us to go beyond that: to answer the law with a personal response, not with the servile obedience of a slave but with the filial obedience of a son (cf. Rom 8:15). In this way the Holy Spirit "interiorises" the law within us. Once we recognize God's fatherly will in the law, we are in a position to welcome it lovingly into our hearts; and to respond to it, freely and filially, from our hearts.

            "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom"(2 Cor 3:17). If we want freedom, therefore, we must look for it where the Spirit is. We have to locate the area of freedom within which the Spirit works. The area of the freedom of the Spirit is the area of grace and truth. Grace and truth have limits set by the Holy Spirit: the limits of the truth he teaches us through his Church, and the limits of the sacraments and the law he administers to us through his Church. In order to be within Spirit-given freedom, we need to walk within these Spirit-set limits of grace and truth.

            A second point to comment on - in the area of vague affirmations we have mentioned - is the underlying suggestion that an 'interior' law is somehow obeyed without much difficulty.

            Conscience is an interior law by definition. Yet, as we saw in an earlier chapter, the demands of conscience are often peremptory and by no means easily obeyed. On the contrary, the person who takes this interior law seriously, who is determined not to ignore it but to obey it, often finds that he has to maintain a titanic struggle to follow his conscience. It is true that the demands of conscience do not come from outside. But the demands are there; and we have to impose them on ourselves - a difficult course; or ignore them - a suicidal course.

            A few words about some concepts with which the Holy Spirit, willy-nilly, is often linked today: creativity, dynamism, dialogue.


            To be "creative" - to express oneself; to do "one's own" thing or "new" things - is one of the urges of the age. When it is a Christian who is being creative, especially in relation to matters of doctrine or worship, he often attributes this creativity to the Holy Spirit, the Creator Spiritus. The attribution is not to be lightly made.

            The creativity of a Christian is both an important and a humble thing. It is important because God indeed counts on us to complete his work of creation and re-creation. It is humble because if it is to be effective, it must operate within God-given conditions. If it is not prepared to do so, it is not Christian creativity.

            If the Holy Spirit is the Creating Spirit, then our contributions to what he does can be creative only if they retain the character of a sub-creation in relation to his work. Once the Holy Spirit has created something, he expects us to respect that creation with the nature and laws he has given it.

            To tamper with the Natural Law is not to respect the work of the Spirit, but just the opposite. It is not creative but destructive. This is a criticism which must be made of "creative" approaches to morals nowadays that advocate such anti-natural practices as homosexuality, contraception or abortion.

            In the re-creation which is Christianity our creativity must work even more within divinely-given limits.

            When we reflect on Scripture and Tradition as works of the Spirit (DV 7-10), our reverence towards these sources of Divine Revelation grows. Then we realize that our creative role in their regard is not independent but essentially subordinate. It consists not in diluting or explaining away the message the Spirit has communicated (that again is destructive not creative), but in understanding, illustrating and passing it on, according to the authoritative interpretation and vivifying guidance of the Magisterium - another major creation of the Holy Spirit.

            The Spirit - the demanding Spirit - is also working in and through church law and discipline. There he creates the challenging conditions within which each one of us can be renewed and sanctified so as to become a "new creation" in Christ (cf. 2 Cor 2:17).

            A bishop may be a plodding figure, with nothing to him that the news media would today call "charismatic". His office, however, is charismatic; the Holy Spirit works through it. And the members of his diocese - priests and lay people - if they have faith, should find his decisions and indications charismatic: through them the Holy Spirit is reaching out to us, calling on our love and testing our faith. Charism, in such a case, has nothing to do with the bishops' virtue or ability; it has everything to do with our response.

            Examples could be multiplied, especially perhaps in the field of liturgy. Let us mention just one. Each Mass is, in itself; a unique charismatic action because the Holy Spirit is at work in it. If a priest tries to turn the Mass into a matter of personal creativity to the detriment of the liturgical laws (given for the protection of the faithful), he is obtruding his personality and his whims on the work of the Spirit. On the altar the priest acts "in the person of Christ" (LG 10). And the sanctifying Spirit wants our attention in the eucharistic celebration to be drawn to the Person and redemptive action of Christ, not to the person and creative action of Father So-and-So.

Dynamism?; dialogue?

            "The law of the Spirit is more dynamic". Dynamism means power; and in phrases such as that just quoted, it presumably implies effectiveness. If the law of the Spirit calls people together into unity - and if people come - then it is indeed dynamic. Not if the effect is the contrary.

            Marching orders are meant to unite people, to call them to work and travel in unison and in the same direction; then they are dynamic. Marching orders are not more dynamic if they set each person marching off in a different direction.

            It is easy to claim to be moved by the Spirit no matter what direction one is moving in; the history of Protestantism exemplifies this. What is worth pondering is whether a thousand contradictory voices, each claiming to speak in the name of Christ, can represent the dynamism of the Spirit . . .; or do they rather suggest the explosive fission of individual opinions run wild?

            The Holy Spirit inspires us to act not so much independently as freely, as parts of the one whole, as members of the same Body. He draws scattered hearts, scattered wills, scattered minds into a unity of affection and a unity of purpose; the cor unum et anima una of the first Christians (Acts 4:32).

            One may question if the Holy Spirit is present where there is unity without diversity; one can be sure he is not present where there is diversity without unity.

            I recall the comment of a cleric referring to pastoral directives for the development of his diocese: "We would follow the Holy Spirit better if there were more dialogue between the bishop and each one of his priests. After all, both parties are temples of the Spirit".

            There is an element of truth in this that bishops would do well to bear in mind. Members of a diocese, however, would also do well to remember that what makes pastoral work effective is not so much the mutual dialogue of superior and subordinate, as the personal dialogue of each one with God. What is needed is not that the bishop listens to me, but that I listen to God. The more a person is on the wavelength of the Spirit - the demanding Spirit - the more effective he will be, the more flexible, the more docile; and the less concerned to find others on his wavelength.

            * * *

            No one, we said earlier, has a monopoly of the Holy Spirit. But it is important to have some sure standard by which we can know if, without any monopoly, we at least possess him or not. St Augustine mentions one clear criterion of supreme importance: "In the measure in which we love the Church, we possess the Holy Spirit"[3].


[1] See below, Ch. 14.

[2] It is the Natural Law which in a certain sense comes from the heart.

[3] In Joann. Ev. Tract. 32, 8. Cf. OT 9.