Spirit & Law: Lawlessness & Moralism

Sometimes I think of two siblings arguing back and forth, having a history of resentment without any sort of point of reference how that rivalry began, akin to whether the chicken or the egg came first.  When conflict gets so polarized, figuring out why it began becomes the least important task, but rather seeking a resolution and above all reconciliation to the truth in charity ought to be the goal.  God really does not care about who we were in the past, but rather who we will be for eternity.  This is why God is merciful, because ultimately he is liberated from any type of polarized notion of truth, or any malicious protest meant to serve one’s resentment and desire for revenge.

This probably could be said of any number of issues, but the one in particular that has consumed my mind of late is that of the difference between Moralism and Lawlessness.  The two are incredibly problematic, because both are spiritual attitudes lacking something significant:  the person of Jesus.  Dangerously, both camps tend to support their own stance through scripture. The Lawless will point out Christ’s criticisms on the Pharisees, and the Moralists will point to Christ’s warning about hell, and call to radical obedience to His Father’s will.

Those afflicted with an obsession to promoting lawlessness (albeit, they’d never characterize it as such) are people that ought to be loved.  Moralists must understand that while a person may attempt to falsely seek liberation through the dismantling of God’s moral law, or a sort of apathy towards it, is nonetheless a person who has been devastated by the evils of Moralism.

In a word, Moralism is a tendency to reduce our faith to a system of ethical does and don’ts.  That is to say, a purely external notion of sin is presented as the whole message of the gospel.  Moralism will advocate for orthodoxy, right doctrine, good laws, solid-catechesis and obedience to the Magisterial Authority.  When it goes “bonkers” it will likely place itself above Magisterial Authority, claiming to be “more-Catholic-than-the-Pope.”  Condemnation, judgmental glances, and a general unwelcoming spirit that essentially preaches the erroneous doctrine that one can only be loved by God or the community if he or she is first morally perfect.”   While a moralist probably would never characterize his or her position as such, that is often what is actually communicated.  Christ died for us while we were sinners.

And so those who are promoting a liberalism or a lawlessness or freedom from “rules” and “discipline” and ethics, are typically those who have been presented with God’s Moral Law as a purely non-relational, legalistic-and-sadly, malicious temperament.

Moralists should be loved.  Many moralists have been wounded by the plight of lawlessness which seeks to dismantle the moral law of God.  To dismantle the moral law of God is ultimately to cut us off from life, from genuine freedom and truth, and therefore any authentic expression of love and brotherhood.  The rigidity found in lawlessness, (that is the dogmatic-like assertion there are no laws), is to dismantle the 10 commandments to mere suggestions and personal preferences, leaving people with a sense of aimlessness, a lack of purpose and direction, and ultimately an enslavement to egoism, individualism, and a world of pain and isolation.  Moralists often are those who thirst so deeply for liberation from personal sin, or seek that others be liberated from the plights of selfishness.

Observing a world that does not honour God, because it rejects his law, has always been the cry of the prophets.  But so has it been the cry of the prophets that the law is not to be followed in a purely external fashion.  That is to finally say that when the law is practiced it ought to be done with Love.

Here we see one thing that may be over looked by the moralist.  He might suggest that if I do a just act, I have automatically done something loving.  But this is a terribly infantile view of morality.  Anyone with some degree of self-awareness knows that a good deed may be done for terrible reasons.

For instance, if a man were to serve a poor man a bowl of soup, most today would place him on a podium for honour and praise.  But this assumes of course that the “servant” has served this poor man out of love.  What if he knew that the culture he lived in would paint him as a hero, and this was therefore the only reason he fed the poor man?  Could it be possible that a man bearing external, visible signs of being “socially just” could in fact be morally corrupt?  The answer is quite simply:  yes.

In fact, all who are sinners, which is everyone with the exception of Jesus and Mary, is somehow guilty of this.  Here is the point:  the Pharisee of every generation is not tied down to a specific external sign, through all generations.  Rather the Pharisee is one who is tied down to what is commonly accepted as piety by all people.  Therefore, one could equally defend the right to life, but for all the wrong reasons.  A man could hold a sign, be harassed for his position, and be persecuted by others because of the very legitimate cause he is viewed as promoting.  But perhaps this man enjoys being treated as a victim.  Perhaps he views his own public martyrdom as a means to bring honour to himself.

To be a legalist therefore is never tied down to anything external, or to a theological left or right.  A clerical shirt, a golden chalice, a social-justice doctrine, and the right-to-life movement are all good things, which can be used for bad reasons.  But the lawless one enters, reacting justifiably to the legalist, but attacks the wrong thing:  the externals.

The lawless one attacks the externals rather than the spirit.  For instance, let us look at clericalism.  Clericalism takes many shapes and forms, and based upon the values of various groups, can at times be diametrically opposed the most popular notion of clericalism.

Clericalism to me is tied directly to a spirit of entitlement.  It is essentially where the ego of the ordained considered himself the subject of service, rather than serving his subjects.  Perhaps a better way of saying it is thus:  a man who serves himself is a clericalist.  The irony is that a Cleric ought to serve, and so the word itself should perhaps be “anti-clerical.”  This is neither here nor there, since language can be argued till the cows come home.

How can this clericalism form?  That is a question each cleric must bring to his own daily examination of conscience.  The question may be phrased as:  “How am I tempted to abuse my power?”  Or, even better:  how am I living up to a life of simplicity/poverty (for the purpose of service), celibate-chastity (for the purpose of service), and obedience (for the purpose of service)?

I had to ask myself that question and what I realized is that “clericalism” has been emphasized and attached to specific externals or arenas of the Catholic faith such as liturgy, doctrine, clothing, et cetera.

But upon examining some of the greatest saints such as St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Jean Vianney, I discovered that these men pumped much money into the Liturgy precisely because of their call to “serve” God first.  But they also pumped a great deal of money into their service of the poor, because their call to serve was and always will be twofold:  God and Neighbour.

Where did the saints NOT pump money?  The rectory.  Without going into detail, there are things that I have to personally improve upon in my own living quarters, and I am taking notes from both my local bishop who has sold his house and lives in a rectory, as well as the Pope who is now living in much simpler conditions.  If the Pope who is the head of billions of Catholics is going to live simply, perhaps I should too.  The priest does not act for the poor when we deprives the people of good worship, but rather when he denies himself comforts.  These externals are important and vital, and God alone knows if I am trying to embody them for the right reason.  However, just because the external can be lived out with a malicious or evil intention, does not mean that the external is the problem.  Precisely the opposite is true:  it is the spirit.

A priest could live in poverty and boast about it to find praise.  But his wealth and idol would be the honour and esteem of others.  A man could boast of his great sacrifice of celibacy and chastity, while living a life totally devoted to marrying himself.  A man could, boast of his obedience to the Magisterial Authorities or (for the lawless) his “conscience” (meaning preference for truth), and yet would be totally enslaved to his own personal judgment, never actually surrendering his intellect to God.

The extreme of lawlessness is to attack various laws or the externals as if they are the problem.  And the extreme with Moralism is to reduce moral acts to nothing other than mere external actions.  Both positions are incomplete, and yet both are attempting – probably in a very honest way – to remedy what is lacking in the other.

The solution is simply this:  to recognize that the Law is embodied in the Person of Jesus whom we are called to enter into a deep, personal relationship with.  To be “zealous about God’s law” because of a deep realization that those laws are written in our heart for our protection and growth in the spiritual life.

Sometimes I am greatly discouraged with our attitude towards this important discussion.  If a person wears a cross or some external sign, he or she is judged.  Perhaps my right hand and my left hand are placed together during mass, and this means I’m a clericalist.  On the other hand, I am praised by others for such externals because they contradict and therefore aggravate those who are attacking such externals.

Both attitudes lack charity and miss the whole point.  And so long as the conversation is devoid of love and a desire for reconciliation and understanding, nothing can be said or done to embody in the flesh God’s Love.

The Spirit of the Law is to embody it with a will that is motivated to seek the good of the other for their own sake.  That is to say, the Spirit of the Law is never contrary to the Law, lest it be the Spirit of the anti-law.  Rather, the Spirit of the Law is always about living out God’s Law in Love.  If God’s law is the truth, and God’s Spirit is Love, then perhaps they both go together, like the Trinity or something…

1 Comment

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One response to “Spirit & Law: Lawlessness & Moralism

  1. I actually believe that what most people refer to “externals” and “pomp” in the Catholic faith are very important. I once liked Holy Mother church to a queen. She wears a robe of splendor yet clothes the naked, she collects wisdom, yet instructs the ignorant. she offers the Eucharist yet feeds the hungry, she lives in a palace yet builds palaces for the poor to worship amidst beauty free of charge.

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