love of law vs law of love


“To do your will, O my God, is my delight, and your law is within my heart.” Psalm 40

When I was growing up, being a catholic meant following all the laws of the church. These laws were presented as black and white directives. Our faithfulness as catholics was measured by our faithfulness to these laws. Here are some examples:

  • obligatory Mass attendance
  • obligatory head coverings for women and girls in church
  • obligatory confession before receiving communion
  • obligatory fasting before receiving communion
  • avoidance of all things Protestant, including bibles, books, services, spouses, friends
  • no eating meat on Fridays

An obsessiveness with the law often lead to strange debates. What constituted a head covering? Can a kleenex replace a hat? How late can one come to Mass and still observe their obligation? How early can you leave? Is taking medicine before Mass breaking the fast?

The ever present threat of mortal sin fed our obsessiveness. If we died in the state of mortal sin, we were told, we would face an eternity of hell fire. Fire hurts. It hurts like hell! Avoiding such horrendous punishment became the goal of every good catholic.

And yet, even as a child, I couldn’t understand how missing Sunday Mass was on the same moral footing as murder. Since both were considered a mortal sin, either could send your soul to hell. Really? Would missing Mass put me on the same fast track to damnation as, say, an Adolph Hitler?

Perhaps it’s because of this illogical equating of man-made laws with God’s laws that many of these laws eventually fell to the wayside. The greatest gift of the Second Vatican Council was to sieve through the detritus of rules and regulations in order to focus on faith as a living organism. Being a catholic became less about following rules and more about relationship; with God, with each other and with the world.

Love of Law vs Law of Love

Jesus wasn’t a fan of pharisees who put their love of the law before love of those they served. Despite Jesus’s own admonitions, pharisaical obsession with laws continues in our church today, and is perhaps the greatest cause of division.

For example;

Our liturgy is meant to be the “source and summit” of the church’s prayer life. Instead of focusing on prayer, some liturgists spend time and energy fighting over correct words and actions. Instead of celebrating cultural and linguistic diversity, battles are fought over worship styles, vestments, music, and church decor.

Another example;

Our belief in the dignity of life from conception to the grave has been co-opted into a single-issue culture war by extreme pro-life advocates. They judge politicians and political parties solely on their stance for or against abortion rights. They fight to deny free and easy access to birth control (which is proven to reduce abortions) in the name of religious freedom.

These same pro-life voices are often strangely silent when it comes to promoting universal health care, welcoming refugees and immigrants, guaranteeing living wages, assisting low income families and other social justice issues.

Obsessive adherence to or promotion of laws should never trump the basic law of love.We are blessed with a pope who never tires of preaching about love as the most basic core of our faith. Loving God must translate into human love, or it is meaningless. Love means we care for each other. Love means we work for justice, equality and peace for all. Love means we fight for laws that ensure basic human rights for everyone.

The law of love is so simple. It doesn’t require extensive discernment or study. All that is needed is a touch of empathy…

Do unto others

as you would have them

do unto you.



4 thoughts on “love of law vs law of love

  1. While I agree heartily with your observations, I must add that confession before communion was obligatory only if one believed they were in mortal sin.

    That said; objectively speaking mortal sin was explicitly defined, but subjectively speaking it depended on three things: grave matter, knowledge that the act was grave matter, and full consent of the will.

    That is were confusion was/is rampant. If the Church wants to understand the decline in the sacrament of confession, they need to examine how the sacrament has used over time.

    While there can be great spiritual interaction between the penitent and the priest, many, if not most penitents have had one or many experiences with confessors that were spiritually debilitating. Not all confessors are equipped to display Jesus’ love and mercy in the sacrament, presumimg their desire to do so.

    1. Almost “technically” correct, I think, but not quite. “Easter Duties”, as I recall, was independent of “mortal sin”. Though the “encouragement” to weekly and at least monthly “First Friday” confession was not strictly speaking obligatory, Sister Mary Agnes of the Strop (yes ‘strop’), was pretty convincing.
      More to the point, whether it was “love of law” or utilitarian, Sacraments and “duties” were instruments of domination in pretense of fidelity. The “law of love” really does include a pretty serious dose of discernment. One Corinthians, 13 is a lot more challenging than stone tablet compliance. It demands intelligence and a grasp of what real love means and entails.
      “Conscience” in the domination scenario was more like – assume the worst and/or let the priest decide for me. The Francis I mode, which is really the human (“…in the image and likeness…”) one, returns conscience to its rightful place: informed person of good intention and will. (I suspect the subtle distinction is one reason why the Institution had such a bad opinion of Philip Pulman’s best selling, “Dark Materials” series)

      1. Hi Dennis and Jerry,
        Sorry for the late reply. Behind the black and white of “thou shalt nots” lies many a grey area which often requires careful discernment. But, we weren’t taught this as children and few had the opportunity to study moral theology as adults. The point of this blog post was a reflection on the harm done when we were/are bombarded with threats of mortal sin and punishment rather than focusing on the law of love.

  2. No “sorry” needed.
    There was a beginning, a “try” so to speak in catechesis you describe just before and accelerated after Vatican II. A great primer on a pedagogical approach related to personal maturation was published in the late 50’s: “Love or Constraint”, by Marc Oraison. It deals with the issue pretty much as you describe it.
    I guess it was buried under the blitzkrieg of resistance by later Popes and well….

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