Print Article | Email Article | Write To Us

Doctrines, Disciplines, and Different Legal Traditions in the Church

Friday, August 06, 2010 3:00 AM Comments (27)

A newly confirmed Catholic who is trying to navigate the sometimes baffling world of small T tradition writes me from England:

I’m still a bit bothered by the idea of eating meat on Friday once being a mortal sin and now not (how does that work? What was the actual sin involved back in the day, and why isn’t it sinful now?


That’s one of those things “everybody knows” and so it prompts me to question if it was ever really true.  The sin, whatever its gravity, attaches not so much to meat as to the duty of respect owed the passion of Christ.  So there is still a discipline of self-denial attaching to Fridays, but the Church gives us different ways of living that out.  Some sort of self-denial is called for, but how to do that is given more latitude.  (By the way, the meat discipline was, until the modern era, largely a discipline that cut the poor slack while targeting the rich.  For the poor could not afford meat anyway, but could afford (or catch) fish.  We make these judgment calls about how to show proper respect/modesty/honor all the time.  And these judgements change as human fashions and cultures do.  So two hundred years ago, a bearded soldier was observing perfect honor toward military decorum.  Today, he would be insubordinate.  3000 years ago, liturgical dance was a perfectly honorable way to worship God (as David showed, dancing before the ark like a priest).  Today, no.  Different cultures have different ways of expressing proper honor.  The Church tries to keep a bit of order with minimal regulations.  That’s basically the story.

How much authority does the Church have to toggle things between being mortally sinful and not sinful at all?

In a certain sense, none at all.  Contempt for the Eucharist or the Passion is *always* mortally sinful.  That’s because sin and virtue are not arbitrary legal penalties and rewards handed down by an arbitrary and capricious Mesopotamian deity who just decides, for no particular reason, that likes this and does not like that.  Rather, sin and virtue pertain to the sort of creatures we are and the sort of God He is.  At all times and everywhere, a movement of the human soul toward hostility to God (however that is expressed) is damaging to the human person.  Conversely, any attempt to open the heart to God, however it is expressed, is pleasing to God.  However, ways in which that contempt is shown by a different culture can change.  Moses can stand barefoot in some ratty shepherd’s garb and be perfectly reverent.  Let some hippie priest try it, and he is showing contempt for the decorum of the Mass and feeding his ego and persona as a “radical dude” while making the Mass about himself and distracting the worshippers from God and toward himself.  The trick is getting at the spirit of the law, rather than the letter.

Of course, this also means we cannot judge, since external appearance will only get you so far.  But the point of the disciplinary codes of the Church is not to encourage judgemental feeding frenzies among the members of the Body of Christ (though that can be an unfortunate side effect sometimes).  It is, once again, to maintain a certain semblance of order and discipline in a large and rowdy Church of a billion people.  It’s rooted in a very Latin, as distinct from Anglo-Saxon, approach to law.  Anglo-Saxon tradition says, “Make as few laws as possible, then stick to them through thick and thin even if it’s stupid.  Anglo-Saxon drivers stop at stop lights in the Mojave Desert when there is no car within a hundred miles, BECAUSE IT’S THE LAW!  Latin conceptions of law tend to list rules for every possible thing, and then list all the exceptions and reason why somebody might have a reason for not obeying the rule—which more or less explains Italian driving.  When an Anglo-Saxon cutlure encounters Latin Law (as in, for instance, the canon of law of the Church) it can result in (depending on your perspective) an exasperating (or funny) attempt by the average product of English or American culture to treat what is actually a fairly loosey goosey and latitudinarian code of order and discipline as though it is is Iron Law of Existence.  Hence, the constant stream of complaint about canon law as proof Catholic “legalism”.  In fact, however, such things are typically evidence of what W.H. Auden referred to as “Catholicism of a warm, easy-going Mediterranean variety”, that has lots of room for human weakness, takes a nice siesta every afternoon, and like to drink wine with friends in open evening air while it’s northern cousins labor through the day, fighting sleep, so that they can make sure to get eight restful hours of sleep tonight in order to begin a productive day of good Puritan work tomorrow.  The earnest legalism is actually in the mind of Anglo-Saxon.

But I’m wandering pretty far afield from the original question now.

Filed under mailbag

About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
  • Get the RSS feed
Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.