The Law and Its Spirit

For her purification following the birth of her son, Mary went with Joseph and Jesus to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice — “‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,’ in accordance with the dictate in the Law of the Lord.”

This Scripture, Luke 2:24, has always bothered me. It refers back to Leviticus, where it is written, “When a woman has conceived and gives birth to a boy, she shall be unclean for seven days” (12:2).

“Why,” I have always wondered, “would Mary have to make such an offering? On what possible basis could the virgin Mother of the Son of God be considered ‘unclean’ or in need of an offering for sin?”

The answer, of course, is that she was fulfilling the Law, just as Christ submitted to baptism under John and paid the Temple tax. The only problem is, if obedience to the Law of Moses was so important, why did St. Paul say what he does in Romans 7:6? That verse reads: “But now we are released from the Law, dead to what held us captive, so that we may serve in the newness of the Spirit and not under the obsolete letter.”

Two thousand years later, we are still struggling with this tension between the Spirit and the Law. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, many theologians insisted that it would “be necessary not to follow the texts of the council, but its spirit. In this way, obviously, a vast margin was left open for the question on how this spirit should subsequently be defined and room was consequently made for every whim” (Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia, Dec. 22, 2005).

The first decades following the council certainly provided fodder for traditionalists’ nightmares: pagan rites in convent basements, same-sex liaisons in seminaries, liturgies in which priests dressed up as clowns. Everywhere, the stately, honorable and noble traditions of the ancient mystery were degraded. Surely, the council had made a mistake.

On the contrary, I would argue that these turbulent years were an unavoidable symptom of the Church passing into a new period of her life.

To draw an analogy, there is a time in the life of every young person when he or she goes out into the world and is, for the first time, free of all of the rules and regulations of life in the parental home. Sober-minded adolescents pass immediately into a state of responsible adulthood. Some go a little crazy first.

Some parents respond to this by trying to maintain an iron grip on their child, but that generally backfires. The more sensible approach is merely to let go and then sit back and wait: Eventually, the glamour of unregulated freedom will diminish and a sense of real responsibility will come in to replace the childish obedience to rules that used to provide moral direction.

This is precisely what is happening in the Church. In his 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, Pope Benedict noted, “Forty years after the council, we can show that the positive is far greater and livelier than it appeared to be in the turbulent years around 1968. Today, we see that although the good seed developed slowly, it is nonetheless growing; and our deep gratitude for the work done by the council is likewise growing.”

Just so. Religious vocations are increasing again, new seminarians are more likely to be orthodox and devout, and new nuns are more likely to voluntarily assume the veil. My generation of young Catholics is seeking out new avenues to let the Holy Spirit work in us in the postmodern world, new ways of reviving tradition and realizing orthodoxy without simply clinging to the way that things were done in the past.

The question for the traditionalist, of course, is: Why? Why not simply leave things as they were? Back when people knew what was expected of them, weren’t things simpler? Wasn’t there less room for error and abuse?

Perhaps, but what the council sought to renew was a “law of freedom … [that] inclines us to act spontaneously by the prompting of charity and, finally, lets us pass from the condition of a servant who ‘does not know what his master is doing’ to that of a friend of Christ … or even to the status of son and heir” (Catechism, No. 1972).

Legalistic faith is simpler in some ways, but it risks descending into an empty observance that easily crumbles when put under pressure. It is not by accident that the Manichees were as infamous for lax practice as they were for strict theory. A shell of piety with nothing inside to support it will not stand up to real temptation.

When the rules are relaxed, conscience must rise to take up the slack. Those who do not have a properly formed conscience in the first place will go wild, but those who genuinely want to do the will of God will be challenged to go deeper into the interior life — to really discern rather than merely obey. In this way, faith matures, the law of love replaces the law of fear, and the Holy Spirit is given greater latitude to work in the world through the hearts of all who believe.

Problems do occur when people feel that this spiritualized faith obliterates the need for obedience, that the role of conscience usurps the authority of the Church, and that a personal sense of God’s will overrules the dictates of the magisterium. It is in cases such as these that we need to look to Mary’s sacrifice of doves, to Christ’s baptism and the Temple tax. These examples remind us that obedience remains a virtue and that truly mature faith is able to glean meaning and devotion from the Law as well as the Spirit.

Even St. Paul reminds us that the Law is by no means a sin (see Romans 7:7). Yet a faith bound up wholly in the Law cannot save. Next time we’ll take a look at the anatomy of legalistic faith.

Melinda Selmys is a staff writer at