Friday, September 6, 2013

Laws and Rules

The Catholic faith is often criticized for being legalistic, too bogged down with rules, too focused on the no-no, too concerned with its canons and commandments, etc. I hear this from both non-Catholics and Catholics themselves. "It seems like all the Church does is say 'no': no sex outside of marriage, no meat on Fridays during Lent, blah blah blah. Come on, guys, live a little!"

This attitude is reaching for a good thing, but it misidentifies its goal. Every single human being wants to be happy; but many human beings today think that the only way they can be happy is to be free from any constraint to indulge any whim or exercise any desire that flits across their mind. Many people today seem to think that happiness lies in the possession of absolute freedom... except they don't understand what freedom is. They confuse it with something else.

We need to make the important distinction between freedom and license. As Fulton Sheen once put it, license is the ability to do whatever you want; true freedom is the ability to do whatever you ought. Often when you hear people today talk about wanting freedom, what they really are after is license: they want to do whatever they want, whenever they want, with no one attempting to stop them or judge them. Freedom is more than this capability for wish fulfillment, though. Freedom is the capability for fulfilling not your wishes, but your nature.

"Fulfilling your nature" and "doing whatever you ought" refer to the same thing: acting in accord with the way in which God has made human beings to act. God has made human beings in His own image, so that human nature conforms to God's nature and mirrors it. This way of conceiving of what is "natural" to us helps us to distinguish what is part of true human nature from what is a result of our fallen, sinful state--it may feel "natural" for me to want to rear-end the guy who cuts me off in traffic, but that does not mean this action or inclination is in accord with the way God made us and intends us to act.

Let's take the above example of extramarital sex. Why is it forbidden? Because it is not in accord with our nature. But the urge is so strong, the compulsion so great, how can it not be natural? Because, due to our sinfulness, our sexual desire has gone out of balance, out of our control. So what makes sex within marriage so "good" or "natural"? Sexual union creates an unparalleled closeness between a man and a woman and has as its object the procreation of children. These both require a permanent bond. On the practical level, because sharing this greatest intimacy with too many spreads one thin, and because the stable relationship of the parents is the ideal environment for a child to be raised. But even apart from that, the elements of fecundity and permanence and all-embracing love are the elements of the relationship between God and His People, between Christ and the Church, for it is within the Church that we are birthed into new life by being baptized into Christ's death and resurrection (being "born again of water and the Spirit"). And that great mystery is foreshadowed in the human relationship of marriage and the procreation of children. In short, sex has its proper place within marriage because only in this way does it model the divine reality.

This covers the moral law that makes up part of the Church's "rules." What about all those disciplines like fasting before receiving Communion, and not eating meat on Fridays during Lent (heck, the whole Lenten season in general), and all those other sorts of things?

Think of the Church as a family. In every family, in every househould, there are "house rules" which parents set down for their house's good order and to aid in their children's good upbringing. Chores are assigned to teach them responsibility and to keep the house tidy. "No dessert unless you eat your vegetables" to teach them which foods are more important. Things like this. Well, the Church is our mater et magistra, our mother and teacher. The bishops in union with the Holy Father, by virtue of their apostolic office, have been given the great task by God to shepherd their flocks to heaven, to teach the children entrusted to them about God and His plan for us. As part of this, the Church makes certain rules for our benefit and welfare.

So the Church prescribes periods of fasting to help us realize how we ought to hunger for God. The Church designates a period of penitence before celebrating the great mystery of Easter to help us cultivate sorrow for our sins and an awareness of our need for God's forgiveness. The Church tells us to abstain from meats during the penitential season because the ancients thought that "flesh-meats" aroused the passions and made us less in control of ourselves. (Fun fact: modern science has discovered that those meats contain high levels of zinc, and that zinc increases one's libido. So the ancients were right! And guess what seems kind of like meat but doesn't contain large amounts of zinc? Fish. And you thought the Church was just being random.)

And by following these practices of discipline, we're better able to control our passions, instead of letting them control us; we're able to keep them in their proper balance. And when we can do that, we're better able to live our lives according to the nature God gave us. These disciplines and commandments, these laws and rules, work together to help us lead holier, happier lives. Only then can we be fulfilled, when we're filled with God.

1 comment:

  1. So clear, so complete, and so easy to understand. I love your writings, young man.