Kill All the Lawyers? The Place of Law and the Gospel (I)

The first of a two post series on canon law and some current issues in the Church

The great playwright, William Shakespeare, once had one of his characters in Henry VI say: “the first thing we do, let us kill all the lawyers.” The sentiment is one that one suspects would find a sympathetic audience today. Attacking lawyers is certainly fashionable today, both within the Catholic Church and without it, though it is the former that concerns us here. The great canonist Ed Peter’s has recently complained about the spirit of anti-nomianism that seems pervasive today as people reject the law, some in the name of mercy or the gospel, and some simply in the name of their own desires. Defend the law and one risks being labeled a Pharisee, a legalist, one who cares more for law than people.

But we cannot so easily do without canon law. Canon law, that is, the law of the Church, grew to maturity in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the same time that saw the founding of the universities and major reform movements in the medieval Church to free it from secular control. This was not mere coincidence. One strength of the law was its ability to draw distinctions, the same skill developed by the scholastic theologians. For instance, throughout Aquinas, when he takes on a problem, he often points out the much lies in how one makes fine distinctions. When discussing whether it was necessary that Christ become man, Aquinas explains that in an absolute sense it was not necessary, but in another sense, it was (because it was the most fitting and efficient way to work salvation). He distinguished sense, he drew lines.

Lawyer did the same things. The also drew lines. Those lines included the line between the sacred and the secular, as the drew a line around the Church as firm as the walls of Constantinople and said that no secular ruler might cross it. Drawing lines between the secular and sacred meant that, free of secular influence (in theory if not always in practice), the Church was free to reform and to grow in holiness.

The law had another advantage. It is said today that “the law is reason free from passion.” Certainly, this saying fits with the attitude of the medieval Church lawyers. Men are too easily given to passion, they find it too easy to put reason aside out of anger, greed, or even compassion. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, once said that “most men live by sense rather than reason.” It was not said as an insult, but a realistic account of human nature. But the men of the Middle Ages knew that passion was no safeguard. Their’s was, in a sense, the first real Age of Reason, for they believed in the power of reason to understand the world in a way few had before. Reason, the rules of logic, would take them to a just and true outcome regardless the personal feelings or preferences or those involved. By reason, man escaped prejudice, and moved away from the animals and toward the angels. Hence, one task of law, reason free from passion, was the justice and fairness that came from truth. This was the purpose of law, to discover justice, regardless the feelings of those involved.

This was important when, in the early thirteenth-century, King Phillip Augustus of France, the most powerful ruler in Europe asked (demanded) that the Pope, Innocent III, grant him a divorce of his wife. Pope Innocent III, however, was not a mere sentimentalist, rather, he was a canon lawyer. Hence, was able to look past the personal preference of himself (he would have preferred not to anger the king) and the king, and tell the king that the law found no justification to put aside the plain words of Christ in the gospel: when a man divorces his wife and marries another, he commits adultery. By the law, the Pope tried defend the innocent wife of a powerful king who had begun to find her inconvenient.

This is why it is so unfortunate today when some in the Church set the law against the gospel and try to claim that we must put aside the law in the name of the gospel. Nonsense, if the law, reason free from passion, is not allowed not draw out the implications of the gospel and to consider its application to particular situations, then the decision will be unjust. If reason cannot decide, then unreason will. And when two passions collide, the passion of the stronger person usually prevails. Hence Henry VIII, who also demanded a divorce, rejected the advice of his lawyer, Thomas More, who told him that he had no grounds to break up his marriage. Henry ignored him; since his reason would not rule, his passion did and the first thing Henry did, was to kill the lawyer.

One final thought. In Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons, Thomas More’s son-in-law told him that he would cut down every law in England to achieve a desired end. More’s reply was biting: “And when the last law was down, and the devil turned round on you– where would you hide Roper, the laws all being flat… if you cut them down– and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then…?” Kill the lawyers, put aside the law, but who, as Bolt’s More says, could stand upright in ensuing storm.

Moral Progress, Conscience, and Moral Decay

Recently, in both the secular and Catholic World, much talk has focused on the notion of personal “conscience.” In the secular world, the question has focused on whether religious institutions may follow their conscience by not paying for their employees contraceptives, since they see contraception as morally objectionable. More interesting though, is the current debate on conscience among Catholics themselves. Yet, from the debate, it is clear that the notion of conscience is poorly understood.

On one hand, traditional Catholic teaching holds that conscience is inviolable; that is to say, the claims of one’s conscience are absolute and may not be violated. Yet depending what is meant by conscience, this leads to absurdities. A bad man may strongly feel that his conscience is telling him to break into his neighbors’ house because his neighbor deserves it. Or a neo-nazi feel that he really is right to burn down a black Church, because it deserves it. But if conscience is inviolable, it seems we need say that these people are right to act as they do, which is absurd.

On the other hand, we clearly admire people who follow their conscience at the cost of great personal risk and loss to themselves. Robert Bolt, an agnostic playwright, could not help but admire the Catholic layman, Sir Thomas More, who stood on his own conscience when he refused to say that his king was not an adulterer for divorcing his wife and attempting to take another. When asked why he admired More so much, Bolt pointed to More’s stubborn insistence on following his conscience even against all the coercive power of the English state. He admired that More “would not place his hand on an ordinary book and tell a very ordinary lie.”

So how to reconcile the two? Clearly, to follow conscience is admirable but at the same time, moral evils cannot be justified with an appeal to conscience. It must be then, that conscience is not simply a matter of strong personal feeling. A person feels a certain way, therefore conscience is speaking. This view of conscience clearly leads to the absurdities mentioned above. In this case, conscience becomes to easy to confuse with personal desire. “My conscience tells me that I can…” comes to mean little more than “I really, really want to do x, therefore I will believe that my conscience wants me to do x.” This is clearly absurd, but if conscience is internal, how can one refute it? Are there no objective, external markers, that conscience may be measured against?

If one is a Christian, of course, the answer is simple. If one’s conscience contradicts the meaning of scripture, then what one believes is his conscience is certainly no more than personal desires or something worse. Certainly, not conscience at all. If one’s desire for a second marriage contradicts the plain words of Jesus, “a man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery,” then clearly the claim that his conscience is telling him to contradict the words of Christ is either delusion or sophistry. If one is in addition to Christian, a Catholic, then he is also bound by the tradition of the Church.

But just as “faith must be purified by reason” (Benedict XVI), conscience too can, at least partially, be measure by reason besides revelation alone. In his book, One Body, the philosopher Alexander Pruss made some useful remarks on conscience. He referred to those who say that their conscience now permits them to use contraception. In reply, Pruss pointed out several things, I mention three:

1. Conscience, when it is really conscience speaking, tends to grow more demanding and not less. This is merely the nature of moral life. The more we try sincerely to follow conscience, the more demands conscience places on us. Conscience permits, not more than it used to, but less than it used to. Hence to say that conscience once did not allow divorce, but now it does allow it, fails to fit with the nature of conscience.

2. This is connected to the last. People say “my conscience allows…”, but conscience does not really permit. The nature of conscience is to forbid. It acts typically as a check on one’s behavior and desires. Hence, any claim “my conscience allows,” seems not to fit this measure of conscience.

3. While there is moral progress, there is also moral decay (Pruss). If there is progress or development, we should expect it to grow organically out of the Christian tradition. A man develops from a child, a dog from a puppy. Yet, the current desire for divorce and remarriage and contraception (for example) seems not to develop from Christian tradition, but from secular culture. This suggests rather than decay is slipping in, influenced by secular culture, not that moral progress is being made.

This is significant for the whole modern discussion of conscience, but also the claims of some, flowing out of the recent synod, that people can, on their own, in their own consciences, discern if their divorce and second marriage (or whatever other moral issue) is permitted by their own conscience or not.

This passes the test neither of scripture nor of reason. Conscience is inviolable, to be obeyed absolutely. But desire that contradict reason and scripture, where a person is likely led by personal wish to something they already wish to do, is not conscience. It is only desire, and to replace conscience (real conscience) with desire and still call it conscience only leads us, “on the short route to chaos.”

The World’s Hatred: A Letter to Catholics

This was initially submitted to my local diocesan paper as an OP-Ed.  The paper published it as a short letter.  Hence, I present the original here.  

As the Holy Father concludes his visit to the United States, the Catholic Church seems to wear a more attractive face. Pope Francis’s popularity and the enormously positive media coverage seem almost overwhelming. Doubtless too, it comes as a welcome relief to Catholics tired of being attacked for their supposedly backward and narrow views on a range of issues from abortion to marriage and beyond. The Pope is popular, the Church is popular, and all seems well. We need no longer talk about unpopular, controversial issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Instead, we can “reach out” to people, by talking about easier subjects. At least, so it seems.

Enjoying this period of popularity is perfectly understandable and probably even morally neutral. But a thing can be morally neutral and still lead one into danger. We may enjoy this period of popularity while it lasts, but herein lies the danger, that we might be tempted to try to make it last. We might be tempted to try to make this time of popularity last by trying to get along too well with the world or by not talking about “controversial” subjects. We might try to put aside Our Lord’s hard words: His talk about suffering, crosses, sin, and hell. We might focus on the Christ who said to help the poor and not to judge, but not the Christ who flipped tables, called his enemies “whitewashed tombs,” and told his closest follower, “get behind me Satan.”

This is the danger: that hoping to maintain present popularity, we may be tempted not to present the full truth of Christ. That we might be tempted to abandon it for mere popularity. And popularity is something no follower of Christ should expect. Our Lord never promised popularity, but a cross; and no one can follow Him and hope to escape it. The world says “blessed are the popular,” but Our Lord said, “blessed are you when they persecute you, revile you, and slander you because of me.” The world says, “woe to the unpopular,” but Our Lord says, “woe to you when men speak well of you.”

If we do not present the full truth of Christ to people, the hard as well as the easy, then we are not presenting the true Christ. If we are not presenting the true Christ, then we are presenting a false Christ. And to deprive people of the truth of Christ and hence of the true Christ is a betrayal of Christ, His gospel, and the poor themselves. Cardinal Sarah, an African Cardinal, and hence someone who knows something about poverty, has recently said that the worst form of discrimination against the poor is not to give them Christ.

Hence, failure to present the whole Gospel is a betrayal of the poor and the weak themselves. It is a betrayal of children— denied a father and a mother—who suffer most from the breakdown of marriage and the family. It is a betrayal of the unborn, the poorest of all, who have no one to defend them but us.

The world may hate us for that defense. But such is our duty, and Christ warned his followers that if the world hates them, know it hated Him first. In His life, same crowds that shouted “hosanna” on Sunday, shouted “crucify” the next Friday. He never sought to escape it. Neither can we.

Care for the Poor: Who Are the Poor? Medieval and Modern Views

Pope Francis has recently gained significant acclaim with his love of the poor and of poverty. He has suggested that he wants a “poor Church for the poor and excoriated excesses of the modern economic system that turn man into an economic animal rather than a spiritual one.” His call to care for the poor has seemed to resonate with a world that also professes its own desire to care for the poor. Sometimes, this is even used by enemies of orthodox Catholicism as a tool to be set against traditional Catholic concerns like abortion– the defense of the unborn– and marriage. Forget about that nonsense, say Francis’s secular admirers, focus on the poor, who we really need to care about. Rather than be “obsessed” with controversial social issues, focus instead on the poor. And some Catholics have agreed, preferring the agreement to conflict.

Yet, who are the poor and what does it mean to be poor? In the modern world, poverty means a lack of money. This may say more about the modern world than about genuine poverty. In the Middle Ages, though, poverty had a broader meaning. Poverty, paupertas, meant not so much the lack of money, as the lack of power. Poverty meant powerlessness. The poor were the weakest members of society: this meant they often lacked money, but it was not quite the same thing. In the earlier Middle Ages the poor were monks- men who stepped away from the violence of aristocratic, feudal society and threw down their weapons to live as unarmed monks. And as the poor, they suffered helpless the attacks of other noble warriors and, even more so, the attacks of Vikings, which devastated monasteries throughout Europe. Later, poverty came to refer more to giving up money, as with St. Francis, who gave up his wealthy middle class lifestyle to become a poor vagrant. Yet, even here, the emphasis was not just on giving up of money, but of power. St. Paul had written that “in my weakness, I am strong,”- this was the point.

So, who are the poor today? The modern world, with its obsession with money, simply equates poverty with the lack of money, but possibly the Middle Ages has something to offer. If paupertas, poverty, is seen not only as lack of money, but the classic sense of lack of power, i.e. weakness, then this would force reconsideration of who the poor are today.

If paupertas is weakness, then who are the poor? Who are the weakest members of society we should care about? Seen in this light, a man from the Middle Ages would consider absurd the claim that we should forget about the unborn and focus on the poor. Or that we should forget about marriage controversies and focus on the poor. This would be a contradiction in terms. Who in society is weaker than the unborn? Who is more powerless? Who is weaker than the children who suffer most from the breakdown of marriage?

If modernity is not too proud to take some lessons from the past, then perhaps it might learn something from past views of poverty and weakness. It might learn the absurdity of claiming to care for the poor, but not the unborn, who are the poorest and weakest of all. And it might drop the ridiculous sophistry of saying that we should talk less about abortion and more about poverty. Liberals sometimes accuse anti-abortionists of only caring about children before they are born. Of course, this is nonsense. Catholic Charities is among the largest non-governmental charitable organizations in the United States. But it also misses an important point: that the need to care for the poor, also entails the need to care for the unborn.

If the modern, secular world really wishes to take some lessons from Pope Francis and his concern for the poor, then one lesson it must take is this: care for the poor will necessitate care for the unborn, on pain of hypocrisy.

Marriage Symbolism and the Question of Women Priests

I have suggested before that people in the Middle Ages simply did not see the same world that the modern man sees. Or to be more precise, they saw the same facts, but those facts had a different meaning. The world may have looked the same, but it did not mean the same thing. It did not mean the same because man in the Middle Ages looked out on a world made by God, a world with its meaning written into it by its Maker. And because the material world was not all there was, it could represent higher spiritual realities. Hence, St. Francis of Assisi loved the world, not as some neo-pagan nature worshiper, but (as the historian C.H. Lawrence put it), but because he saw it as a sign-book of its Creator’s love.

The modern world does not see the world this way, for the modern world has forgotten God, and so matter appears as little more than matter and symbolism- the use of matter to represent higher spiritual realities- is seen as something vague, arbitrary or subjective. To the Middle Ages, the marriage of a man and women was sign of a higher spiritual reality, the union of Christ and the Church, and so divorce was simply unthinkable. A man could no more divorce his wife than Christ could leave His Church. Yet, because the modern world does not see a marriage as having this higher symbolism, divorce is very natural to it and it cannot understand the Catholic world-view.

The same is true of the Catholic priesthood. The modern world sometimes asks why women cannot be priests, as if the priesthood were a right and all that was lacking was the permission of some overly backward pontiff. Yet, it is not so. The priesthood, like marriage, is based on certain symbolism, symbolism that defines its nature and makes it what it is. The symbolism is this: the relationship between God and his people, from Old Testament times, is described as a marriage. So too, the relationship between Christ and His Church. Jesus often spoke of Himself the bridegroom (“can the wedding guests fast when the bridegroom is with them?”), while heaven is described as the wedding feast of the lamb.

Hence, the physical reality of marriage represents the higher spiritual reality of the union of Christ and His bride, the Church. Yet, from this follow certain facts about the nature of the priesthood; for Jesus is Himself a priest (Hebrews 4:14- “A great High Priest”). And the job of the priest was to stand between God and the people and to offer sacrifice. This the priest does today as well, standing in the place of the Great High Priest, Jesus Himself. Standing in the place of Christ, the priest stands in His place in relation to the people. And Christ is the Bridegroom of his bride, the Church. Hence, standing in the place of Christ, the priest, as Christ, stands as the bridegroom in relation to the Church. For this reason, the priesthood was seen as the vocation of men, not by virtue of their worth, for they have none sufficient, but by virtue of spiritual reality.

The priesthood was thus not a matter of rights, but of the nature of reality. The marriage of a man and woman reflected the union of Christ and the Church, and the priest stood in the place of Christ. A female priesthood was simply impossible, perhaps even a contradiction in terms. The meaning did not work. And the meaning was not arbitrary, but objective, written into matter by the God that made it, and reflecting God’s own nature.

But the modern world cannot see this; it cannot see the material world as a sign of higher spiritual realities- for there are none. Symbolism thus becomes wholly arbitrary and subjective- something man made and something he might make otherwise if so wished. The American flag is a symbol of America with 50 stars and 13 stripes. But it need not have had those numbers of stars or stripes or, indeed, any stars and stripes at all. It might have had squares, or deus avertit, butterflies. In the Catholic world-view, some symbols were like that- a knight’s crest perhaps- but not all were. Some symbols had an objective meaning, a meaning because it was written into matter by matter’s maker. Marriage and the priesthood were among these and no one had the power to make it otherwise.

Women in Paganism and Christianity

In the early years of Christianity, the ancient pagan world held Christians in disgust because of their poor understanding of Christianity. The knew little about it, but they “knew” Christians practiced cannibalism, blood sacrifice, conspired against the state, and engaged in sexual deviancy. The modern world, also increasingly pagan, seems to understand Christianity little better. It knows little about Christianity, but it at least “knows” that Christians hate women and gays, are against science, and enjoy long lists of pointless rules.

All these errors are beyond purpose of this piece; rather, what concerns here is the claim that Christianity is oppressive towards women. What interests about this claim is a very odd historical coincidence: Christianity is supposed to be oppressive towards women, yet in early Christianity a majority of the converts were women. This need not disprove the claim that Christianity oppresses women, yet it is at least surely a very odd coincidence. It would be at least as strange as removing the hoods from a KKK meeting and finding a large majority of African Americans were wearing them. Not impossible, perhaps, but highly puzzling.

In, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark has argued that one of the reasons for the rapid rise of Christianity from a small break-off Jewish sect to a religion that dominated the Roman empire was its appeal to women. In pagan antiquity, women had few rights and little respect. Men generally agreed that wives were too much trouble and marriage undesirable; the promise of land and money from the Roman government did little to make women and marriage more palatable. Women who married were likely to be pushed into marriage to much older men with the result that there was little affection between the spouses. For men it was easier and more convenient to find sex elsewhere, hence adultery and affairs were common- at least for men.

Women were also likely to be forced or coerced into abortions and infanticide. They had little power. The real power, the pater potestas, lay with the husband and father, who had the power of life and death over his family. And he used it. Stark has shown that infant girls were killed in enormous numbers by romans preferring a son; this led to a significant gender gap (as in modern China), and made marriage even more difficult.

Christian behavior was different. The marriage age gap was minimized. Abortion and infanticide forbidden. The double standard on adultery was abolished and, as a result, the gender gap was diminished. The pater potestas, at least in the pagan sense, was abolished. No longer did the husband have the power of life and death over his family; the headship remained, but it was now to be a headship of service. The husband was called the head of the family, but this was said, not by way of domination, but by way of sacrifice. He was, in the language of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, to love his wife even as Christ loved his Church, handing himself over for her to sanctify her. Perhaps the ideal was no more met then than now, but it was still different than the pagan, and the ideal mattered.

Why was the Christian practice so different? First was the language already discussed of Ephesians comparing marriage of a husband and wife to the union of Christ and His Church. Such an image placed higher obligations on both partners and forced them to view their marriages differently. Marriage became a sacrament, not a mere social contract.

This has another important aspect. The marriage symbolism implied a new purpose to marriage. In the old pagan view, marriage was for heir or perhaps family alliances. But the purpose of the union of Christ and the Church was holiness. In the Christian view, the purpose of marriage was not children (though they were to be welcomed) or social benefit, but the mutual holiness of the spouses. Hence women could not be seen as mere tools, as a means to an end (heirs or alliances). Because a woman was not mere matter, but had a soul, a soul for which the husband was responsible and so a woman, because she could not be seen solely in material terms, has a basis to be treated better in the Christian than pagan world- and this is what happened.

Today, with the advent of secularism and return of the materialist philosophy, the pagan world is again slowly returning. And again, the pagan world begins to see women only in material terms, which is to say, in sexual and reproductive terms. Hence, women’s “rights” are almost exclusively seen in sexual terms, which explains the paramount importance placed on birth control and abortion. This is because since women are only matter (or thought to be so), they are are seen solely in light of a material purpose- reproduction. And the modern world is becoming as proficient at preventing women from giving birth and being born as the pagan was. This keeps women more available to serve (as tools) the sexual desires of men. The propaganda has changed, cloaked in the language of “rights” but the facts have not.

Man as a god, God as Man: Medieval and Modernity

In a previous blog post, I referred to the the late nineteenth-century philosophe Frederich Nietzsche, who was something of a prophet for modern society. Nietzsche looked at the present and into the future and saw there, a world for which he hoped—a world without God. While some of his non-theistic colleagues (the “humanists”) in particular, insisted the loss of God would have little effect on human affairs, Nietzsche held them in contempt. For him, the death of God meant the advent of nihilism, the destruction of all meaning and value in life. This meant the destruction of all traditional morality.

Hence Nietzsche ridiculed the humanists who thought they could rid society of Christianity, yet keep its values. He spoke instead of the need to reconstruct all of our own moral values and the need to become gods. God was dead, he said, we would have to be our own gods now. And so we have been.

The Middle Ages, of course, saw things the other way around. To them, God was God and man was not, even if some men (typically royalty ) had the usual delusions of grandeur. God made the world meaningful and moral values—good and evil, right and wrong–to exist. God was the yardstick no man could measure up to, all fell short. Since man could not raise himself up, God bent Himself down, a divine humility to humble the pride of man. The great became small, the strong, weak, and in return man had to become like a little child. Man could not reach God, so God became man to bring the Unreachable into the grasp of humanity. And so, in the end, man could become like god. Accepting his smallness, he could become large. In the traditional formula, the Son of God became man, so that men could become sons of God.

Not so in modernity, no God-man there to humble the pride of man, only man who, in the language of Nietzsche, had to become a god. And so he has, creating his own meaning, right and wrong, and good and evil. He decides what life is, what marriage is, what humanity is. When morality is seen as only a social construction, the typical result is moral destruction. So there is nothing surprising in the recent string of undercover videos showing planned parenthood casually discussing the destruction of unborn human beings. Nothing shocking in planned parenthood discussing “less crunchy” ways of destroying them or talking about cutting across the face to procure an intact brain- all in the interest of maximizing profit. When right and wrong become social constructs, the weakest always suffer. When man has to become god, in the Nietschean sense, he really becomes a demon, preying on the weakest.

The same is true in other areas as well. This is why the thought of euthanasia, euphemistically called “death with dignity,” (as the unborn are euphemistically called “specimens”), is of such concern to advocates of the disabled. When humans decide what makes life worthwhile, it becomes too easy to say that the lives are the weak are not worthwhile- as with the unborn, so with the elderly, perhaps someday soon, so also with the disabled as well. Marriage too becomes redefined and again, the weak suffer, as children- denied a father and mother– become tools in the fulfillment of adult desires. Hence, when man becomes a god, he really becomes a demon.

When God becomes man, however, the issue is reversed. Then the Powerful becomes weak and omnipotence becomes poverty. And when the Great becomes weak, then there is cause to care for the weak. And so the early Christians ended the ancient pagan practice of infanticide and abortion (though modern pagans have again begun it) and provided care for the poor and weak, while later Christians worked to abolish slavery.

If man is a god, in the Nietzschean sense, he is not much of a god. Worse, he is not even much of a man. He is something worse, something capable of supporting the destruction of innocent human beings, their dismemberment, and their sale, sacrifices to modern man’s real god- the almighty dollar and his own ego.