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.

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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.

Rhetoric, Reason, and Truth

In ancient Greece, a group of philosophers, the sophists, made a name for themselves for their skill in debate. The took the position, a position shared by so many in the modern world, that no objective truth existed. Instead, truth was merely subjective. Because truth was subjective, debate did not have the purpose of finding truth, but of simply convincing others to adopt one’s views without regard to whether or not those views were true. Hence, the sophists would teach others to debate both sides of an issue with equal effectiveness since neither side was more (or less) true than the other. In their world, one without truth, the side of an issue one adopted would be based on the slick arguments used, the appeals to emotion, persuasiveness of the case to a particular person etc. But one never chose a side of an issue or course of action because it was true- it was not.

Against the sophists, rose the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who created rules of logic, including the syllogism, as well as a list of fallacies that invalidated an argument. Hence, a claim that “you only think that because you are a man,” or “you only think that because you were raised to think it,” would be rejected as fallacious irrelevancies to the question of whether or not a claim was true. In this view, logic and reason, not rhetoric or slick talk would determine the truth value of a particular claim.

Yet, in the ancient world, Aristotle (as well as his teacher Plato) formed a distinct minority. It awaited the Middle Ages for his views to be spread to society at large. In one of those strange accidents or twists that makes history so interesting, the twelfth century rediscovered Aristotle’s works in the universities that were just beginning to form and spread throughout Europe. Harmonized with Christianity by Thomas Aquinas, logic became the language of the universities that formed the basis of the modern university system. While Aristotle had invented it, it took until the Christian Middle Ages for Aristotle to really catch on as “The Philosopher,” “the master of them that know” in the words of Dante.

Maybe such reason and logic could never really have flourished in a pagan world. Maybe the reason it took until the Christian Middle Ages to really take over lay in that Christianity offered a basis for the logical explanation of the world that pagan antiquity never really could. In the Christian conception, the universe was the product of a divine mind, a greatest conceivable being (in the language of Anselm). Hence the universe was an orderly place reflecting the order, reason, and love that had made it. Consequently, the universe could be explored rationally. No one in the ancient world thought Zeus or any other god particularly rational—at any rate, the ancient gods were creatures and not creators, anyway. More commonly, the universe was simply regarded as the product of chance, appearing for no reason, according to no plan. Hence it was not especially likely to be a rational place; far more likely were it to be non-rational and random. Logic and reason simply had more basis to flourish in a Christian society—and so they did.

Possibly this is why logic and reason are on the decline in the modern world. As the world grows increasingly pagan, the world appears as a cosmic accident, a chance event. Why then, should it be a rational place? Why should reason be able to tell us anything about it? Instead of reason and logic, debates in the public sphere often seem to be a matter of emotion, of slick and clever sound bites. The sophists have returned and they have all the force of the modern media, newscasters, social media, and twitter behind them. One might hope the universities, with their medieval basis, would be an exception, but as they secularize, they too are less places of rational and free inquiry and more places where students are taught a particular viewpoint (the pagan one). Arguing now means insults and personal attacks rather than the cool analysis of a particular issue. This has been particularly evident perhaps in recent debates over same-sex marriage. Opponents of it are not reasoned with; they are merely insulted, called names, and dismissed with no more than a few cheap cliches. In an increasingly secular world, perhaps this is unsurprising, but it is still nonetheless regrettable.

The Medieval Worldview I: The Universe

I have commented before, and am not the first to have done so, that the great fun of studying the past is not the mere memorization of facts, but history as a work of imagination and sympathy. It is about getting at how a past people saw the world differently than we do. What I mean is possibly best expressed by the English essayist G.K. Chesterton when he spoke of the need to get “inside history.” We need, he wrote:

“consideration of what things meant in the mind of a man, especially an ordinary man… We want to know the real sentiment that was the social bond of many common men, as sane and as selfish as we are. What did soldiers feel when they saw splendid in the sky that strange totem that we call the Golden Eagle of the Legions? So long as we neglect this subjective side of history, which may more simply be called the inside of history, there will always be a certain limitation on that science which can be better transcended by art.”

A lot goes into establishing a people’s mindset, how they saw the world and what it meant to them, but a fair place to begin is with the medieval model of the universe, discussed most accessibly in C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image. One of Lewis’s points is that while medieval man looked out onto the universe, and saw the same facts that modern man does, the meaning was different. The facts were the same, but they did not mean the same thing, and they did not mean the same thing because medieval man saw the world differently. The model itself is simple enough and well enough known and so requires little time. It is simply the view of the universe he inherited from the classical ancestors.

The Universe in the Medieval Model.  Borrowed from the ancient Greeks.

The Universe in the Medieval Model. Borrowed from the ancient Greeks.

But while this is well-known, it is rather too little appreciated. Most are simply inclined to focus on the rather uninteresting fact that medieval man believed, as the ancient scientists told him, that the earth was at the center of the universe. More interesting is the medieval belief that the universe was enormous, but finite in size; modern man has recently come to believe the same thing.

More interesting still, however, was the medieval belief that the universe was a place of order and organization. It was a place of order and organization because it was the product of a divine mind. When modern man looks out on the universe, he looks out on something huge, strange, unknown, and alien. Something with no order, rather, in some theories, he looks on a universe moving toward ever greater disorder. He looks out, in Lewis’s words, on a shore-less sea or a vast, dark forest. Yet, Medieval man did not see that universe. To him (again according to Lewis) the universe was more like a vast Cathedral. Huge and finite, but ordered, with an order written into it by its maker.

Hence, the universe was not only a place of order, but a meaningful place. The universe had its meaning built in by its maker- just like a Cathedral would. Earth was built on the pattern of the heavens, and the heavens on the pattern of God. And so the universe represented the wisdom and goodness that made it. Not so today when modern man looks out on a meaningless universe forced either to soldier on in the midst of meaninglessness or to create a subjective meaning of his own. In the Middle Ages, there was no need to create meaning- it was already there.

Finally, like a Cathedral, because the universe was the produce of a divine mind, built on the pattern of that mind, and earth built on the pattern of the heavens, matter also had meaning built into it. Matter could thus have a higher meaning. Modern man sees the same facts as medieval man, but they do not mean the same thing. For medieval man, matter could represent divinity. Hence the Cathedrals, marriage symbolism, and Francis of Assisi’s love of nature. In a sense, it was like a three dimensional world compared to flat land- a smaller universe, but a larger world.

That’s So Medieval: The “Backward” Middle Ages

If anyone wishes, for any reason, to annoy a medieval historian, a good practice is for him to exclaim, in a voice of loud disgust of some undesirable event, person, or idea, “that’s so medieval!” Similarly, the medieval historian Mark Gregory Pegg is particularly fond of a quotation from (I think) W.H. Auden suggesting that a good way to end a conversation is to mention the words “Middle Ages,” effective because this will kill any interest in further discussion. Who, after all, could be interested in so backward an age? The prominence of this expression as a term of derision indicating backwardness (in the moral sense of the term), bears witness not only to a poor understanding of the Middle Ages, but a poor understanding of modernity.

In this view, the Middle Ages had nothing worthwhile to offer, nothing of interest to the modern man who has heroically thrown off the chains of his past barbarism and is busy tweeting his way into modernity. The Middle Ages don’t even deserve their own name; they are simply a “middle age,” a boring (or terrible) in-between period, a dark age between the splendor and civilization of classical antiquity, the glories of Greece and Rome and the Enlightenment of the Modern World. They are a time best forgotten about and ignored, a time that modern man has moved beyond, out of darkness into light, progress, and modernity.

This rests, of course, on an evolutionary way of seeing the world. Evolution might simply mean, as Chesterton put it, that a creature called an ape over time turned slowly into a creature called a man. This does not describe a moral process, simply a scientific one of biological change in a species over time. And yet, since Darwin, the evolutionary view has described not only the development of animal species, but the moral development of human society as well. Human society is progressing, not only biologically, but morally. It become more technologically advanced, tolerant, and moral moving either toward the inevitable or always distant (in different versions of the story) Utopia. Anything undesirable in society can simply be dismissed as a remnant of the medieval past. And so temporal backwardness comes to imply moral backwardness.

Such a view is flattering certainly. A man can look at the past in derision, applauding himself, assuming the he is a better person merely because he happened to be born at a later time of day. It is also convenient. A man need make no effort to better himself; the sheer passage of time guarantees it. Ideological opponents can be dismissed simply by being backward, medieval, or “on the wrong side of history.” Their views thus need not be rationally refuted or given a fair hearing, they can simply be ignored, shouted down, and perhaps even turned over to the inquisition for questioning. It is also thoroughly absurd; a man might as well assume that he is more moral at 5pm than he was at 9 am. Perhaps he is, but if so, the sheer passage of time will not bring it about. And he might not grow more moral, he might even grow worse.

In some respects, perhaps the modern age has grown worse despite its claims of progress. The modern age has seen world wars, slavery, and genocide on a mass scale. The Middle Ages had no equivalent of a world war and practically no slavery, while genocide was a discovery of the modern world. The Middle Ages persecuted Jews, modernity tried (and may be trying now) to wipe them out. Not so in the Middle Ages– they were too backward. Modern man may praise himself for having eliminated slavery, but he eliminated a vice of his own making.

The modern man is precisely in the position of a man who inherits a house in good condition, proceeds to knock a series of holes in the walls, fixes them after a time, congratulates himself on repairing them, and then criticizes the backwardness of his father for the condition in which he received the house. And at any rate, slavery was abolished by the backward people, the ones who didn’t care about the effect of abolition on economic progress. They had a silly old-fashioned idea in the dignity of man- an idea even more backward than the Middle Ages- but perhaps too backward for modernity.