No Love Without Law

“For the law was given by Moses; grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” – John, 1:17

The disintegration of intellect in our time inclines us towards false absolutes. The truth can be many faceted; discrimination and discipline are often required to discern it as correctly and completely as our limitations allow. But many of us want everything to be simple, easy and immediate. So, the truth is often bludgeoned by the large club of lazy thinking.

In repeated statements, Pope Francis has established what amounts to a diametrical opposition between law and love. He presents the law – immemorial teaching on morality (sexual morality in particular) – as rooted in hardness of heart, almost in cruelty. And he often calumniates the “doctors of the law”, i.e. those who adhere to traditional moral teaching, as being moved by personal vanity and conceit. The desire to be better than other people, rather than the will to love God and live virtuously, is what he ascribes as motive to the “rigorists” and “hypocrites.”

The law, according to Francis, is often in conflict with the “concrete circumstances” of life.  So, when Our Lord says that he who lives with another who has been divorced commits adultery, His words must be tempered by reality. Marital fidelity should be regarded as an ideal to which we aspire, not a law that binds us absolutely. Those who would bar adulterers from the sacraments until they repent and amend their lives are not true Christians, but “pharisees” who use the law to preen themselves on their imagined superiority in virtue. Such is the picture Francis presents.

But Our Lord said, contra Francis, that not one jot or tittle shall be removed from the law (Matthew, 5:18). Was Our Lord a rigorist or neo-Pelagian? If He who made all things in love insists on adherence to the law, then the law must be essential, not an optional extra. It cannot be something that is superseded by love, but rather that which forms its basis.

The law is oppressive to those who wish to live according to their immediate impulses. It is likewise oppressive to those who place their own worldly advantage above the good of others. In both cases, justice is subordinated to the satisfaction of personal desire. All that would bar such satisfaction should be swept away. If I am more attracted to another woman than to the woman to whom I am married, why should I not be allowed to leave my wife and break up my family? After all, “love” is what moves me, is it not? Those who oppose my desire must be the enemies of love.

Now, this formula can be applied in countless circumstances. In same-sex attraction, to name one. When the law stands in the way of “love,” the law must bow its stiff neck and step aside. By degrees, we come to a place where law is no longer regarded as the reasonable norm but as the relic of a benighted mentality that would deny our freedom to love as we will.

Scripture can be misread as somehow supporting the above position. Francis often reads it in this way. But this is to read Scripture selectively and to interpret it according to personal bias. It is true that Jesus is greater than Moses (the lawgiver), but Moses is not to be denigrated on that account, neither is the law to be set aside. It is rather the law that straightens the way of the Lord. The law is like the palm leaves laid on the path of Christ as He entered triumphantly into Jerusalem. It is the law that makes the entrance of Christ into our lives possible.

And the more we love Christ, the more we love the law. To the extent that we are turned away from God, the law is irksome to us. It reminds us that what we often want is wrong. It is wrong because it is not based in genuine love, but in the desire for personal gratification. If the purpose of human life is become one with Christ, then we are set here on this Earth to learn the way of sacrificial love. Our Lord revealed it to us. He told us, in every word and gesture recorded in the Gospels, and in the innermost recesses of our hearts and minds, that to love is to pour our self out for others. And we can only do this if we let Christ live in us. And Christ cannot live in us unless we first let the law live in us, not as an unwelcome constraint, but as a received blessing. The psalmist writes, “I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of Thy house.” (Psalm 25:8) David saw the beauty of the law, that it was rooted in love.

When we see what David saw, when we live in sacrificial love, as Our Lord lived, then the law becomes our way to freedom. Without the law, we fall back onto our base instincts. The man who indulges himself to the extent that he is able is thought to be free. Our present culture holds up such self-indulgence as an ideal. This is why so many admire wealth and power: it allows its possessors to satisfy their sensual desires without let or hindrance. But Our Lord told us that he who sins is the slave of sin. The irony of our time is that in the name of freedom we are becoming ever more enslaved to the grossest aspects of human nature, to sin.

That man is free who acts, not out of instinct or base desire, but from a consciously chosen ideal. The purpose of the law given through Moses is to make the love of God the ground upon which we stand and the place from which we view the world of action. Only one who loves God with all his heart will be able to fulfill the commandments. To the extent that we reserve some part of our heart for our selfish ends, we will fail in that love and break the commandments.

When Christ came, He came to a people who had long had the law to guide and shape them. Who else could have received the Lord of love? Even among this people, however, many did not receive Him, for they did not love the law and, therefore, they did not love one another. There were some who used the law to lord it over others. It became an instrument for their self-aggrandizement. But that did not discredit the law. It only deprived them of its blessing.

To equate law with hardness of heart, as Francis does time and again, is to do a great disservice to those souls who are inclined to take spiritual counsel from the Pope. They acquire the notion that the law ought to be set aside in the name of compassion, and compassion is a loosely defined and varying thing.

The Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor once wrote something that puzzled many of her readers. She said that in the absence of Faith, we rule by compassion, “…and compassion leads to the gas chamber.” She was, of course, referring to the genocide enacted by the Nazis during World War II. We have been schooled to regard the Nazis as the epitome of evil and not to consider the matter further. But O’Connor invites us to think about how murder may be committed in the name of “compassion.”

The Nazis set about eliminating or subjugating all the “inferior” beings and races. They did this, not because they believed it to be evil, but because they believed it to be good. To kill the mentally handicapped, to sterilize those unfit to reproduce, to exterminate the Jews – all of these things they regarded as ennobling actions performed for the betterment of the world. In their view of human destiny, these were acts of compassion that would make life better, richer, more fulfilling for those who were fit by nature to rule.

Compassion is not a principle, but a feeling that grows out of and enlivens a principle. As with any feeling, it can be used in the service of good or evil. It is the law, founded on goodness, on God, that should guide compassion. It may seem that we are being kind in telling people that they can persist in sin without consequences, here and hereafter. It may seem compassionate and humble to say, “Who am I to judge?” when it comes to homosexuality. But is it? 

There is false compassion: that which makes us feel good but which harms others. Often, it seems magnanimous to refrain from condemning sinful behavior. We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. The truth is, we don’t want any conflicts that will disturb our comfort or draw criticism down upon us. And, really, so and so seems a good person, despite his predilection for sodomy or adultery. Live and let live seems better counsel than the commandments.

But once we accept such counsel, we have no ground upon which to stand, other than what makes us and others feel good in the moment. We sink into the quagmire of sentimentality and tend more and more to take the path of least resistance. In the name of “compassion,” we can justify most anything, including abortion. After all, why should anyone be burdened with an unwanted child? Would that not be to inflict a lifelong punishment for a fleeting mistake of youth? How cruel! Better to dismember the baby in the womb to spare such suffering. It’s the compassionate thing to do, is it not?

By small steps, as O’Connor saw, we move closer to the gas chamber. What is happening now is this incremental movement. And what stands in the way of this movement is the Faith. To adhere to unchanging moral truths which may prove inconvenient or painful is something that a “rigorist” might do. He is to be pitied. But when that rigorist insists that his truths are universal truths, he is to be reviled. Where is his compassion?

Our Lord came to those who knew and loved the law. He came, not to abolish the law, but to raise it to a higher level. He did not condone adultery in the name of compassion, but said that even those who look upon another with lust commit adultery in their hearts. He did not excuse murder, but said that even those who harbor anger against another commit murder in their hearts. Our Lord came so that we might internalize the law; so that we might make it our own. After Christ, the law was not merely an external code but an inner force in the soul, ennobling and transforming it through deeper understanding. The law was joined to love.

The world wants to effect a divorce between the law and love. It wants to tear asunder what God has joined together. Sadly, the Pope is often on the side of the world. This means that we must stand fast, not only against the world, but against Francis when he tries to set law and love in opposition. There is no love without the law, no matter who says otherwise.