Self-idolatry and the dangers of ‘I’m Catholic, but . . . ‘
Everybody knows that Jesus was a nice guy who wanted to do away with laws, rules and regulations so that we could live freely without interference, never having to do anything we didn’t feel like doing. Everybody knows that . . . unless they have read the Gospels.
The Gospels always challenge us. They defy our attempts to portray Jesus as a one dimensional character. We see that Love Incarnate is not about affirming who we are now, but about loving us into being what we were made for. The Gospels stop us from creating a Jesus in our own image, and challenge us to allow ourselves to be remoulded in His.
So in today’s Gospel we hear Jesus say, ‘Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them. I tell you solemnly, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved’ (Mt 5:17-18). What are we to make of this? If Jesus is the one who gives us life in abundance, why all the rules?
The fact that we pose such a question shows how our approach to God’s law is so often misguided. Despite the fact that it’s from God – or because we’ve bought into the false conception of the Church and its teaching as a barrier to God – many people hold the observance of God’s law and human happiness in opposition. Levering and Dauphinais, in their excellent book, Holy People, Holy Land, neatly sum up this common disposition and put forward a corrective:
We generally think that because God wants us be happy, in other words (so we often imagine) because God wants us to do what we want, God turns a blind eye to the foibles that involve us in violence, greed, domination, and lust, rather than self-giving love. In fact, as we discover, law frees us and allows us to become the people we were intended to be, because law – at least, divine law – shows us the path of love, the path of holiness. It is only a people formed in love by such a law that can worship God in truth and thereby delight in God’s presence, signified by God’s tabernacling in [our] midst (pp. 57-8).
Some may reply that it’s obvious that we shouldn’t be greedy and that we shouldn’t be violent, but it hasn’t been obvious for much of human history and it doesn’t seem that obvious when we flick through a newspaper today. The ‘it’s obvious’ attitude takes for granted the positive effects of Judaeo-Christian morality which have been absorbed into the culture; but then it thinks it arrived at these principles by itself, and so then starts to create a morality based on personal preference and without external reference.
This sort of morality often tends toward self-idolatry, as most of us tend to think we’re right. Whilst the Church is clear that we have to obey our own consciences, we seem less clear on what a formed conscience looks like, which is a really important topic, but beyond the scope of this reflection.
The idea that God’s laws are made to stifle us rather than free us is not a new one, nor is a dislike of being told what to do. It was the devil’s cunning plan to package these two together. The lie he sold to Adam and Eve, he continues to flog with great success to this day.
We need a change of mindset. Here we would do well to look to our Jewish brothers and sisters. Their disposition towards the Torah is instructive. They know that God knows us better than we know ourselves and that God wants us to be happy. Therefore they regard the Law as a gift to us. It is a guide from God on how to bring about true human flourishing which is actually a sharing in the divine life.
For most of us, our appreciation of laws is generally limited to the extent that they stop other people from annoying or harming us. God’s law is something much greater: it is a code for holiness. In fact, a better translation than ‘law’ for the word ‘Torah’ is ‘instruction’. The Torah is God’s instruction to us on how to become holy, how to love Him and to love our neighbour.
His instruction is a pattern for us to share in God’s glory, through sharing in His holiness, His truth and His goodness. This instruction guides us into the divine life; it is not an obstacle. We see this in Christ, who is both the fulfilment of the Torah and the way, the truth, and the life. And if no man can come to the Father save by the Son, then we can’t ignore the Torah. To do so – even if it we don’t reason through it this way – is to say that we know better than Jesus and that gets us into all sorts of trouble! At the same time, Jesus is also our protection against legalism. We see that everything he does is motivated by love of the Father and love of mankind. This is what all of the Law is oriented towards and what it should orient us towards.
Although Jesus instructs us to be perfect, like our heavenly Father is perfect, experience shows that we do fall short. Whilst we shouldn’t settle for sin, nor should we despair about it. Am I softening Jesus’ words when I say not to despair over our sins? After all, he does caution about, ‘infring[ing] even one of the least of these commandments . . . .’ But this leaves out what I consider to be the crucial final half of this clause. The full clause reads: ‘Therefore, the man who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 5:19a). To infringe God’s teaching is regrettable; to teach against it is on a quite different level.
It’s a caution to all those who say, ‘I’m Catholic but . . .’ and then proceed to explain why they reject this or that part of the Church’s teaching. Today’s Gospel, containing the explicit teaching of Christ, is a strong condemnation of cherry-picking. Some might say, ‘but I accept the really important bits’. I find no criteria in today’s readings for making such a judgment. Jesus said to Peter: ‘And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’ (Mt 16:18-19). Pope Francis, puts the choice we have before us, well:
This is salvation: to live in the consolation of the Holy Spirit, not the consolation of the spirit of this world. No, that is not salvation, that is sin. Salvation is moving forward and opening our hearts so they can receive the Holy Spirit’s consolation, which is salvation. This is non-negotiable, you can’t take a bit from here and a bit from there? We cannot pick and mix, no? A bit of the Holy Spirit, a bit of the spirit of this world … No! It’s one thing or the other (Homily 10 June 2013, Vatican).
If a person is going to reject a part of the teaching, it needs to be because it is unconscionable to him or her: then the matter will be between that person and God. But the real scandal is in leading others against the teaching of the Church, whilst claiming to be a member of her. We have to be wary of the common tendency of wishing to justify our own decisions by getting the approval of others for them. Once more this is not a new tendency; it’s as old as the original sin in the Garden of Eden, which quickly spread from one person to two. The work the serpent started, man all too quickly ran with.
If you do have disagreement with the Church’s teaching on some matter, Lent would be a good time to reflect on the matter further. Make sure that you are fully informed about why the Church teaches as it does; read around the subject a little; ask a priest, or even, dare I suggest, a Dominican.
We all have to be wary of the tendency to think, ‘that sounds hard’, and then justify to ourselves why we shouldn’t have to do it. But the Christian life is not meant to be easy; it’s about self-sacrificial love and that is something very beautiful, but also very hard. It transforms us and that often hurts. But it’s at this point that we turn to Jesus in prayer, saying ‘Jesus, this is too hard to do myself, shoulder the burden for me, I beg you’.