There’s an image that I would like to use as a framework for this article.

Imagine the moral life as a garden, an oasis surrounded by a wasteland. We, the persons in that garden, have everything that will make us truly happy, yet we all have this disordered desire to go out into the wasteland. So God set up a fence around the garden, a clear barrier between life and death so that we would be free to enjoy the whole garden without the fear of wandering into the wasteland. However, at times these disordered desires are so strong that we can’t even get close to the fence. So using our consciences, and with the virtue of prudence, we build ourselves little man-made fences within the garden to help prevent us from getting too close to the edge (like the recovering alcoholic who refuses to hang out with his friends at a bar because he knows the temptation to drink will be too strong).

So let’s take a look at last Sunday’s readings in light of this image. In the first reading, Moses is giving his great exhortation to the people of Israel before they enter the Promised Land and he is urging them to follow God’s commands and stay faithful to the covenant. In the midst of this speech Moses warns the people saying:

“In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it” (Deut 4:2).

In other words, don’t lie about that perimeter fence. Don’t tell people that the fence is further out so that they can live in the wasteland and don’t pretend that our little man-made fences are God’s fence and thus restrict other people’s access to part of the garden.

In the Gospel that day Jesus reiterates the second part of that warning is his exhortation against the Pharisees. He quotes Isaiah saying:

“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts” (Mark 7:6-7).

Jesus condemns those who teach as doctrines merely human precepts. Those who pretend some man-made fence is God’s great fence. Those who present opinion as Revealed Truth. This, I would argue, is an abuse of man’s freedom and a violation of man’s dignity.

Our free will, our capacity to choose and to love, is uniquely made in the image of the God who is Love. The Catechism says, “By virtue of his soul and his spiritual powers of intellect and will, man is endowed with freedom, an ‘outstanding manifestation of the divine image’” (CCC 1705). Therefore, God’s will cannot ever violate our freedom because God is the source of our freedom. And the more we allow our will to be transformed into God’s will “the more we grow in inner freedom” (CCC 1742).

Thus the moral law, as coming from God, isn’t a rival to our freedom, but just the opposite. The Law of Christ, the New Law, makes us freer. The Catechism says:

“The New Law is called…a law of freedom, because it sets us free from the ritual and juridical observances of the Old Law, inclines us to act spontaneously by the prompting of charity and, finally, lets us pass from the condition of a servant who “does not know what his master is doing” to that of a friend of Christ – “For all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” – or even to the status of son and heir” (CCC 1972).

The Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church, truthfully presents the precepts of the moral law for every age (CCC 2032). Thus the Magisterium can bind our conscience in the sense that when the Magisterium speaks, it speaks on behalf of God (Lumen Gentium 25). So presenting something as Church teaching (and thereby binding on consciences) that isn’t actually Church teaching would be a grave violation of our freedom and dignity. “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. ‘He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience’” (CCC 1782).

I have seen two serious consequences of people believing that man-made fences are God’s fence. The first is the burden that this places on others. It artificially prevents others from enjoying certain parts of the garden. In another gospel reading Jesus condemns the scholars of the law saying, “Woe also to you scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them” (Luke 11:46). People are buried under man-made burdens. They are denied the freedom and joy of living in the whole of the garden and may come to resent God thinking that he is the one piling on these burdens. The second consequence is that presenting man-made fences as if they were God’s fence undermines all fences. Someone can point out the flaws of all these man-made fences, rightly see them as unreasonable or irrelevant, and then come to see all fences, even God’s fence, as flawed and unimportant.

However, the blame doesn’t rest entirely on the Pharisees who are “teaching as doctrines human precepts.” We, the faithful, also bear some of the responsibility of accepting these man-made fences as if they were God’s fence. In my own life, I see laziness and fear. We the faithful have become idle. We want the Church to tell us how to vote, how to have sex, and how to use our money. Not just principles, rather we want to Church to micromanage our lives. We want the Church to be our consciences for us. But in doing so we abdicate the responsibility we have of forming our consciences. It’s easier to follow someone else’s rules than it is to form our conscience. And because we don’t really trust our own consciences we are afraid of falling into mortal sin, of accidentally jumping over God’s fence and stumbling into the wasteland. However, this betrays a deep misunderstanding of what sin is. We cannot accidentally commit a mortal sin because mortal sin is always a deliberate choice (CCC 1857).

However, the Holy Father trusts our conscience more than we do. He says:

“We [Christians] also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (Amoris Laetitia 37).

We must take up the task of forming our own consciences by reading the Catechism and Scripture, taking things to prayer with honesty and humility, seeking counsel from the holy and wise people in our life, staying close to the sacraments, and regularly examining our actions and intentions. And we must hold our teachers accountable. If anyone says “The Church teaches ________” and that teaching imposes on our freedom or doesn’t resonate with our conscience, then we must demand a magisterial citation. Theologians and catechists need to be held accountable for distinguishing what’s Church teaching and what’s simply their own opinion.

God wants us to live in the whole of the garden, to experience all the good things he has made for us, to partake in all the joys and pleasures he has given us. God desires, in this life or in the next, to transform our will into his own will such that our own fences become unnecessary, the perimeter fence becomes unnecessary, and to make the wasteland ultimately disappear. “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5:1).

[Image Credit: Anthony van Dyck [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Paul Fahey

Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is.  He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation

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12 Responses

  1. Peter Aiello says:

    Genesis 9:6 says: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man”. God said this to Noah roughly 1500 years before the Mosaic Law. This sounds like the death penalty is required because of the dignity of the human person. The pope says that it should be inadmissible because of human dignity. Who is correct?
    Then there is the issue of changing the catechism so easily. Is one person allowed to do this? There is now the impression that there has been a change in Catholic teaching; and it has become more difficult for Catholics to say to Protestants that Catholic doctrine does not change. How do I explain that something is not intrinsically evil, but that it is inadmissible? How do you explain it to a Catholic?
    Vatican II, in Dei Verbum 21 says: “Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture.”
    The pope has undermined the credibility of the catechism in a major way. It will now unambiguously and openly contradict Scripture. Because we now know that the Catechism contains developed doctrine that contradicts Scripture, we should keep a Bible handy when we read the Catechism instead of the other way around; and form our consciences accordingly.

    • Paul Fahey Paul Fahey says:

      Peter,

      Catechism paragraph 85 says:

      >>”The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.<< When the Magisterium comes to a greater understanding of some aspect of the faith, and thus develops that teaching accordingly, it is acting precisely the way Christ intends. The living Magisterium provides the lens through which we look at Tradition and Scripture.

  2. carn says:

    I see, my comments regarding that the advice of this article both ignores what the catechism says about venial sin and that the advice is for me an impossible to follow catch22 were not allowed.

    • Paul Fahey Paul Fahey says:

      How does this post ignore what the Catechism teaches about venial sin?

      • carn says:

        Maybe “ignore” is a bit too harsh.

        But when reading this:

        “And because we don’t really trust our own consciences we are afraid of falling into mortal sin, of accidentally jumping over God’s fence and stumbling into the wasteland. However, this betrays a deep misunderstanding of what sin is. We cannot accidentally commit a mortal sin because mortal sin is always a deliberate choice (CCC 1857).”

        i got the impression that “accidentally jumping over God’s fence and stumbling into the wasteland” is something of little concern.

        Yet according to catechism:

        “1862 One commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent.

        1863 Venial sin weakens charity; it manifests a disordered affection for created goods; it impedes the soul’s progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good; it merits temporal punishment. Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin. However venial sin does not break the covenant with God. With God’s grace it is humanly reparable. “Venial sin does not deprive the sinner of sanctifying grace, friendship with God, charity, and consequently eternal happiness.””

        “accidentally jumping over God’s fence and stumbling into the wasteland” is still

        a venial SIN (and hence should be avoided in principle)

        AND

        can in case of repetition gradually reduce charity and increase disposition to commit MORTAL sin.

        So at least the impression i got of “accidentally jumping over God’s fence and stumbling into the wasteland” being of little concern is an impression which would be wrong in light of catechism; “accidentally jumping over God’s fence and stumbling into the wasteland” should be avoided even if it is not a constant mortal threat.

        And considering that such “accidentally jumping over God’s fence and stumbling into the wasteland” is not that hard in this world (e.g. consider the 98%+ catholics who at one time or another at least accidentally stumble into using contraception) some milder former of caution or fear might be sensible.

        Of course, whether you wanted to convey such an impression, i am a bit uncertain after reading the text again; but still, venial sin is also of importance and might deserve mentioning.

        • Paul Fahey Paul Fahey says:

          Thank you for the detailed analysis.

          All analogies are deficient in capturing the reality they are trying to explain. In the image I presented I see the fence as mortal sin. As freely and knowingly willed grave matter. And the Catechism is clear that we cannot accidentally commit a mortal sin. We cannot accidentally jump that fence.

          But yes, we can “fall into” venial sin. This is where I think prudence comes in. We need to allow Christ to make us aware of our own weaknesses so that we build personal fences for ourselves.

          Maybe that’s the point that doesn’t come across as well as it should. I’m not saying that man-made fences are bad. We must build man-made fences for ourselves. But that means doing the continual work of forming our consciences. What I was criticizing was when people present their man-made fence as something that everyone else should abide by.

          Does that explanation help?

          • carn says:

            “Does that explanation help?”

            Yes.

            And i agree, that one should question “fences” and question, for whom they should be relevant; you are right, that bad man-made “fences” can hurt.

            Where we differ is probably how relevant that problem is compared to the other extreme, in which some people seem not to care about “fences” at all.

            Online i just read today a post by a priest and comments underneath by some catholics about Vigano, McCarrick, etc.

            Besides the usual discussion about whether Vigano has questionable motives, there were also some comments – and the text of the priest and his further replies make it seem that he does not really disagree – that they see no fundamental problem for a bishop or cardinal to be homosexually active.

            And that although the catechism clearly differs; i fear they simply do not care what the catechism says; not that they think the catechism is wrong to condemn homosexual acts; but that they lack the capability to understand, that there are some rules/”fences” at all, which we should try to avoid beaching for our own good.

            Of course then any potentially sin in these statements by them (namely a priest seemingly agreeing that there is nothing really problematic about a bishop/cardinal being homosexually active is likely in some sense a sin) is probably only venial, cause somehow they managed not to understand/know.

            But still they will have that venial sin ongoing, if they no longer accept that there are legitimately fences, some erected by God and some legitimately by the Church.

            So from how i perceive the situation, people overly caring and being afraid about questionable fences, is in my view not a problem.

            And also me personally, the issue is likely more, that i look for too much excuses to ignore fences. E.g. i am quite certain that i committed just the past days a venial sin, that is (hopefully) only venial due to lack of full consent.

            Rationally it lays clear before me; rationally i am aware that i should try to avoid repeating that. But my conscience? Is all about “it’s okay; it wasn’t really wrong; you had no choice; no problem if it happens again, etc.”

            So also for me personally the problem is likely not an overly rigidness.

          • Paul Fahey Paul Fahey says:

            I’m talking about people seeking lists of rules beyond what the Catechism teaches, not people who want to ignore the Catechism.

          • Peter Aiello says:

            Knowing how easy it is for one pope to inject his opinion into the catechism, we should keep the Bible handy when reading the catechism, and not the other way around. What other “developed doctrine” is in the catechism?

          • Paul Fahey Paul Fahey says:

            We should always keep the Bible handy, but rest assured that what’s promulgated in the Catechism is a hell of a lot more authoritative than personal opinion.

          • Peter Aiello says:

            You are correct if personal opinion is not about what is in Scripture. If it is, Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium 12 says: “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One,(111) [cf. 1 Jn 2:20, 27] cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” (8*) [Cf. 1 Cor. 10: 17] they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth.”

        • Pat says:

          Don’t you think you’re wasting your time. Neither Francis or his defenders actually believe in such a thing as mortal sin.

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