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 lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.