Over the past two weeks the news has been understandably filled with the events of the third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, a gathering in Rome to discuss the ‘The pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization’. With intensive media coverage of what this bishop or that cardinal has said, I think it is fair to say that a great deal of confusion has been the result, often through an attempt to speak of complex theological issues in overly simplistic language. However at the heart of the debate there has been (and continues, to some extent, to be) an unparalleled scrutiny of the Church’s teaching and her pastoral practice.
These two areas of the Church’s life are not entirely new to those of us who have entered the full communion of the Catholic Church by means of the personal ordinariates. Nevertheless, the weight given to both doctrine and law in the Catholic Church, and the absolute definition of Church teaching and pastoral practice, is new. As Catholics we rejoice that we can turn to two particular documents to help us understand these important concepts. First, the Catechism of the Catholic Church which is ‘the authoritative expression of the Catholic faith professed by members of the Ordinariate’ (AC I §5), and secondly the Code of Canon Law which is ‘an indispensable instrument to ensure order both in individual and social life, and also in the Church’s activity itself’ (SDL).
It is important to begin by saying that that both these documents—the catechism and the code—contain law and doctrine. The catechism deals with the creed, the sacraments, the Christian life, and prayer, but it necessarily depends on those things given us by the Lord in order to guide and nurture the life we share with him by virtue of our baptism. The law revealed to us by Almighty God, what we call divine and natural law, ‘shows man the way to follow so as to practice the good and attain his end’ (CCC 1955). These are perhaps best summarized by the commandments given to Moses in the old testament, commandments that are perfected in the new testament in the person of Christ. We can say that this law of Christ, the law of the gospel, ‘“fulfills”, refines, surpasses, and leads the Old Law to its perfection’ (CCC 1967).
Similarly whilst the Code of Canon Law deals with law in the sense of rules of governance and process, it contains within it the doctrine of the Church found in divine and natural law—those ‘givens’ delivered to us in faith—both in laws for individuals and the wider community. So, for example, when the law states that ‘A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess’ (c. 916), it articulates in Church or ecclesiastical law the teaching of the gospel, that is divine law. As Saint Paul writes in first Corinthians, chapter eleven: ‘Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord’ (1 Cor. 11: 27). So we can see that ecclesiastical laws are often an expression of the teaching of Christ, who is himself the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 10: 4). The Church is free to change her laws regarding certain matters: the way in which dioceses and parishes are governed, the establishment of new religious orders and communities; but she can only articulate in fresh language those things which are fundamental to the Christian religion. These she cannot change.
In order to understand this synthesis between law and doctrine, it is perhaps helpful for us to consider the image of the Church and the mystical body of Christ. As Saint Paul reminds us, the Church as with a human body cannot exist without its constitutive parts: ‘The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”, nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12: 21). Thus we cannot seek to hold the catechism (that is the faith) in one hand, and the Code of Canon Law (that is practice) in the other, and ignore the consequences of doing so. Our faith, founded on the grace poured into our lives in the waters of baptism, is not a merely internal reality but one that is manifestly external, allowing our lives to be guided and led by our belief in Christ. In other words, doctrine and law, faith and practice, are not and can never be in opposition to each other either in written word or expression.
Every time we come to the altar we hear the words of the Lord in today’s gospel articulate this for us: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets’. Love of God and love of neighbour, then, are presented to the Christian as a coherent single object of faith. Christ, in whom the law and the prophets of the old testament find their fullest expression, came not to abolish the law and the prophets, ‘but to fulfill them’ (Mt. 5: 17). And so we cannot hold the law and its practice apart from each other. In Christ ‘mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other’ (Ps. 85: 10), and so the authentic Christian life sees the fulfillment of the law as the fulfillment of our first priority, to prefer nothing to Christ.
In that spirit let us turn once more toward the one who is the source of truth and fullness of life. Let us pray for the strength to live in obedience to his precepts. And let us strive to show others by the witness of our lives that it is in reckless abandon to Christ, who is the fulfillment of the law, that true freedom and true life is found. To him be glory throughout all ages, world without end.