A slave to the law or a child of God
I want to share and add my own thoughts to an article from the Carmelite sister, Gabriela Hicks: Walking on the Water – Traditional or Truly Traditional?
This is the final article in an eight-part series about the pope’s reforms of women’s religious communities like the Carmelites. Sister begins this article:
“After dealing for several years with the tensions in my own religious family, I have come to understand some of the undercurrents causing these tensions, and I recognize the same undercurrents in the present tensions and dissensions in the Church in general, especially here in the United States.”
This tension, Sister Gabriela goes on to say, has to do with slavishly following the law rather than living a life of freedom and grace. And I think she’s absolutely right.
Sister argues that the moral theology manuals of the pre-Vatican II Church shaped seminaries, catechisms, and ordinary Catholic life for centuries, creating a culture within the Church that was primarily concerned with behavior (what we ought to do) instead of identity (who we are as children of God, as other Christs). This caused a distortion in our theology—in our understanding of God and of ourselves—that Vatican II sought to correct.
That isn’t to say that the law is unimportant. As Pope Francis explains in his catechesis on St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the law “had protected the people, it had educated them, disciplined them and supported them in their weakness, especially by protecting them from paganism.” It was truly “An act of goodness by the Lord.”
However, as Scripture makes clear, the law was meant for children, not for mature adults. Pope Francis explains:
“Hence, the Apostle’s conviction is that the Law certainly possesses a positive function — as a pedagogue moving forward — but it is a function that is limited in time. Its duration cannot be extended too far because it is linked to the maturation of individuals and their choice of freedom. Once one has come to faith, the Law exhausts its propaedeutic value and must give way to another authority.”
The pope is clear that this doesn’t mean the commandments can be abandoned, absolutely not. No, it means that salvation ultimately comes from Jesus, not from our ability to follow the moral law. Francis says, “What justifies is Jesus Christ. The Commandments must be observed, but they do not give us justice; there is the gratuitousness of Jesus Christ, the encounter with Jesus Christ that freely justifies us…So what do we do with the Commandments? We must observe them, but as an aid to the encounter with Jesus Christ.”
This echoes what Pope Benedict famously taught in his first encyclical, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est 1).
In her article, Sister Gabriela captures this idea by quoting from the Carmelite priest, Fr. William McNamara, who said, “Religion will thus cease to be a moral code, a list of forbidding commandments, a dull, drab affair. It will take on the thrill and excitement of a love affair between God and man. It will mean, above all, a friendship with Christ.”
Then, using other words, Sister explains that this relationship with God, this friendship, ultimately means theosis, transformation into another Christ. She says:
“According to a popular definition of a friend, ‘a friend is another self.’ St. Paul could say this: ‘it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ Lovers know this mutual interpenetration of each other. They understand that in such a relationship all outside parameters, all frameworks disappear. The only parameters that exist are the reality of each other. As the French say, « Parce que c’est lui, parce que c’est moi » (‘Because it’s him, because it’s me’).”
This conversion from focusing on laws to focusing on relationship, from slavery to friendship, is both as old as the Church herself, and entirely true to my own life. For much of my young adult life I wanted the Church to tell me exactly how to vote, how to have sex, how to use my money, how to live every aspect of my life.
What I was doing was abdicating my responsibility to form my own conscience. I wasn’t taught how to have a living relationship with the Holy Spirit, to allow his voice to guide my life and actions. I became a rule follower instead of a child of the Father. All because of fear. I didn’t trust that God was good. I didn’t trust my own conscience, so I wanted the Church to be my conscience for me. I wanted the Catechism to be a moral handbook. Now, in some ways it absolutely is, but I wanted it to address every single detail and question.
So when I came across a moral question that didn’t have a clear and objective answer from the Church, I turned to theologians and apologists to tell me what to do, treating their opinions as if they were magisterial teachings. This is all that I knew to do. This made me feel safe. And, ultimately, it was easier to follow someone else's set of rules than it was to dialog with God and form my conscience.
Then, because I treated every rule as objective and authoritative (even if the rule was just an opinion), I would bind others to these moral demands through my own teaching. In this way I would unintentionally steamroll other people's consciences because I insisted that these rules, these opinions, were for everyone.
Contrast this attitude to what the pope teaches in Amoris Leatitia, "We 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.”
God rules each man personally. For conscience, as the Catechism says, is man's "most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths."
Our conscience must be formed so that we can properly hear God’s voice directing our lives. The Church says that we form our conscience through regular interior prayer, reading scripture, paying attention to Church teaching, and examining our conscience. A conscience can still error, so formation is a dynamic and perpetual thing, but the Church trusts that the Lord will direct the formed consciences of the faithful to do the good in any given circumstance. If someone has a formed conscience, they can trust that following it won't condemn them. Actually, we are required to follow our conscience and are condemned if we don’t.
In order to trust our conscience, however, we need to trust that God is a Good Father and not a judge waiting to smite us for any mistake. We need to be free from the idea that God at all desires for any of us to go to hell. Pope Francis ends his catechesis on Galatians by posing this question for reflection:
“It will do us good to ask ourselves whether we still live in the period in which we need the Law, or if instead we are fully aware of having received the grace of becoming children of God so as to live in love. How do I live? In the fear that if I do not do this, I will go to hell? Or do I live with that hope too, with that joy of the gratuitousness of salvation in Jesus Christ?”
It’s hard to blame modern Catholics for wanting to cling to the security of the law. Modernity is as influenced by the paganism of money, power, and pleasure as much as the ancient world was. There’s a lot to be afraid of. But Jesus came to give us His very life, to transform our hearts, to free us from fear, and to empower us to live as other Christs in the world.
In her article, Sister Gabriela says:
“Walking on the water, even with Jesus, is frightening. I have to let go of my familiar framework, relinquish my control, step out of my own world onto a shifting surface, and I am suddenly aware of a strange new universe that I cannot grasp. Like Peter, I am only aware of the strong wind blowing about me. There is an overwhelming temptation to take refuge again in the boat of clear moral imperatives. With a faith founded on distinct commandments and orders, I know what God is asking of me. I do not need to struggle with a discernment that depends primarily on God and secondarily on my openness to Him.
This fear is understandable. We all struggle with it as Peter did. Most of us are coaxed by Him to learn to trust His unheard voice and unfelt guidance. He lures us into intimacy little by little, if only we accept.”