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Living the Faith prescriptively

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 11, 2014

In yesterday’s On the Culture essay (Preoccupation with salvation inhibits love), I talk about the problems of living the Faith prescriptively, as a series of tricky external requirements, the fulfillment of which guarantees salvation. In response, koinonia raised a point in Sound off! which merits attention, especially because it suggests that my meaning was not sufficiently clear:

Important reflections; but while one might take solace in the mercy extended by Our Lord, it is imperative that Christians remember that historically God has been a prescriptive God and his Church likewise. The image of Christ crucified proclaims love, but this violent testimony also bears witness to a dark, terrible reality that wars against it. Thus, so many martyrs sacrificed even their lives in sharing the incomparable beauty and love of the Word. His is a body visible for one and for all.

I have quoted the entire comment because the second and third sentences nicely represent koinonia’s characteristic depth of thought about the faith. We could fruitfully discuss the point that “His is a body visible for one and for all”. That is profoundly true, and yet a truth I alluded to in the previous essay is also important—that even though Christ’s body was given for all and Christ’s Church is visible for all, not all in fact see it, and even some who physically see it do not, through no fault of their own, really see it for what it is. But what is of interest here is the third clause in the first sentence: “It is imperative that Christians remember that historically God has been a prescriptive God and his Church likewise.”

Well, yes and no. The Old Covenant was certainly prescriptive, the prescriptions of the Law having been used to form a community and to at least begin to inculcate the deeper realities consistently announced by the prophets in preparation for the Gospel. But St. Paul teaches that it was inherent in the Law that we would all be condemned under it, since no one could possibly keep it perfectly. And it was the failure of so many Jews to see beyond the Law to the Christ which got them into such deep trouble. How often did the prophets lament, on behalf of God, that this people pays Him lip service, but their hearts are far from Him?

It is telling, therefore, that we would be hard pressed to find any instance in which Our Lord speaks in a prescriptive way. Perhaps we might point to His submission to the baptism of John, or His institution of the sacraments, with their specific forms, but of course the whole Incarnational/Sacramental point is to provide recognizable signs that give grace. In other words, the whole point is to supplant all those merely sterile actions which constitute prescriptiveness. And here koinonia is both correct and penetrating: The body of Christ, the body of the Church, is a great sign and source of grace.

Moreover, it is true that the apostles and the Church as a whole certainly use prescription at times. One thinks of the rough outlines of feasts and fasts and the specifics of the liturgical year and the rubrics of the liturgy, and even a few general Church laws. This much, at least, was clearly taught or endorsed by Christ. But if you scratch the prescriptive myth, you’ll find that Catholic ecclesiastical life is remarkably non-prescriptive.

The mind of the Church is always focused on the moral and spiritual realities which it continues to be Christ’s mission to foster. So if the Church is prescriptive at all, she is only minimally so and in a seriously attenuated way. To avoid unnecessary confusion on this point, perhaps it is necessary to point out that adherence to the morality built into the order of things, which we call the natural law, is hardly prescriptive, for the whole point is that it captures the inner meaning of things—unless we are to imagine that Our Lord was being prescriptive when he chided the apostles for thinking that what we eat makes us unclean, when in fact what makes us unclean comes from the heart.

In any case, the point of my previous essay—which I regret did not come through to every reader more clearly—is that we gain nothing in the Church prescriptively, that is, by way of fulfilling a series of requirements in order to be assured of a reward. We cannot even benefit from sacramental grace that way, for in so doing we will receive the gift and never, as is commonly said, unwrap it. We will never actualize it.

Consider a certain attitude toward the “prescription” which enjoins attendance at Sunday Mass under pain of sin. Any Catholic who believes he will gain heaven simply by fulfilling that rule ought to be universally thought a fool. But some do act this way, even in our current anti-legal era (when most simply ignore the requirement altogether); many more acted this way a few generations ago, when rules were more universally respected in Western culture.

For example, when attending Mass, some Catholics may read the paper in the car until the homily ends and depart as swiftly as possible after Communion, secure in a false confidence that they have fulfilled the requirements for salvation. Others may chatter and work their smart phones throughout the Mass. And in fact Catholics are little better off even if they attend the whole Mass with the same selfishly blank attitude. This is an instance of what it means to live the Faith prescriptively.

But what the Church fairly begs us to do is to view her very few requirements and recommendations not as rules but as gifts. They are to be used to detach ourselves from our own wills, to habituate us in the service of God, to expose us to His grace, and so to foster our love of God and neighbor. It is only this first and greatest commandment (with the second like unto it) which fulfills not only the law but the prophets as well.

Yet fulfilling the Law or the rules or the spiritual recommendations prescriptively—that is, merely going through the motions without constant growth in love—accomplishes precisely nothing. If you search the Gospels, you will find that Our Lord talks about little else than this.

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