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A new legalism denies the moral content of moral rules.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 30, 2017

Guess what? The dismissal of moral norms is a modern form of legalism. This point was made brilliantly last week by Russell Shaw writing in the Arlington Catholic Herald:

The old legalism is a morality of young children, for whom being good means doing what parents and other authority figures tell them to do, while being bad means disobeying. Pope Francis aptly terms this “a theology of yes, you can (and) no, you can’t.” More recently, though, we’ve seen a morality of adolescence that frequently involves acting out against authority and operating by impulse and feeling. It’s the flip side of childish morality. And in the end, the new legalism is even more unsatisfactory than the old. [Legalism and authentic morality]

This adolescent approach is another form of “legalism” because it identifies morality with mere rules—arbitrary “laws” that we may set aside in favor of our own vision of the good.

But while our proper apprehension of the moral law cannot be reduced to rules, it will inescapably be expressed partially through true statements about good and evil. When we choose to avoid committing adultery, for example, we may do so because it violates a commandment in the form of a memorized rule: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Assuming that an adulterous opportunity arises (and we are not simply spouting sour grapes), we may not understand why adultery is seriously wrong. We may not grasp the moral dimensions of the act itself. But in the absence of this moral understanding, we may be very well served by our recollection of a rule learned from an authority we trust.

It is indeed unfortunate that some souls do not seek to advance in moral understanding. It is even more unfortunate that so many of these persons today claim to be moral theologians. Our spiritual growth—our closeness to God, the increase of the Divine life within us—will be stunted if we erect obstacles to an ever-increasing moral perception. One such obstacle is an unwillingness to take the trouble to apprehend the moral law as intrinsic to the nature of things. But this cuts both ways. We may practice the legalism of obeying a rule we do not understand. Or we may practice the legalism of dismissing precise moral statements as “mere rules”.

Most of us will be wise to rely on a remembered rule now and then, especially when faced with a temptation we hadn’t seriously considered before, or with a moral statement we find difficult to understand. For many people, the moral evil of contraception falls into this category. They do not “get” why it is wrong, but they would be very wise indeed to rely on the infallible moral authority of the Church in forming their consciences just the same. Since nobody understands everything, and since our moral understanding is very frequently obscured by our passions, an old adage applies: We are foolish to tear down a wall unless we understand exactly why it was erected in the first place.

Interestingly, it is a general feature of the moral life that, if we are in doubt about the morality of a particular action, we run no spiritual risk if we refrain from that action. This is easily illustrated across the whole field of sexual morality, which figures so prominently among today’s secular discontents. With respect to any sexual action in which we may wish to engage, we will find that the only possibility of sinning consists in consenting to participate in this action, while refraining from the action does not introduce any possibility of sin at all.

With respect to the moral teachings of the Church, there will be times when, despite our genuine love of God, we do not yet understand a moral matter that presents itself to us. In such a case, which form of legalism is worse? To obey the “rule” provided by the Church because we know the rule? Or to dismiss it on the assumption that it is nothing more than a rule—that it is, in fact, a bad rule lacking any moral content at all? To ask the question is to see the right answer. It is the very soul of both pride and presumption to act as if we ought not to be bound by a moral provision set before us by the Church whenever we do not grasp the moral evil intrinsic to the act in question. It is precisely the purpose of the rule to protect us from the limitations of our own moral perceptions.

One of the most distressing things about the current pontificate is the frequency with which Pope Francis appears to assume, in the way he speaks about moral issues, that those who insist on the importance of Catholic morality to spiritual well-being, personal growth and the common good have substituted a rigid set of mere rules for the liberating power of our Lord and Savior. More often than not, Pope Francis seems to describe our concerns about moral damage to others as a way of cloaking our desire to gain power over them while keeping them from the love of Christ.

I agree wholeheartedly with Russell Shaw that this dismissive attitude toward precise moral teachings is merely a new form of the error it condemns. Moral truth is liberating. In the Christian context, it is always part of the call to experience the transformative love of Christ. Yet so many today dismiss clear statements about good and evil as mere rules, devoid of real moral content. This new legalism is used to dismiss the vital importance of knowing right from wrong.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Retired01 - May. 31, 2017 3:17 PM ET USA

    And this acting out against the authority of the Gospels regarding sexual morality and operating by impulse and feeling is now justified by the pastoral(?) claim that it is impossible to resist the force of the sexual passions.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - May. 31, 2017 2:29 PM ET USA

    Maybe hubris rather than legalism, driven by unmodulated affections. Blind ignorance misinterpreted as complete knowledge ("There's nothing more worth knowing or possible to know than what I currently know.") Appetite placed over reason incorrectly signals morality ("How it feels is what makes it right.") The old word hedonism fits like a glove, but coupled w/ extreme arrogance, therefore hubris. No grasp of the sound basis underlying morality since disabled reason can't access ontology.

  • Posted by: shrink - May. 30, 2017 9:40 PM ET USA

    Equating the moral law to the simple exercise of power happens when we confuse natural law with positive law—this is a philosophical point. Confusion of the two laws has a psychological origin, resentment, which usually arises in one's childhood or youth. Resenting the moral law happens when it is difficult to submit willingly and habitually to the natural law. Since force or power opposes willingness, in the absence of the latter some conclude that the moral law is arbitrary and a power play.