Lawless Christians

We consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
–Rom. 3:28

We have believed in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
–Gal. 2:16

In November, 2008, Pope Benedict gave a general audience regarding Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone, and discussed what St. Paul meant by “law”: It was a “collection of behaviors extending from an ethical foundation to the ritual and cultural observances that substantially determined the identity of the just man – particularly circumcision, the observance regarding pure food and general ritual purity, the rules regarding observance of the Sabbath, etc.”

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Obviously, this law, from which Christians are freed, included the multiple ceremonial and ritual laws of the Jews; but not the Decalogue, not the basic tenets concerned with love of God and love of neighbor.

But Luther in his treatise, Freedom of a Christian, tweaked St. Paul’s message of Christian freedom from Old Testament laws, and sounded a clarion call to freedom from much that was considered “church law” in his time:

Any man possessing this knowledge [of Christian freedom] may easily keep clear of danger among those innumerable commands and precepts of the Pope, of bishops, of monasteries, of churches, of princes, and of magistrates, which some foolish pastors urge on us as being necessary for justification and salvation, calling them precepts of the Church, when they are not so at all.

In tandem with this goal of emancipation, the Lutheran Reformation altered traditional Catholic doctrines regarding purgatory, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacraments of Matrimony and Holy Orders.  It removed many Holy Days from the ecclesiastical calendar, changed disciplinary rules such as fasting, prohibited pilgrimages and veneration of many of the saints, promoted new civil laws regarding divorce and remarriage, etc.

I think I am not the only one who has heard liberal priests making references to the “law” in this Lutheran vein – often mentioning “the Vatican” with sinister implications, and “the spirit of Vatican II” as the emancipation of Catholics from overbearing church laws; the appeal is made to “conscience,” which may be at odds with laws which have traditionally been observed in Christianity – regarding marriage and divorce, homosexual behavior, contraception, and so forth.

Fr. Charles Curran, who had been a peritus participating at Vatican II, was removed from his professorship in theology at Catholic University of America because of his views on sexuality; and, along with another former peritus, Bernard Haering, organized the Statement of Dissent from Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae vitae, on contraception, signed by 600 theologians. Fr. Curran sums up the principles behind his concept of Catholic freedom from law as follows:

[The traditional approach of St. Thomas Aquinas] begins with God’s law as mediated by the natural and civil law; the Vatican II approach begins with human freedom. In both cases, the original starting point can be overturned, but where you start is all important and establishes a basic presumption. For Aquinas the basic presumption is natural law; for the Vatican II position the basic presumption is in favor of freedom.

Consistent with this conception of the autonomy of conscience, Notre Dame theologian and columnist, Fr. Richard McBrien, cited often on Catholic issues by the mainstream media, and one of the original signers of the Statement of Dissent against Humanae vitae, has argued that this papal reaffirmation of the traditional Christian position regarding contraception can be conscientiously rejected by Catholics:

It is taken for granted that the Church’s moral teaching is normally a source for positive illumination for Christians in forming their consciences. If, however, after appropriate study, reflection, and prayer, a person is convinced that his or her conscience is correct, in spite of a conflict with the moral teachings of the Church, the person not only may but must follow the dictates of conscience rather than the teachings of the Church.

Fr. McBrien in his syndicated column frequently advises that in matters of sexual morality Catholics need not follow the moral directives of the Church.

Thus, “the law” for liberal theologians, connotes not just the Old Testament laws that St. Paul spoke of as being abrogated, but also the laws of Roman Catholicism regarding contraception, divorce, homosexuality, the ordination of women to the priesthood, etc.  They, like liberal Protestants, have risen above all such laws in the name of individual conscience and Christian freedom.

But what did Jesus himself mean by freedom from the law? We have numerous examples from the Gospels.  Jesus castigates Jewish leaders for overemphasis on adherence to Jewish laws, at the expense of charity and simple humanity. The most frequent castigation was concerning observance of the sabbath (Mt. 12:8,11; Mk. 2:27, 3:4; Lk. 6:5,9, 13:15, 14:3; Jn. 7:23); but Jesus also pointed out the dangers of scrupulosity in the ritual washing of hands (Mt. 15:20; Mk. 7:8; Lk. 11:39), tithing and contributions to the temple (Mt. 23:23; Lk. 11:42); and dietary prohibitions (Mt. 15:4, 17). The Apostles Peter and Paul added some other Jewish laws to which Christians were not bound in conscience – laws regarding circumcision, the prohibition of certain foods, and traditions of uncleanliness in associating with gentiles.

Ironically, it seems that the major rival to Christianity today, in numbers and in influence – namely, Islam – has instituted a massive system of laws that rivals even the plethora of Old Testament laws: Circumcision, prayer five times a day, prohibition of pork and of alcoholic drinks, separation of the sexes, special coverings for head and body, prohibition of usury, fasting during Ramadan, prohibition of images, lifetime duty of one pilgrimage to Mecca, etc. – not to mention, the imposition of Islamic Sharia law on civil society wherever possible.

Catholics, thankfully, are free from such laws, but not free from the Ten Commandments or the modest number of laws continually reaffirmed by the Church, in conjunction with its mission to offer guidance in “faith and morals.” The freedom St. Paul was extolling has nothing to do with a modernistic reinterpretation of the Church’s defense of the sacrament of matrimony and the basic natural laws regarding contraception, abortion, and homosexuality.


  • Howard Kainz

    Howard Kainz is professor emeritus at Marquette University. He is the author of several books, including Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

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