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.”

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).

  • lenchoy2k

    I am also reminded of Fr. Cantalamessa’s point, which he brought up in a homily recently:
    Our concept of ‘law’ is rooted first in God’s love –in fact, as a response (thus, our responsibility) to the fact that God loved us first.

    It is not about what laws we must obey to receive God’s love; rather, as Catholics, we can affirm that God loved us first, and the Commandments and precepts of the Church are there to help us love Him in return.

    Happy Easter season!

  • LT

    There is a difference in not understanding WHAT God wants from us, and in not understanding WHY he wants it from us. The former is where we have depend on an informed concience. For the latter, concience is immaterial; once we know what God asks, we are not at liberty to reject it just because we don’t like or understand his reasons. God’s laws on contraception, abortion, and homosexuality are not vague moral dilemmas. They are challenging but they are  definitive and they are clear. And just a little hint: when the concience is properly guiding us in difficult situations, usually it is guiding us to take the more difficult path.

  • Clement_W

    I cannot understand why Fr. Charles Curran, Fr. Richard McBrien and the 600 Theologians did not go on and join The Lutheran or any of the other Protestant Churches instead of being ‘Cuckoo chicks’ in the nest of the bird of a different species that they have occupied, especially since they seem to consider the Roman Catholic Church a Boys’ club?

    • John200

       I’ll offer a few stabs at a guess.
      1. The ‘Cuckoo chicks” got more of a reaction by remaining Catholic than they would have gotten if they had walked away to a more congenial environment. Imagine the typical chick going apostate, and not being excommunicated. I think I hear him now, he says, “I can’t believe I am getting away with this baloney.”
      2. Cowardice? Never underestimate the possibility.
      3. Insincerity in their professed beliefs? No catechized Catholic can believe the chicks’ innovations  were based on the faith. Lefty often plays games in order to get attention. It is characteristic of lefties in the political arenas.
      4. Considering the last 50 years of Protestant decline, as converts the chicks might have been ignored completely. The worst possible fate for such proud chicks.

      Yes, that’s it. I’ll opt for their pride as the reason why they stayed.

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    Dr. Kainz:  It is so refreshing to read something that recognizes the very existence of error!  Those who have not heard relativistic balderdashp preached in front of their childrren are fortunate, but many of us are surrounded by both clergy and supposedly educated laymen who really believe that Vatican II was a huge capitulation of Modernism by way waay of a rehabilitation and virtual canonization of Luther.  Think of the damage these characters bring to souls!  I was present when a US Navy chaplain, at his retirement Mass, preached that the council of Jeruselem released Christians not only from Jewish dietary laws but from Hebrew laws regarding “sexual purity.”   Does anyone have any doubts about to what he was referring?  Poor Pope Benedict XVI has his owrk cut out for him and he kknows it.  Viva Papa!

  • Not to try to “muddy the waters” … but the New Covenant was all-new
    … not based at all upon anything in the Old Covenant … except for
    the perfect fulfillment of all that was written in the books of the Law,
    the Prophets, and the Psalms … by the promised Messiah … Jesus

    The risen Jesus said as much, himself. And earlier, he had used the example of old and new wine skins to explain why the new would be essentially incompatible with the old.

    Jesus Christ released us from the curse of the Old Law … every jot and
    tittle of it … and replaced that now obsolete concept with the grace
    and peace available only through him and the Catholic Church he
    personally founded, authorized, empowered, and eternally guaranteed …
    for that express purpose.

    Jesus gave St. Peter and the apostles the awesome and virtually
    unrestricted power of binding and loosing … and with the help of the
    Holy Spirit … they and their successors shortly decided to reaffirm
    certain basic tenets that were contained in the old law … and totally
    do away with others.

    Martin Luther and his ideological descendants gravely err when they deny
    the power of the Catholic Church to govern and to make rules for the
    benefit of the Christian faithful.

    Other than that, there’s absolutely no basis in scripture or tradition
    for the automatic, selective movement of portions of the Old Covenant
    laws over to the New Covenant Catholic Church.

    The hierarchy of the Catholic Church deliberately made those critical
    judgments and decisions, much as they are still being made today …
    usually by means of papal decrees and duly called synods and councils.

    None of this happened by accident … by autopilot … or by osmosis.
    All was accomplished according to the foreknowledge and plan of Almighty

    Thank God we Catholics have the grace and peace of Jesus Christ, the
    head of the Catholic Church, and the source and summit of our Christian
    life,  as our first, best, and final resort … instead of the totality
    of the Old Law, which though it was certainly of God, never saved a soul
    … because that job was always rightly reserved for Jesus, himself.





    • Clement_W

      Are you talking about the “Law” and the “Ten Commandments” being the same? As far as I can see, the New Commandment enunciated by Jesus Christ incorporates all the Ten Commandments based on Love. As St. Paul talks about being weaned from milk and graduating to meat.

  • John200

    All this is more complicated than it looks. We cannot see into the hearts of apostates, heretics, excommunicates, et al. who continue to profess their Catholic identity. We can learn our own faith so as to stop being fooled by the heresies, etc. We can pray for them. We can try fraternal correction even if it alienates them. We can go along to get along — try acceptance of their….no, no, almost caught me there. 

    What else is possible in this world?

    • Clement_W

      Until all this conversation has been taking place, I had not realized fully the inroads made by what the Scripture calls the ‘Spirit of the World’. Had the Barack Obama Administration not brought this to the fore, the real meaning of Vatican II would not have been discussed for several more years and we would not be undergoing this self-examination.

  • Maria

    Charles E. Curran was not a peritus at Vatican II. That was Fr. Charles A. Curran, a psychology professor at Loyola of Chicago.

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