Law and Freedom—“Do I Have to Go to Church Today, Mom!?”

I don’t do apologetics. I can do apologetics, I have a background in theology, from seminary formation, as well as Catholic graduate education. I do catechesis, I teach and do theology, my understanding of the New Evangelization is what the Church expects the New Evangelization to be, particularly in its fides qua as well as its fides quae, the how of living the faith, as much as the what of faith; I just don’t do apologetics, here’s why. Apologetics is all about, not just answering the questions, but answering the same questions, over and over again, sometimes for the same people. But that, in itself, is not why I don’t do apologetics; with a little patience, I can do that, and have done that. What bothers me the most is when the person asking me the question has been asked the question by someone else, and this third party is not curious, or seeking to understand Catholicism, they are trying to sway the middle-man, the Catholic man, or woman, who does want to know more about their faith in order to grow in it, and be strong in these apologetic conversations. Apologetics is, or should be, for those inquiring souls. For the third party, answers are not what they are after, doubt is what they are after. And, for the most part, they want confirmation in their own “Christian” anti-Catholic stance.

Did I say this was going to be about Law and Freedom, and “Why do I have to go to Church today Mom?” Okay, I’ll do the Law and Freedom thing first. For those on the fringe of Catholicism (tittering over reversion or conversion, one foot in the vestibule—maybe both feet—but leaning on the door) for them, Law and Freedom is a confusion point, weakening their stance as they are buffeted by every wind of doubt and accusation that blows through the crack in the door they are leaning on:

  • “Should I pursue an annulment now that I am divorced, or go back to that non-denominational congregation where they don’t require annulments?”
  • “Should I go to confession, should I worry about which sins are mortal sins, or should I go back to that non-denominational congregation where they don’t have mortal sin because everyone was saved by Jesus on the Cross?”
  • “Should I make myself, and my children, go to Church/Mass every Sunday, or should I go back . . .” Well,…I think you get the point.

In the three-party apologetics described above, these are the doubts being put in the minds of our “vestibule” Catholics. The subject of all these doubt-questions is “obligation.” The Church says: “You have to!” But the alternative is: “Come over to our side where you don’t have to do anything!” (I’m not making this stuff up, folks.)

I was in counsel with a young lady for over three months, mostly via text, who was divorced, and was caught between the Church she grew up in, and a non-denominational community she had recently been attending. One of the topics of our conversations was “annulment.” Although her husband had beat her during their marriage, she was proud to say she never called the cops on him. She was, therefore, reluctant to go forward with an annulment because she “didn’t want to get him in trouble.” Her attraction to the non-denominational approach was that they don’t recognize “mortal sin,” and her on-again, off-again, cohabitation (my word) with this new friend, or that one, was okay with that other church. Needless to say my counseling for her was not successful and, after three months of 6 AM texts, she finally called me and said that me and the Church were “pushing her, and her two children, away, and didn’t want to help her.” So what is a deacon to do? Patience is a virtue that I constantly work on. I never heard from her again.

Here is one more example, I think you are getting the point. This is the “do I have to go to Church” thing. During a three-party apologetic exchange (I never get to talk to the third party) my friend, the middle-man, shared this third party’s “apologetics-of-the-third-kind.” It goes something like this:

“The Church,” he told my friend, “makes you go to Mass every Sunday, but that is wrong. You should go to church when you want to, that is what is most pleasing to God! When you wake up, and you say ‘I want to go to church today,’ that means you want to do what is pleasing to God, not because you have to! To go to church because you have to, especially when you don’t want to, is a sin! The Church is making you sin!”

Really folks, I’m not making this up.

What is at the root of all this is the modern concept of “freedom.” It is the notion that obligation (law) conflicts with individual freedom. The third-party-non-denomination people (and some denomination people) see the Church as an authoritative law “maker,” rather than the divine institution, given the law by Christ, to give to the faithful for the perfection of their good. Here’s where we move from apologetics to theology, buckle up! St. Thomas Aquinas explains to us that law is a form of pedagogy. Pedagogy being that which forms a person in virtue. Here’s how he comes to that conclusion. He makes four points:

Law is . . .

  • A dictate of reason;
  • For the common good;
  • It is promulgated (it is made known);
  • It is promulgated by those who have primary care of the community.

In his words (ST.I-II.Q92.1):

In answering the question, “Whether an effect of Law is to make Men Good.” St. Thomas says:

The philosopher (Aristotle) says that the “intention of every lawgiver is to make good citizens.”

I answer that:
A law is nothing more than a dictate of reason in the ruler by which his/her subjects are governed. (Emphasis mine) Now the virtue of any subordinate thing consists in its being well-subordinated to that by which it is regulated: thus, we see that the virtue of the (lower) faculties (of the soul, appetite and passions) consists in their being obedient to reason (the noble faculties of intellect and will;) and accordingly “the virtue of every subject consists in his being well-subjected to his ruler,” as the Philosopher says. But every law aims at being obeyed by those who are subject to it. Consequently, it is evident that the proper effect of law is to lead its subjects to their proper virtue: and since virtue is “that which makes its subject good,” it follows that the proper effect of law is to make those to whom it is given, good, either simply (per se) or in some particular respect. For if the intention of the lawgiver is fixed on true good—which is the common good regulated according to Divine justice—it follows that the effect of the law is to simply make men good. If, however, the intention of the lawgiver is fixed on that which is not simply good, but useful, or pleasurable to himself, or in opposition to Divine justice, then the law does not make men simply good, but makes them “good” in respect only to that particular government.

Did you buckle up? This may have jostled you around a bit. It is really the four bullet points above. Notice that the law is meant to be for the common good, for the good of all; not just for the good of some, forcing others to abide (tolerate?) what is good for some, but not for all. Okay, this could lead off on another tangent—back to: “Mom, why do I have to go to Church today?”

The Church is the lawgiver; she promulgates what is already there. This is what we call objective morals. Take for instance the first and third commandments:

I. “You Shall Worship the Lord Your God and Him Only Shall You Serve”
III.“You Shall Keep Holy the Lord’s Day”

These are objective because they are “already there.” They were first promulgated by and from God, then given to Moses, and eventually, Christ explains them more fully (fulfills the law), and gives them to the Church for the common good of the faithful, and all mankind.

The third commandment does not say: “You Shall Keep Holy the Lord’s Day—when you wake up and you feel like going to Church.” Furthermore, if anyone might say that the third commandment doesn’t mean “Thou shalt go to church,” the first and the third together do. It is in church (yes, I mean the building, even though you have heard many times the church is not a building) in church is where the worship of the One and Only God is done most excellently. In the temple, in the tent of assembly, as God described it to Moses, as Solomon built it, into which God manifested Himself. God is in the church building most intimately, and He wants us there to be with Him in an intimate way (at least once a week.)

So Mom, when you are asked “Why do I have to go to church today?” you can just say, “because God says so.”

On another note, Jesus said: “…whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (cf. Matt 5:32)

Hmmm . . ., “unless the marriage is unlawful?” What does that mean? How is that determined? Could it be that this is what the annulment process is all about?

Now, I’m not a Canon Lawyer, but I do know who Jesus is, and whatever He says, . . . well, I’m okay with that. It seems I recall someone once saying: “Do whatever He says.” (cf. John 2:5)

In these beautiful words of Mary, we find the whole of our obedience of faith. And it is exactly that, obedience of faith, not obedience to the authoritative, law-making Church. If we believe what we say we believe as Christians—non-denominational or otherwise—then we “do what He says.” If, on the other hand, we say He said or meant something different, . . . well I’m not even going there.

The best way to understand Law and Freedom is in an analogy given by Fr. Servais Pinckaers, O.P., the pre-eminent moral theologian of our time (R.I.P). (Fr. Pinckaers collaborated with St John Paul II on the Encyclical, Veritas Splendor.) Fr. Pinckaers gives the example of a young adolescent who goes to her parents and says she wants to play the piano; that she feels a calling to music. The parents are overjoyed at the child’s cultural ambition, and purchase a piano for the home. Upon its arrival, the mother announces to the child that they have also arranged for a music teacher, and have selected a variety of sheet music for her advancement. At this, the child announces that: “Oh no, mother, I won’t need a music teacher or sheet music, that’s to restricting. I want the freedom to play any and all the notes I want, and to play my own form of music.”

Law, my brothers and sisters, does not restrict our freedom; it guides us to virtue, and virtue is the perfection of the human person. Law frees us from the obstacles that hinder human flourishing. It perfects us, and prepares us for the beatific vision. The “freedom” of individualism that modern, secular culture demands (as well as some Christian cultures) will not provide the guidance and perfection of virtue.

Without the law, and the guiding hand of the lawgiver (i.e. the Church), we cannot reach the perfection that gets us to the fullness of the joy of heaven. Without sheet music, and a music teacher, neither will that child ever get to Carnegie Hall.

I don’t do apologetics, except for our vestibule Catholics. I do catechesis, and I teach theology, especially to those practicing Catholics whose faith seeks understanding.

Deacon Peter Trahan, MATh About Deacon Peter Trahan, MATh

Ordained in 2008 to the Archdiocese of Miami; MA Theology from The Augustine Institute, Denver, CO; Master Catechist with the Archdiocese and Coordinator of Adult Faith Formation at St. Bonaventure Parish. Member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.