CHARITY THE ULTIMATE PRINCIPLE IN APPLYING ALL LAWS
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ 1 COR 8:1-7, 11-13; LUKE 6:27-38 ]
Laws are legislated for the purpose of establishing and fostering harmony among all peoples, especially in a particular community or organization. So laws are good and necessary at times. But the irony is that laws can also divide the people if not properly implemented. There are many reasons why the laws can create division and contention among the peoples. Not to speak about Church laws, especially liturgical laws, even civil laws have always been challenged on technical points in the way they are carried out, or even formulated.
So it is not surprising that even within the Church, so much division exists because of the laws! There are those who interpret the laws widely and there are those who interpret the laws narrowly. There are those who want to observe the letter of the laws and there are those who think it is more important to observe the spirit of the laws. There are those who think that all laws must be obeyed with the same degree of importance, and there are those who follow the principle of the hierarchy of laws. This means that some laws are more essential than others and obedience is not rendered in the same degree to all the laws. There are those who are knowledgeable of the laws and there are those who are ignorant of the laws. There are those who know the laws but do not understand the laws, and apply them slavishly and blindly. There are those who do not know the laws and do not understand them and so do not apply them. There are those who uphold the rules above all else, regardless whether they help the people; and there are those who put the practical needs of the people before the rules.
With such a wide range of views and perspectives, we should not be surprised that these different groups of people are always at odds with each other in the application of the laws. At times, disagreements lead to confusion, anger, hostility and disunity. This happens quite often in the Church over the application of liturgical laws and some Church practices. The situation becomes worse when the leaders of the Church or organization seek to impose their views and personal preferences on the community without proper dialogue, education, formation and understanding. They just want the letter of the laws to be followed by all, regardless of the context or the situation.
This was the case of the Christians at Corinth during the time of St Paul. They were squabbling over whether they could eat meat that was sold in the market place and which had been offered to the idols. The knowledgeable and enlightened group of Christians flaunted their newfound freedom in Christ. As far as they were concerned, “idols do not really exist in the world and that there is no god but the One. And even if there were things called gods, either in the sky or on the earth – where there certainly seem to be ‘gods’ and ‘lords’ in plenty … there is one God, the Father, from whom all things come and for whom we exist; and there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things come and through whom we exist.” Based on this principle, Christians surely could eat meat that was bought from the market place that had been offered to the idols.
On the other hand, many of the Christians in Corinth were converted from paganism. Indeed, as St Paul said, “Some people, however, do not have this knowledge. There are some people who have been so long used to idols that they eat this food as though it really had been sacrificed to the idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled by it.” They knew that the foods were offered to idols. So having been converted, and asking them to eat the meat reminded them of their former religious pagan practices. They therefore felt guilty to eat such meat offered to idols because of their allegiance to Christ. In truth, they could eat the meat, but because of their past religious practices, they did not feel right. A case in point is our Catholic converts from Hinduism and Buddhism. Some of them were vegetarian and some abstained from beef. So even after conversion, they would not eat meat or beef. This practice is so ingrained in them that to eat beef would be to commit a sin, though for Catholics we know it is not a sin.
For this reason, St Paul cautioned those with knowledge of the laws that they should not cause their weaker brothers to be scandalized. Out of charity for them, we should refrain from exercising our freedom. He said, “Your knowledge could become the ruin of someone weak, of a brother for whom Christ died. By sinning in this way against your brothers, and injuring their weak consciences, it would be Christ against whom you sinned. That is why, since food can be the occasion of my brother’s downfall, I shall never eat meat again in case I am the cause of my brother’s downfall.” So for the greater good of our weaker brothers, we must be sensitive to their conscience and their cultural ties. To insist on doing what is lawful is against the sin of charity.
Conversely, those who are weak, less knowledgeable, or even presumptuous, thinking that they know the laws of the faith, should not impose their narrow views on others. They might discover later on that they had misinterpreted the laws or applied them too legalistically without taking into account the spirit and the context of the laws. A case in point is the placing of flowers on top of the altar. The General Instructions of the Roman Missal (GIRM) nos 305-306 says only the essential items should be placed on the altar. Specifically, it says, “Floral decorations should always be done with moderation and placed around the altar rather than on its mensa.” (GIRM 305) But at Santa Martha Chapel, the Pope celebrates mass with the flowers on top of the altar! And it seems it is a universal practice in Italy. Therefore, we must be careful that we are not more Roman than the Romans!
Of course, the laws are good but not all laws have the same exigency to be complied with all at once. Without showing disrespect for the laws which are guidelines to help us to celebrate the liturgy meaningfully, we need to be sensitive to the culture and the practices of the people before applying the laws within context and in the spirit of what the laws ask of us. When it comes to essential laws, there should be no compromise, but with regard to other minor details, we seek to comply where possible. Even then, when we want to apply the laws and change the customary practices, we need to educate, form and help them to understand the purpose of the laws and how the laws can help them to live up to their faith and not just imposed without understanding the spirit of the laws.
Indeed, this is true even with regard to Christian practices. Often, converts ask me whether it is wrong to hold joss sticks at the funeral of their loved ones who are not Catholic, or even help to fold the “paper money” for their loved ones to burn at the funeral. It is not a question of can or cannot. Rather, it is a question of charity. When we do everything out of love, it is the only law that is above all laws. So long as we do not worship their deities and we are clear about it, there is no reason why we cannot bow to the deceased using joss sticks as a symbol of respect and solidarity in prayer. Of course, prudence is called for. If it causes scandal, then if possible we avoid doing so, but if it is for a greater good, then we should not refrain from doing a good act. As the psalmist says, “O Lord, you search me and you know me, you know my resting and my rising, you discern my purpose from afar. You mark when I walk or lie down, all my ways lie open to you. Already you knew my soul, O search me, God, and know my heart. O test me and know my thoughts. See that I follow not the wrong path and lead me in the path of life eternal.”
In the final analysis, we must remember the exhortation of our Lord in the gospel on compassion. “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourselves; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned yourself; grant pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and there will be gifts for you: a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back.” Indeed, we must exercise compassion and sensitivity in the way we apply the laws, taking into consideration the different levels, interests, context and importance of the laws. We must not allow our pride or knowledge of the laws or narrow-mindedness based on personal preferences to impose our will on others.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
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