There are lots of differences between church law and civil law, but they have a couple of things in common. One is that the purpose of law is to give order and stability to the community and to help it thrive. Another is that the people governed have to see the value of the laws and accept them. Justice, peace, and a thriving community all go together when laws are good.
We, Bernie and Eileen, found a book by Ladislas Orsy, SJ, with a wonderful chapter about how norms pronounced by the Roman Catholic Church authorities become law when the people test them against their life experiences and their relation to God. His book is Receiving the Council: Theological and Canonical Insights and Debates (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2009) and Chapter 5 is entitled “Reception of the Laws: An Exercise in Communio.” We gave a copy to Paula and she “received” it. All three of us are recommending it.
Orsy is a professor of canon law at Georgetown University in Washington DC. A google search tells that he has nine books and hundreds of articles over his 89 years. This little book, particularly Chapter 5, is one of those crystal clear, accessible-to-a-layperson, distillations that only a lifetime of reflecting on a subject can achieve. We’ve used lots of quotations to show you what we mean.
Receiving the Law
The doctrine of “reception,” people’s assimilation of the values underlying law, is solidly orthodox in the Catholic tradition. As all doctrine, it is founded on faith, i.e., the individual Christian’s experience of union with God.
In the church (that is the beginning of the kingdom) the source of all obligations is in a personal covenant with God. The people are bound to God. Consequently, they are committed to uphold the integrity of God’s house. (p. 63)
The lawgivers, the pope and bishops in the modern Roman Catholic Church, and the law receivers are all one in the same People of God. Their task is to co-create the reign of God with the Spirit who is within them. That is the mission of the institutional framework that gives them stability and support.
Orsy distinguishes between doctrinal teaching, which requires the faithful to seek expanded understanding, and legislation, which requires the faithful to perform some action in obedience. The doctrine of infallibility relates to doctrinal teaching, but there is no claim to infallibility in making laws.
It cannot be stressed enough that there is a great difference between proclaiming doctrine and promulgating a command. When doctrine is handed over, the intent of the giver is an increase in knowledge; when a command is conveyed, his intent is the performance of an action.
It follows, therefore, that there must be a great difference between the reception of doctrine and that of law. In the former case reception consists in assimilating the knowledge in an ever-expanding manner; in the latter case reception consists in narrowing the attention to one precise action and performing it. (p. 64)
The church, therefore, does not hold (and never did) that there is a divine guarantee that an ecclesiastical superior (including the pope and the bishops) will never fall short of the highest degree of prudence in practical matters. Historical facts prove abundantly the truth of this affirmation. p. 62
So how does the people’s reception of law happen?
Above all, reception is a dynamic process brought forward by those immense energies that circulate in the community of the faithful. They are moved by a desire implanted by the Creator into the human heart to seek the good, and they are moved by the Spirit of God who has gathered them into one assembly, ecclesia, and is breathing life into their activities. (p.65)
Orsy gives five steps in the process:
1) The first movement in receiving the law is to take cognizance of the norm that has been promulgated. (p.65)
2) The second movement is the quest for understanding, a search for the why? of the law. The object of this search is the value that has prompted the lawgiver to enact the norm—the value that the law intends to promote and support. To find it may require some detective work, but when it is found, the inner meaning of the law is revealed.
Not all the subjects are likely to engage in such an inquiry. Many prefer to trust the judgment of the legislator and feel no need to raise questions about the values behind the norms. This is a generally accepted attitude, even praised as virtuous. It is marked, however, by a built in imperfection, a lack of understanding of the reason for law that can eventually lead to discontent and frustration. (p.65)
3) The third movement in the process is its climax: the law meets the conscience of the receiver. It reaches that luminous part of the person where he or she is bound to God. There a sovereign judgment will have to be made over the law, a judgment for which the person is responsible to his or her Maker and to no one else. [Note: This is the moment when the abstract, general and impersonal norm encounters a judge (life that is) who takes into account what is concrete, particular, and personal in the circumstances.]
This could be a routine event: as the law presents itself to the conscience, it is accepted in peace. Its harmony with the fundamental obligation to serve God is immediately detected.
In some cases, however, the conscience may sound an alarm; it finds a disharmony between the external rule and the internal drive to serve God. A conflict develops.
. . . In exceptional cases, there may not even be a doubt: the conscience responds to the law with a blunt no; then the process of reception stalls….
The gist of this doctrine is the affirmation of the primacy of the conscience over the law: no Christian must hold otherwise. (p. 66)
4) The fourth movement follows after the conscience has accepted the law and has integrated its demands with the obligation that binds the person to God. The lawgiver’s intention becomes the receiver’s decision. He or she is willing to act, that is, to reach out for the value that the law wants. This is, before and above all, an obsequium to God, “honoring God,” and only secondarily an act of obedience to the law. (p. 67)
5) The fifth movement on the part of the receiver is then the action itself, the implementation of the law in the world of concrete, particular, and personal events. (p. 67)
Signs of successful reception are peace and joy in the community. The fruits of the Holy Spirit we memorized in catechism class are the way we know that a community is thriving. If, on the contrary, the community is crippled with fear of a vindictive lawmaker, individuals going “under the radar,” turning to other Christian communities for nurture, and speaking of the lawmaker with disrespect, it is time to look at the laws that might be causing the problem.
Of course, as Orsy points out, it is possible that the laws may not be the problem. If the community is not functioning in peace and joy, focusing on its mission, law is not by itself going to make that happen. Then the relationship between the lawgivers and the receivers has to be rehabilitated with methods other than law.
It would be interesting to talk about some specific laws that have been given recently. What is the value underlying the insistence on precious metal chalices and patens at Mass? What is the value of limiting the role of homilist to the ordained sacramental minister? Have the people discovered the values underlying these directives, and received them in peace and joy or have they acquiesced out of fear or even rejected the directives, failing to see the values and the reasoning for the restrictions?
People, within and without the church, want to know the reason for a law; they want to understand the good that it intends to achieve; they want to implement it intelligently and freely. Such an attitude is no more than an assertion of human dignity, a stance that the church, no doubt, wishes to honor. (p. 57)
If we, as the People of God in union with our leaders, the pope and bishops, are obligated to test the norms given in the “crucible of life,” we can’t be sheep-like about it. That task takes a lot of reflection and conversation.
A directive to obey without question is contrary to this traditional doctrine of reception. Such a directive cuts off the possibility of people’s formation of conscience. It dulls moral sensitivity and it stops up the process by which bad laws can be detected and revised.
We need forums where people of all life experiences in our local church can be heard with respect. The well-being of the local church and, consequently, its modeling of a church dedicated to Jesus’ vision are at stake
We see The Progressive Catholic Voice and the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, of which we are Board members, as means to promote discussion of church teachings and laws in order to facilitate their reception. Could The Catholic Spirit be such a forum?
Please tell us if you too feel a need for a place to discuss Church doctrine and laws in order to form your conscience.
For reviews of Orsy's Receiving the Council, see:
Orsy Declares His Insights - Arthur Jones (National Catholic Reporter, April 2010).
Unity Wins Out Over Diversity - John Wilkins (National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 2010).
A Faithful Critic - Paul Lakeland (America, November 2, 2009)
Receiving the Council - Randall Woodard (Catholic Books Review, December 2009).
Creeping Infallibility: Popes Have Gone Way Beyond What Vatican Councils Authorized - Gerald Floyd (Creative Advance, April 7, 2010).