In June 2003, the deadliest porch collapse occurred in Chicago. An overloaded balcony collapsed during a party in an apartment building, killing thirteen people and seriously injuring fifty-seven others. The ensuing investigation was highly critical of the way the balcony was built, finding a large number of errors in its construction which ultimately resulted in the collapse. However, the building’s owner, LG Properties, continued to fault overcrowding on the balcony for its structural failure. The accident resulted in sweeping inspections of similar structures across Chicago. While there was ample finger-pointing on who was to blame for this incident, two main reasons came to surface as the ultimate cause – a relaxing of building code and overcrowding. The combination of failing to adhere to a strict building law coupled with the party-goers alcohol induced stupor to flock on the deck led to this deadly incident.
While this story remains buried in history, it can serve as a signal to an underlining problem within the Church today. While Jesus cautioned to not relax the least of the spiritual laws (Matthew 5:17) many modern-minded leaders within the Church continuously stress the need to diminish the strict spiritual laws of years past. Even the pope insinuated that the ten commandments are “not absolutes.” Indeed, each year we become more nonchalant to God’s specific directives designed to help us. Yet, such a move would be akin to the Chicago contractor’s laxing of the stringent building code laws they were trained to follow. It follows if this diminishing of codes and rules gradually occurred, then a disaster would soon ensue.
To be sure, in the Chicago incident as in the Church the negative effects of easing the code are not obvious to the naked eye. I can’t visually spot out a deck that violates a few building codes much like the laity can’t identify flawed teaching that is laced with emotionally crafted platitudes. The hiddenness of the problem serves as an extra layer to the dilemma. Few will take notice given that all seems to look good on the surface.
For example, the USCCB website does manage to tell us that “we must strive to create a culture that does not accept sin,” while warning us to remember that “we all fall at times”; that we must be humble and not arrogant; be non-judgmental, certain to remove the beam from our own eye before we care about the splinter in our brother’s eye. Their message implores the bromide that “We should journey together to a deeper understanding of our shared faith.” To your average reader, this concept sounds a bit puzzling – remove sin, yet be cautiously soft on the sinner. But, what happens is that this over-emphasis on softly handling the sinner naturally bleeds over into a softness on sin itself. Under this fog of confusion, people fail to make a distinction between the sin and the sinner for they see these two as tightly clumped together. In this mix-up of sin and sinner, the words of Peter Kreeft bring clarity. “Of course the more you love the sinner the more you hate and make war on the sin, just as the more you love the person, the more you hate and kill the cancer cells that are killing the person. Compassion for cancer cells does not come from compassion for persons; it comes precisely from lack of compassion for persons.”
However, having relaxed the church laws we simultaneously become soft on sin. And becoming soft on sin, we will invariably match the culture’s tolerance of sin. Yet, we don’t want a church that accommodates the culture, that does not speak out about the evil of our day, that will not denounce heresy masquerading as “development of doctrine.” In this setting, forgotten is Ezekiel’s warning that if we do not denounce the evil in others then we will accompany them to perdition (see 33:8; cf. Lamentations 2:14). No more of the evidently outdated notion that we must “convince, rebuke, and exhort,” whether the time is convenient or not (2 Timothy 4:2). Removed is the adjuration in Leviticus—“Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt” (19:17). Gone is the “old-fashioned” teaching of St. Paul that, with love and “replenished with all knowledge, . . .you are able to admonish one another” (Romans 15:14). No more of Luke that, “if your brother sins, rebuke him” (Luke 17:3). Confiscated is the message in Proverbs that “wounds from a friend may be accepted as well meant” (27:6; cf. Psalm 141:5). When these passages are bracketed, the whole concept of fraternal correction becomes obsolete and the decay of sin begins to rot in the human soul.
In short, by laxing the “rules,” the church has become incredibly lenient on sin. Indeed, in our fallen state, if you give an ardent sinner an inch, they’ll eventually take a mile. This is because the tactics of the demonic is to slow play the sinner into his dark lair. As one well-trained exorcist observed, “It is difficult for him [the Devil] to barge right into our lives. He prefers, instead, to sneak in slowly and subtly. The devil’s technique is to get us to compromise morally so he can first get a toehold in our life, then a foothold, then a stronghold. At that final point, he can tear our lives apart.”
We either believe St. Peter or not when he warned, “Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith” (1 Peter 5:8-9). It is because of the relentless assault of the demonic that the Church continuously stipulates her laws much like a loving mother would do for her children as she sends them off on a treacherous journey. You can’t fault mother Church for looking after her sheep by providing all these walls of protection. But, if you don’t see the reality of a fierce demonic attack to get us to sin, then of course you’ll view the laws to avoid sin as outdated and you’ll view those who persist in upholding the rules as cold and incompassionate.
In our setting today, church tenets on fasting, marriage, contraception, cremation, IVF, mass attendance, etc. are met with a yawn of indifference by the laity. Such a cavalier attitude on church precepts acts as a conveyor belt to sin. In becoming soft on sin, our culture has become blind as a bat to our moral decay. As Catholic writer Anthony Esolen observes, “The difference between a healthy culture and a sick culture is not that the former is full of saints and the latter is full of devils. It is that the healthy culture raises high walls against evil and consciously directs its young people to what is good and noble, faithful and pure, while the sick culture hardly raises any wall, and, worse than failing to direct the young, fairly pushes into some participation in wickedness the last few souls who are by nature most averse to it.”
So, while relaxing the stringent rules sounds appealing as we don’t have to be so meticulous about the nitty-gritty details, this casual approach ends up intensifying the problem. Recall the Chicago deck incident as a reflection. Just like the cheap developers and contractors wanted to take advantage of lax building code regulations, cunning sinners will inevitably exploit the easing of spiritual rules. If rigorous contemplation and avoidance of sin is jettison, then the sinner becomes in a passive state, which, in turn, allows sin (i.e., a rejection of God) to flood in. Thus, the loosening of spiritual rules ends up taking the person down a grisly path.
But, we get it. Just like kids moan about the rules at home flawed sinners constantly complain about these “harsh” Church laws. They’ve contrived several clever reasons to tear down the laws. One such theory is that because Jesus upbraided the Pharisees for their strict holding of the Mosaic law we too should not be so persistent in adhering to rules. Yet, such an assertion misses the point. Jesus held the Mosaic law in high degree for when He healed the leper He instructed him to “go and show yourselves to the priests” (Luke 17:14) as was standard operating procedure in the law. In His conversation with the rich man, Jesus stressed the necessity of keeping God’s moral laws (see Mark 10: 17-19). In fact, Jesus bluntly said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). The Mosaic law was established after that repulsive scene where Israel engaged in a sexual orgy from worshiping the golden calf. The whole point of the law is to act as a road map to guide God’s people away from the idol worship that was encircling their lives. The law acts as a preventive measure all the while steering one closer toward God. Because we live in a fallen world and are inclined to sin, the law acts as a helpful deterrent much like a lifejacket is to an adventurous five-year-old as they run on an ocean dock. My five-year-old may complain that the lifejacket I demand she wears is “restrictive” but that doesn’t take away the fact that my command of wearing the lifejacket is a preventive measure so she remains close to her father rather than risk being tragically separated from me at the bottom of the ocean.
Jesus’s beef with the Pharisees had nothing to do with the law itself, but that the Pharisees selfishly used the law to their advantage (see Mark 7:11). Moreover, the Pharisees repeatedly took the law out of context to trap Jesus, thus, attempting to paint Him as a fraud (see Luke 6: 1-9). Obviously, if the law was created for warped sinners who impulsively want to run away from God’s will, the law itself doesn’t apply to the God-man Himself who always does the Father’s will. Would the cancer patient’s medicine pertain to the healthy doctor? Of course not. Therefore, when Jesus insinuates that the law doesn’t apply to Him, it’s not a diss on the law, but rather a proclamation of His divinity (see Mark 2:27-28, John 5:16-17).
In fact, Jesus articulates how the concept of rules (i.e. commandments) and love are intrinsically connected when He says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. . . You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15: 10,14).
Since Jesus fulfilled the ritual aspect of the Mosaic law, the Mosaic law doesn’t apply to us today. Catholics live under the prestige of the magisterium (teaching authority) and canon law (how to practice the faith). While as Catholics we should have a balanced view of God’s law – in one respect we shouldn’t obsess over the law as the be-all-end-all, and on the other end, we shouldn’t casually dismiss the law as outdated. Rather, we are to respect God’s law and view it as our map to guide us away from the black hole of sin and towards worshiping The Holy Trinity.
The skeptic now interjects and asks, “But, what about the scene in Scripture when Jesus didn’t apply the law to the women caught in adultery?” Here, the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and placed her in front of Jesus and said, “In the law, Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” After contemplation, Jesus’s response was, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw the stone.” After hearing this, the Jewish leaders slowly dropped their stones. Then, Jesus instructs, “Woman, where are they? Has not one condemned you?” “Neither do I condemn you; go and do not sin again.” (John 8:7-11).
This scene is often mistaken as Jesus’s repudiation of the law when in reality the Gospel writers don’t present the passage to us as Jesus’s insight on the law (in fact, he insinuates following the law). The Apostle John tells us directly that this whole scene is a trap. “The said this to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him” (John 8:6). Therefore, the backdrop of this event is not Jesus’s analysis of the law, rather it’s introduced as the Jewish leaders having contrived the whole event as a political ploy against Jesus.
As Biblical scholar, John Bergsma comments, “We notice immediately that there is something fishy about the events because they bring this woman ‘caught in the act,’ but the man involved is nowhere to be found, even though the Law of Moses would hold him equally responsible. Where is the man if they caught the woman ‘in the act’? Possibly this woman is just a paid actor, although we just don’t know.”
The trap here is laid out as a “gotcha” moment. If Jesus responds by telling the scribes and the Pharisees that they should stone the woman, they will immediately run to the Roman authorities and report Him as advocating rebellion against the Roman government and laws, since the Romans had reserved themselves alone the authority to apply capital punishment. On the other hand, if Jesus responds by telling the scribes and Pharisees not to execute the woman, they undoubtedly instruct the crowd, “This man Jesus is no true prophet because he defies the Law of Moses!” Thus, they will succeed either in getting Jesus arrested or else discrediting him in the eyes of pious Jews.
Jesus knows this is a ruse, so He refuses to respond. When they keep pressing Him, He wisely suggests: “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.”
Here, Jesus puts the responsibility for the woman’s execution squarely on the shoulders of the scribes and Pharisees. They certainly do think that they are without sin, but they do not dare take up a stone to throw at the woman, as they would be immediately arrested by the Roman soldiers who were keeping an eye on the Temple courts. Here, Jesus has outwitted the deceitful Pharisees. When they all have left, Jesus asks the woman, “Has no one condemned you?” And she responds, “No one, Lord.” As Bergsma observes, “None of her accusers had been willing to sustain the accusation; therefore, from a legal perspective, there were no longer any plaintiffs. And how can a judge condemn a defendant if there are no plaintiffs?” Notice that Jesus’s challenge to the woman of, “Go, and sin no more” is not soft on sin and rightly calls her to change her life. His response is a perfect balance to love the sinner while rebuking the sin.
In this exchange, Jesus does not relax his teaching on sexual purity for He forbids not just adultery but even the internal lust that is the seed of adultery (5:28-30). In Christ, we see the paradox of unyielding teaching about the way of holiness combined with an inexhaustible willingness to forgive, heal, and restore to those who willingly repent – as was the case with the woman in adultery.
The rules are designed to keep us honest and prevent us from falling off God’s trajectory. It is no wonder that studies reveal those who adhere to a more traditional respect of spiritual laws are thriving, while those who don’t tend to flounder on living out basic church teaching. Yet, people who try to uphold the Catholic laws are often painted as being too “rigid.” They are compared to an uptight prude or one who suffers from an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Whatever the case, they are not viewed as someone who is helping the faithful in any meaningful way. Why is this the case? Prideful humans think laws don’t apply to them. In many instances, they will implore clever tactics in order to duck out of the necessity of the law.
Recall how it was the sly serpent who was able to successfully trick Eve to loosen God’s law when he questioned, “Did God say you should not eat from every tree of the garden?” (Genesis 3:1). The attempt to ease God’s much-needed laws is literally the oldest trick in the book employed by a demonic entity.
We can eloquently and emotionally articulate how we don’t need to follow a series of “thou shall not” rules imposed by God that forbid us from doing the things our warped desires want to do. Yet, the no’s of the law act by navigating us away from danger towards the person God created us to be. In this, the “no’s” of the law lead us to the “yes” of Christ. After all, ignoring the “thou shall not” of the deck code led to the tragic incident in Chicago.
The code and laws seek to foster the flourishing of human life. When they are ridiculed or ignored, disaster will sadly take place. When they are respected and used, a person opens himself to God.