Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

The Popacalypse, Canon Law and Belonging to Jesus

The Pope is coming to town here in Philadelphia and with it he is bringing a bunch of speculation on canon law and whether the Catholic church will change to reflect our evolving cultural values. Recently he announced a year of mercy that extended the capacity to absolve women of the sin of abortion from bishops and their special designees to all priests all over the world. The media heard the word “abortion” and put it on blast. They thought maybe the Pope was going to come out in favor of Roe v. Wade. In actuality this was a technical expansion of the rights of priests to extend the absolution of God to people more conveniently. Without this measure women still marked with ritual uncleanliness would have to submit a claim of sorts to the bishop whom they didn’t even know. What the what?

As far as Popes go, Francis is a great one. But he is still head of the Catholic church which is built on a system that adjudicates the absolution of people based on 1752 canon laws. The media likes the Pope. They like the frenzy of 4 million people in Philly, but they treat his faith as an artifact. And why shouldn’t they? Whatever piety the pontiff has is shrouded in that system of laws that undermines the gospel which inspires it. Building and maintaining a system of laws make’s what Paul says in Romans 7 sound ridiculous. “So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.” Do we belong to Jesus, the other who was raised form the dead, or do we belong to the law? I think Francis belongs to Jesus. I think many Catholics do too, but I think the church is built on an anti-gospel law that breeds a lot of law abiding citizens who never get to belong to Jesus.

On Monday night at the cell leader training, Jonny Rashid, one of our pastors, reminded us of Circle of Hope’s proverb, “One doesn’t need to be smart or completely trained to be a fulfilled Christian.” We need to say this a lot more because we all seem to be idealists who cannot live up to our own expectations. I certainly am prone to an “all or nothing” mentality that is self-defeating a lot of the time. So hear it again in a different way: We don’t need to live up to a perfect law to belong to Jesus. We need to say this a lot because the Catholics aren’t the only ones who are producing law abiding citizens. My “all or nothing” mentality is another law that often stands in opposition to belonging to Jesus.

My “all or nothing” process isn’t unique either. I don’t know how often I hear my friends say that they are uncomfortable telling someone about their belonging to Jesus because they fear that they don’t live up to Jesus’ standards. I think they don’t live up to their own vague ideas of what they think Jesus might be thinking of them. The legacy of canon law mixes in our collective understanding with all the other laws of the land- from Roe v. Wade, to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders. There are so many laws and rules and regulations! A result of this is what our pastor, Rod White, described in his dissertation as “The Great Other.” We all live an atmosphere dominated by huge unknown forces that seem to demand huge responses. There is a glut of information about the calamities of our age, and the shortcomings of the church and its leaders over the years. Many individual Christians take this collection of sins on the chin. Everyone knows how much you suck and the “Great Other” threatens to highlight that fact yet again. One of the patent responses to the hugeness of this problem is staying in your lane and finding very specific places in which we can claim some level of expertise. For example I might say, “I can’t deal with all that big stuff, but if you want to know about 21st century cat memes I have a blog about them and I think I’ve seen all the ones that have legitimately achieved viral status.”

The problem is that Jesus is not interested in expertise. We can’t use that method of security. Expertise is just another law that is thrown in the mix. But one does not become an expert in Jesus. One can become an expert on canon law which is why it is so comforting for so many people. It is manageable. It stands up to the vagueness that plagues us. But Jesus wants us to belong to him. Our faith is not quantifiable. It is story. It is heart song. It is relationship. It doesn’t match up to the law that many people use to protect themselves from this big threat that we have internalized and live by without really knowing it. Jesus, save us from the power of that law. I’m praying that Francis’ big show awakens the region to Jesus despite the interwoven law and that many people end up belonging to Jesus anyway, and hopefully partnering with Circle of Hope.


  1. Zeb

    I think this is pretty unfair to the Catholic Church. In Catholic theology a priest can offer absolution for all sins validly confessed. But some sins are also counted as *crimes* in the Church, and those crimes come with sanctions, and not all priests are permitted to remove the sanction for all crimes. It is not removal of “ritual uncleanliness” but sanction for committing a crime that *anyone* participating in an abortion, woman or man, would have to appeal to the bishop or his designees. However, most bishops have given all priests in their dioceses faculties for removing the sanction for obtaining abortion (that being excommunication) for decades now. But for the sanction of excommunication to be applied in the first place the woman would have to knowingly make a free choice to take an act that would incur the sanction. There is some doubt whether any woman obtaining an abortion has even incurred the sanction, and I can’t find any example of a woman being required to appeal to the bishop to lift the excommunication. More here from a canon laywer:

    • Benjamin White

      I’m not a canon lawyer so I definitely got it wrong. But you can see how you’re supporting my main point here right, Zeb. We all are sucked toward the law. I think Catholics might be in a stronger vacuum though.

      • Zeb

        Yes, after clearing that up I did want to discuss the your main point. I’d like to hear more about this sentiment: “Whatever piety the pontiff has is shrouded in that system of laws that undermines the gospel which inspires it. … I think the church is built on an anti-gospel law…” Those are pretty strong judgement. Surely you don’t think the God or Jesus or the Gospel demands that we be absolute anarchists? Law, like religion, is what binds us together. Jesus said that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Law gives us structure within which to safely and sanely experience the freedom of the Spirit. It is how we be a community saved in one body instead of a bunch of raving mad men. We are all in this together and must pursue salvation and holiness as a body. And so sacramental grace and forgiveness come to us from God by the hand of our pastors. And of course we Catholics take Jesus’ words to his Apostles about the keys to the Kingdom, the power to bind and loose, and the mission to feed His sheep very seriously. When someone harms the the Church itself in a especially serious way they need to pursue reconciliation with the Church itself, not just with God. Would you have a world with no law, and with no norm of accountability and reconciliation? A world where one person in the Church can take the life of another and needs seek only God’s forgiveness? I don’t mean to make this a question of denominational superiority but one of principal – is law really antithetical to the Gospels and the will of God?

        • Benjamin White

          I appreciate your perspective, Zeb. It’s not law or anarchy. The accountability you describe can be achieved through mutual dialogue. The hierarchical and monolithic development of the Catholic Church make this difficult. The church is a people that ought not be abstracted and codified. The law is a mediator between people as it was between God’s people and God. The mediation isn’t necessary but reconciliation in relationships is.

          • Zeb

            I appreciate that dialogue and holistic reconciliation are what we need as people of God, not bureaucratic form checking. But who is to have the dialogue you suggest as your form of accountability? Not the Bishop or his designees? And why is codification bad? The positive purpose of codification is to ensure fairness and justice and intelligibility. Beyond just a church, in any community I would think it is good for a person who has broken communion to know how he can go about restoring communion and know that he’s going to have the same opportunities and face the same challenges as anyone else. For sure the Catholic Church has been plagued with bureaucracy and obsessive legalism. But it has had to keep in communion a billion people under hundreds of political regimes. I think Pope Francis sees how obsession with letter of the law has separated the Church from the spirit of it (and he has addressed this in many other ways besides this abortion policy), but he also knows the necessity of fairness, justice and intelligibility that codification provides. What do you think is a better way to handle accountability and reconciliation while maintaining fairness and intelligibility, especially on the scale of a world wide communion?

          • Benjamin White

            I think the problem may be the worldwide communion. Fairness is different than mutuality. Communion requires face to face communion. When we create a rule that applies worldwide we (maybe inadvertently) miss out on the fullness of belonging to Jesus. The intent of the canon law may not be to do this but I know too many Catholics who relate to the church as a beuracracy to think that the system isn’t fundamentally to blame. The problem is too widespread to think it’s the individuals’ problem alone. That is not too say that many Catholics don’t transcend this problem, but it is a hurdle to a saving relationship with Jesus. Don’t you agree that this is a problem even if not universal? Also, I will say again that this problem transcends the Catholic church. We are all slaves to the law unless we are saved from it every day by Jesus.

          • Zeb

            “Communion requires face to face communion. ” Why do you think so? I believe we are in a spiritual communion transcending physical circumstances – time, proximity, social relations. The first major crisis of they Church addressed at the Council of Jerusalem was about law, whether gentile Christians would need to follow the Mosaic laws about food and circumcision. They tossed out many of those laws but retained others, and the fact that they had a council shows a concern for maintaining communion between people separated by hundreds of miles and several languages. The Acts of the Apostles is full of examples of the apostles adjudicating disagreements and violations within the community. Do you think even at this early stage the Church and the apostles were infected with an anti-Gospel legalism that kept people from a saving relationship with Jesus?

            I do think there is a common problem among Catholics that they see the Church and the faith as a system rather than as a community of the Spirit and a treasury of grace. I do think it is a general problem of human nature though, to want something we can grasp and master (and wield against our neighbor) rather than something that grasps us and pries us open. I don’t think canon law is part of the problem though, for the simple fact that very few Catholics have any experience or even awareness of canon law. I think the biggest cultural challenge to real religion for Catholics and everyone else in the West is the legacy of Enlightenment philosophy and industrial capitalist social relations that have nearly eliminated the mystical from religious or cultural life.

          • Benjamin White

            Well now we’re agreeing! As far as the Acts of the Apostles, I think we see the evolution of the church and the empowerment of the individual leaders. The Council of Jerusalem gives recommendations not mandates. They are trusting that the churches will come to the same discernment that they have. But as evidenced in the epistles, the conversation continued. The Spirit of Jesus was the binding element, not a written code.

  2. Zeb

    What do you make of this:

    Acts 15:19-20, 23-29 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we ought to stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God, but tell them by letter to avoid pollution from idols, unlawful marriage, the meat of strangled animals, and blood. …This is the letter delivered by them: “The apostles and the presbyters, your brothers, to the brothers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia of Gentile origin: greetings. Since we have heard that some of our number [who went out] without any mandate from us have upset you with their teachings and disturbed your peace of mind, we have with one accord decided to choose representatives and to send them to you along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have dedicated their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. So we are sending Judas and Silas who will also convey this same message by word of mouth: ‘It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.’”

    It sounds to me like the wrote a law for the Church. The context, to me, appears to be that they were trying to knit disparate and distant communities into one communion by codifying the faith through the consensus of apostolic authority. But I am biased to read it that way. What is your interpretation?

    • Benjamin White

      I’m with you all the way to apostolic authority. I think the authority is in the Spirit and any agreements are provisional. “It seems good to us and the Holy Spirit” The US continued changing and the dialogue continued with it. Ever eaten blood?

      • Zeb

        Oh yeah, for sure. Just as the apostles then had the authority to lift the burden of Mosaic law, the apostles since then have had the right to lift the ban on eating blood. And you’re right it is through dialogue that these things change – dialogue between the apostles, the ‘flock’, the Spirit, and the world. And I agree that the authority is really in the Spirit, but it seems clear to me that the Gospel writers (at least them, and Jesus himself if the Gospel writers were accurate) and the early Christian understood that the authority of the Spirit worked through the apostles specifically and that the will of the Spirit was known by the consensus of the apostles. Why else would the church send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles and presbyters, and how would the apostles and presbyters think they had any right to send this letter defining the necessary burden on Christians if they didn’t share that understanding of apostolic authority?

        • Benjamin White

          I think our disagreement is really in apostolic authority which undergirds the papacy as well.

          • Zeb

            That’s certainly a significant difference in our views but even without that I think I’d still see a necessity for law in the Church. We are earthly creatures, bodies, and I think we have a natural need for the order that law provides. The constant challenge is to keep the law subservient to our need for freedom, salvation and grace which the Spirit provides.

          • Benjamin White

            And I question the strategy of the Catholic Church to keep the law subservient. It doesn’t seem to work very well. I would say again that it produces more law abiding citizens than people who belong to Jesus.

  3. Ben White

    Pneumatocracy is a new term for me that seemed to play into our discussion. I am not as committed to the 5 fold leadership model but I do think the authority is located in each community’s reliance on the Spirit.

  4. Jonathan Ziegler

    thanks for this post, it’s refreshing to begin a conversation about the pope visit that goes a little deeper than traffic and parking issues! It sounds like we’ll be taking this conversation (or at least a conversation about being “catholic”) a bit further at our Doing Theology time on Monday night, 7pm, Sept. 28 at 1125 S. Broad St.

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