Pope Benedict — love and the law

  • December 2, 2010
What does the law have to do with love? Are they not antithetical? To follow the law is to be under a burden, to be compelled, to be constrained. To love, on the other hand, is to embrace the capacity to choose, to be creative, to be liberated.

In his recent book, Light of the World, Pope Benedict considers that way of thinking as having wrought catastrophic damage in the life of the Church. The opposition of love to law, as if the former required an abandonment of the latter, is an error widespread in society too, with similarly deleterious consequences. The context for the Holy Father’s comments was the sexual abuse scandals.

“The archbishop of Dublin told me … that ecclesiastical penal law functioned until the late 1950s; admittedly, it was not perfect — there is much to criticize about it — but nevertheless it was applied,” Benedict said. “After the mid-’60s, however, it was simply not applied any more. The prevailing mentality was that the Church must not be a Church of laws but, rather, a Church of love; she must not punish. Thus the awareness that punishment can be an act of love ceased to exist. This led to an odd darkening of the mind, even in very good people.”

Even those with a rudimentary knowledge of canon law were aware that severe penalties existed for clergy who were guilty of sexual misconduct of all sorts. Yet the punitive sanctions of the law were not applied. It is true that today there are stricter laws and more severe punishments, but what has principally changed is that the Church’s law in such cases is being more vigourously enforced.

This is not about sexual abuse alone. The Church’s disciplinary muscles had become greatly atrophied from decades of neglect. Benedict knows this better than most. In the 1980s when he began a rather modest program of correction and discipline regarding dissident theologians, there was strong criticism in the wider culture and howls of outrage in the Church. The caricature of Joseph Ratzinger — God’s Rottweiler, the Panzer Kardinal, the enforcer of the faith — arose precisely from his attempts to re-establish doctrinal discipline after a period of widespread confusion.

The reform of the Church, throughout history and today, always requires a reassertion of discipline. For that reason at the conclusion of the Year for Priests last June, the Holy Father spoke about the “rod” of discipline: “The Church too must use the shepherd’s rod, the rod with which he protects the faith against those who falsify it, against currents which lead the flock astray. The use of the rod can actually be a service of love. Today we can see that it has nothing to do with love when conduct unworthy of the priestly life is tolerated. Nor does it have to do with love if heresy is allowed to spread and the faith twisted and chipped away.”

The scandals shone a harsh light on the absence of that discipline, the laying aside of the rod. Yet the Holy Father’s comments are not limited only to the gross crime of sexual abuse — the rod too is needed to protect the Church from abuse in the liturgy, malformation in the seminary, corruption in administration, failures in education, lax preparation for the sacraments, especially marriage.

In examining my own conscience, I certainly find sins in this regard, as would nearly all bishops and priests. So we need to discover again that the law is not the enemy of love. Jesus Himself told us that He came not to abolish, but to fulfill the law. The law is not enough; we need love. Love goes beyond justice; it does not replace it. True love demands justice too.

“Today we have to learn all over again that love for the sinner and love for the person who has been harmed are correctly balanced if I punish the sinner in the form that is possible and appropriate,” Benedict explains. “In this respect there was in the past a change of mentality, in which the law and the need for punishment were obscured. Ultimately this also narrowed the concept of love, which in fact is not just being nice or courteous, but is found in the truth. And another component of truth is that I must punish the one who has sinned against real love.”

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