Elevating Human Law and Nullifying God’s Law in Catholicism

Tuesday, the fifth week in ordinary time, we are presented with the Gospel from the seventh chapter of Mark, the first thirteen verses.  In this reading the Pharisees observed and critiqued Jesus and his disciples for not keeping the Jewish purification rituals of washing their hands before meals. Jesus’ initial response to their critique is grounded in an Isaian prophecy, “…this people honors me with their lips, but hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts…”

Jesus’ response respectfully acknowledges them as God’s appointed religious leaders vested with authority, however it also reveals how their unholy leadership has emphasized and modeled the letter of God’s Law to the masses, while willfully refusing to live from, model and to teach about the Spirit of God’s Law. Who are these religious leaders?

These are religious leaders who – whether in a sweet, motherly and moralistic or hard, drill sargent kind of way – will always reference and/or speak in terms of another’s faults, sins and struggles…  Though far from perfect themselves, they seem to be always “…straining out the gnats” in those they lead… For whatever reason – whether consciously Spirit led or not – their encounters with others often leaves those they serve with the sense of being a hopeless sinner who is stuck in one’s sin…

These are the religious leaders who will rarely, if ever, speak a positive word of commendation regarding another’s gifts, talents and history of accomplishments – especially if one’s history and individual expression of it runs counter to Church teaching and practices…  For whatever reason – when speaking to individuals or to communities like these, some religious leaders are incapable, unable and/or unwilling to leave others the Gospel: that is, STAMPED with the sense of being loved by God and living in God blessing as His children!!!

Unfortunately, the history of clerical Catholicism guilting and beating down the laity about sin, while elevating a specific aspect of the Catholic tradition above others, thereby nullifying the full effect of God’s law is legendary.  As an example, examine the Church’s recent history of  elevating ‘ABORTION’ to the sole place of sacred Pro Life primacy, so that now, other equally pressing issues like poverty, corruption, racism, sexism, etc. simply CAN NOT BE championed as a PRO LIFE issues also, despite the obvious reality that they are…

Unfortunately, this history focusing on the letter and ignoring the spirit of the law is ALSO an ongoing, lived reality in the spiritual and sacramental lives of many Catholics today.  Why, you ask? Simply because it is so often modeled by our religious leaders on the local level…

If you disagree, ask many ‘lay’ Catholics who dare to frequent the sacraments regularly… Let’s briefly examine how this reality manifests itself in the lives of practicing Catholics today…

As good an example an any, is the fact that any Catholic who receives Reconciliation outside of their home parish must also know that by doing so they are truly now taking the spiritual risk of playing sacramental ‘Russian roulette (ha, ha)!!!”  Why? Because on any given day, the priest they encounter may be an old-school, hardened and uncaring man who is unfortunately very willing and all to ready to give all entering  a priestly beat down about how radically bad their sins are – before then, begrudgingly giving them an absolution – as if it is HIS to give!!!

As a Eucharistic Minister and Catholic chaplain ministering in hospitals and nursing homes, in the past I have discussed with fellow chaplains who are also priests, the challenges that this reality presents as a Eucharistic minister. For instance, I meet those who, despite being in great pain and are in desperate need of receiving our Lord RIGHT NOW in the Sacrament, will outright refuse to receive Him Whom they desperately need, simply because I am a lay African merican Eucharistic minister, and not a priest…

Still, there are other ‘mature’ cradle Catholics of 70 or 80 years, who are simply unable to spiritually acknowledge how their present (perfect storm) context spiritually allows them to now bypass the standard one hour Eucharistic fast, and to feast on Him Whom they most need!!! In the face of their pride, the rules they were taught, their age compared to mine, their present fight in this their ‘second childhood in life,’etc. some simply can not come to receive Him Whom they need, and I can only offer them a brief period of Adoration and shared prayer…

It is so unfortunate and spiritually heart wrenching to encounter these children of God who suffer out of spiritual ignorance or immaturity, as they are often able see but not receive our Lord for some reason…  That reason often being, having a greater need to be clean, than to receive Him… Or as another soul once said, “…not having a true need to receive HIM, in order to be clean…”  That first desire is a need to address the letter of the law; the second is a desire that reflects both the Spirit of the law and an individual’s true heart felt need for God.

As I pray for these souls, I sometimes wonder who or what was that specific religious person, culture/family life or church community that mercilessly drilled home in this person’s past life, the absolute necessity of living out the letter of God’s law? I pray that their hearts may grow to be open to whomever God sends or however God sends grace now in their lives… I pray that they will meet that person who can model and show them, by God’s grace, how the letter’s true goal is to live out the Spirit of God’s law while still honoring the letter…

Jesus ends his response to the Pharisees in the Gospel by stating how they “…nullify the word of God in favor of your tradition that you have handed on.”  This is an important point for Catholics to reflect on now a year into the pandemic, as we prepare for a second Lenten Pandemic Experience.  The past year of pandemic living coupled with the liturgical and sacramental changes that it has forced on our worship, should give us great reflection material to ponder as we prepare for this year’s observance of Lent – as if we have not been living it already!!!

My prayer is that in this second pandemic spring, Catholics and all Christians will begin the hard work of truly considering which traditions we should continue to pass on and those which we should discard and/or discontinue as believers…  May this last make-shift year of liturgical and sacramental life coupled with our ongoing global pandemic  realities, grant us the grace that comes via holy strugglin’ and  suffering, to lead our Catholic and all Churches  – both institutionally and on the ground level in the lives of believers – to begin this necessary work as we seek to truly live and proclaim the Gospel in love.

Author: P. J. West, Jr.

Paul J. West Jr. is a cradle Catholic and native Chicagoan who has ministered in Catholic Schools, parishes and hospitals for over two decades. His current ministries are focused on both hospital chaplaincy and writing. Prior to this, he ministered as an educator for almost twenty five years teaching religion, scripture, philosophy and ethics at four Chicago area high schools and adults at the Chicago Catholic Scripture School. His parish ministry has included preaching, teaching, writing and serving as a Eucharistic minister. Mr. West, who is native south sider, has been married for almost 30 years to Dr. Joy West. They have raised four beautiful daughters who are all hardcore Bears and White Sox fans!!!!

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