In case you didn’t notice,
Pope Francis thinks legalism is a bad thing — and that’s good news. For
legalism, correctly understood, is opposed to authentic morality.
The pope returned to this
theme, a favorite of his, in several recent homilies preached at his morning
Mass in the Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican guesthouse where he lives. In one, his
special targets were the doctors of the law who tried to keep the apostles from
preaching the risen Christ. For them, he said, the Word “was not made flesh — it
was made law.”
Over the centuries, he added,
this same “rationalistic mentality” has often existed in the Church. As indeed
it does today.
The Holy Father’s critique
needs to be taken very seriously. And that requires understanding what legalism
To begin with, legalistic is
not the same as law-abiding. To be law-abiding means obeying just laws — and even
unjust ones, provided they do not require doing something wrong in itself, if
disobeying would be too socially disruptive. But to be legalistic means — something
The first volume (“Christian Moral Principles”) of The Way of the Lord Jesus (Franciscan Press), the
three-volume magnum opus of the American moral theologian and ethicist Germain Grisez, provides a helpful answer to that question. (Disclosure: Grisez is a friend with whom I’ve collaborated on several books.)
For various reasons, he explains, legalism was prevalent in moral theology from the 16th-century
Council of Trent up to Vatican Council II (1962-65). A legalist, he writes,
“tends to think of moral norms as if they were merely a body of rules.” One
result of that, he says, can be seen in “the suggestion that the Church might
or should change its moral teaching, as if it were changeable law rather than
Then came Vatican II, whose
document on the training of priests calls for a reform of moral theology.
Taught “in the light of faith, under the guidance of the magisterium of the
Church,” it says, moral theology should be more Christocentric, should “draw
more fully on the teaching of holy Scripture” and should show the duty of
Christians “to bring forth fruit in charity for the life of the world” (Optatam Totius, 16).
Since the council, many
theologians have worked hard at this. Some unfortunately have not. Instead,
they have treated doctrines — the Church’s teachings on matters of sexuality
are a good example — as if they were rules, rather than understanding them as moral
truths. On that basis, they have urged either changing the rules or else simply
ignoring them in light of private discernment and, it seems, something akin to individual
illumination by the Holy Spirit.
It’s a curious fact, as
Grisez remarks, that this version of a new moral theology is in its own way “as
legalistic as the old.” Typically, it devotes much time and effort to “trying
to lessen the obligations of Christian life….Doing as one pleases is then
called ‘following one’s conscience.’”
The old legalism is a morality
of young children, for whom being good means doing what parents and other
authority figures tell them to do, while being bad means disobeying. Pope
Francis aptly terms this “a theology of yes, you can [and] no, you can’t.”
More recently, though, we’ve
seen a morality of adolescence that frequently involves acting out against
authority and operating by impulse and feeling. It’s the flip side of childish morality.
And in the end the new legalism is even more unsatisfactory than the old.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.