Canon Law will save the world

I have decided that canon law will save the world.

Or, at least, having some knowledge of it and protecting the right of churches to operate within the bounds of canon law.

As opposed to secular law, of course.

The idea first came to mind when I observed the large amount of hate (or mockery or disdain or loathing) being heaped upon the Sabellian heretic Kim Davis. Davis, if you have been happily unaware, is a county clerk in the USA who decided to stop issuing marriage licences on the grounds that said licences would have her name on them, and the US gov’t considers certain couples eligible that she, a member of the (oneness) Solid Rock Apostolic Church, does not consider eligible. She resisted a court order, went to jail, was subsequently released.

I think a proper concept of canon law would give someone like Kim Davis a way out. Or she should just quit her job, if secular law and canon law have diverged to such a degree that she feels that doing her job in secular law involves too many uncanonical activities. With an understanding of the concept of canon law — that the church has certain regulations that she follows for the ordering of the body of its members — the Christian can say, ‘I may not like what the secular legislation concerning marriage says, but my church is still free to regulate and order marriage as it sees fit.’

In fact, before any thought of same-sex marriage had passed through anyone’s minds, the Roman Catholic Church (and, formerly, most Protestant denominations) already considered certain persons ineligible for marriage under canon law who were eligible under secular law — divorced people whose divorced spouse was still living and who hadn’t successfully got their previous marriage annulled.

In a world that favours pluralism, Christians should probably stop trying to enforce our regulations on everyone but seek, instead, to uphold the right to live in our peculiar way, in peace with those around us — similar, in fact, to the way Orthodox Jews and other conservative religious minorites live.

Alternatively, if one believes that same-sex marriage will completely tear apart the fabric of society (I think no-fault divorce, thoughtless marriages, and adultery are probably far worse than same-sex marriage), one should petition politicians and seek out clear and articulate and non-angry ways to express why, exactly, same-sex marriage is bad for our countries. But this is not the same as unilaterally deciding not to issue marriage licences, which results in a victory for no one.

But Christians aren’t the only people canon law can save. As this post by Scott Eric Alt demonstrates, knowing canon law can help people interpret what on earth the Roman Catholic Church and its Pope are up to. The aforementioned post is about Pope Francis’ ‘Year of Mercy’, wherein those women who are under excommunication for abortions can have the excommunication lifted by normal, auricular confession to a parish priest, rather than going through the hierarchy to a bishop.

This offer of mercy has been gravely misunderstood, largely because people have no knowledge of Roman canon law, and because they have no concept of canon law to begin with. If we accept that such a thing as canon law exists for the regulation of the church, then we have to realise that when the pope legislates any aspect of church life, he is not getting involved in American politics, but trying to find a way to order the lives of Catholics that will be consonant with the tradition and with their spiritual wellbeing.

The Roman Catholic Church believes that abortion is a sin called infanticide. Regardless of what the secular law says, this fact will never change. What can change are the regulations concerning what to do when someone has committed this sin, and — as it turns out — only some people are excommunicated. The pope is trying to extend mercy and love to people who have been excluded by the church’s current regulations. He is not lobbying western governments to change secular law; he is extending mercy through the channels of canon law.

Through coming to understand the concept of canon law, those not bound by it can find ways that they can extend mercy to their bizarre neighbours who have this other set of regulations to live by. This would be much better than the shrill nature of current Internet discourse, where both Left and Right holler at each other and seek to drown each other out and silence each other and ridicule each other.

And for those Christians who fear that I am recommending that we ‘give up’ ‘the fight’, it depends what ‘fight’. If we want to see a decrease in abortions, or a return to ‘traditional’ marriage (which goes far beyond mere heterosexual monogamy), we should be seeking to bring people to the King of Love, to the foot of the Cross, where they can be washed clean by the blood of Jesus and submit themselves to His rule. The current state of affairs just paints us as hatemongers and misogynists.

Culture wars diminish and distract from Gospel witness

When I was a kid, we used to sing a song in church with the lines:

They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love

I’m not disputing that most Christians I know are, in fact, genuinely lovely and loving people. However, many of us have managed to produce a public face that does not look so much loving as angry. Possibly bigoted (which may be accurate of true Christianity, depending on a. how you define bigotry and b. how you define true Christianity). But not necessarily loving, and not necessarily filled with the love of Christ.

Today, I read the piece by George Takei (of Mr Sulu fame!) criticising the practice of Indiana and some other US states to allow business owners to refuse services to people on the grounds that so doing would contravene the owners’ sincerely held religious beliefs. Given that bar owners technically already have a legal responsibility to keep people from getting drunk, the only application for this that I can think of is if an unmarried heterosexual couple or a gay couple wanted to spend the night at a hotel owned by a conservative Christian/Jew/Muslim (most likely Christian, quite frankly).

There is a variety of responses to this, but the one that hits me first is: Where is the uncompromising love and the Gospel witness at a moment such as this? Is my job as a Christian to police the morality of my fellow citizens? Or is it my job to love them effluously while at the same time being a strict policeman of my own morality?

It’s not just the battle over what sorts of relationships the secular government wants to extend certain protections to that is distracting, though — so don’t let the George Takei piece blind you to other issues.

Elsewhere in the USA, a politician has apparently said that rape is beautiful if it results in the conception of a child. It is one thing to say that, regardless of how a child was conceived that child has a right to live and a mother a duty to carry the child to term, and quite another to use complimentary adjectives about a heinous, hideous, destructive act that can leave serious emotional, psychological, and physical wounds in a person. Even if this may be a misquotation, it is a very clear instance of how culture wars distract from the Gospel, in my opinion. Whatever the politician said, this is what the world heard.

Rather than scoring points in a culture war, shouldn’t we be providing refuge for the victims of terrible acts of male aggression? How many rape victims would feel safe in churches associated with such rhetoric? How many young women who have had abortions would feel loved in churches who rail against the practice vociferously? Where is the Gospel witness? Or are we just moralising yet again?

These Dinosaurs certainly existed.

Science has also come under fire in the culture wars. One woman goes so far as to say that dinosaurs never existed. I’m not kidding. The video is here, at ‘Crazy Christian Mother Thinks Dinosaurs Never Existed.’ American anti-establishment culture combined with a variety of evangelical anti-intellectualism has led to people making us look like a bunch of idiots. A friend commented on Facebook concerning the dinosaur video that either religion makes you stupid, or if you are stupid, you’re drawn to religion. (Or something along those lines.)

A disconcerting moment came to me whilst listening to the Newsboys album God’s Not Dead. The beginning of the title song is either recorded live at a concert or from the film (which I’ve never seen). Michael Tate (of former DC Talk fame) is talking to the crowd about ‘scientists’ telling us there’s no God and all the usual stuff, and in his dismissal of the naturalists/atheists, getting big cheers from the crowd. But when he moves to Gospel proclamation, when he starts proclaiming the power of God to save us from the power and penalty of sin, evil, and death — then the cheers dimish a little.

A page from the Statute of the Guild of San Martino, 1362; in the Museo Correr, Venice (my pic)
A page from the Statute of the Guild of San Martino, 1362; in the Museo Correr, Venice (my pic)

Shouldn’t these be our biggest cheers? Not only that ‘God’s not dead’, not only that there’s a Creator (I mean, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and certain Buddhists can claim the same), but that He is the God of unconditional love who chooses to spill over into our mundane (world-bound) history and raise us to heaven, not simply in spite of our own sin and wickedness, but precisely because He loves us more than we can imagine. That’s Good News! Shouldn’t our proclamation of the Gospel of Grace be the loudest, clearest message we send to an unbelieving world?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t hold firm as individuals to a traditional, scriptural viewpoint on issues of ethics. But what is the public faith — the public face — of the church? Are we (figuratively) washing the feet of unbelieving neighbours or (sometimes literally) yelling in their faces? Are we telling them the resplendent glory of the story of the God Who became a man to set us free, or are we telling them all about how they’re sinners (and we, presumably [as they think it], are not)? Are we preaching Christ crucified, or simply some pat answers and apologetics?

I realise that even broaching these topics can bring a firestorm of activity in a blog’s comments. So, please, take a breath and think carefully about what you’re going to post, and please keep to the main thesis of this post, which is not whether gay marriage is right or abortion is right or evolution is true, but whether issues like these are distracting us from authentic Gospel witness in Anglophone Christianity — if you disagree with me on that issue, feel free to do so lovingly. If your comments are uncharitable or libellous, I reserve the right to remove them as moderator of my blog.