One of the great temptations for any organized religion is legalism, in which the particular rules delineated by the religion and their strict enforcement become the focus of the faith, while the animating principles and mission of the faith lose their preeminence. This is particularly true of the Catholic Church, which has central authority, Canon law, a catechism, and other mechanisms that are particularly helpful for those with legalistic ambitions. This temptation is not simply for the hard of heart or those who are absurdly hypocritical, but often one that is faced by those who rightly value virtue and pursue it in many ways in their own personal conduct, those who value the Church and want others to embrace the faith.
Of course, Jesus Christ’s direct and persistent critique of this legalistic mentality, of putting laws before love, inevitably puts such efforts on shaky ground. We should not be surprised then that Pope Francis has frequently echoed the words of Christ in encouraging us to resist this temptation, including his recent reminder that love and justice are more important than attachment to the laws:
“This is the path that Jesus teaches us, totally opposite to that of the doctors of law. And it’s this path from love and justice that leads to God. Instead, the other path, of being attached only to the laws, to the letter of the laws, leads to closure, leads to egoism. The path that leads from love to knowledge and discernment, to total fulfillment, leads to holiness, salvation and the encounter with Jesus. Instead, the other path leads to egoism, the arrogance of considering oneself to be in the right, to that so-called holiness of appearances, right?”