Fighting legalism and formalism

By Fr. Roy Cimagala

WE need to be keenly aware of these common dangers and do everything to protect ourselves from them and to fight them, since they will always be around, given our human condition here on earth.

The secret again is to be in vital union with Christ, referring everything to him, especially our legal and judicial systems, and the ways we make, interpret and apply our laws.

Christ clarified this point in so many words when he told the Pharisees who questioned him about why his disciples were doing something that was forbidden in the sabbath, that “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” (cfr. Mk 2,23-28)

We have to understand that all our laws should be based on what is known as the natural law that in the end is a participation of the divine eternal law of God, our Creator and the first and ultimate lawgiver.

And that part of natural law that is specific to man is called the natural moral law that would recognize, as its first principle, God as our Creator and source and end of all laws. It is the law that would lead us to be God’s image and likeness, and children of his, sharers of his divine life.

A legal system not clearly based on this fundamental principle about laws would already be a system that is defective ab initio. A legal system that is based only on some human consensus would put the spirit of the law in full subservience to the letter of that law.

This kind of legal system is what is referred to as legal positivism. This means that the laws are valid not because they are rooted in moral or natural law, but because they are enacted by some human authority and are accepted by society as such.

Thus, this system makes us the first and ultimate lawgiver. It is as if we make ourselves our own God, our own creator, an absurd assumption to make. It is as if we are so capable of knowing everything about man that we can legislate everything about him, that is, about us.

But even if a legal system recognizes God as the source and end of all laws, it is still highly characterized by our human condition. The articulation of the law in its letter has to be constantly animated by the spirit of that law that in the end is the spirit of God.

Thus, we need to put God at the center of the process of making our laws, interpreting them and applying them. We have to understand that our human laws are meant to lead us to our ultimate goal which is none other than to be with God, to be holy as God is holy, etc.

Irrespective of their immediate temporal purposes, our laws should lead us little by little to become God’s image and likeness as we are meant to be. They in the end should serve the fundamental religious purpose of our life. That should always be the constant purpose of our laws.

All the other objectives of our laws, let alone their technical requirements, serve only as an occasion, a reason or motive for this ultimate purpose. Setting aside this ultimate purpose would empty our laws of their real legitimacy, making them rife for all kinds of manipulations and maneuverings by some shrewd men who may enjoy some power at a given moment.