In The Pirates of the Caribbean, sea raiders followed “The Code of the Pirate Brethren.” While the code was held in high esteem by buccaneers, the main characters, Captains Sparrow and Barbosa, regularly violated its rules. When they did, they were quick to point out, “you know the code is more of what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” Though you may think this comedic reference is irreverent to understanding the law, we are all aware that different societies around the globe have varying ways of interpreting and administering rules that guide us. For example, it is joked about in the church that Romans make the laws and Americans keep them, in other words, Europeans hold a more loose and broad understanding of laws as guidelines, while we, in the United States, tend to be more rigid in interpreting them.
Throughout the four Gospels, the authors want us to be keenly aware that Jesus was accused by religious authorities of violating laws. He clashed with Pharisees, challenged scribes and lawyers, and stood trial before a Sanhedrin. These groups were the religious magistrates of those times; their origin is found in the days of Moses, the lawgiver, when he appointed seventy elders to assist him with governance. This magisterial body created hundreds of elaborate, yet petty and tedious, rules and rubrics to guide the people. Over time, their code of law, established to direct the community, got elevated to a status of ecclesial mandates that were rendered divine.
Certainly rubrics and rules have their place and are important in maintaining structure, whether in a family, a school, an organization, or a society. They are crucial in forming young hearts and minds; I think everyone understands their necessity—but not everyone agrees about their level of control. Jesus was told by the magisterium of His time that He violated all kinds of laws and rubrics: those governing the Sabbath, those governing eating, those governing washing, even those governing the healing of sick people. The magistrate held a base level understanding of rules that had not matured to Jesus’ level. The Pharisees were obsessed with external compliance to the code of governance while Jesus reminded them that these guidelines were merely traditions of their elders, not laws of God; and while they looked lustfully upon the rubrics and rules, Jesus gazed mercifully upon those who violated them. In the twenty-second chapter of Matthew’s account, Jesus is asked by an expert in the law to tell him which law is the most important. Though He knows that the man wants Him to select one of the 613 laws, or commandments, listed in Leviticus (Hebrew word for law), Jesus essentially says: “None of them is important—only God’s law of love matters.” He wants us to realize that love is what should guide us; all the other rules and rituals should support it.
Sadly, in every Catholic parish, there are individuals that are known as “ecclesial police” or “liturgical lawyers;” they want to point out every violation that occurs during Mass and every statement by a priest or staff member which they think opposes that of the magisterium. I wish they had the sense of humor of Caribbean pirates—but they don’t smile much. They are concerned about liturgical uniformity rather than church unity, and obsessed with rules and rubrics while not caring much about Jesus’ message of love and what is truly important about God’s law. I am baffled by them. I don’t know what their parents did to them or, in this case, what the church might have done to them—but I suspect it is long lasting and irreversible.
On the other hand, like much of the world, I am delighted that a Jesuit is pope at this time in history. Like their founder, Saint Ignatius, they embrace “magis” (the more, the greater) as a continual guiding force. Magis is at the root of “magisterium”—for them, as it should be for us, the focus is not adhering to the rubrics and the rules as much as it is pointing the way: to be more like Christ, more tuned-in to God’s love. The Code of Canon Law, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, and similar rule books have their place. It is an important place but it is nowhere near the place of importance given to God’s law of love. If we increasingly adopt Jesus’ pastoral style of implementing the one law that matters, the others (what you’d call guidelines) will better serve us all.