The Language of the Law

In my last post, I began to explore the tension between the absolute nature of English Law and the suggestive format of Latin Law. Canon Lawyers say the law of the church is exhortative. How does that work?

An Italian friend invited me to go and stay in Italy with her husband and her sister. The two sisters generally spoke English together for my sake (and the husband’s). It sounded like they were arguing most of the time, “You should never have done so-and-so” – but it seems that rather than having a series of major disagreements, this was the normal way in that culture to express mild differences of opinion.

Wittgenstein, a philosopher of language, advised us to “Look for the use, not for the meaning“. As an Aspie, I find it hard to see beyond the literal meaning. Every professional field develops its own use of language, and jurisprudence includes case law teasing out the exact weight of what a law really means. But I do find it objectionable that a law might be drafted in words which are not literally intended. How, then can we know what it is supposed to mean? Scripture says: “Let your NO be NO and your YES be YES – anything else comes from the evil one.” And how can we understand God’s commands in the Bible, if they do not mean what they say? “Did God really say not to eat the fruit?” – that was the very first Temptation.

The whole Old Testament is a history of generations of God’s chosen people failing to live up to the Law they were covenanted into. There doesn’t seem to be much wiggle-room there for saying God wasn’t serious about avoiding the cult of Baal, paying tithes to the Jewish temple and seeking justice for the widow, orphan and honest trader. The Catholic interpretation of the New Testament holds that ‘This is My Body’ means just that in the context of the Eucharist. Yet God’s Word, like Christ, is fully human and fully divine. I cannot deny that there are human languages which thrive on exaggeration, as I have seen in Italian. To interpret that literally might be as alien to my Italian friend’s culture as to be non-literal would be to my own. When language itself carries such double meanings, have we any hope about pinning down what God wishes to communicate? And if so, can we express this in language which is itself unambiguous?

I once received an invitation to a wedding and said “I’ll come if I can”. I wasn’t going to know until a week before whether there would be room between other committment. In the event, I did go to the wedding. I didn’t let the couple know in advance because I couldn’t stay for the reception anyway, so there was no impact on catering. They were amazed that I had turned up. But I said “I’ll come if I can,” and in the event I could, so I came!  What should I have said?

And if “shall I come for coffee” means “let’s have sex”, how do I invite a person to spend an evening sharing a caffeinated beverage?

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The Spirit of the Law

Last year, I visited a major pilgrim centre where a notice in the sacristy caught me eye. The text at the top was in Latin – an extract from the rules for Mass, stating that no priest may join a concelebration once the Mass had begun. It was repeated below in all the major European languages, including English. Yet ten minutes into the Mass, as the First Reading was being proclaimed, a side door opened and two vested priests walked into the sanctuary and took their seats.

If I were late for a concelebration, I would not dream of vesting and joining in – at least once the opening hymn has given way to the formal Sign of the Cross and Greeting. (I have once or twice scurried in during the hymn to tag on to a procession!) But as soon as the Sign of the Cross has been said, that’s it. I would, in such circumstances, take my place on the people’s pews.

I have often heard it said, especially by Canon Lawyers, that Latin Law is not like English Law. English Law is imperative. In England, cars wait at red lights even if all the roads are clear. Latin Law, by contrast, is exhortative. “It would be most fitting if you didn’t join a concelebration once it has begun, so please do your level best to get the the sanctuary in time.” Does that mean I am being too legalistic in excluding myself from doing what I have seen other priests do, when they slip into the sanctuary later than that?

In the Gospels, we see that Jesus was no stickler for the letter of the law. When his disciples plucked corn on the sabbath day, he defended them. He did not carry out the sentence of stoning due to an adulteress. He was accused of not observing precepts about ritual washing. Yet in these cases we can see the spirit of the law which was being honoured. The Sabbath Laws are about creating a day for rest and worship where scheduled work is to be avoided, not creating a day when it is forbidden to help a person in need, or indeed to help oneself to the fruits of the land. The adulteress was left in no doubt that she was a sinner who had experienced an act of mercy. The ritual washings were cultural baggage which tradition had added to the Law given by God.

Is it so serious to slip onto a sanctuary during a First Reading? Perhaps it depends on the reason you are late. If you were unavoidably delayed by an act of mercy (you had to hear a confession) or circumstances beyond your control (a traffic jam where there wouldn’t normally be one) then it is probably within the spirit of the law to join a Mass you would reasonably have expected to be on time for. But it would always be fitting to refrain from doing so out of respect for obedience to the law and the dignity of the celebration. Perhaps it is less a matter of sin, and more a counsel of perfection – as scripture says in a rather different context (whether to marry or not!), the one who takes part does well, but the one who sits out does better.

AspiePriest’s Three Laws of Humanics: (cf. Asmimov’s Three Laws of Robotics)

  1. A human being shall obey every commandment given by God (as proposed in Scripture or the formal teaching of the Catholic Church), following the Spirit of the Law where this can be clearly grasped, but the Letter of the Law otherwise.
  2. A human being shall seek the well-being of all human beings (especially their neighbour, themself, their enemy), but never in such a way as to contradict the First Law.
  3. A human being shall seek personal happiness and fulfilment, as long as this does not contradict the First Law or Second Law.