The Catholic Thing
The Traps of Legalism and License Print E-mail
By Fr. Dwight Longenecker   
Sunday, 08 June 2014

After more than half a century of being a Christian – first within the world of Protestant fundamentalism, then in the mainstream Church of England, and now as a Catholic priest – I am convinced that there are two extremes that play against each other to kill true Christianity. The first is legalism and the second is license.

We should understand that the clash between legalism and license is only part of the Judeo-Christian understanding of religion. Pagans of all sorts do not link a moral code with the worship of God. A Buddhist may be an ascetic, but that is because he wants to rise above this physical plane of suffering. A pagan may make sacrifices, but that is because he wants to appease and please the god.

The idea that Almighty God would be pleased by human good behavior was a sudden and striking innovation of Moses and his clan. For the first time obeying a law code was the way to make God happy. Unfortunately, the law is not enough, and St Paul unlocked the riddle by telling us that the whole reason for the law was not to make us good enough, but to show us that we could never be good enough. The Christian religion was another innovation. Instead of living by the law, we are called to live by faith in a dynamic relationship with God.

Unfortunately, that seems even harder, so we revert to a religion of the law. Too often we fall into an immature insistence that all we have to do is avoid the “dont’s” and do the “do’s”. We tell ourselves that if we just keep the rules we will be all right in the end. Order will be brought out of the chaos. Everything will be hunky dory. God will be happy with his good little boys and girls. And if we are very, very good, nothing will go wrong and one day we will get the lollipop of eternal life.

The consequences are dire because, of course, we can never be good enough. And if we are locked into legalism, the realization that we can never be good enough starts to sour our whole world. Desperately wanting to be good enough, we assume a posture of self-righteousness to convince ourselves that we really are good after all. Like the addict who is never satiated, when our goodness fails we become more legalistic, not less.

Then the real rot sets it. In a continued effort to make ourselves feel good enough, we find those who are worse than we are. We point fingers. We tut tut. We blame others. We find scapegoats. We exclude, persecute, and eventually plot to destroy the sinners. This pattern of legalism and the spiral of destruction began with Cain, climaxed with the Pharisees and continues its cancerous way in our world with the extremes of fundamentalism in every form of Christianity.

       Between Scylla and Charybdis by Henry Fuseli, 1795

Reacting against the legalism, we fall into the other trap of license. We declare that we are not bound by any law. Toleration becomes the only virtue and the sole commandment and creed. We assert that we are here for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that means we adopt the witch’s creed that we must be allowed to do what we want as long as we harm no one.

Unfortunately, license is just as destructive as legalism, for when we all do as we please it eventually harms everyone. Total freedom destroys individual lives and the family and society descend into chaos. Furthermore, those who follow the path of license soon become as self-righteous and intolerant as the legalists, for they have unconsciously treated their creed and commandment of “do as you please but harm no one” as their own higher law. Consequently, they seek out and castigate anyone who might criticize or condemn them.

How is one to sail through the Scylla of Legalism and the Charybdis of License?

This is where the Christian recommendation of repentance provides the answer. When we truly repent we are not simply saying “sorry” for the naughty things we’ve done. Instead we are admitting at the deepest level, not only that we’ve failed to keep the law, but that it is impossible for us to keep the law. Repentance is hopeless without faith, and it is through faith that we accept not only Christ’s forgiveness, but the grace to live in a new dimension of reality and freedom.

Through this transaction, we shrug our shoulders and repudiate the huge rock of legalism, but we also reject the easy whirlpool of license. Instead, the New Testament suggests that it is possible to walk in the way of the Lord, obeying all his laws not because we have to, but because we want to. We do so with complete freedom, empowered by a constant renewal of grace in our lives.

This freedom and power can be compared to the talented musician who learns to read music, takes lessons from the master, practices for hours every day, studies the score, and then one day walks out on the stage and plays Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto with complete freedom, beauty and grace. He has done so with a consummate conflation of both law and license – structure and freedom.

This is the new dynamic of humanity we see displayed in the lives of the saints. They show us a level of accomplishment in which God’s laws are lived out with joy in complete freedom, and when we see this, we witness grace at work in lives that are gracefully and gloriously human.

Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is The Romance of Religion – Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (18)Add Comment
written by Jack,CT, June 08, 2014
Wonderful read Fr ,Thx and I think at our "core"
we ALL" understand this.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, June 08, 2014
Excellent, Fr Longenecker. This is a recurring theme in St Augustine.

“If it be allowable to the poet to say “his own pleasure draws each man,” [Vergil, Eclogues 2.65] not need, but pleasure, not obligation but delight, how much more ought we to say that a man is drawn to Christ, who delights in the truth, who delights in happiness who delights in justice, who delights in eternal life and all this is Christ?” (On John’s Gospel 26.4)

“[I]n acting we necessarily follow what gives us most pleasure” (On Epistle to Galatians 49)

"Men are not willing to do what is right either because the fact that it is right is hidden from them, or because it does not please them... It is from the grace of God, which helps the wills of man, that that which was hidden becomes known, and that which did not please become sweet." (On the Merits and Remission of Sins 2, 17, 26)
written by Manfred, June 08, 2014
Father: Thank you for sharing your Protestant evangelism, Church of England, Catholic priest history. Have you any idea where your next career might be? I can't believe I actually read this whole article.See my quotes:
"If you love me, keep my commandments."
"Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect."
"You have seen Hell where poor souls go who have no one to pray for them."
"Most souls are in Hell because of sins of the flesh." (The last two quotes are from Our Lady at Fatima.)

I am not buying your advice, Father(?).
written by AGS, June 08, 2014
I am afraid Fr Longenecker may not yet have arrived at that point beyond the "Scylla of Legalism and the Charybdis of License" where the Catholic Church and her teaching actually positions us. When we are baptized we are made "good enough." That is the starting point of the Christian life. It is not a matter of "of course we can never be good enough," but of now that we have been made good enough, let us seek not again to fall away. And if we do, let us seek the restorative grace of Confession.

Perhaps Fr Longenecker could rewrite his essay on the basis of this understanding? I'd be curious to see where he'd end up
written by Gil Bailie, June 08, 2014
One of the devil’s tricks may be to convince us that the sole key to our salvation is our moral rectitude. In many cases, however, the assessment of one’s moral state of affairs will be performed by way of comparison with others, and here is the fly in the ointment. Far from alleviating the destructive potential of a mimetic melodrama, the introduction of moral competition tends to greatly intensify the rivalry. The fact that this rivalry will often be carried out with far more subtlety means only that the rivals caught up in it will be even less likely to recognize how the road to hell is being paved with their moral good intentions. Mrs. Turpin, a character in the Flannery O'Connor short story "Revelation" had a vision of souls entering the hereafter in which she was shocked to realize that even the virtues of the morally upright where being burned away. The reason that the harlots and tax-collectors will enter the Kingdom before the fastidious Pharisees is that the pride of the latter is more resistant to contrition requisite to the sinner’s salvation than is the waywardness of the former, but no less in need of it. Thank you, Fr. Longenecker
written by Rich in MN, June 08, 2014
Thank you, Father, for your thoughtful and thought-provoking column. My one concern is that I wish you could have made a clearer distinction between "tut tut" finger pointing and charitable, fraternal correction. For example, when two gay men kiss each other on national television at an NFL draft event and Cdl Dolan says, "Bravo!", should we all follow his lead and say, "Bravo!"? What if it were a man open-mouth kissing a 10-year old boy? "Bravo!"? Or what if it were a man having sex with an animal? "Bravo!"? At what point, and with what manner and manifestation of charity, are we to describe something unequivocally as morally repugnant and endangering the eternal happiness of those people and any who follow their lead? Or, are we just being 'Scylla' obsessing about such things? Now, in all fairness, Cdl Dolan may well have been speaking facetiously for an 'effect'. I don't know. Still, someone long ago once said, "Say 'Yes' when you mean 'Yes' and say 'No' when you mean 'No.'" I think he was instructing his followers.
written by Schm0e, June 08, 2014
I see the spiritual underpinnings of the Left and the Right more clearly than ever thanks to this.
written by Alana, June 08, 2014
Manfred, you have outdone even yourself with the viciousness of your comment - and that is saying a lot! Do you really believe that, when you stand before the Lord, he will say, "Well done, good and faithful servant...the rest of you can go to h*ll!" Or do you simply not care? Thank you Father Longenecker for another well reasoned column.
written by Bruno, June 08, 2014
Manfred, isolated parts of Scripture allow for both licentious and legalistic views of our religion. I could counter you with the Epistle to the Romans, or to the Lord's sayings and actions like breaking the Sabbath or his forgiveness of the adulterous woman. The fact is that at the heart of Christianity there is a conflict not easily resolvable by intellect, keeping Christians apart both from Jews and pagans.

The conflict may be summarized by contrasting Jesus' apparent antinomian acts (forgiving sinners, breaking Sabbath, rebuking Pharisees) and Him saying that "not an jota of the Law will pass", or also Paul warning us not to fall, but also warning us not to seek justification in the Law.

And the Law, as it seems to me, is not only Mosaic Law; there is no reason for which Church Law should be different fro Mosaic Law insofar as justification is concerned.

Certainly the conflict is apparent, for the perfection of law is love, but bringing that down to practice, that's a really difficult thing for me to do.

Be that as it may, finding the balance between Legalism and License is more than the work of a lifetime - it may only be attained by grace.
written by Joanna Ionescu, June 08, 2014
In response to Ags:
Firstly, The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a statement of the Church's faith and of catholic doctrine attested to by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition and the Church's Magisterium. It seems you either did not read it, or perhaps did not pay sufficient attention.
But you must if you wish to declare where the teachings of the Catholic Church position is.
Baptism merely erases original sin (i.e. deprivation of original justice and original holiness) and turns us back toward God, "but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle" (405, but see all references). Availing ourselves of all the Church's sacraments, esp. penance and the Eucharist, make us fit for spiritual battle in the process of becoming what God Intended us to be. Long way to go.
Secondly, here is Jesus in reference to himself: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." (Luke 18:19, but see the whole context "The Rich Ruler")
written by Elizabeth Sheehy, June 08, 2014
Oh, what a predicament! Been fighting this battle most of my life; abusive parent taught me that I am a WUS (worthless, ugly, stupid) and I have PTSD as a result. All I can do now is work like it's all up to me, pray like it's all up to God, and constanly seek guidance from folks who are smarter and more experienced than I am, beginning with my Guardian Angel and my confessor. Spiritual reading (Bible and CCC, writings of the doctors of the Church) help too, as do websites like TCT.... Praying for everyone on here - please pray for me!
written by AGS, June 08, 2014
Mrs Ionescu,

"Baptism merely erases original sin." I do like that "merely." 

We have been called to lead a life of holiness and through the grace of baptism we have been equipped to lead that life. Now to be so equipped I understand to mean that we have been rendered good enough to lead that life; made good enough to answer the call to holiness. Would you not agree?

And if we have been made good enough to lead that life, we can hardly complain to God at the end that we failed because, in Fr Longenecker's words, "of course, we can never be good enough."

For argument, allow me to accept Fr Longenecker's characterization of Paul's meaning "that the whole reason for the law was not to make us good enough, but to show us that we could never be good enough." Even if that were true as the "whole reason," it could only have been true prior to the event of the Resurrection. For surely after the Resurrection we have been given access to grace that allows us to fulfill the  law? Or am I just being to Catholic, and insufficiently "dynamic" in my faith?
written by Walter, June 08, 2014
Alana, you are too hard on Manfred. He undoubtedly worked very hard on today's comment and was actually able to submit a semi-coherent rambling without using the word "sodomite."
written by Joanna Ionescu, June 09, 2014

I see you venture to comment without reading the CCC.
You must have a different source which informs what it means to be a true Catholic.

Yes, we are called to be saints. But, without exception, all canonized saints within the Catholic Church talk about themselves as great sinners, without exception. All saints consider themselves unworthy and unanimously declare heaven as something never earned or deserved. If you cannot be persuaded to pick up the CCC, perhaps you can pick up some autobiographical writings from the saints, for according to them, we are never good enough.
written by Gian, June 09, 2014
"whole reason for the law was not to make us good enough, but to show us that we could never be good enough."

Is it really so?
First, I doubt if law could make anybody good. What law does is to define goodness.
So, I do not find the statement very meaningful.
written by AGS, June 09, 2014
Mrs Ionescu,

That man may be a sinner is due not to his incapacity to do that which he ought, but precisely to his capacity to do what he ought. If man could "never be good enough," then sin could not be properly attributed to him, any more than it could be to a dog or any other creature without moral capacity.

It saddens me to see how confused Catholics have become by Protestant heresies. I wonder what you think is the point of God's grace if it is incapable of making us good enough to follow his law?
written by PNF, June 09, 2014
Fr. Longenecker, I think I understand your point. Rule-following (legalism) should not be thought of as an end in itself. Rather, rules should help us recognize the acts we should love and the acts we should hate.

For example, God wants us to love going to mass. Ideally, we should not think of mass only as an obligation. If we perceive mass attendance only as a duty, we will miss the true purpose of attending mass: experiencing God's love for us in the Eucharist. The rule is useful for those Catholics who do not (at that moment) have a love for taking communion. The rules are there to cultivate a love of the prescribed act, to inculcate and sustain good habits which hopefully will lead to divine grace, not simply to force someone to act in a prescribed way (to obey a rule).

Rules (laws) are the training wheels of the Catholic faith. They are necessary at certain stages in our earthly pilgrimage. They keep us from veering far too off-track. Jesus said that he "did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it." The Law sets boundaries, and those boundaries continue to be good after he left us and sent the Holy Spirit.

Rule-following creates opportunities for grace where the Holy Spirit re-forms our hearts in the divine image. With new hearts, we follow the Law not out of duty alone, but because we love the joy and peace that it brings.
written by Manfred, June 09, 2014
Here is a concrete example of rules and license. Are you in the Novus Oedo religion aware that your reception of Holy Communion in the hand was proscribed by the Vatican? The practice was allowed by the Vatican in some parts of Holland, Germany, Belgium and France (real hotbeds of orthodoxy) as their bushops had initiated the practice.
In 1977, Abp Bernardin as president of the NCCB (the predecessor of the USCCB) masterminded an enormous fraud at the May 3-5 NCCB meetrings wherein the Catholics in this Country, which had no interest in Communion in the hand and their bishops which had no tolerance for it (it had been voted down three years in a row) were forced by very questionable and fraudulent methods to accept this practice which is universal in the Novus Ordo religion today.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author