Is the Gospel Opposed to the Law?

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Pope Francis regularly objects to views he perceives as dogmatic or rigid, and – he claims – expressive of legalism, self-righteousness, or hypocrisy. For instance, in his concluding address at the 2015 Ordinary Synod on the Family, he said, “The Synod experience also made us better realize that the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulae but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness.” Here we find a set of contrasts: letter vs. spirit, ideas vs. people, and formulae vs. love and forgiveness. What does he mean by these contrasts? He doesn’t say.

But throughout his pontificate, Francis has criticized the legalist, as he understands him, with such statements as this: “Their hearts, closed to God’s truth, clutch only at the truth of the Law, taking it by ‘the letter’.” Francis adds, “The path that Jesus teaches us [is] totally opposite to that of the doctors of law. And it’s [the] 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 [self-righteousness].The path that leads from love to knowledge and discernment, to total fulfillment, leads to holiness, salvation and the encounter with Jesus.”

These statements suggest a loosening by Jesus, for example, of the Moral Law’s sexual commands. Yet in Our Lord’s discussion on divorce, remarriage, and adultery with the Pharisees (Mk 10: 2 -12; Matt 19: 3-12), who were intent on keeping remaining loopholes, Jesus closed them in the Law’s sexual commands by further “interiorizing their demands and by bringing out their fullest meaning.” (John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor §15). Fewer loopholes rather than greater license in Jesus’ teaching leave us with his stress on adultery of desire and the indissolubility of marriage.

Thus, the general problem with Francis’s statements is that they seem to set up an opposition between the Gospel and the moral law. But God’s moral law proposes what is good for us in living life in Christ. “The moral law is the work of divine Wisdom,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (§1950) Pope Francis has unfortunately, on multiple occasions, obscured the vital point that the law is, as St. Paul teaches, holy, just, and good (Rom 7:12), bearing an inherent connection to salvation.

Indeed, the Catechism’s section on the Ten Commandments has 500 paragraphs about God’s law and its inner connection to salvation. Whatever must be said about the moral law and salvation, at the very least it must be clearly stated that we are deceived if we think that we can inherit God’s kingdom without keeping the divine commandments. (1 Cor 5: 9-11; Gal 5: 16-26)

The Pharisees Question Jesus by James J, Tissot, c 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]
The Pharisees Question Jesus by James J, Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]

Furthermore, the pope’s overall emphasis on legalism is such that he never addresses the antithesis of legalism, namely, antinomianism (from Greek anti, against + nomos, law). And we surely live in age of antinomianism, of moral subjectivism, emotivism, relativism, situation ethics. Moreover, Francis never actually addresses the question: if the moral law is good, which he surely believes it is, then, what is its place in the Christian life?

One thing is clear, as Lutheran theologian David Yeago rightly says, “What one cannot find in St. Paul is any suggestion that grace and the Gospel stand over against the law as the abrogation of God’s will that we be truly righteous and holy.”

Consider the Pauline principle of 2 Cor 3:6, “for the letter kills, but the Spirit produces life.” Is this what Francis is alluding to in his contrast of letter vs. spirit? He doesn’t say. Briefly, the Pauline principle contrasts letter and Spirit. Significantly, as Herman Ridderbos correctly states, “The antithesis between the law and the Spirit is. . .not situated in the fact that the Spirit places himself over against the content and demands of the law.”

That interpretation is precisely what is suggested by the contrast that Pope Francis draws between “letter and spirit,” namely, that he places the Spirit “over against the content and demands of the moral law.” And one can be excused for thinking this since he states this contrast in the context of claiming that the “true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit.”

Furthermore, the main point of this Pauline principle is that the letter or law kills because man, given his sinfulness, indeed his enslavement to sin, lacks power to keep the precepts of the law. Thus, the law itself is unable to bring about the obedience of vital faith in sinners. Only the Spirit can bring about this living faith in us.

Moreover, the letter kills, says Victor P. Furnish, “because it enslaves one to the presumption that righteousness inheres in one’s doing of the law, when it is actually the case that true righteousness comes only as a gift from God.”

Perhaps this, too, is what Francis has in mind with the other contrast he draws, “formulae vs. righteousness.” Righteousness doesn’t come from an increased rigor in formulaically obeying the commandments. Still, Jesus demands (see Matt 5:20) a “surplus, not a deficit of righteousness,” as Joseph Ratzinger rightly says.

Thus, the grace of the Holy Spirit is the effective agent who “gives life” by changing the human heart, a change that is given through faith in Christ, enabling us to keep the law out of an interior freedom that is expressed in the obedience of faith.

Yes, for St. Paul, the law declares God’s will. The moral law retains its meaning as, in St. Paul’s words, “holy law,” and as “holy and just and good” (Rom 7:12), and hence no disparagement of the moral law is intended or implied even in his sternest critique of legalism (Gal 5).

Respectfully, one desires a similar clarity on Pope Francis’s part.


Eduardo J. Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. His publications include Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II Revised and Expanded Second Edition (Lectio Publishing, Hobe Sound, FL, 2019) and Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma. (2018). His new book is Are We Together? A Roman Catholic Analyzes Evangelical Protestants.