The “Demands of Propriety” and the Hands of the Living God

By Abmg (Own work) [<a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0">CC BY-SA 3.0</a>], <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALouis_Anselme_Longa%2C_La_charit%C3%A9_de_saint_Martin.jpg">via Wikimedia Commons</a>

“Fearful it is to fall in the hands of the Living God” Hebrews 10:31

“The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you?” Soren Kierkegaard

According to classical Catholic doctrine, those who are not called to vowed poverty are called to give everything they have left over as alms “once the demands of necessity and the demands of propriety” are met.

This is sound doctrine. God did not create us for lives of bare necessity. God is pro-civilization, and a civilization has craftsmen and artists and engineers and so forth who produce beautiful things, and for this to happen there needs to be people with money beyond bare necessity.

Some are called to give up family and money and power to follow Christ, but some are also called to follow Christ through their family life and their profession in something that looks something like a “bourgeois” lifestyle.

But, of course, talk about “propriety” immediately sounds like a loophole big enough to drive a whole caravan of camels through. What “counts” and doesn’t “count” as propriety?

Part of the rebellion by the Jansenists against the Jesuits in 17th century France was caused by the fact that, to their aristocratic charges, Jesuits counted “maintaining one’s social standing” as part of the “demands of propriety”, and blessed the excesses of the French nobility.

This was not quite as nakedly hypocritical as it looks to us today. Under the court rules of French absolute monarchy, things like the magnificence of your parties and the beauty of your castle were political affairs. If you were an aristocrat who believed in noblesse oblige through public service, it was simply the price of admission. And the largesse of the French court (like the largesse of the Renaissance Papal court) produced some of the greatest flowerings of art and culture in history–Lully, La Fontaine, Corneille, Racine, Molière, Le Nôtre, Vatel…

So: what “counts” as “propriety”, and what counts as excessive luxury?

That’s precisely the thing the Church can’t tell you, the Church won’t tell you. Because, contrary to popular belief, Christian morality, Catholic morality, is not a moral of legal obligation. Christ doesn’t want you to check a series of boxes so that you can gain admission to a place called Heaven. Christ wants to free you from the power of sin and death and for you to receive the Spirit that gives the power to become a son of God.

Do’s and don’t’s are not boxes to be checked, they are instruments for you to discern the will of God in your own life and circumstances, so that you can render all things for the glory of God.

Rules can be a very reassuring thing. “Well, I tithe 15% and I volunteer at the soup kitchen every month. That’s good, right?” I don’t know. I can’t answer that for you. Do you genuinely think so? Do you deeply think so, or are you telling yourself that to reassure yourself, to exorcise the nagging feeling that this is not enough? Are you looking for rules as lifeboats precisely so that you don’t have to do the much harder work of discerning God’s call to you? Fearful it is to fall in the hands of the Living God…

This is what Jesus meant by fulfilling the Law. Not a pseudo-Pelagian morality of legal obligation, nor a replacement of the Law by an individualistic Gospel of personal salvation. Jesus fulfilled the Law by showing us what the Law is for.

This does not reduce the Law to mere guideline–it is a true law that if you are not called to vowed poverty you must give away everything once the demands of necessity and propriety are meant, and if you refuse to do so you endanger your immortal soul by breaking God’s law. The Law is a true law, but because it is the true divine Law it is an instrument for theosis, not like civil law a license to do whatever you want so long as you don’t technically break the law.

The Law is also important as a school of virtue and of faith. Only someone without any subtlety in their understanding of human nature could scoff about “ritualism.” We are not just what we believe, we are also what we do. Yes, of course it is possible to fast while “chewing up your brother” but you should still obey fasting rules because fasting is (at the very least) to spiritual combat as calisthenics is to actual combat. Act as though ye have faith, and faith shall be given to you. Obey the Law, and God will circumcise your heart. To become a better runner, you have to run; to become a better writer, you have to write; to become a better person, you have to do good works.

What about tithing 15%? Well, once you die you will appear before Jesus and all lies and all self-deceptions will be obliterated, and you will be judged not on whether you gave 15% or 10% or 20%, you will be judged by the standard which you knew was in your heart all along. That is why the rich man has no excuse vis-à-vis the poor Lazarus.

The Church has a priceless and fundamental role for telling you what God’s Law is in general, but only you (by the power of the Spirit) can discern how that applies to you, and ultimately the standard is what Jesus will think of it when you encounter Him in glory–and that is the one standard from which you cannot hide.

This is the dreadful reality of Divine Judgement. God is not a Judge in the sense that he applies some arbitrary abstract standard and decides our eternal fates on the basis of whether we met it. No, the reality is even “worse”, even more “pitiless”, even more terrifying–God is a Judge in the sense that the Judge is the one who establishes and proclaims the truth. We will all stand naked before the throne, and here what will judge us is the honest truth about ourselves, which is precisely what we spent most of our lives running away from. The Law gives you the tools to go on that encounter but it cannot do it for you.

Domine Iesu Christe, Fili Dei, miserere nobis peccatoribus.

Louis-Anselme Longa, La Charité de Saint Martin; By Abmg (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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