Our Lord Jesus Christ gave His Church the power to teach, to sanctify, and to rule its members, in order to lead them to their eternal salvation. And to fulfill these ends, the Church has power to make laws. Our Lord gave the Apostles full power; He sent them as God the Father had sent Him. Disobedience to the Church is therefore disobedience to God.
The Catholic Church has the right to make laws from Jesus Christ, Who said to the Apostles, the first bishops of His Church, "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound also in Heaven."
No society can exist without the power to govern its members. No government is possible without laws. Unless the Church had the power and right to make laws, it could not lead its members to Heaven.
"Our Lord said: 'If he refuse to hear even the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen and the publican. Amen I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound also in Heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed also in Heaven'" (Matthew 18:17-18). This power to bind and loose is called the "power of the keys."
We are under a rigorous obligation to obey the laws or precepts of the Church. Disobedience to the Church is disobedience to God Who gave it full authority.
A bad Catholic once said to a friend, "God will not punish me for not keeping the Church laws on fast and abstinence. I observe all the Ten Commandments, and I do not need to obey the laws made only by the Church." But the friend answered, "Did not God command us to hear the Church? Then if we do not obey its laws, we disobey Him as well."
Authority to make laws includes power to enforce them. Hence the Church has the right to punish disobedient members by refusing them the sacraments, denying them Catholic burial, and other penalties.
"He therefore said to them again, 'Peace be to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you'" (John 20:21).
This right to make laws is exercised by the bishops, the successors of the Apostles, and especially by the Pope, who as the successor of the chief of the Apostles, Saint Peter, has the right to make laws for the universal Church.
The Pope can make and unmake lawless for the entire Church; his authority is supreme and unquestioned. Every bishop, every priest, every member of the Church is subject to him.
This authority comes from Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Who chose Peter as Head of His Church. The Holy Father - Pope John Paul II is our St. Peter, his direct successor; we must obey him as Christ commanded all to obey Peter.
Laws are also made by each Bishop for his own diocese, and by a general council of bishops for the entire Church. These last have no efficacy without the Pope's approval. We repeat that, so it is very, very clear:
These last [general council of bishops] have NO efficacy WITHOUT the Pope's approval.
Those who appeal from the decisions of the Pope to a general council are excommunicated.
A good Catholic shows obedience to God by conforming himself not only to the letter, but to the spirit of the laws of the Church. He obeys strictly what the Church commands, praises what it praises, condemns what it condemns. The Church is our Mother, good and wise, who looks only to our temporal and spiritual welfare; let us show our love for her by the obedience we render.
The Church is our Mother, given us by Christ Himself, to guide us until He comes again. If we obey this guide we shall have peace on earth, and eternal happiness with God in Heaven. The Church can truly say with our Divine Savior: "My yoke is easy, and My burden light" (Matthew 11:30).
The laws of the Church, in general, do not command things which are of their nature obligatory. For example, abstinence for certain days is not a natural law, but a human law. Therefore, this being the case, the Church that made such human laws can also dispense from the, change them, or abolish them altogether.
This is why bishops can excuse from fast and abstinence when they find good reason; this is why the holydays of obligation are not uniform throughout the entire world. The Church cannot abolish or change the Commandments of God, but it can its own commandments. All natural laws are included in the Ten Commandments; these everybody, everywhere, must obey.
The chief commandments, or laws, of the Church are these six:
- 1. To assist at Mass on all Sundays and holydays of obligation.
- 2. To fast and to abstain on the days appointed.
- 3. To confess our sins at least once a year.
- 4. To receive Holy Communion during the Easter time.
- 5. To contribute to the support of the Church.
- 6. To observe the laws of the Church concerning marriage.
There are many other commandments, or laws, of the Church besides these six; but these are the principal ones, and the ones with which the ordinary life of Catholics is concerned.
A Catholic is bound to observe all of the precepts of the Church. Some of them forbid:
(a) The reading or possession of bad books, magazines, and other publications.
(b) Membership in Masonic or other anti-Catholic associations.
You'll note this excellent treatise we have condensed into this series was written by Bishop Louis Laravoire Morrow in the late fifties. At that time two other points were on the list of which Catholics were bound to observe. They were:
(c) Cremation of the bodies of the dead.
(d) The education of Catholic children in non-Catholic schools; etc.
This is an excellent example of the Church having the power to change the laws for indeed cremation is today recognized as is education of Catholic children in non-Catholic schools such as the public school system. Has the latter helped contribute to the malaise in the Church and society? Yes, but nevertheless, it is necessary with the deconstruction of our Catholic schools after Vatican II.
Another example is Canon Law.
Laws for the government of the Catholic Church are contained in the Code of Canon Law, which, when Bishop Morrow wrote this, contained 2414 canons. From time to time, as necessity arises, the Pope through the different Roman Congregations issues decrees, laws, or regulations for the welfare of the Church. Catholics are obliged to obey these laws. The Code was revised in 1983 and reduced to 1752 canons, with some incorporated into sections within other canons.
The Church, through its rulers, has the power to dispense from its precepts. The Pope, the bishops, and the parish priests may for weighty reasons release or excuse the faithful from the observance of particular Church laws. As an example, it may happen that in a certain community the patronal feast may fall on a Friday of Lent. Because of the unusually great number of people, it would be difficult to provide abstinence food for everybody. In such cases the Bishop may grant a dispensation from abstinence, and even fast, locally.
The important thing to remember in all these changes is the reason for the changes. If they are to accommodate the faithful so they can better observe their faith and grow closer to Christ, then that is commendable. If they are to accommodate a laxity to make life easier for the congregations in order to comply with societal norms, then that flies in the face of what Christ taught and is not commendable.
More and more the latter has been happening in wealthier nations where a spoiled civilization has sought ease and comfort over a determined work ethic that God has deigned because man is to work by the sweat of his brow (cf. Genesis 3: 19). We must always be obedient but that obedience to the bishops must be in complete union with the primacy of Peter. Too often the Supreme Pontiff has issued decrees and documents and has not had the cooperation of the bishops, who, for whatever reason, have sought to forge their own agenda. Too often, sadly, some of the successors of the Apostles forget their responsibility to all their flock and become beholden to a few and the ear of those who are not in unison with the Sovereign Pontiff's intentions. This, as we have seen, can cause great confusion within the ranks of the faithful. As we said at the beginning of today's installment, the Pope's authority is supreme and that all - including bishops - are subject to him. Thankfully John Paul II is upholding his authority by cracking down on this slowly but surely, rebuking Germany, Austria and Australia so far for their laxity and veering away from the truths of the great Deposit of Faith. We can expect quite soon, for the sake of the faithful in America, that he will do the same in these United States.