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Legalism vs. License – Two Bad Options for Sheep

Nov 9, 2022

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

In tempting us, Satan likes to present two bad options and give us a choice. (Perhaps I’m thinking about this more than usual because the midterm elections were yesterday.) The two bad choices we are examining today are legalism and license.

In last week’s reflection, The Whys of Catholic Legalism – with Solutions, we enter deeply into Catholic legalism – and Theopedia defined legalism thusly:

Legalism, in Christianity, is a term referring to an improper fixation on law or codes of conduct for a person to merit or obtain salvation, blessing from God, or fellowship with God, with an attendant misunderstanding of the grace of God. Simply put, legalism is belief that obedience to the law or a set of rules is the pre-eminent principle of redemption and/or favor with God.

We examined how legalism is about following the rules, the laws at the expense of everything else. Legalism is being a Pharisee, a hypocrite, being blind to the “big picture” of our Faith.

Some would say that the opposite pole of legalism is not license per se, but rather antinomianism, which is derived from two Greek words – anti = “against” + nomos = “law.” The Catholic Encyclopedia succinctly defines antinomianism as “the heretical doctrine that Christians are exempt from the obligations of moral law.” The Catholic Dictionary defines antinomianism as “the doctrine that claims that a person’s faith in God and in the person of Christ frees him from the moral obligations of the law, whether natural or positive, biblical or ecclesiastical.”

License is the natural result of antinomian thinking – if I am freed from the obligations of any law, then I can do whatever I want. Fr. Dwight Longenecker in The Traps of Legalism and License describes how:

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.

This is straight from the Wiccan Rede, the central moral system of Wicca along with other belief systems incorporating witchcraft, first published in 1964. The most famous couplet of the Wiccan Rede reads: “Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill – An ye harm none, do what ye will.” (This sounds like Google’s motto “Don’t be evil.’) And that Wiccan couplet hearkens back to occultist Alistair Crowley’s signature quote, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” in his Book of the Law, which had great influence on the rise of modern Satanism.

Why do people (even some Catholics) adopt a position of license?

There are many reasons.

Let us briefly discuss the spiritual reasons first. In our fallen human state, we are subject to concupiscence. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2525) states:

Etymologically, “concupiscence” can refer to any intense form of human desire. Christian theology has given it a particular meaning: the movement of the sensitive appetite contrary to the operation of the human reason. The apostle St. Paul identifies it with the rebellion of the “flesh” against the “spirit.” Concupiscence stems from the disobedience of the first sin. It unsettles man’s moral faculties and, without being in itself an offense, inclines man to commit sins.

So often, laws (moral, divine, biblical, and even natural laws) get in the way of our intense desires. So, given our fallen human condition, it can seem natural for us to desire to discard laws that seem to interfere with us getting what we want. Pride, vanity, greed, lust, all kinds of vices can lead to the repudiation of law and the embracing of license.

Good intentions leading to bad outcomes

As a Catholic psychologist, I am particularly interested in understanding the perceived goods that a person is seeking in rejecting moral, divine and natural laws and seeking license. Even when we sin, we are pursuing a perceived good in disordered self-love. I addressed this briefly in the weekly reflection titled St. Thomas Aquinas: You Must Love You. First; St. Thomas describes our sins as disordered attempts to love ourself, seeking lesser goods instead of the highest goods for ourselves.

Because I believe that relatively few Catholics are motivated primarily by malice, I am interested in their confusion around the hierarchy of goods. Why would a Catholic be inclined toward antinomianism, toward rejecting the Law, toward license?

First, let me make the point that most serious Catholics do not discard the entirety of moral, natural, and divine law. Many just discard what they do not like or do not understand – and most of all those laws that seem to interfere with their pursuit of perceived goods. They are often called cafeteria Catholics – Catholics who view Catholic teaching as a smorgasbord of propositions that they are free to take or leave as they please.

The first example of the cafeteria approach was in Genesis, when Adam and Eve broke God’s commandment that “…of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (Genesis 2:17). Did Adam and Eve eat the fruit of that tree out of malice or spite or to deliberately alienate themselves from God? No.

Rather, Adam and Eve were seeking the good of knowledge and to become more like God. They knew, deep inside that they were made in the image and likeness of God. Here was a chance to take it to the next level. Remember the honeyed speech of the Serpent “…the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5). The Serpent deceived Adam and Eve into believing that God did not will their highest good, that God was intentionally depriving them of some great goods, a divine destiny. Subtly, the serpent insinuated that God was suppressing Adam and Eve, keeping them at a disadvantage.

The sin was not in the desire for knowledge or in wanting to become more like God, but in their use of the wrong means. The commandment forbidding eating of the fruit of the tree was given to them out of love, to protect them from the catastrophic consequences of sin. We need not only to pursue goods, but we need to pursue the highest goods for ourselves and others, using the right means. Adam and Eve saw the fruit as a “shortcut” to knowledge and becoming more like God, not trusting that God would bring them to much deeper wisdom and perfection in His image if they followed His means.

Satan was able to undermine Adam and Eve’s attachment relationship with God. Here is a quick review of the five primary conditions for secure attachment according to Brown and Elliott (2016). As you know, I often refer to these and to primary integrity needs as aids to understanding Catholic’s behavior when that behavior seems contrary to their good.

The five attachment needs

  • My need for felt safety and protection in relationship
  • My need for a felt sense of being seen, heard, known, and understood
  • My need for a felt sense of being comforted, soothed, and reassured
  • My need for a felt sense of being valued, treasured, delighted in, and cherished
  • My need for a felt sense of support for my highest good

Satan seduced Adam and Eve in just one statement by undermining their confidence in God’s meeting the second, fourth and fifth of these attachment needs. Satan presented God as not hearing or understanding their needs for knowledge and to be like Him. Satan also sowed doubt in their hearts, leading Adam and Eve to suspect that God did not really value them, that He did not cherish them, and especially that He did not support their highest good.

By embracing these misgivings about God’s Providence, by nourishing their skepticism of His goodness, Adam and Eve sinned internally. Their sinning culminated in taking matters into their own hands, trying themselves to become more like God (which is ironic, given their increasingly negative God images, that God was depriving them).

The misuse of St. Augustine to justify license

To justify their rejection of law and Catholic teaching (especially on sexual ethics), I have heard and read some Catholics invoking St. Augustine’s Sermon on 1 John 4:4-12, which includes his famous line “Love and do what you will.” These Catholics insist that they are responding to a spirit of love in love, that love should not be stifled or constricted, and that therefore, they are justified in casting off outdated moral norms. This de facto antinomianism is often expressed in statements like “Why would God have put this on my heart if it were morally wrong?” for example, when contemplating divorce to begin a relationship with the new love interest.

Then there are the slogans often used by LGBTQ+ activists who advocate license, including:

  • We don’t judge, love is love!
  • Love is not a crime
  • There is nothing wrong with our love.
  • Our right to love each other should not be infringed upon.
  • Make love, not walls.

If we communicate deeply with those activists, we find that they are seeking a good. They want connection, they want love, they want relationship, they want intimacy, all the things that human beings are made for. Very few of them seem to me to be primarily motivated by malice. They reject what they consider to be the arbitrary and misguided “rules” of the Church because they see those “rules” not as laws that reflect realities both natural and divine, but as man-made impositions and misguided attempts to control them and strip them of the possibility of love.

Of men and sheep…

The problem is that we so often are confused about these things. Jesus likened us to sheep repeatedly in the Gospels, and sheep are mentioned more than 500 times in the Bible. Sheep need a shepherd. They are not good at figuring things out on their own. I have raised sheep on our little farm for more than a decade, and I continue to be amazed at the predicaments sheep get themselves into when left to their own devices.

Gene Logsdon, the “Contrary Farmer,” has this description of sheep in his book on pasture-based farming, All Flesh is Grass:

As far as caring for sheep in general, one learns over the years that sheep love to die… A few sheep will find new and imaginative ways to end it all. One of my sisters kept sheep in her orchard. Her children tied a rope swing onto one of the apple tree branches. A ewe managed to hang herself on the swing. I had a ewe commit suicide by eating poisoned hemlock, even though the plant is so absolutely bitter that livestock will seldom eat more than a taste. Thought she was Socrates, I guess. My saddest story concerns one of my best ewes (always the case, it seems), who drowned herself. I cut a hole in the ice on the pond for the sheep to get a drink. The hole was not big enough for the ewe to fall into. But with the genius of the suicidal, that ewe managed to slip as she drank, lunge forward, and ram her head into the hole. She was unable to gain footing so she could not back out.

I am very particular about not leaving a single string from hay bales out in our pastures, because it seems that so many times, a sheep will find that one discarded string and tangle itself up in it in unimaginable ways, which can easily lead to death. Check out this article 9 Shocking Reasons Why God Compares Us to Sheep In the Bible for why we fallen human beings are likened to sheep and why that can be considered a most unflattering assessment of our individual competence to survive on our own.

An image of Shepherd and sheep

Let’s put St. Augustine’s famous line back into the paragraph for context. He writes:

This is what I insist upon: human actions can only be understood by their root in love. All kinds of actions might appear good without proceeding from the root of love. Remember, thorns also have flowers: some actions seem truly savage, but are done for the sake of discipline motivated by love. Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will. If you hold your peace, hold your peace out of love. If you cry out, cry out in love. If you correct someone, correct them out of love. If you spare them, spare them out of love. Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good.

We need to learn what love is, and it is not Hallmark Movie love. Receiving love and conforming to God’s love is often painful, as I explored deeply in the most recent Interior Integration for Catholics podcast episode, number 99, titled Why We Catholics Reject God’s Love for Us and How to Embrace that Love. And the laws that God has given us are to help us. They are laws given out of love, to help us sheep with such limited vision to contend with the realities of life. They are not arbitrary rules imposed by a capricious God.

The subjectivity of sheep

The bottom line is that so often, for so many reasons, people should not trust their subjectivity – they should not be caught up and make decisions based on the intensity of their emotions, their passions. God understands that. He knows we need help.

The image that St. Augustine’s passage evokes for me is that of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, in the middle of a broad, green, lush pasture, with His sheep around him. If you are a little lamb gazing into the eyes of Jesus, letting Him hold you and care for you, you don’t have to worry about the Law. But few of us consistently maintain that kind of personal intimacy, grounded in humility, and supported by accurate discernment. And around the pasture is the Deep, Dark, Dangerous Forest of Woe™ full of predators, a place where sheep get eaten and souls are lost.

Rather, we are prone to wander off, away from our Shepherd. If we wander far enough, we will get to the boundary between the pasture and the forest, and there, for our benefit, are the signposts of the Law. If we are actively considering blasphemy, adultery, theft, or breaking of any of the other commandments or disobeying other authoritative teaching or precept of the Church, we are no longer gazing into the eyes of our Shepherd, we are no longer near Him. The Law is not going to save us on its own, but it can be a most useful signal that our relationship with Jesus is compromised, even if we have good intentions, even if we are sincere. The Law invites us to turn back, to recognize our peril and to seek our Lord again.

The devil’s false choices revisited…

Sheep seeking license ignore the Law, blow past the signposts and plunge into the Deep, Dark, Dangerous Forest of Woe™ to their peril. Legalistic sheep either fixate on one signpost of the law or circle the perimeter of the pasture, looking at one signpost of the Law after another, striving to conform themselves to those laws, but failing to seek the personal, relational intimacy with their Shepherd, their Savior, in the middle of the pasture.

Poor experiences of human authority

One final point I would like to make is that so many people distrust the authority of God and the authority of the Church to present God’s will for us because they have had very negative experiences of human authority, often going back to early in life. If parents discipline their children in ways that are capricious, inconsistent, imbued with double standards, hypocritical, and out of convenience rather than focusing on the child’s highest good, it is extremely likely that that child’s images of God will reflect that poor discipline.

The scandal of Church leaders abusing or misusing their authority undermines confidence and is a separate problem that makes conforming with the Law more difficult. When cardinals, bishops, and priests, who all represent God, are disobedient to the laws and precepts of the Church themselves, they communicate how it’s just fine to seek license and to prioritize one’s own subjectivity above the inspired wisdom of the Church, whether that is in their personal conduct or in heterodox teaching.

This recalls St. Paul in 2 Timothy 4:3, which reads, “For there shall be a time, when they will not endure sound doctrine; but, according to their own desires, they will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears.” Teachers for itching ears, like many Belgian bishops who recently promulgated a “prayer to ask that God bless and make endure their commitment of love and fidelity” for those in same-sex unions.

When you find yourself in relationship with a Catholic who dissents from Church teaching, remember these points:

  • The dissenting Catholic is seeking in license at least a perceived good
  • All of us have parts – you may be interacting with only a part of the person who is rejecting the Law
  • It is worth the time to really listen to the need that the seeking of the perceived good is trying to meet
  • The dissenting Catholic is likely to have had bad experiences of human authority in the past which colors his opinion of Church and Divine authority
  • The experience of authentic love is curative and corrective – the person needs the love of Christ
  • How can you be the conduit for Christ’s love to that person?

That will require you to have done your own human formation and spiritual formation, so that you can enter this conversation with peace, with the capacity to listen and understand, so that the other can experience the love of God and the clarity of Truth through you. That is no small ask and no small task.

Help for the pilgrimage…

But we can help.

If you like how I integrate human formation and the relational Catholic spiritual life, consider joining the Resilient Catholics Community – we are 120 Catholics on a pilgrimage to grow in ordered love for God, others, and ourselves, together in community. Learn more on our landing page. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me with questions at or at 317.567.9594 (especially during conversations hours, every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM Eastern time).

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S. Check out the new episode of Interior Integration for Catholics podcast episode, number 99, titled Why We Catholics Reject God’s Love for Us and How to Embrace that Love – where I discuss how it so common for Catholics (and others) to reject the love of God, to not let that love in. We explore in depth the eight natural, human formation reasons why we refuse God’s love. We also look at what Hell really is and why it really exists. Through examples, quotes, and an exploration of my own parts, I make this critical, central topic come alive. As a bonus, I present an action plan for accepting and embracing God’s love.

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