Q&A: Moral Church Calendar?

800px-BritLibCottonCleoBIXLiturgicalCalOct

A 13th century liturgical overview of October. From Wikipedia.

Question:

What do you make of Galatians 4:9-10 that seems to suggest that binding people’s consciences to a religious calendar is a return to slavery under the law of the Old Testament? Not to say church calendars are bad; it just seems Catholicism makes it a matter of morality to observe the church calendar.

Answer:

This is a good question. Let’s take a look at the verses in question:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. (Galatians 4:8-10, NRSV)

The objections to Christian holidays based on this verse are actually quite old. Let me quote from a Catholic commentary on this verse:

Some of the later Reformers find here an occasion to blame the fasts and holy days kept by Catholics. Saint Jerome, in his commentary on these words, tells us that some had made the same objection in his time: his answer might reasonably stop their rashness: that Christians keep indeed the Sabbath on the Sunday, (not the Jewish Sabbath on Saturdays) that they also keep diverse holy days, and days on which great saints suffered martyrdom, (let our adversaries take notice of this) but that both the days are different, and the motives of keeping them.

(Haydock’s Catholic Bible Commentary, abridged for length and clarity)

Here, Haydock quotes Jerome, a fourth and fifth century Biblical scholar. Christians did establish festivals and holy days quite early (how early we cannot be sure in some cases.) It is true that some objected, but it is also quite true that Paul is concerned with his Galatian converts are going back to the old practices they had before they became Christians. That is, he’s concerned about pagan and Jewish religious calendars, not with the establishment of Christian holidays. This is made very clear in the verse itself and in the context; these festivals were part of the works of the Law that the Jerusalem Council decided were not binding on Gentiles (cf. Acts 15) or things that were celebrated when they ‘did not know God.’ (Many scholars might say only the Jewish religious calendar is of concern here, but the pagan element is not essential to my point.)

As for making it a matter of personal morality to keep the Church calendar, one needs to have a proper understanding of Catholic moral theology. A distinction is made in between legal norms and moral norms. Legal norms, unlike moral norms, aim at bringing about a desirable state of affairs rather than determining moral right and wrong. For instance, it is not intrinsically evil to disobey the legal norm of driving on the right side of the road. This is just a rule that aims at reducing traffic fatalities and promoting orderly movement of vehicles. Even so, it seems obvious that one ought to obey this rule where possible. The laws of the Church that pertain to the calendar are also legal norms. Obviously, a non-Catholic is no more morally obligated to obey the Catholic Church’s calendar than England is obligated to obey Canadian driving laws.

However, for a Catholic, the Church’s calendar is designed to encourage participation in the life of Christ and the Church. Remember that the festivals Paul spoke about (pagan or Jewish) had different motives. Our festivals celebrate our adoption and freedom in Christ, not the works of the Law. (cf. Galatians 4:4-5, 5:1) Choosing not to celebrate with the Church is like deciding to be the only one driving on the other side of the road. Unless there’s a good reason (like an accident in the lane you are supposed to be in or an illness that keeps one from fasting) one ought to participate.

Footnotes:

Why am I doing this? Click here.

N.B. I am only a new Catholic. Though I have an undergrad in theology and am working on a Masters, I will not be a flawless source of information. But friends and family have many questions since my wife and I began becoming Catholics, and this is an attempt to answer those questions.

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