6th Sunday of Easter
That you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication: from which things keeping yourselves, you shall do well. (Acts 15:29)
In the first reading this past Sunday, we heard a list of things forbidden to the Christian, among which are blood, the meat of strangled animals, and “pornea” (translated as “fornication”). Did the Church really forbid eating these things? If that law could change, could the laws against fornication change? Could the Church sanction public adultery (under the form of divorce and remarriage)?
Did the Apostles uphold the Ceremonial Laws of the Old Covenant?
The prohibition of things sacrificed to idols, from blood and from strangled animals was made as a concession to the Jews as wells as to the newly converted Jewish Christians whose faith was weak and so were scandalized by these things which were so repugnant to the Law.
Father George Leo Haydock, in his classic English language commentary on Sacred Scripture, writes:
“In these prohibitions, the Church indulged the particular feelings of the Jews, that the bond of union between them and the Gentiles might be more closely united; the latter in these two instances giving way to the prejudices of the former, who in their turn gave up much, by submitting to the abolition of the ceremonial law of Moses. This prohibition was of course only temporary, and to cease with the reasons, which gave rise to it.”
Although some had attempted to interpret this prohibition in a figurative sense (as rejecting idolatry, murder and gluttony), St Thomas Aquinas likewise maintains that these foods were literally prohibited in order to reconcile the Gentiles with the Jews: “We must hold that these foods were forbidden literally, not with the purpose of enforcing compliance with the legal ceremonies, but in order to further the union of Gentiles and Jews living side by side. […] Hence these things were prohibited for the time being, during which the Gentiles and Jews were to become united together.” (ST I-II, q.103, a.4, ad 3)
Does the Church have authority to forbid that which is lawful in itself?
At the “Council of Jerusalem” (Acts 15), St Peter and the Apostles in union with him, made a strict prohibition against these certain foods which were not unlawful in themselves but which had been forbidden under the Old Law. What is striking to notice is that, although there is nothing wrong per se with eating the meat of strangled animals etc., the Law of the Church established by the Apostles bound the early Christians in such a way that it would have been sinful for those in the early Church to eat such foods (without grave reason).
Hear again Fr Haydock: “By this we see the great authority of God’s Church, and Councils which may make permanent or temporary decrees, such as are fitting for the state of the times or peoples, without any express Scripture at all, and by this authoritative exaction, things become of strict obligation, which previous to it, were in themselves indifferent.”
So the Church operates even today, for there is no absolute reason mandating that Catholics attend Mass on December 8th, however the Church has made this an Holy Day of Obligation. Again, laws of fasting and abstinence bind under pain of mortal sin, and yet are of the Church’s institution. Even certain aspects of marriage law which touch upon the validity of the sacrament were created by the Church for the good order of society (example: That the vows of the couple must be received by a minister of the Church). Of course, many further examples could be given.
Thus, those persons do not follow the example of Sacred Scripture who maintain that the Church either CANNOT or SHOULD NOT make laws which restrict even those things which are in themselves lawful. Furthermore, even the good order of society shows the necessity of such laws – while it is objectively permissible to drive on the left side of the road, in the USA this is forbidden so as to ensure the safety of the highway (indeed, it would generally be a mortal sin to drive on the left side in the USA, but driving on the right side is a mortal sin in England – and this is predicated upon human laws).
[It is worth noting that at least some of the Orthodox still hold to these dietary laws even today. In this they err, as the Lord expressly permits all foods, "not that which entereth into the mouth defileth a man" (Matthew 15:11) and again Scripture states, "nothing is to be rejected that is received with thanksgiving" (1 Timothy 4:4).]
But the Church cannot allow that which is objectively immoral
However, the list from Acts of the Apostles concludes with the prohibition against “pornea” (which is “unlawful marriage” or “fornication”), and this is a law which cannot change, something which the Church could never allow.
The Angelic Thomas, in the place sited above: “With regard to fornication a special prohibition was made, because the Gentiles did not hold it to be sinful.”
The Church made this special mention of fornication not because it is similar to eating meat of strangled animals or blood, but because the sin was so prevalent in that day among the pagans and thus it was necessary to condemn it specifically. Unlike the others, “pornea” is per se evil as being contrary to natural law. The Church could never change this teaching, she could neither allow nor approve of unlawful marriage, fornication, adultery or the like.
How St Peter and the Church of the Apostles defended marriage
In a time when there was great confusion in the secular world and even some threat within the Church herself regarding the nature of marriage, St Peter and the Apostles spoke all the more directly and boldly against “pornea”. In our own time, the world is profoundly misled by the evils which attack marriage and family life – divorce and remarriage being one of the greatest evils, especially because it is sanctioned not only by civil governments but even by the Protestants. If today’s Church is modeled upon the Apostles’ and if the Pope follows the example of St Peter, we would expect a clear condemnation of all sins again marital commitment and a bold proclamation of the true dignity of marriage and family life.