Monday, January 23, 2012

A Comment on Mark Shea's Blog about Americans and Law

The Latin conception of law is to make rules about everything and then list all the possible exceptions and leave still more leeway for ordinary human variety if that doesn’t cover all the bases. [...] In contrast, the normal Anglo-American conception of law is "Make as few rules as possible and then enforce it, even if it’s absolutely stupid to do so."

- Mark Shea

I’ve been saying this for years. I first came up with it trying to understand why half the Evangelicals in the church I grew up in were lapsed American Catholics who while growing up had experienced their still-very-European church and its "rules" not as an instrument for structuring a beautiful Christian way of life in the society of the Church but rather as an arcane system for guaranteeing personal salvation in which the slightest misstep was subject to severe condemnation. When a huge percentage of the Church experiences the sacraments not as Grace but as a condemning Law then you know there’s a mixup somewhere.

Rules and laws are properly the ground rules for universal social participation in a common good. They are essentially social in nature. Since American culture tends to downplay such universal and intentional participation in any "common good" (even sometimes to the point of denying the existence of a common good), it generally sees rules as either

1. merely the absolutely basic safeguards of minimal human decency in this war of all against all that we call a free market society (in which case these rules must be obeyed inflexibly and there is minimal room for "interpretation") or else

2. as attempts by a ruling cadre to impose its own will – for its own good – on another group. (This is often how lapsed Catholics understand the church.)

Sports are an exception to the rule since they are one of the few examples in American culture where there is an obvious and universally recognized common good.

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