The Letter and Spirit of the Law

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The importance of the what and the why


A guest on a radio program made a point that I’ve never forgotten: If all we do as Catholic parents is teach the letter of the law to our kids, we will be raising kids who know the rules — “good” kids, but not necessarily faithful kids.

Merriam-Webster defines the word catechize as “to instruct systematically especially by
questions, answers, and explanations and corrections.” In other words, a catechist is one who teaches the faith. But, borrowing from that radio guest, if that’s all we do as catechists, we will be forming kids who know the rules — “good” Catholics, but not necessarily faithful Catholics.

The role of the catechist runs deeper than the simple transmission of information, no matter how profound that information may be. It’s all about connotation and denotation — the letter of the law and the spirit of the law; the what and the why. Jesus addressed this with the Pharisees in the Gospel of Mark when he said, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’” (Mark 7:6). If all we do as catechists is teach the law, then we risk teaching our students to be Pharisees. However, when we teach them the law with joy, remembering the spirit in which it is intended, we are training them up to be faith-centered Catholics.

So how do we do this? Here are a few suggestions to consider as you prepare your lessons:

1. What is the heart behind the fact?
◗ Why is Jesus teaching what he’s teaching?
◗ Why is the Church teaching what she’s teaching?
◗ Can the teaching serve to answer cares, concerns, hurts, or worries for your students?

2. What does this teaching mean to you personally?
◗ How has it shaped your life?
◗ How has it helped you?
◗ How has it drawn you closer to Jesus?

3. Where is the beauty in the teaching?
◗ What universal truth is supported by this teaching?
◗ What does this teaching tell us about God’s character?
◗ What does this teaching tell us about God’s love for us?

The goal is balance. Facts with purposes. Truths with reasons. Obedience with joy. If we can achieve this balance when we teach, we will be fulfilling both the letter and spirit of our roles as catechists.

Becky Groth is a writer for ODB Films.

This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, January 2019


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