Can Religious Laws Produce Obedience?
Many Who Are Church Members Resist Church Authority
WHAT about religious law? Can a church or a religious sect command loyalty to its precepts on the claim that the church represents God? Can it make laws that will instill implicit obedience in its adherents?
Churches Having Problems
An example can be found in the Roman Catholic Church. The centuries-old authority it has exercised is no longer tacitly accepted. This authority, formerly regarded as almost absolute, is being challenged by a large section of the Catholic laity, as well as by a considerable number of priests. Not that the majority are withdrawing from the church. But, particularly on the subjects of birth control, divorce, remarriage, homosexuality, ordination of women to the priesthood and marriage of priests, there is a great diversity of opinion. However, the criticism of church rules does not seem to be causing a proportionate rejection of the church itself.
The results of a Gallup survey released in 1978 noted that “those members with college degrees [in the United States] are increasingly likely to reject church teachings on such issues as abortion but are less inclined than in the past to abandon Catholicism as a result.”* Among the less educated the trend seems to be about the same, though reasons for staying with the church differ.
Tangible results of the questioning of church teachings have shown up in the Catholic province of Quebec, Canada. There, divorce increased from about 9 percent in 1960 to more than 23 percent in the early 1970’s. According to an Associated Press report of November 1977, “even Margaret Trudeau’s much publicized separation from her French Quebec husband, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, has failed to draw moral indignation on any major scale from provincial residents, once strong defenders of Catholic life in North America.”
Commenting on an age-old doctrine of the church, the report continued: “Church officials say the average number of children in Catholic Quebec families has dropped from five or six to fewer than three through increasingly popular forms of birth control and the general decline in interest in Catholic doctrine and traditions.”
Other churches likewise find that their church laws are to a greater or lesser extent being seriously questioned, ignored or even flouted. Mr. Charles L. Dubin of the Ontario Court of Appeal commented: “All our institutions, the church, the law and the courts are being challenged. There is a demand for change.” Concerning the rapid social changes that have affected attitudes toward law, he said: “I have never regarded the law as a plaything for the bench and the bar. Its sole purpose is to serve the public, the law is everybody’s business. But it must be remembered that the law is a reflection of the spirit of the people whom it is designed to protect.” He further said that “those concerned with the administration of justice in Canada share a unanimity of purpose but not unanimity of opinion as to how to achieve the ultimate object—elimination of crime.”
Non-Christian Religions Also Affected
What about non-Christian religions? Do they fare better in the lands where such religions have been traditionally strong and the primary factor in moral life? In India under Hindu law, punishments some years ago were quite severe, except for those of the Brahmin caste, who suffered much lighter penalties than those of the lower castes. But under British influence this was changed, though the sense of the masses is still clouded by matters of religion, caste, sex, affluence and expediency. There is difficulty in getting the people in general to cooperate with the law-enforcing machinery.
Another religion that has had a powerful control over millions of people is the Moslem or Islamic religion. In fact, it had much influence in India prior to British domination there. It still is the primary source of law and government in a great section of the Arab world. What about the law of Islam as a crime-stopping force?
New York Times, January 29, 1979, p. D8.