Easily one of the most frequent objections to Catholicism that I hear is that it’s a miserable religion made up of equally miserable rules.
(And miserable people!)
It’s the stuff of the Pharisees.
The stuff that Jesus railed against.
It’s all about following the rules.
I hear this objection most often from those I meet that were raised Catholic but, for whatever reason, left the faith.
There are a lot of those kinds of people, so I hear the objection a lot.
But the notion that Catholicism is a religion of rules is patently untrue.
And to equate Catholicism with the Pharisees of the New Testament is to deeply misunderstand Jesus’s interactions with the Jewish religious leaders of his time.
Catholicism has rules, certainly, like every single religion, discipline, or program that promises any sort of life-changing dimension to it. But these rules aren’t to be blindly or mindlessly followed, they aren’t the end itself, and they aren’t intended to exalt anybody in the eyes of anybody else.
The rules are a means to an end and, if anything, the rules are meant to humble.
And utterly transform.
And, yes, I recognize that many were taught by poorly formed priests. Many former and current Catholics had a horrible experience in religious education; a stifling upbringing by over-zealous parents; and many have experienced a complete lack of actual relationship within their religion.
And, so, what I want to say is this: What you’ve most likely heard about Catholicism and all its rules is completely untrue.
Please allow me to explain it a better way.
Rules for a Reason
Recognize, first, that the rules are in place for a reason.
Certainly, the Catholic Church is seen from the outside as a religion with rules but this kind of perspective belays a fundamental misunderstanding of what religion serves to do, and what rules are for.
Before lamenting the Sunday Obligation, the Church’s stance on birth control, and its categorized list of sins and vices, understand that these rules are in place to make us into saints.
Let me say that again, slowly: The rules of the Church are laid out to help make us into saints.
Fundamentally, this is the purpose of the Church.
To make us into saints.
What the Church teaches about certain aspects of how to live are, then, merely signposts to help guide us on what Jesus himself called the “straight and narrow.”
The rules of the Church are guidelines for how to live.
Now I know—I know!—that so many Catholics have never understood their Church in this way ever before. Surprisingly, for a lot of Catholics I’ve met, and continue to meet, this is a mind-blowing presentation of the Church’s teachings.
But it’s true.
I’ve met so many Evangelicals who were raised Catholic who felt drawn towards the Evangelical faith because of its straight-forward presentation of faith as a relationship with Jesus. Shockingly, this is the same message of the Catholic Church—and it always has been. Unfortunately, poor teaching and evangelization has resulted in an entire generation who didn’t get that particular memo.
A generation that was taught to follow the rules and nothing more.
But the rules aren’t the end themselves; they’re a means. A means to a better relationship with Jesus. A means to living more harmoniously within the Church and with each other. And, ultimately, a means to becoming a saint.
Do The Rules Make Us Holier Than Thou?
When Jesus, in his public ministry, encountered and clashed with the religious leaders of his day his message was not that their rules were necessarily inappropriate or out of line but that they weren’t following them for the right reasons.
The Pharasees sought to exhalt themselves in the eyes of their peers by how well they followed their own rules. They set up these rules as a burden for others so that they themselves would look better—that they would look holier than thou.
Jesus tore a strip off these leaders because of their pride and because of how they used the rules.
The Catholic Church has clear and concise teachings on many subjects, it classifies and categories a variety of vices and sins, and it constantly clashes with the secular values of the world because it sees the value of setting up guideposts for its followers.
Not so that we can point to all the wonderful things we’re doing—like the Pharasees—and boast of our own abilities. But so that we’re, shockingly, humbled by just how difficult it is to accomplish anything without grace.
Without Jesus Christ.
And without that relationship.
The so-called rules are there to help us to rely on Christ, to humble ourselves to the fact that we can’t do it alone, and to make us into saints.
The Sunday Obligation is Good Medicine
I have a brilliant non-Catholic friend who provided me with one of the most succinct explanation’s of one of Catholicism’s rules that I’ve encountered.
The Sunday Obligation, one of the Church’s rules, says that all Catholics must be at Mass on Sunday (or Saturday evening) unless they’re travelling, sick, or taking care of children.
At first blush, as an Evangelical, the idea that I had to be at church every week seemed a bit much.
Sure, as a serious disciple of Christ, I often was. In fact, it was only in the most rarest of occasions that I, as an Evangelical, wound up missing church. I went but I was never obliged to—although sometimes I didn’t really feel like going. Anyway, I went.
But the Catholic Church goes a step further: I have to go.
The rule seems awfully stern but consider, my friend said, how Pope Francis describes the Church: as a field hospital.
Imagine, then, going to the hospital for an illness, hearing the doctor’s diagnosis, and then refusing to take the medication.
This is the Sunday Obligation: the Church’s version of medicine to make us better—to make us into saints.
To keep us in the bosom of Christ, our savior.
Guideposts on How to Live More Holy
So, sure, the Catholic Church has rules but these are rules intended to help us grow closer to Christ and maintain that holy relationship. The rules aren’t the end themselves but point us to a particular goal: sainthood. And, sure, there are Catholics out there following the rules for all the wrong reasons; there are priests and laypeople out there teaching these reasons, too.
But understand this, that the Church is a saint-making machine and its rules are guideposts on how to live a more holy life. Ultimately, how to rely more and more not on ourselves but on Him who makes us holy.
And that sounds pretty good to me.
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