Why Does Catholicism Have So Many Rules?

Why Does Catholicism Have So Many Rules? August 17, 2019

I’m a certified journeyman carpenter with over 15 years of experience in the construction industry. I’ve worked alongside several tradespersons with varying educational and employment experiences – all of who have brought value to the projects at hand. While many workers had their strengths in either book smarts or job site experience, some of the most successful tradespersons I’ve worked with were those who familiarized themselves with the rules of the building codes.

Building codes in the construction industry are necessary for creating not only safe construction practices, but also ensuring the minimum quality standards for building structures. As my trade-school instructor once said, building codes aren’t as much about maintaining high quality as they are about determining how bad you can build without going to jail. As far as carpentry is concerned, you don’t need a journeyman’s certificate to know how to swing a hammer. But in such a competitive and fast-paced industry, shoddy workmanship is often at the expense of structural integrity.

In my experiences as a carpenter, I’ve built so many sets of stairs I could almost do it in my sleep. When it comes to replacing a set of stairs in a home renovation, the most important factors I need to consider are how much vertical headroom I have as well as how steep I can make the steps without compromising the minimum required tread depth and maximum riser height. In many older homes, the current code standards for minimum headroom would not suffice. In order to achieve the desired space needed, sometimes the upper floor frame needs to be cut away or the stairwell opening needs to be dismantled and re-framed. But for someone who doesn’t have the money or leniency in their life, making such a drastic overhaul to their home just for a new set of stairs is not always a reasonable option. Sometimes, people even choose to demolish the entire home and start fresh with a new foundation. If the homeowners do not give consent to the necessary changes required, sometimes we are forced to work with the given framework — with the rules still lingering over our heads.

When it comes to living a religious life, we have an obligation to follow biblical commandments just like carpenters are to follow construction building codes. Christian churches not only derive their teachings from the Bible, but also have a written statement of faith, a catechism as well as a code of canon law in order to summarize Scripture and maintain a standard for Christian living and teaching. But even though there are several rules that these churches adhere to, sometimes there are exceptions. Sometimes we are given certain circumstances in life that limit our abilities to fully comply to these rules. This is not to say that these rules should be completely disregarded, but this is where the Spirit of God’s grace working through the ministers and clergy come in — to meet us where we are at.

The charge often held against more traditional churches is that they seem too rigid and have too many ‘conditions’ to follow with not enough leniency or an emphasis on grace. They are often compared to the Pharisees of Jesus’ time for putting too much emphasis on living righteously by the law and adding more rules on top of preexisting biblical laws.This commonly stems from a misrepresentation of the dialogue between Jesus and the high priests. Jesus had rebuked the Pharisees for their self-righteous attitudes and hypocritical behaviors, but not necessarily about the rules themselves. As Matthew 15:8 (NAB) states,

“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;”

There is an ongoing stereotype that many Catholics have no real knowledge of what their religion actually teaches, which isn’t too far from reality. Similarly, many Protestants don’t realize the historical foundations of why they interpret the Bible the way they do. Many don’t know about the Five Solas and that many denominations in Western Christianity were formed out of the Westminster Confession of Faith. These, like the Catholic Catechism and Canon Law, are also man-made traditions that many modernist Christian churches brush off as irrelevant. Because of this, many churches resort to sticking with a short document called a ‘statement of faith’ to briefly summarize what their theology is without going too much into detail of a code of conduct. While this sounds like the makings of an easy-going church atmosphere, this tactic can lead a congregation to adopt unspoken presumptions upon its members — depending on what the majority opinions are.

As a former Evangelical, I struggled with the ‘once-saved, always-saved‘ mentality that many of my Christian friends withheld, knowing full-well that having a relationship with Jesus does not exempt a person from struggling with sin. I’ve had church-going friends who felt ostracized from their communities because of the damaging assumptions that a person was never truly saved from the beginning for either succumbing to temptation, personal struggles, bad habits or even switching church denominations. It’s a travesty that such a mindset that supposedly has biblical principles has proven to be a destructive ideology that weighs the spiritual worth of another person through fallibly human eyes, and has done a complete disservice to the Body of Christ.

To be fair, the Protestant charge that righteousness should not be completely defined by following strict rules and performing good deeds is completely valid. Christianity really isn’t about earning brownie-points with God by performing good deeds, but about having a relationship with God through grace we don’t even deserve. The Catholic Church shares common ground with the Protestant doctrine of Sola Gratia (Latin for ‘by grace alone’), however both sides differ in views of justification. Most historical Protestants believe in justification by faith alone (Sola Fide) and Catholics believe faith and works must go hand-in-hand (as emphasized in the book of James). I remember as a teenager while attending a Christian summer camp, one of my counselors told me that nobody can fully obey the Ten Commandments – which is true. I know more than once in my life I’ve stolen, lied, coveted, dishonored my parents, replaced God in my life with materialistic idolatry, the list goes on. While this is key in knowing of my shortcomings and my need for a Savior, this gives no reason to completely disregard the very commandments that God established. Admittedly, this led me to a reverse-pharisaical mindset that having faith alone made me a righteous man – and I’ve paid the price for it through many lost friendships because of my lack of consideration for my actions. Considering these, there are two extremes that are inconsistent with what the Bible actually teaches:

  1. The belief that good deeds alone can earn your salvation, and…
  2. The belief that having faith alone is a license to sin.

It’s important to know the difference between what is non-negotiable and what is merely cultural. A cultural example in a Catholic setting would be when someone walks into church and genuflects (bends on one knee) facing the tabernacle before seating themselves in the pews. It isn’t a requirement for every person to genuflect, especially for a visitor who isn’t Catholic. But what it actually represents is a sign of complete adoration for God upon entering His presence. It may appear quite showy to some who are unfamiliar with why Catholics do what they do. And, to be fair, some Catholics can be quite openly harsh when it comes to maintaining all these seemingly pretentious traditions – thus feeding the rigid stereotypes. Sometimes people choose not to genuflect due to feeling uncomfortable or personal pride, or they simply cannot do it because of a physical injury or disability. That being said, it really comes down to personal circumstances and the attitude of the person’s heart — not about the actual rule of genuflection itself.

The important thing to know about catechism and canon law (for both Catholic and Protestant traditions) is that these teachings and rules did not come out of nowhere. Over the course of Christianity’s tumultuous 2000-year history, things needed to be written down. Behind every new law, new offenses were made and new loopholes were addressed. It wasn’t so much written to control their flock, but also for the ministers and clergy to adhere to and cover their butts as well. While we do have the Bible as paramount to our Christian faith, careful thought, prayer and reasonable consideration needs to be made when it comes to learning how to interpret, let alone follow any biblical teachings — even if it turns out to be a man-made observation. If we did not learn from the experiences of the early Church and the turmoil it had endured throughout history, everything regarding how to follow Scripture would become subjective and chaotic. Several councils were held throughout history to prove that the Holy Spirit has been working through the members of the Church to reaffirm doctrine and to continually address the various issues that arose. The more time spent on the development of doctrine as the years went by, the deeper the Church’s understanding of God’s Commandments in Scripture became. Therefore, documenting and establishing a catechism and canon law helps to better address future abuses as they happen.

There will always be abuses and corruption, and there isn’t a single religious denomination in the world that is immune to Original Sin. People will use any negative quality of Christianity as a way to try and discredit the religion as a whole, just as they would do with a government body or a corporation. Crime rates are usually higher in urban areas than in rural communities due to population density. The bigger the religious body, the more likelihood of corruption and abuse and, as always, people will be people. The rules of a game of chess are what create chess problems.

When Jesus was crucified, there were two criminals who were also condemned and left to hang on either side of Him. While the first criminal scowled at Him, the second (the thief) rebuked the other and pleaded,

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:33-43 NAB)

Many people would use this passage as proof that baptism is not a requirement for salvation, or that Purgatory does not exist. Exceptional circumstances may arise throughout life, but this does not mean one unique situation revokes the rules for everyone else to follow. The thief pleaded to Christ in the midst of the state he was in and likely desired baptism, but obviously could not receive it at the time. And yet, Jesus redeemed him on the spot before passing away. Whether or not he passed through purgatory briefly before entering Paradise is not up to us to decide, but the important point is that the thief was willing to receive God’s grace immediately and Christ met him where he was at. Grace trumps piety, always.

While I don’t have enough time to write about every rule or doctrine that exists in a single blog entry, one thing I will say is the majority of people prefer simplicity and are quite often turned off by a plethora of rules. Usually we skim through the ‘terms and conditions’ before accepting an online contract, but do we actually familiarize ourselves with them? It is especially understandable if someone would not want to approach religion with a ten-foot pole if they grew up with overly-zealous family members. Legalism is intimidating and seemingly suffocating for those who feel other people’s religious beliefs are being imposed on them. But like genuflection, following Church teachings is something we do out of our hearts and out of a relationship with God – and every relationship revolves around the idea of consent.

When it comes to loving God by keeping His commandments, we do know two things: God is outside of our perception of time, but anything in this temporal life will always take time and effort. When we ask God to enter our hearts, it certainly doesn’t mean our struggles suddenly disappear right away but makes overcoming them possible. An athlete can call himself an athlete, but if he does not train he does not grow and enduring a marathon would seem nearly impossible. In this post-truth era we live in, we have become so complacent to the convenience of instant gratification that we have forgotten what it’s like to endure a process of change. Whether it’s dealing with personal bad habits or whatever other junk life throws at us, the last thing we ever want to do is work out our salvation with fear and trembling. This does not mean salvation is something earned through an accumulation of good deeds or followed rules, but they are there to humble us and direct us to allow the Spirit of Christ to transform us from inside.

If God were the carpenter who builds me a new set of stairs that satisfies the building code, it’s up to me to give Him consent to make the necessary changes in my house to make it fit.

And with Him, nothing is impossible.

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