“How can you Catholics stand so many rules? The Church is just too rigid.”
OK, not a new criticism. This has been a common charge for centuries, ironically mostly from those outside the Church. It’s not hard to understand the thinking behind this. After all the Church has something called “The Catechism of the Catholic Church“. It’s like the instruction manual for Catholics. The copy on my desk is 800 pages long!
On top of that, there’s “The Code of Canon Law“, another book of almost 1,000 pages. How can anyone possibly live with so many rules and regulations?! Here’s the thing. We live our lives, Catholic or secular, according to a set of guidelines. In the secular world they’re called “laws” and if you ever watch a lawyer show on television you’ll notice that every law office has shelf after shelf of law books. If you play sports, you know that each one has a rule book. Some are simple like soccer which has just twelve laws with most of the important stuff in just one law which covers all the fouls. On the other hand, baseball and American football have very thick rule books.
Most successful businesses operate under a set of rules, maybe written down, maybe not. These are internal rules and regulations plus every business must follow codes and laws that get more complicated every day. Just yesterday Fred DeLuca, founder of Subway restaurants said that if he were to try to start his chain today it would be impossible because of government regulations. Subway, started in 1965 is the second largest restaurant company in the world.
We can’t escape laws and rules in any area of our lives. Even natural laws, for example the law of gravity, restrict our actions. It would be great to be able to fly like the birds, but that silly gravity law keeps us firmly planted on planet Earth.
As far as civil law is concerned, I don’t think I should have to stop at red lights. It slows me down! It’s a restriction of my freedom! But the red light is there for a reason, mostly to keep me from killing myself or someone else in an accident. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to drive in a place that didn’t have traffic laws.
In this remarkable thing we call the Catholic Church, our basic laws were given to us by God and Jesus Himself. “Thou shalt not kill. Thou shall love the Lord God. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” No rational person would dispute these things. Over the centuries, our Church leaders have interpreted the Word of God and expanded on God’s laws making them easier for us to understand and to follow.
Most Catholics don’t own a copy of the Catechism. They should, but they probably don’t. If a Catholic has a question, the Catechism is a handy place to look for the answer. Every paragraph is cross-referenced to the Scripture passage or Church document that supports it.
On the other hand, most people probably shouldn’t have a copy of the Code of Canon Law any more than the average citizen should have an entire book shelf devoted to secular law books. The Code deals with things that most of us don’t need to study in that much detail. I’d say that marriage law is probably the area where Canon Law touches us the most frequently. Marriage regulations are spelled out quite specifically in the Code. For the average person, planning the average wedding, your priest or deacon can tell you everything you need to know. If you’re planning a wedding that’s not so ordinary, what you need to know is in the book.
A relatively common situation is where two people (a man and a woman, remember?) want to get married. They live in two different cities and want to get married in yet another city. There are rules that cover this. Why? Because whoever performs your wedding wants to be sure that the ceremony is valid.
To get back to the original question, “How can you Catholics stand so many rules?”, I think I can give you a practical answer. The so-called rigid structure of the Church actually makes us free. Today is Friday and it’s Lent. When I got out of bed this morning I didn’t have to decide what to do today to offer an adequate sacrifice. The Church tells me, at a minimum, that I shouldn’t eat meat today. I don’t have to figure out what to do. I don’t have to worry that I’m not doing enough. The Church tells me that abstaining from meat for 24 hours is a proper penance. I can do more if I like, but I know that I’ve made the right effort.
On a somewhat higher level, I don’t have to wrestle with my conscience regarding birth control. I know what I’m supposed to do. The same goes for every other sin. I’m free because I don’t have to worry about sinning. Oh, I have to worry about my own sinful tendencies, but I don’t have to decide for myself what’s sinful and what isn’t. I already know, and if I’m not sure, I can turn to the Church for answers.