40 Myths About the Catholic Church–Too many rules

“How can you Catholics stand so many rules?  The Church is just too rigid.”

CatechismOK, 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 anyonecode of canon law 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.

Having a definitive source for the answers to all the important questions of life doesn’t limit me.  It sets me free.

40 Reasons Why It’s Cool to be Catholic #27 Indulgences

Indulgences have been around for a long time, but I suspect that a lot of people, even Catholic people, have a hard time understanding how they work.  So I went to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC1471-1479).  The opening paragraph of the section on indulgences is a paragraph-length sentence that’s clear as mud.  Here’s how it was once explained to me.

Pretend your a child.  You’re playing ball and you break your neighbor’s window.  That’s a sin.  As all good parents do, mom and/or dad tells you to go to the neighbor and tell her you broke the window.  That’s confession.  The neighbor says “That’s ok.  I forgive you.”  That’s reconciliation.  But you still have to pay for the broken window.  The neighbor agrees that you can satisfy the debt by cutting her grass.  That’s an indulgence.

It’s a simple-minded explanation but I think it works.  In our world, we commit a sin, we confess it to the priest, and we’re forgiven.  But there’s still that “stain of sin” on your soul.  That’s what purgatory is for.  You enter purgatory free from sin, but your soul isn’t clean.  After a certain amount of time, your soul is clean enough to enter heaven.  The cleansing process is called “temporal punishment”.  The root of the word temporal means time.  Each sin has a certain amount of time attached to it.  Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending on how you look at it) we have no idea how much time is attached to each sin.  Imagine if you died and went to purgatory and the first person you met was Saint Peter.  That would be very depressing.

One way of cleansing the soul is through good works.  Some people are so virtuous that their good works are far more than they need for their own salvation.  The excess is called the “Church’s treasury.”  These “excess graces” (my term) are stored up for you and me.  Imagine the virtues of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Mother, and all the saints.  Through them there is an infinite store of graces that you and I can share in.  On the other hand, it’s possible for us to obtain indulgences and give them to someone who has died, helping them cleanse their souls.

There are two types of indulgences.  Plenary indulgences wipe out all of your temporal punishment.  Partial indulgences, as the name implies, only wipe out some of your temporal punishment.  Because time is a human concept, we have no idea how much time we spend in purgatory or how much time an indulgence is worth.

Quoting the Catechism (#1478)

An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted by Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due to their sin.

So, where do I buy these indulgences?

In the past indulgences have gotten a bad rap because some unscrupulous clergy use to sell them.  The sale of indulgences was one of the things that got Martin Luther so worked up that he nailed his 95 Theses on the Cathedral door.  You can’t buy an indulgence.  You can earn an indulgence in a lot of different ways.  As I mentioned yesterday, praying the Stations of the Cross is one way.  I’m not going to take the space here to list them all.  The Catholic Encyclopedia has an excellent article on the subject.  But it is worth mentioning that you are probably earning indulgences every day and don’t even know it.  For instance, reading the Bible earns a partial indulgence.  So does making the Sign of the Cross.  Reading this blog might even be worth a few seconds.   Catholic Answers has a good article on myths about indulgences along with a partial list of them.

Here’s the thing.  If you get a chance to earn an indulgence, especially a plenary one, jump on it.

Being able to reduce or even eliminate your time in purgatory with indulgences is super cool.

40 Reasons Why It’s Cool to be Catholic-#37 The Catechism of the Catholic Church

At first blush, the Catechism of the Catholic Church may seem like an imposing book.  First of all, it’s BIG.  The one on my desk is over 800 pages.  Second, the margins are full of strange numbers.  Plus, every paragraph is numbered.  How are we supposed to read a book like that?  Third, there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of footnotes.  But all things considered, the writers have done a remarkable job of covering our very complex faith in an understandable, not-so-hard-to-use book.

Let’s start with those numbered paragraphs and the numbers in the margin.  I’m looking at paragraphs 554-556, The Transfiguration. In the margin alongside these paragraphs are the numbers 697, 2600, 440, 2576, 2583, 257, and 1003.  The numbers refer you to other paragraphs in the Catechism that speak to the same topic.  See, that’s not so hard.

In order to prove that they’re not pulling this stuff out of thin air, the writers use copious footnotes  For instance, this section on the Transfiguration has 14 footnotes.  If you don’t want to take the Catechism’s word for it, you can check out the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Saint Paul’s letter to the Phillipians, the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, or the Byzantine liturgy.

If you want to dig even deeper, you can start looking at those other chapters listed in the margin.  But be careful!  Paragraph 697 references three more chapters and has seven footnotes.  You could spend all day on just this one topic.  If you’re a scholar, or maybe a preacher, all of this information is invaluable.  But if you just want to know what the Church teaches about the Transfiguration, the original sections are probably all you need.

The book is divided into four major sections:  THE PROFESSION OF FAITH, THE CELEBRATION OF THE CHRISTIAN MYSTERY, LIFE IN CHRIST, CHRISTIAN PRAYER.  Take a look at the table of contents.  Each of the main sections are broken down by articles, then by paragraphs, then by subheadings.    Each paragraph concludes with an IN BRIEF section, sort of a Cliff’s Notes summary.

Rather than make this post as long as the Catechism itself, I’ll wrap this up with a look at the “back of the book”.  First is the INDEX OF CITATIONS.  If you want to know what the Catechism says about the Scriptures, look here.  For example, Genesis 1:1-2:4 is treated in number 337.  If you want to learn about Church Councils and Synods, there’s an index for that.  If Pontifical and Ecclesiastical Documents are more your cup of tea, they’re there too.  The list goes on and on.

Last but not least is the INDEX index.  That’s where you can find references by topic.  Wondering what the Church has to say about tobacco abuse, that’s number 2290.  Wondering how to deal with the Lutheran who lives next door?  Try Ecumenism, 820-22.

Here’s the thing.  How great is it to have a single book to answer our faith questions?  Obviously, if you really want to dig deep, you can collect a whole library of books.  The Catechism even gives you a list.  But for 99% of the questions you may have about the Catholic Church, you can find the answer in one volume.  It’s not something you’ll want to curl up with in front of the fire on a snowy night.  (Even though priests and deacons in formation are often called to do just that.)  But for quick answers to your questions, there’s nothing like it.

And another thing…..if you’re away from home and don’t have your Catechism with you, there’s an online searchable version.

How cool is that?