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 #34 The Code of Canon Law

“You’re kidding, right?  What could possibly be cool about a huge book of rules and regulations.  Most Catholics have never even seen the book and couldn’t care less what’s in it.

OK.  I know it’s not on everybody’s book shelf but I’m more interested in the contents than in the book itself.  Every Catholic is impacted by the Code  of Canon Law whether they know it or not.  I hate to pick on McDonald’s again, (see Et Cum Spiritu Tuo)but you may recall in an earlier post I pointed out that every single McDonald’s in the world is operated according to a set of rules.  Big Macs come with special sauce.  Quarter Pounders come with catsup, mustard, and pickles.  All of those rules are written down somewhere.  The same goes for the Church.

If you’ve ever had a Catholic wedding, you’ve been affected by the Code.  If you’ve been baptized, if you’ve been confirmed, if you belong to a parish, you’re affected by the Code.  Every single aspect of Catholicism is covered.  Granted it’s hard to read.  Granted it can be confusing.  But that’s why we have canon lawyers.  These men, just like civil lawyers, are trained on what’s in the code and how to interpret it.

Here’s the thing.  The Church is 2,000 years old, the oldest institution on earth.  You don’t last for 20 centuries if everybody’s running around doing their own thing.  We have over a billion members.  Think of the chaos if we were all free agents.

As a deacon, there are some things I can do and many more things I can’t.  For example, I can marry you, but in each case I have to be delegated by the pastor of the church where the wedding takes place.  Even priests have to be delegated if they perform a wedding at a parish other than their own.  Only a pastor, acting in his own church, can perform a valid wedding without delegation from someone.  He’s already received that power from the bishop when he was assigned to his parish.

So, to make myself clear:  The huge book isn’t so cool.  Some canon lawyers are cool, but some aren’t.  Surprisingly, most of the ones I know are very cool.  It’s what the Code does that’s cool.  Where the Catechism of the Catholic Church is the handbook for lay Catholics, the Code of Canon Law is the handbook for the clergy.  When a Catholic girl from Chicago and a Buddhist guy from Houston walk into my church in Saint Louis and announce that they want to be married with the ceremony performed by the bride’s uncle who’s a priest living in Las Vegas and, oh, by the way, the potential groom has been married before, I may not know exactly what to do (other than hide under my desk), but I know where to find out.  It’s in the book.

The Code of Canon law is very cool.

Note:  There’s a searchable online version of the Code if you don’t want to invest the money to get your own copy.