Monday, May 6, 2013

What's up with that: Catholic "rules"

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An informal series addressing questions Protestants and Catholics have about each other

In my last post for this series on being a physical and spiritual being, I found myself drifting into territory that probably should have been a separate post.  If you haven't read that post, I recommend doing that now because I see this as a bit of a "part II" with part III still on the way.

In my past defense of Catholicism to other Protestants I have used an explanation based on the simplicity of the human mind and life hundreds or thousands of years ago.  Practices of Catholicism that seem odd or legalistic (like how to give money or requiring fasting) made sense for a simple people who needed someone to tell them how to be a "good Christian" (think Medieval times).  In our highly intellectual age we tend to think that we don't need anyone else to tell us how to be a "good Christian"--we know what we believe and we know how we should behave.  We can say things like, What would Jesus do? or try to act with a Christian conscience, "do the right thing" or "have a good heart", but is that always enough?

All of the Catholic rules that rub Protestants the wrong way are based in the idea that giving strong, clear guidelines will cause Catholics to live correctly.  Children are usually given specific rules for their behavior like no interrupting when adults are talking.  When we give them a general rule like, Be good! it doesn't always work so well...

I think of Catholic rules as guidelines for a "fake it 'til you make it" kind of time in my life.  If you're a Protestant who thinks Catholic rules are too legalistic, just think of it as structure and discipline.  The Church has rules so that Catholics can maintain a certain level of discipline in their faith and not fall away.  The "spiritual but not religious" mindset can sometimes be so reliant on the individual's self-will to stay faithful that there is little fall-back plan for when times are tough.  This is also where the Catholic emphasis on the importance of the church community comes in.  By going to Mass every week and participating in a faith community, there is support for the tough times in our faith.  This is not to say that an individual who has a belief in Jesus Christ's resurrection but lives only with a Bible and no faith community does not believe, but it does seem much more difficult to me.

In the last post, I mentioned the definition of religion from Tyler Blanksi that religion is lived faith.  I think that's what is going on with Catholic religious rules.  Some of these rules are also tied to that same idea that we are both physical and spiritual beings.  Catholics must genuflect and kneel and stand for various reasons and are required to be physically present at church for holy days of obligation instead of just being intellectually faithful and aware that day because the whole body is put into use for God's service.  We were made by God so if God saw good reason to give us a physical body then there is likely good use for it.  Jesus was resurrected in bodily form and that is significant for us.

My brother (a Presbyterian minister) told me not long ago that there was a movement afoot in the Presbyterian church to look to Catholic spiritual practices for inspiration in using the whole body for worship.  He said it was found that many Catholics still feel tied to their faith long after falling away because of the physical expression found in Catholicism; smelling incense, kneeling, touching holy water.  When the body participates, the mind is much more likely to remember.  It's why we teach children songs with motions (something Protestants love!).

As a Protestant you might be thinking that you know Catholics who follow the rules, but you still don't think they have faith as good as yours.  And maybe they don't.  But you'll notice they are still going to Mass every week and that is something.  Even if it seems like Catholics are just going through the motions, it may be only those motions that are holding them within the Church, hopefully long enough to come back to a full faith.  All Catholics will admit that just following the rules will not be enough and that empty, rule-following faith will not cut it when it comes to eternal life, but hopefully it will be a thread onto which they can hold if all else has failed.


  1. Great explanation! Obviously there are even deeper, theological reasons behind everything we do specifically, but I think you've really hit the nail on the head in a succinct way when it comes to understanding the basics of Catholic "rules." I hope your Protestant friends and family read this and gain a sense of understanding because I know this is something a lot of my friends have difficulty wrapping their heads around. I'll keep this post in mind to pass on to my friends for future reference!

    1. Thanks, Stephanie! You're exactly right--there's much more to it than what I presented, but I think it's the right amount for a Protestant understanding. I LOVE to think that you'll share this with friends in the future!


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