One of the common complaints about the Catholic Church, which can be heard from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, is that the Church is chockablock with rules, rules, rules. To hear them tell it, a Catholic dare not let out a wayward squeak for fear of the Ruler of Doom being cracked across his knuckles by Sister Mary Ferocious of the Divine Wrath.
Actually, although it may not appear so, the Church is remarkably quiet on a great many issues that face people in daily life. The Church sets out the parameters in such documents as the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Code of Canon Law (not to mention Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition) and then leaves it to individuals to apply what they know about the Faith to the situations they face.
Oftentimes, people want to know, “What does the Church say about this?” or “Does the Church forbid me to do that?”—and are disappointed that there is no “official document” allowing or proscribing certain actions, only general guidelines that they must use their best judgment to apply to the action in question. The apologists here at Catholic Answers seek to provide people with the documentation they need to consider, and to help in applying the principles to given situations, but the final decision is left to them. We can only aid discernment and help to inform consciences; we cannot be anyone’s conscience.
Think of how mathematics is taught: The teacher explains the principles of arithmetic, demonstrates some problems on the blackboard, then assigns homework for the students to practice the principles. Analogously, the Church lays out the principles of faith and morals; Catholic Answers, among other Catholic apostolates that provide similar outreaches (e.g., EWTN), demonstrates how to apply those principles to some of the problems our supporters ask us about; it is now up to you to use the knowledge you gain from Church documentation and the examples demonstrated for you by our apostolate to solve the problems you and your family face in your everyday life.
But why should there be any rules at all? As someone considering conversion to Catholicism once said to me:
Should I ever make the move to Catholicism, I would hate for my perception of God to recede from a God who created me and continually directs my footsteps to a God who stands behind a gray wall of do’s and don’ts. Even if I were to maintain a “personal relationship” with God (I know, that’s a Protestant term that is sometimes ridiculed by Catholics), I would be concerned that my children would view the Church as a mountain of rules and eventually fade into apostasy.
Some Catholics may believe that the idea of a personal relationship with God is a Protestant invention that they should spurn. Those Catholics would be in ignorance of the many saints who stressed the necessity of knowing God personally. One example is St. Therese of Lisieux, a nineteenth-century Carmelite nun whose book Story of a Soul demonstrates that this was a young woman who was passionately in love with God. Even during the dark night of her soul, when she was tempted to unbelief, she clung to God and continued to offer herself as an oblation to God’s merciful love.The “rules and regulations” of Catholicism no more stifle an individual’s personal relationship with God than the “rules and regulations” of a car’s owner’s manual stifle a driver’s personal freedom to drive his car. In fact, just as knowing the owner’s manual can help a driver keep his car in top condition and thereby free him from worry about breakdowns, knowing “the rules of the road” in Catholicism can free a Catholic from worry about spiritual “breakdowns” so that he can more fully participate in his personal relationship with God.