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.
Once Catholics realize that there is
a great deal of room for personal judgment, some ride the pendulum to the opposite end of its arc and declare that anything that is not "non-negotiable" is completely open to personal opinion. If a teacher of the Faith, even one who is ordained, makes an unpopular statement about Church teaching, the teacher's statement is labeled as Personal Opinion and dismissed. Even bedrocks of theological orthodoxy, such as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, have seen unpopular statements on controversial issues such as environmentalism waved away as "personal opinion"
by Catholics who otherwise consider themselves to be fully orthodox. What chance do lay apologists who speak on "negotiable" issues have of being taken seriously?
I must start off by acknowledging that the personal opinions of Catholic apologists are not binding in conscience on any Catholic, and conscientious apologists will do their best to distinguish for inquirers between what the Church teaches and what is their personal opinion. A Catholic apologist should also be open to admitting when he is in error, to being willing to accept and consider carefully constructive criticism, and to continue to learn and grow in his own knowledge of the Faith. Much the same can be said of priests and other teachers of the Faith, up to and including the pope. (The pope emeritus acknowledged in Jesus of Nazareth
that everyone was free to disagree with his personal theological conclusions in that book.)
That said, it is also incumbent on those Catholics who are seeking to grow in their own faith to also be open to admitting when they are in error, to being willing to accept and consider carefully constructive criticism, and to continue to learn and grow in their own knowledge of the Faith. To dismiss constructive challenges by informal and formal teachers of the Faith to one's own settled opinions by labeling anything with which one disagrees as "personal opinion" is problematic, especially when one does so because of disagreement over how a Church document should be read. While there is indeed room for legitimate diversity of opinion in how Church documents should be understood, Catholics should be wary of falling into a quasi-Protestant sola scriptura, in which all decide for themselves what to believe and any disagreement over how texts should be interpreted is brushed off as personal opinion.
Catholicism is a religion that places value on learning from people, not just from documents. The level of value placed on the opinion of a fellow Catholic should increase based on that person's fidelity to the Church, his education and spiritual maturity in the faith, and (if applicable) on the reception of the sacrament of holy orders.
Ultimately, rules give shape to a given thing. Every created being, even creation itself, is subject to the rules (whether they be scientific or moral) that shape its being. But, just as Jesus once said of the Sabbath, rules are for man, not man for rules. And since man is called to be in relationship with God and neighbor, one important way man learns the shape and application of rules is through personal relationship with teachers.
Bottom line: Learn the rules from your teachers in the Faith, not merely for the sake of learning rules, but for the sake of strengthening your life in Christ. Then, as surely as the law of gravity had to be mastered before man could learn to fly, the rules of your faith will not be restrictive but will be the principles upon which you will be able to spiritually soar.