Why do Catholics Have So Many Rules? *
Catholics are sometimes asked, "If Christian faith is all about having a personal relationship with God, why does the Church have so many rules and regulations?" The contrast between rules and relationship seems clear in two biblical books often placed side by side: the Song of Songs and the Book of Sirach. The former poetically celebrates the love between God and his people (see also: Why Do Catholics Have Seven Sacraments?). The latter provides primarily a collection of rules for living--even going so far as to offer guidelines for table etiquette (see Sir 31:12-31)!
Are these two books in fundamental contradiction, then? Which of them more accurately describes "religion that is pure and undefiled before God" (Jas 1:27)? Is it "relationship," or is it "rules"?
The dilemma is solved when we recall our Lord's words: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (Jn 14:15). A genuinely loving personal relationship with God must be more than devout feelings. We express our love for him by obedience to the "rules and regulations" he has given us for living.
This truth should not surprise us. Even in human relationships, following certain rules demonstrates the genuineness of our love. In marriage, for example, spouses express their love in part by obeying the divine commandments against adultery, lying, and coveting another person's spouse (see Ex 20:14, 16-17).
The gospel sums up the intent of God's commands in a brief statement: "Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself" (Lk 10:27). Simple enough--or so it seems. But we must unpack the meaning of those few words in order to apply them to all the various situations in which we find ourselves from day to day. To help, God has graciously given us Sirach and many other biblical books with the rich insights of their particular guidelines and ordinances. The Catholic Church makes use of these in formulating her precepts.
Certainly Christian faith is much more than a collection of "rules and regulations." A personal relationship with our Lord is essential. But the relationship doesn't dispense with the rules. Rather, the rules help to define the relationship, and our obedience to them is the clearest indicator of our love for God.
Other related scriptures: Dt 6:4-9; Ps 119; Wis 6:17-19; Jn 14:15-24; 15:10; 1 Jn 5:3; 2 Jn 6.
Catechism of the Catholic Church: 577-582; 1776-1802; 1949-1986; 2030-2051; 2052-2557; 2614.
*Quoted from The New Catholic Answer Bible. Wichita, Kansas, Fireside Catholic Publishing, 2005. www.firesidecatholic.com
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