It is my understanding that in popular Protestant thought, faith is good while religion is bad. There is currently a song on Christian radio that starts out with these words:
If it was all about religion
What to do, what to say
What to wear on a Sunday
All about perfection
Black and white, wrong or right, never grey
Well, I’d never make it
I’d never be good enough
Unfortunately, “religion” has often become synonymous with “rules.” And because Catholics have so many rules, it seems to a lot of people think that Catholicism is a bad religion. We find that sometimes even Catholics going through marriage prep think that! “No contraception. No sex before marriage. No abortion. Go to Church every Sunday. And every Holy Day! And go to Confession at least once a year!” There are rules on how to receive Communion and when to sit and stand and how you can be buried. Rules, rules, rules!
But if it’s all rules and no relationship, then your religion has gone bad. The rules are there to help us live our faith out. What I want to show you is that Catholicism can be so, so good when lived the way it was meant to be – an expression of that relationship with God.
Sometimes we get prideful or we are not biblical or historical scholars. And so we need to rely on thousands of years of Church practice, thought, worship (and of course the guidance of the Holy Spirit) to help us express our faith fully.
In the song lyrics above, it mentions what to wear on Sunday. Now, let’s imagine that Mass is not an obligation but a date. Would you want to roll out of bed to go on a date? Would you not brush your hair and wear your pajamas? Or would you want to make a good impression by dressing your finest and at the very least brushing your hair? Well, when we dress to impress, it reminds of how important the person on the other side of that table is. In this case, it’s God. And how important is He! Dressing nice for Church is a helpful way to keep the Mass sacred and set apart from how we dress on other occasions.
Now, say you had a date with the love of your life every week. Every Sunday, you go out to coffee, talk, and then maybe go do something fun together. It’s something you should look forward to, but even if you don’t, you should still go anyway because that person is important to you. But if you started cancelling because there was something better to do, or someone better to see, wouldn’t that hurt the love of your life? What about Holy Days of Obligations? Would you want to miss birthdays and anniversaries of the one you love? Or, would you want to take every advantage of an occasion to celebrate?
The Church knows that we are in a spiritual battle and that we get distracted, or we lose faith in the real presence of the Eucharist. So she helps us make it to Mass each week- even when we don’t feel like it- by making it an obligation. Saying that something is more important than God is idolatry, and a sin against the first commandment. It’s the Church’s job to make sure we don’t hurt our relationship with Christ and sin because we made sleeping in or a sports event more important than Mass. Mass is our date with Christ.
And with every other rule in the Church, it’s necessary to see the rules are there to protect us and preserve our relationship with God. I don’t often ever see people protesting stoplights because they are oppressive. On the contrary, stoplights exist so you can move about town freely without worrying about crashing. When someone disobeys the signs, that’s when bad things happen. We obey the Church’s rules because we want to be free to love and to grow in our relationship with God!
For example, God created our bodies and he created sex, and these things are very, very good. Our bodies joined in marriage free us to love our spouse the way Adam and Eve loved each other in the garden before sin. But contraception interferes with the ability to love in the perfect total way, and when we understand why, it makes sense. So the more we not only learn about Church teaching, but talk to God and pray, the less we want to break the rules! Not because we are brainwashed, but because we love God and don’t want to hurt him!
Sometimes, though, we do mess up big and hurt God. Sometimes we mean to, sometimes we don’t, but it happens. We fail – we are human. That’s why we have Confession: to tell God we are sorry and to receive the grace of forgiveness that comes with hearing the words “Your sins are forgiven.” There are rules for Confession, too! We should want to make a good confession, though, and because of those rules we know what to expect and can rest assured that grace is flowing through the Sacrament because that priest is the minister of that grace. Who doesn’t want to hear those words and know they are forgiven? We can have the sound of the words wash our guilt away and know that forgiveness is real.
If it was all about being perfect, I wouldn’t make it either. None of us are perfect, and I’m sorry if people have made you think that. But if the rules help me to love God better, then I’m all in.
“The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul… rejoicing the heart.” Psalm 19:7-8