The other day, and not for the first time, I saw someone contrasting 'rule-bound Catholicism' with 'having a personal relationship with Jesus.' The first, clearly, was bad, and the second good.
It is so self-evidently reasonable - and I think profoundly mistaken.
Let us consider the 'personal relationship with Jesus' first. If 'free' from the rules (ie teaching) of the Church, what does that, in fact mean? The risk is that it means a relationship with a Jesus whom we construct to match our own desires. For the 'rules' we reject are, typically, the ones which we don't like. So by editing them out, we can have a tailor-made Jesus whom it is easy to love, because he is our own reflection.
This is not just a theoretical position, either. A Christian friend of mine, on learning that the child she was carrying had a high probability of being born with a disability, prayed a lot and (free of any of those restrictive Catholic rules) decided that God wanted her to abort the child... I do not doubt her sincerity, but I do doubt her God.
'But Jesus,' my interlocutor points out, 'condemned the rule-bound scribes and pharisees of his own day!'
Indeed he did: but what he condemned them for was hypocrisy: for not adhering to the spirit of the rules they were so keen to expound. For the rules themselves, He had a profound respect.
And the reason is that rules are a route to love and to freedom.
Let us consider some of the different types of rule to which we rule-bound Catholics should adhere.
Some rules regulate our behaviour: the rule against pornography, for example, frees me from my baser instincts and allows me the freedom properly to love my wife; it also promotes her dignity and protects the integrity of our marriage, and thus enhances the stability of our children.
Other rules protect us from abuse: the rules governing the liturgy assure us that Mass is valid, for example, and should rein in any excessive tendency of the priest (or liturgy committee) to impose their personal tastes on the Faithful to their detriment.
Other rules help us keep on the straight and narrow: the rule that obliges us to attend Mass regularly, and go to Confession when we have sinned.
And so it goes on: of course we shouldn't need all these rules - but given the reality of the Fall and concupiscence, we clearly do. And their purpose and effect is not, in fact, to restrict us, but to free us from anything that might get in the way of our loving our God and loving our neighbour.
Eventually, if we learn from the rules sufficiently, we may outgrow them, and reach that state where our conscience is perfectly conformed to God's will: then indeed we can love God and do what we will.
But finally, there is another very profound reason to obey the rules of the Church. As Christians we are called to follow Christ. Christ was characterised by obedience to His Father. Without rules, how can we obey? And note that it was Satan's refusal to obey, his Non serviam (I will not serve) that caused his downfall.
It is through following the rules of the Church, then, that we find our true freedom, and in that freedom truly encounter Christ on His terms, so that we can have a true personal relationship with Him, free from the illusions of our own projections and desires.
A Chartres Surplice - a school and God's own county - The first of the final two coats of arms is that of Chavagnes International College, of whose Scouts I am privileged to be chaplain. Fine and brave Scout...
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