This week here in Rome we have been attending a series of conferences celebrating the fiftieth and twenty-fifth anniversaries of the Papal Encyclicals Humanae Vitae and Veritatis Splendor respectively. This has led me to reflect a little bit on the way that we typically respond to the moral teachings of the Catholic Church and of Christianity in general.
It can often seem that the Catholic Church has taken the message of Jesus Christ and made it way to complicated. I mean, wasn’t Jesus constantly at war with the religious authorities of His day because of their multiplication of the religious and moral norms that people needed to follow? Are we simply falling into the same errors as the pharisees yet again?
I think the answer to this question requires us to ask something deeper about the rules themselves, but I promise I will answer this question at the end of our discussion once we have discussed the rules themselves.
Since the beginning of human kind God has wanted one thing… OUR HAPPINESS. And when he created us as human beings he made us perfect and good. But he made us so perfect that he made us free like Himself. And being free we were able to decide to go against reason and against our own happiness by choosing things that would make us happy in the short term, but sad in the long term. And that is exactly what we did. Over and over and over.
And so God has had to try over and over throughout history to remind us of who we are and what can truly bring us the fulfillment we are each seeking.
Should God have had to tell us to love our parents (4th commandment). Well no… that should have been obvious.
Should God have had to tell us not to kill each other (5th commandment). Well, no… that too should have been obvious.
Should God have had to tell us not to destroy the reputation of others (8th commandment). No… that too should have been obvious.
Should God have had to tell us not to kill our own children (5th commandment). Or not to take another person’s stuff (7th commandment). Or to not sleep with someone else’s wife (6th commandment). Or not to objectify other people through pornography (9th commandment).
All of this should have been obvious! Yet, we did all of this. The people of the ancient world did it. The people of Jesus’s time did it. The people of the middle ages did it. The people of the contemporary and modern periods did it. The men and women of our day do it. And we too do these things in our own lives.
Nobody of us is immune. We all forget what is for our own deepest happiness. We all forget what can truly fill us in the way we long for. We all look for happiness in all the wrong places. It is part of being free human beings who mess up.
But God as a loving Father suffers as He watches us constantly hurting ourselves and making decisions that will not bring us the happiness that we are constantly seeking.
Let’s look at it from a parental perspective… imagine your own daughter. What would you do to protect her? If she tried to stick a butter knife in an electrical outlet would you tell her not to do that? Would you sit her down and tell her that it is dangerous? I imagine you would. If she tried to put her hand on the stove I imagine you would stop her again and tell her why it is not good to do that. Or if she tried to drink the laundry detergent you would tell her it is bad for her health.
Well… that is what the moral commandments of God are. They are our father pulling us aside and telling us not to do something that is going to hurt us. It is not a law imposed on us; just like the rule we give kids about not running out in front of speeding cars is not a law. It is just a way to help them understand what is for their own safety. Like children, in the heat of the moment, we forget what is for our good and so we too need to be reminded.
At this point you might say: “Ryan, I get how what you are saying applies to the commandments of God. But what about all the other rules in your Catholic Church? There are so many… what do they have to do with my happiness?”.
If you are thinking this I want to congratulate you. You are not just listening to this passively, but going deeper and asking yourself the questions about your life that matter and can lead you to your deepest happiness. Don’t stop. Keep questioning, keep looking at the world and at your own life with this deeper perspective.
But back to your great question…
What about the rule of having to go to church, or having to pray, or having to go to confession, or about going to bible school, or all that kind of stuff? Good questions, because there is actually a difference here.
Do you say good morning to your parents or to your significant other each morning? Do you call your boyfriend to see how he is doing and tell him about your day? Do you try to spend time with your wife? Do you try to talk regularly to and visit your parents? Do you try to spend time with your friends?
Well… that is what prayer, going to church, receiving the sacraments, etc really boils down to.
God is our Father and our Best Friend. The churches “rules” regarding our spiritual life are not rules, but reminders about how to have a true friendship with our Father and best friend. If we do not talk to our best friend regularly, if we do not seek to know him or her and to make ourselves known how can we even say they are our friend? If we do not talk to our parents how can we claim to really love them and care about them.
Going to church is like going to visit your parents for dinner, saying a little prayer in the morning is like texting your best friend to check in with them, reading the Bible or going to a class on religion is like getting to know the girl or guy you are attracted to. They are not rules. They are the basics of relationship building that we forget to do in our relationship to God.
But you might still have another question…
What about the church’s teaching on things like abortion, contraception, sex, LGBT+, etc.
Once again, the same outlook applies. These are also not rules, laws, norms, or anything else invented to control us, limit us, steal our freedom, etc. No. These are also part of the same set of reminders of what is for our own good and our ultimate happiness.
Our sexuality is something sacred and in our culture today it is so badly misunderstood. As if our bodies were mere objects to be used like the chair you are sitting in now or the phone you have in your hand. NO! Our bodies are so much more than that. Has the Church made many terrible mistakes in this area and made something so beautiful and sacred seem dirty and sinful? YES. Has she failed in this way for hundreds of years? YES. But Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II finally returned sexuality to its rightful place in the Church and in each of our lives.
In Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” and “Love and Responsibility” we are reminded that our body and our sexuality is GOOD and HOLY. And that by both of them we can come to experience a foretaste of the union that we will one day experience in heaven. But it can also be a foretaste of what hell will be like. When we use our sexuality to truly love another it is a foretaste of the union of soul, will, and mind that we will one day have in heaven. But when we misuse it to use others or even use ourselves it becomes a foretaste of the insatisfaction and fear that is hell.
Author’s Note: For a very insightful look at the goodness and holiness of our bodies and our sexuality please check out the following trilogy of posts by a great friend of mine over at “Songs of Joy”:
I think she really summed up the deep truths of this essential part of our lives very well. Please give it a read.
But, back to our discussion…
Yet again, in the field of our sexuality we are not dealing with a set of limiting rules, but empowering reminders of what we are made for and what deep down we are each ultimately seeking in our lives (even when we cannot put it in these words).
So, to go back to the initial question of this blog post… has the Catholic Church simply fallen into the same rule multiplying legalism of the pharisees and forgotten the original message of Jesus Christ?
I think an honest answer is both YES and NO.
Jesus was constantly on the pharisees case because they took human practices (like hand washing or how far to walk on holy days) and elevated them to the level of divine mandates, ultimately making them more important than the much shorter and truly Divine set of commandments given to Moses by God that we talked about above.
Has the Church fallen into the same behavior many times as well? Yes and no. Allow me to explain…
Yes: There have been many times when she taught us to blindly follow norms without teaching us why and when she has put formalities above the deeper message of love that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We all know people who are considered exemplary Catholics because they go to daily mass, but then treat the people around them like trash. We have all met priests who put more importance on legalistic following of the “rules” than on the reason the “rule” exists to start out with. In these moments we have become like the pharisees and have betrayed the message of the Gospel.
No: Keeping in mind what we have said about the Church’s rules not really being rules at all we can see that just as we tell our kids that running out in front of speeding cars, sticking butter knives in electrical outlets, or drinking laundry detergent is bad for them and that they should not do it, so too God as a loving parent reminds us over and over through His Church and the Bible of that which is for our own ultimate health and happiness. So, no. She is not multiplying rules, in fact they are not really even rules. They are simply a reminder of how to be the best version of ourselves, how to attain the fullness of happiness that we each aspire to.
Now, what about you? How do you live these “rules”? Do you look at them as limitations on your freedom? Or as a checklist to fulfill to keep the Divine Judge happy?
What if there is another way to look at “the rules”? What if they are not even “rules”, but rather a guide book to how to achieve the happiness you are ultimately hungering for? Think about it…