Why Does the Catholic Church Have So Many Man-Made Rules?

The Church as Mother and Teacher

Cross and Stained Glass
Image by Erik Pronske Photography / Getty Images

"Where in the Bible does it say that [the Sabbath should be moved to Sunday | we can eat pork | abortion is wrong | two men can't get married | I have to confess my sins to a priest | we must go to Mass every Sunday | a woman can't be a priest | I can't eat meat on Fridays during Lent]. Didn't the Catholic Church just make all of this stuff up? That's the problem with the Catholic Church: It's too concerned with man-made rules, and not with what Christ actually taught."

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked such a question, ThoughtCo would no longer have to pay me, because I'd be independently wealthy. Instead, I spend hours every month explaining something that, to earlier generations of Christians (and not just Catholics), would have been self-evident.

Father Knows Best

For many of us who are parents, the answer is still self-evident. When we were teenagers—unless we were already well on the way to sainthood—we chafed sometimes when our parents told us to do something that we thought we shouldn't have to do or that we simply didn't want to do. It only made our frustration worse when we asked "Why?" and the reply came back: "Because I said so." We may even have sworn to our parents that, when we had children, we would never use that answer. And yet, if I took a poll of readers of this site who are parents, I have a feeling that the overwhelming majority would admit that they have found themselves using that line with their children at least once.

Why? Because we know what is best for our children. We may not want to put it that bluntly all of the time, or even some of the time, but that is really what lies at the heart of being a parent. And, yes, when our parents said, "Because I said so," they almost always knew what was best, too, and looking back today—if we have grown up sufficiently—we can admit it.

The Old Men in the Vatican

But what does any of this have to do with "a bunch of celibate old men wearing dresses at the Vatican"? They're not parents; we're not children. What right do they have to tell us what to do?

Such questions start from the assumption that all of these "man-made rules" are clearly arbitrary and then go searching for a reason, which the questioner usually finds in a bunch of joyless old men who want to make life miserable for the rest of us. But until a few generations ago, such an approach would have made little sense to most Christians, and not just Catholics.

The Church: Our Mother and Teacher

Long after the Protestant Reformation tore the Church apart in ways that even the Great Schism between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics had not, Christians understood that the Church (broadly speaking) is both Mother and Teacher. She is more than the sum of the pope and bishops and priests and deacons, and indeed more than the sum of all of us who make her up. She is guided, as Christ said she would be, by the Holy Spirit—not simply for her own good, but for ours.

And so, like any mother, she tells us what to do. And like children, we often wonder why. And too often, those who should know—that is, the priests of our parishes—respond with something like "Because the Church says so." And we, who may no longer be teenagers physically but whose souls may lag a few years (or even decades) behind our bodies, get frustrated and decide that we know better.

And so we may find ourselves saying: If others want to follow these man-made rules, fine; they can do so. As for me and my house, we will serve our own wills.

Listen to Your Mother

What we miss, of course, is what we missed when we were teenagers: Our Mother the Church has reasons for what she does, even if those who should be able to explain those reasons to us do not or even cannot do so. Take, for instance, the Precepts of the Church, which cover a number of things that many people regard as man-made rules: the Sunday Duty; yearly Confession; the Easter Duty; fasting and abstinence; and supporting the Church materially (through gifts of money and/or time). All of the Precepts of the Church are binding under pain of mortal sin, but since they seem so obviously man-made rules, how can that be true?

The answer lies in the purpose of these "man-made rules." Man was made to worship God; it's in our very nature to do so. Christians, from the beginning, have set aside Sunday, the day of Christ's Resurrection and the Holy Spirit's descent upon the Apostles, for that worship. When we substitute our own will for this most basic aspect of our humanity, we don't simply fail to do what we ought; we take a step backward and obscure the image of God in our souls.

The same is true with Confession and the requirement to receive the Eucharist at least once each year, during the Easter season, when the Church celebrates Christ's Resurrection. Sacramental grace is not something that is static; we can't say, "I've got enough now, thank you; I don't need any more." If we're not growing in grace, we're slipping. We're putting our souls at risk.

The Heart of the Matter

In other words, all these "man-made rules that have nothing to do with what Christ taught" actually flow from the heart of Christ's teaching. Christ gave us the Church to teach and to guide us; she does so, in part, by telling us what we have to do in order to keep growing spiritually. And as we grow spiritually, those "man-made rules" begin to make a lot more sense, and we want to follow them even without being told to do so.

When we were young, our parents reminded us constantly to say "please" and "thank you," "yes, sir," and "no, ma'am"; to open doors for others; to let someone else take the last piece of the pie. Over time, such "man-made rules" became second nature, and now we would think ourselves rude to fail to act as our parents taught us. The Precepts of the Church and other "man-made rules" of Catholicism act in the same way: They help us to grow into the kind of men and women that Christ wants us to be.

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ThoughtCo. "Why Does the Catholic Church Have So Many Man-Made Rules?" Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, learnreligions.com/man-made-rules-541510. ThoughtCo. (2023, April 5). Why Does the Catholic Church Have So Many Man-Made Rules? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/man-made-rules-541510 ThoughtCo. "Why Does the Catholic Church Have So Many Man-Made Rules?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/man-made-rules-541510 (accessed June 2, 2023).