In truth, there are not that many rules at all in the Church, when we consider that we are a society of over a billion members globally, with a history spanning several thousand years (if we include our pre-Christian biblical roots and traditions).

In a sense, the question is like asking why a car’s GPS system keeps telling the driver when to turn right or left: Is it providing guidance or giving a rule?

Pope John Paul II reminded us when he promulgated the Church’s current Code of Canon Law in 1983 that the Old and New Testaments form the first source of law for the Church. Turning first to the Bible, then, let’s consider what St. Paul taught about living the message of Jesus.

In the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul takes the first 11 chapters to present a well-developed theology of grace and redemption, culminating in the gift of salvation that is ours in Christ Jesus, through the mercy of our heavenly Father. Then, Paul presents a challenge: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2). The challenge is to allow our faith to change our behavior: since God has done so much for us, we should respond by conforming our behaviors to the higher standard of God’s grace.

Mercy and Grace

If we understand the depths of God’s mercy and grace, we cannot but be compelled to examine our behaviors in response. In other words, we can’t go on living as unbelievers. However, this change in our external behavior arises from within, a grateful response to all that God has done and continues to do for us. It is a change motivated by loving God and understanding His loving will for our lives. It is not a change mandated by law, but by love.

This was also the message of Pope John Paul in giving us the current Code of Canon Law. “The Code is in no way intended as a substitute for faith, grace, charisms and especially charity in the life of the Church and of the faithful,” he said.

Jesus commissioned the Church to go into the world and teach, not to legislate. For all of the Christian centuries, that is what the Church has done. The teaching of the Church, flowing from Divine Revelation in the Bible and through the Holy Spirit in the tradition of the Church, leads to the development of doctrine and dogma.

At the same time, as the Church has grown and encountered new questions, it has dealt with questions of Church organization and discipline. This led to the development of law in the Church. We call this canon law, from the Greek word for a measuring rod. Canon law is always a servant of theology, however, and as the final canon of the Code of Canon Law reminds us, the salvation of souls is the supreme law of the Church.

Doctrine and Law

There is a difference between doctrine and law. They call for two different responses. In the end, though, they should both have an influence on how we live our lives.

Doctrine, or Church teaching, helps us understand the meaning of the Gospel and the action of God in our daily lives. Doctrine may be purely theological — that is, focused on the mysteries of God such as the Divine Trinity, or the nature of Christ (Christology), or Divine Revelation. Doctrine may also deal with the practical application of the Gospel to daily life, as in moral theology, or the social doctrine of the Church. It may deal with the nexus between God and humanity, as in sacramental theology, or divine worship, or the nature of the Church (ecclesiology).

The Church asks us as Catholics, first of all, to understand doctrine. We’re asked to inform our minds by reading the doctrinal statements of the magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church. Only then, after we have read and understood the teaching, does the Church next ask us to assent to the teaching intellectually. This is the basis of a properly formed conscience: knowing, understanding and assenting with our minds to the teaching of the Church. Next follows the impact of that teaching in our lives — namely, putting it into practice.

A Catholic employer who understands and assents to the long history of Catholic social doctrine would want to respect the dignity of workers and provide a decent salary and working conditions. However, there is no “rule” that specifies exactly how to do this. Canon 222.2 says, generally, that the Christian faithful are “obliged to promote social justice,” and Canon 1286 obliges many Church employers “to pay a just and honest wage,” but these general provisions flow from the broader history of social teaching.

Similarly, a lengthy history of doctrine on responsible human sexuality and the gift of life asks Catholics to understand and give assent to the fact that artificial contraception is incompatible with Christian morality. This doctrine is repeated in many teachings of the Church, but scour the Church’s legislative texts and one discovers that there is no law which explicitly proscribes artificial birth control (except for the result of abortifacients). The clarity and persuasiveness of the doctrine should lead us to understand the teaching and to choose to put it into practice in our lives, in an evolution from mind to conscience to action. Immoral does not mean illegal since the role of law in the Church is very narrow compared to the broader roles of doctrine and conscience.

Law is different. Law does not ask that we first understand it and then give assent to it. Law asks instead that we obey first and then look for the values and teachings behind the law. The Ten Commandments, for instance, are law, not doctrine. However, it helps us as Christians to try to understand why avoiding these 10 behaviors is important to God. What is the history behind these commandments? What is their context in the Bible? That kind of questioning is also helpful in understanding some of the disciplinary norms and practices of the Church. Why are these behaviors so important to my spiritual or religious growth that they are mandatory?

Jesus himself did not avoid giving His disciples guidance on how to live their lives, whether dealing with paying taxes or forgiving others. But Jesus put law in its proper context for His followers: “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love” (Jn 15:10).

The Church is not free to ignore the teaching of Jesus in the Bible, and certainly not free to ignore the rules that He gives us. His teaching on divorce and remarriage often causes people to express concern about the “rules” of the Church: “But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Mt 5:32). However, this is a rule of Jesus and cannot be ignored.

Doctrine exists to help guide our understanding of God, the Church and the life of grace. Both doctrine and law are given to us by the Church not as roadblocks or hindrances in our life, but as helps to us in our spiritual journey. They are actions to do (the obligation of Sunday Mass) or things to avoid (desecration of the Holy Eucharist) so that we can arrive more easily at our spiritual end — namely, the salvation of our souls.

If I ignore my car’s GPS direction to turn right at the next corner, it takes a moment to recalculate how I can get back on track. Depending on the route, I might have to make a detour or U-turn. In the same way, if I ignore a rule of the Church I can recalculate how to get back on track in my religious or spiritual journey, and if need be go to confession when I’ve sinned.

It is important when we encounter a “rule” in the Church to ask first if it is really a rule at all. Perhaps it is instead a practical application of a moral or theological doctrine. Either way, we ought to try and understand the teaching and reasons for it before questioning a “rule” of the Church.

The Issue of Penalties

There is another important point to keep in mind when we consider law in the Church. Very few rules carry a penalty. Only those few actions that injure the life of the Church or seriously imperil the soul of the offender carry a penalty. For instance, a completed abortion carries the penalty of excommunication from the Church. A priest’s direct violations of the seal of confession or the sexual abuse of minors are other examples of acts requiring severe penalties. You can see that these rules exist to protect the most important values of the Church.

Most Church “rules” don’t impose a penalty for violating them. For example, it is a spiritual and penitential practice to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent. If I were to eat a hot dog on one of those days I would not be excommunicated or otherwise punished by the Church. I may have violated a rule, but the rule exists to help guide me spiritually in understanding that I can depend on God’s goodness and providence while denying myself something of this world. The sin in eating meat is not about ignoring the rule as much as ignoring the opportunity to grow in my dependence on God.

Some Catholics question why there are so many “rules” in the Church. When asked to identify a problematic rule, it is often not a “rule” at all but a matter of teaching or doctrine that is at issue.

Msgr. William King is a priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa.