The most common complaint I hear about the Catholic Church is that it has too many rules. As a former Catholic schoolboy turned college and adult atheist, I once held this belief.
As my faith has grown, and as I’ve grown in my ability to live by the authentic teachings of the Church, even as a wretched sinner who all too often fails, I’ve found that the opposite is true.
The Church actually has very few rules, and what rules it does have are based on the two greatest commandments Our Lord gave us:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke: 10:27).
Follow these two commandments, and everything else the Church asks of you falls into place. Following them means you love God and neighbor. Breaking them means you love yourself, even if you deceive yourself into believing you love God and others.
Each of the vices we give in to actually is the result of breaking one of these commandments. Each is the result of self-love. We must, of course, love ourselves as our neighbor, but never at the expense of God and neighbor.
All of the Church’s rules are built on the foundation of Our Lord’s two commandments.
Every time you miss Mass, or Divine Liturgy as we call it in the Eastern churches, without a good reason – and by this I mean, for instance, that you’re extremely ill or stranded on a desert island – you put yourself above God, impeding your love for your neighbor.
Any time you cheat, steal, lie, or eat or drink to excess you put yourself above God and neighbor.
You may believe you’re helping your neighbor by using contraceptives, but instead you’re putting yourself above God, harming yourself, possibly physically, and your neighbor. The same is true of abortion.
“If anyone could see his own vices accurately, without the veil of self-love, he would worry about nothing else in this life” (Step 10:10).
He is necessarily blunt: Self-love blinds us to sin and prevents us from truly knowing the will of God, and so truly knowing ourselves. Such a person is blind to love.
The book we use for Divine Liturgy at the mission where I serve includes St. John Climacus’s maxim in a section to help us examine our consciences.
Along with St. John Climacus’s maxim on self-love, the book also includes lists of the virtues and vices, how we participate in the sins of others and what it means to do good deeds – or how we bring our faith to the world.
Some might consider these lists as just another instance of the Church burdening us with rules; instead, following them frees us to express our love for God and neighbor in daily life more fully.
Out of the short list of what are called the three companions – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – grow two that total fourteen.
Similar to how the Ten Commandments are contained in Our Lord’s two commandments, the Spiritual Works of Mercy and Corporeal Works of Mercy grow out of almsgiving and are made possible by prayer and fasting.
Prayer helps us to know the will of God. Fasting helps us to know and discipline ourselves. Almsgiving allows to us to express our love for neighbor because we love God.
In addition to performing these good deeds, Catholics also are required to obey the Five Precepts of the Church, which cover participating in the Eucharistic celebration as a community, confessing our sins, receiving Holy Communion, fasting and practicing abstinence, and supporting the Church.
Each of these precepts points to Our Lord’s two commandments; each rewards us with self-control and so helps us in our battle to defeat self-love.
At every step of the way on our spiritual journey, St. John Climacus teaches that we must rely on self-examination:
“Regarding every vice and every virtue, we must unceasingly scrutinize ourselves to see what point we have reached…” (Step 26:75).
With such self-scrutiny, one step up the ladder at a time, we shred the veil of self-love; shredding the veil of self-love rewards us with a greater love of God and neighbor.
The Church has rules, but they are very few and exist to help you defeat self-love; obey the rules of the Church and you’ll love God and neighbor, and even yourself, as God meant you to love.