Why Do We Have to Follow So Many Rules?
One of the things that bugs most people about religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, is the number of rules it has. All religion seems to be is a set of rules and regulations that people have to do to make them worthy in eyes of some divine being - if we follow the rules we can feel superior, if we don't, we're losers, etc.
This viewpoint is reinforced, unfortunately, when some people with religious power like to throw that power around, use it to judge others, feed their own self-righteousness, and the illusion that they can control God with their own good behavior. We all know the type - the ones who think there are black and white answers to every moral issue, who don't hesitate to damn others to hell for their many sins, not knowing that they're actually only hiding their own insecurities. Jesus knew these types well - they were called the Pharisees in his day.
Of course, Catholicism does seem to have a lot of rules - there seem to be a lot of things that we would call "sins" in Catholicism. So we really need to understand what makes a sin a sin.
We believe that something is a sin because God has told us that he doesn't want us to do it. That's a simple explanation. But of course, this answer contains a pile of other questions, in particular, how do we know that God told us such and such - its a question of the reliability of divine revelation, particularly revelation that we find in the Bible, and then in the traditions of the Church.
But this is a question I'm going to deal with at another time, when I deal with the Bible itself, and how we know it comes to us from God - the answer to this is not obvious, and is so important that it warrants its own topic.
So instead, for the purpose of this FAQ, lets assume that these rules that the Church gives us DO come from God. Why doesn't God want us to do them? Why are they sins?
The answer is simpler than you could ever imagine - he doesn't want us to do them because of the CONSEQUENCES that he wants us to avoid. This is the case for EVERY sin, no matter how big or how small.
By CONSEQUENCES, I mean what CAN, and often WILL happen because we sin. An example: stealing a cookie from the cookie jar - is it a sin? Well, yea, because mom, who slaved to make them, has to slave again to make more - it shows a lack of appreciation and respect for mom. It also takes away cookies from brother and sister, who have less now because of you. It also makes mom less likely to make any more for anyone, because she's so ticked off. And so on.
Stealing a cookie from the cookie jar is NOT a sin just because mom said we weren't allowed to have one, period. It's not about damaging mom's ego, or her control of the house or anything like that - at least it isn't supposed to be. When it is, usually there's something wrong with mom's attitude.
Not that it isn't a good idea not to do it JUST because mom said so, without always needing to know the reason why - that's called obedience, which can be a good thing - but that takes trust, and mom has to earn that, not expect it for no other reason than that she's mom - mom doesn't set up rules just to test our obedience either, to make sure we know that she's in charge.
And it really is that simple. It always comes down to consequences. Smoking causes cancer. Speeding causes car accidents. Gossping about the neighbors makes enemies out of our brothers and sisters. Not taking Sunday off cause nervous breakdowns and burn-out.
A sin is an act of turning our back on God. The consequence is that our backs are turned - which sucks.
Sins are not sins BECAUSE GOD SAID SO, PERIOD.
And this is something that we need to understand - God doesn't give us rules so that he can feel powerful - he's not an ego-driven dictator that gives us rules for no reason other than to exert his own authority. To understand him as such would be reducing God to an power-tripping human being, and a pretty insecure one at that. There is ALWAYS a reason why a sin is a sin.
Nor should we, when we sin, live in fear that God is now going to punish us. The punishment will be the consequence of the sin itself, which will be more than bad enough.
If you want some proof, look in the Bible - God doesn't intend that ANYONE should be damned - in Matthew 26:34, heaven is described as "the Kingdom prepared FOR YOU from the foundation of the world," while hell is described as, "the everlasting fire prepared FOR THE DEVIL AND HIS ANGELS," not INTENDED for us. But hell remains an option for us, simply because God isn't going TO FORCE US into heaven - he isn't going to force us to love him.
And what about the Bible talking about God as judge, which it does quite a bit. Well, look no further than John 3:16 and following. God sent a light into the world - that light is Christ on his cross. Standing in the light, we'll see the infinite love God has for us. But we'll also see ourselves, and all our sins - how we have fallen short of loving God back, or loving each other. Those with the courage to stand there will be cleansed of their sins by the light, in realizing that Jesus died for us while we were still sinners. Those who run away, condemn themselves to the darkness.
God doesn't damn us. WE damn OURSELVES. God doesn't want to condemn us. God wants to save us. He will go to any length to save us. What's left for us is to accept that salvation.
He doesn't want to control us with rules either. As Jesus made clear: a summary of all the commandments is this: love God, love your neighbor. Period. ALL the rules are rules to love.
So, what this means is that "the rules" are always given to us for a reason. And we are welcome, in fact, ENCOURAGED, to discover why the church considers every sin a sin - this is called "informing our conscience" - and after we have investigated, believe it or not, decide for ourselves if those rules that the church gives are truly in harmony with God's will, and his call to love, or not. We don't have to follow the church's rules JUST because it said so, period. In fact, to do so is a heresy, called "fideism", i.e., blind faith.
Of course, obedience to the church is a good thing too - so long as we understand it as obedience to God. God afterall, unlike mom, doesn't have to earn our obedience - he's GOD. But, he DID earn it anyway - in the cross of Christ. So, that means that anyone that would speak in God's name must be prepared to go to the same lengths to earn the obedience of the flock. The church does, and MUST, always have reasons for its rules.
The church itself teaches that the INFORMED conscience is the final judge of right and wrong in every situation. But its important to give the church a chance - to let it explain why some things are considered sinful, before we make our determination. What we will often find is that the church comes to its conclusions after centuries of experience and collective wisdom.
Bottom line, we understand that "the rules" that God gives us are about love, they aren't about power.
At least they're not supposed to be.