I was recently accused of being too legalistic by a non-Catholic friend of mine. This was a reference to an assumption that this person was making that I must be giving something up for Lent.
It happens that I believe in the Catholic Church, since I believe in Jesus Christ and I believe that he founded it, and I see it as my family, my religion and my culture all wrapped into one, so this kind of caught me off guard. I asked for an explanation. What was it about a person willingly participating in the culture that they embrace and the religion that they believe in that comes off as "legalistic?"
This person then went on to tell me that he had participated in Lenten observances in the past and had come to the conclusion that a person does not need to give something up for Lent. That it represents unnecessary conformity and an oppressive legalism.
I was legitimately perplexed by this. He was talking about what is essentially one small Lenten custom that happens to be the only Lenten custom that I have ever seen modern non-Catholic Christians observe, if I ever see them observing Lent at all. It also happens to be a custom that is completely voluntary in the Catholic Church. There is absolutely no legalistic expectation in the Catholic Church for a person to choose something in particular that they like and to give that thing up during Lent. Many of us choose to do this, however, and it is considered healthy when done for the right reasons.
So this person had applied a completely voluntary personal devotion from Catholic culture to their own lives and found it to be too oppressively legalistic...
So let's say that I just give him that. In such a case, wouldn't any spiritual exercise just be a legalism with no real purpose outside of blindly regimenting your life?
Prayer, reading your Bible, gathering with other Christians, singing a hymn...
How does any of it escape being called legalistic if it is just being done for no other reason other than thinking it needs to be done, because others are doing it, or because someone told you it needs to be done?
This is where I begin to wonder how a person justifies assuming that a Catholic Lenten observation, or any Catholic Tradition or custom for that matter, is automatically being done strictly out of some blind legalistic obligation? Why does that tend to be the default with New Protestant critics of Catholic culture? Why wouldn't you start by assuming that a person's religious actions actually have meaning to them or that they might have some good reason for doing it that you don't know about? That the life they live is not simply an imposed, empty regimentation? The people who say things like this don't make these assumptions about themselves when they prayerfully read their Bible, recite the Our Father or sing sappy worship songs with their friends on the beach. So why make this assumption about me? Is it just because you don't fully understand what I'm doing? Or because I do things that you don't? Because those are weak reasons.
My accuser might say he's met Catholics who actually don't know why they practice certain devotions and that they truly do carry them out blindly or legalistically. I'm not going to address that in any other way than to concede that there are indeed idiots in my family, just as there are idiots in yours. Being as this is not a conversation between idiots, I think we can move on.
In the end, though, I really see it as saying more about the critic than the subject. My friend attempted to apply a voluntary custom to his own life under the assumption that it was supposed to be practiced as an empty legalism that Catholics are required to grudgingly carry out. I guess for some reason he expected this to work. That at some point he assumed that his misguided notion of this Catholic custom might carry some kind of weight or he would not have tried it. In that case, he's really just projecting disappointment in his own legalism onto my religion. I can assure you, the Catholic Church has never defended any doctrine under which fasting, penance and almsgiving can magically bring you closer to God when all you do is complain about having to do them. The point is thoroughly missed.
But let's take it a step further.
Let's hand him a free argument.
Let's talk about the things that are not voluntary for a Catholic. How about fasting on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays during Lent? How about the obligation of every Catholic to participate in the Holy Mass every Sunday and every Holy Day throughout the entire year? How about the Sacrament of Penance. These things are far easier for an outsider to construe and accuse of being empty legalisms.
These things are, in fact, criticized as such by many critics of my religion as blind, legalistic conformity to an abstract system. Many of them pity us for failing to see the light in freeing ourselves from such stale and meaningless trappings.
Let me attempt to help you understand why I think that's ridiculous.
Why do you show up to work on time?
Do you do this because it fulfills you spiritually? Do you do this because it unites you with Truth?
Why do you obediently call the number on your jury summons and show up to the courthouse on time?
Do you do so because you have decided that it is efficacious for you as a personal devotion?
Why do you take your kid to school on time in the morning?
Is this not empty and unnecessary legalism?
You might answer all of these questions in a number of ways.
"I show up to work on time because I will be fired if I don't."
"I go to Jury duty because I'll go to jail if I don't."
"It's illegal to keep my kid out of school."
I say to all these answers that you do those things for one of two simple reasons. Or maybe both.
You are afraid.
You wish to be a part of a society that does not function properly if its members do not agree on how certain things should be done. A society with a set of rules that keep that society from spinning off into chaos. Rules that ideally promote growth and prosperity for those who cooperate with them. Chaos and instability tend to haunt those who do not.
First I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume it's number 2. To be a productive member of a group. To make yourself useful to a system that benefits you and the others that you cooperate with by following its rules.
Good for you. That's the exact reason I do my best to follow all the Catholic "rules."
Not because I'm afraid of what will happen if I don't, but because I believe in the Church and I want to be a part of her. I want to cooperate with my brothers and sisters, to be in agreement with them, to celebrate every day of the year with them and to read and learn about the exact same scripture readings that all of them are learning about at the exact same time all over the world. To be in agreement on what we believe, no matter where we are in the world, no matter how rich or poor, no matter if we are Mexican or Chinese. To concern ourselves with conforming to Christ and not with conforming Christ to ourselves. I want to be Catholic. Therefore I do my best to do things that make me Catholic. Things that unite me with my 1.2 billion person family throughout the world. Things that allow me to embrace a rich Christian culture that extends back to Pentecost, preserves ancient and unchangeable Truth and yet assimilates the beauty of every culture and individual it touches, allowing them to become more themselves than they ever could have been without it. A Christian culture that I believe is worth embracing.
As a Christian, therefore, given the choice of two societal structures, I cannot see the sense in embracing the trappings of a purely secular culture in order to reap its morally and spiritually meaningless social and material benefits while simultaneously rejecting and criticizing those who embrace the customs and Sacred Traditions of an deeply and uncompromisingly religious one.
I would find this to be simply hypocritical. Not free, not intelligent, not neutral, not wistfully spiritual, not wise, not cleverly moralistic, just hypocrisy and that's it.
For the sake of dragging this out, let's say that you go to work on time, take your kid to school in the morning and obediently show up to jury duty out of no greater desire than to keep from losing your job or going to jail. Let's just say it's fear and nothing else. It's true of a lot of us, so don't feel too bad, but think it over carefully. We use these excuses as a shield. We use them to claim we have no choice.
"I'll lose my job."
Catholicism was illegal in the Roman Empire for the first 300 years after the Ascension of Christ. The first 30 Popes, including Peter, were all martyrs. It was illegal to celebrate Mass, to receive sacraments, to be a priest, to have a Catholic marriage, to preach the Gospel or to be a Catholic at all.
All these things were punishable by crucifixion, burning at the stake, being fed to wild animals in front of cheering crowds of pagans, being skinned alive, frozen to death, disemboweled, beheaded, boiled alive... to name a few.
And do you know how the Church responded? They did it anyway.
They chose to fulfill the obligations of their CHRISTIAN society and to break the laws of their PAGAN society under pain of torture and death. They celebrated the Mass. They consecrated priests. They received the sacraments.
They died for it.
Fear of laws did not take away their choice.
That's the clever deception about the society you live in. The threat of torture and death did not stop them from embracing these things, but today, in a society in which it's perfectly legal for us to embrace them, they are easily given up out of laziness or ego or because friends just don't think it's cool enough or because it endangers one's professional reputation. We are told that Hollywood hates Christians and that a Christian can never be famous, so Christians strip themselves of their whole cultural identity and put on the costume of their accusers so that they might not suffer the torture of being verbally disagreed with. They hide among them, they pretend to be them and they point accusing fingers at those who have held fast.
Today we live in a society in which we are free to openly embrace the full depth and width of a Christian culture and Sacred Tradition that thousands have died and still die to preserve. The response of many "Christians" to this freedom has been to reject, mock and criticize that culture. To surrender their identity in exchange for an empty, meaningless, white walled, beige finished box that looks like everybody else's. You salute your flags, you kiss your Superbowl trophies in solemn processions. But God forbid I make the "empty" gesture of bowing before an altar or giving up drinking beer for Lent.
If you are a Christian living in this society and you accuse Catholics of blindly following empty legalisms, you are drinking your own Kool-Aid.