Catholicism and Legalism


For a really, really long time I’ve been very confident in the truth of Catholicism. Lately, though, I’m struggling with thoughts that some aspects of Catholicism are overly legalistic. For example, I just recently found out that Catholics are supposed to do some sort of sacrificial act, equal to that of forgoing meat on Fridays during Lent, on every Friday during the year. Not doing so is a mortal sin. It just strikes me as another hoop to jump through. I’m feeling discouraged.



So…you prefer not to do penance?

Overly legalistic? Posh!

Where did you hear that this was a mortal sin? I think you need to be more careful about who you listen to.

Did you bother to take this information up with your parish priest?


I try to think this way…If Christ could open His arms to be nailed to a cross for me, I will be more than willing to jump through as many “hoops” as necessary.


We are living in a time where, in the western world at least, we are in a comfort zone as far as living our Faith is concerned. In other words, we have become lazy and complacent.

We no longer wear sackcloth and ashes to show we repent our sins publicly. We no longer fast on a regular basis (at least, not many do).

My mother had to fast before Communion, from midnight. As a child, I had to fast 3 hours, now it is 1 hour.

Previously, we fasted on a Friday and abstained from eating meat. I imagine this was a voluntary and accepted practice in the early Church from which people started getting slack about, so the Church, recognising the benefit of the sacrificial nature of he act, made a Rule.

After Vatican II it was felt that we are adults in the Faith and could make our own decision about the sacrifice we made, especially as it is not really a hardship to abstain from meat these days.

What I am now seeing is people who do not think it necessary to perform any sacrificial act at all

When we are children, we have Rules to help us grow in maturity and self-discipline. When we are adults, we should recognise the benefits of behaving a certain way. But, unfortunately, we have a lot of grown-ups in our society who are immature and lacking in self-discipline.

For example, I just recently found out that Catholics are supposed to do some sort of sacrificial act, equal to that of forgoing meat on Fridays during Lent, on every Friday during the year. Not doing so is a mortal sin. It just strikes me as another hoop to jump through. I’m feeling discouraged.

This is a minimum, for those who are immature in their Faith, to help them grow. Some of us fast more frequently and make some sort of sacrificial act every day, out of love for Jesus, not because we have to.


Hi Church,

I’m looking for help/support, not nastiness.

A common question at this time of year is whether or not deliberately violating the law of abstinence is a mortal sin. It is. The relevant law is found in Paul VI’s 1966 apostolic constitution Paenitemini, which provides that:
The time of Lent preserves its penitential character. The days of penitence to be observed under obligation through-out the Church are all Fridays and Ash Wednesday, that is to say the first days of “Grande Quaresima” (Great Lent), according to the diversity of the rite. Their substantial observance binds gravely [Norm II §1, emphasis added].

Is it your opinion that failing to do penance on Fridays is not a mortal sin?



If you understand the good reasons behind the Church’s laws, it might make accepting them a little easier. You may find the section on The Precepts of the Church in the Catechism of the Catholic Church helpful.


If we look at things objectively but spiritually, we will quickly come to realize that there is nothing in Catholicism that should be termed legalistic. The term is applied perjoratively and does not reflect what is going on.

Let’s try to put all of this in perspective by meditating on who God is. He is the creator of all things and he created all things out of nothing. We are nothing more than God’s creatures and the difference between God and us is beyond measure. Spend a long time meditating on this. Then think about God’s mercy to his fallen creatures that have sinned against him. We cannot repay God or atone for our sins. God therefore sent his only son Jesus for our salvation because he so loves us in spite of our sins. Think about what that really means.

Likewise, meditate on what God by his very nature deserves from us. We simply cannot sacrifice, pray in thanksgiving, or worship God enough even if we did these things every minute of everyday. The Church asks very little of us. The few things that the Church requires are designed to bring us toward God in small ways and steps in order to conform us to the image of Jesus.

We are to be holy, and the Church gives us the ways and means to be holy. Rest assured…if the Church did not require a few things of us, then we would probably do little or nothing and we would quickly begin to fall prey to the desires of the world.

Every Friday is a special day because it reminds us of Good Friday when Jesus went to the cross for us. We make a small sacrifice on Friday to join ourselves to the sacrifice of Jesus. If we truly wish to be his disciples we must do as Jesus says: “We must pick up our cross daily and follow him.” Giving up meat on Friday or making a substitute sacrifice on Friday is a small cross that joins our sacrifices to those of Jesus.

If we deliberately refuse to carry our cross or to offer sacrifices, however small they may be, what are we really saying to God? Are we telling him that food is more important than he is, or are we placing our comforts ahead of the Lord? We offer small sacrifices on Fridays to detach ourselves from the things of this world and to more closely attach ourselves to Jesus. If we refuse to do this then we are not following the Lord and we are not placing him first. This is what makes this a serious issue.

And remember what Jesus said to the first leaders of his Church about the power to bind and loose. Moreover, Jesus told them, "He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me."
The Church knows what is good for us and what we need to stay close to the Lord.

Do not be discouraged but take heart. The Lord’s burden is not heavy and his yoke is light. The sacrifice we make on Fridays is a good thing and is not legalistic. I hope this helps.


In my romance with Catholicism, I have come to this as a stumbling block: the demand, seemingly contrary to passages such as Colossians 2:16-23, that bodily discipline is of some value. What good is fasting, Paul seems to ask. Of abstaining from meat? Or of submitting to regulations, as stipulated in the passage, that seem to directly refer to what the Church requires of its members? Christ sets us free, and the Lenten regulations, among other things, smack of legalism and bondage. Are you again under the Law? Regulations? What is Galatians about? We are set free: sons, heirs of the kingdom, no longer slaves, yet it would seem that we are to submit again to regulations that the apostle warned us about.

The Church has authority over her faithful, as a mother over her children, as a pastor over sheep, as a teacher over disciples. I will not argue with this. But this idea that such things are mortal sins seems to smack of the heavy hand of the tyrant rather than the hand of a gentle shepherd. Eat a hot dog on Good Friday and go to hell? I could see that if you did it deliberately to demonstrate that you wanted to cut off your relationship with God, but it is hard to imagine it in the normal course of events. Obedience is due, but I also watched the discipleship movement years ago, in which supersubmission to the point of abuse was practiced.

Paul commanded that we not let anyone pass judgement on us in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath (Col 2:16). But isn’t this exactly what the Catholic Church is doing with these rules and regulations?

Why couldn’t it have been left as good counsel or pious practice: it is good for you to fast, rather than fast or burn forever in hellfire?


I’m a convert too, and I have sometimes balked at yet another thing expected of me. Frankly, I find Lent more trying than helpful to my spriituality, but that doesn’t release me from my obligations any more than I can be released from doing the dishes or dusting the furniture. It has to be done whether I find it personally helpful or not. :wink:

I’ve found that if I just do it, no sacrifice asked of us by the Church (and really there are very few) are hard to do. We humans have a reluctance to have our personal liberty stepped on, of having to bow to anyone else’s demands, especially those of us who live in the West. We’re independent and carefree for the most part and can’t understand it when the Church demands certain things of us. :blush:

Catholicism is a religion that has to be practiced in order to get the good from it. But, that’s only right because God made us physical beings as well as spiritual ones, so we need to learn to disciple both in order to be whole and wholly Christ’s. Yes? :slight_smile:


Thank you! :slight_smile:


Whenever I look into these aspects of Catholic life that seemingly condone that our salvation is based on works, I take the step to forgo the “legalistic” presumption of these acts and look at the reasons why we should be adhering to them. It always comes down to one thing: Love of God. Many people in the Church over thousands of years have pondered, studied, and enacted practices that can be beneficial to our spiritual life, and I, for one, can only trust that the saints in Heaven may know a thing or two more than I do.


That wasn’t nastiness…it was God given common sense. Have you taken this to your pastor instead of an online forum? He could probably handle it with a phone call from you.

I don’t have a problem with this pitiful little bit of penance and I rejoice in thankful praise to God every time I am blessed with the opportunity to in some way share in the sufferings of Christ.
Colossians 1:24 Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church:

2nd Corinthians 1:5 For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us: so also by Christ doth our comfort abound.**

What I’m trying to get across to you Nancy is that you are flipping out over something that merely needs to the good counsel of your favorite priest.

I’m just really surprised that you didn’t think of this yourself is all. Don’t take my comments wrong.



The references you make to Paul pertain to the Judaizers and their desires to place Christian believers under the requirements of the Levitical Law. There were by the way over 600 items included therein. None of this rightly pertains to Church imposed disciplines as we know them.

Can eating a hot dog on Friday during Lent cause one to be in a state of mortal sin? And if so, does this smack of legalism? Well, let’s think about this in terms of scripture and what the Church is trying to teach us. First of all, we have to realize that everything in the New Covenant is to be understood in terms of a family relationship with God as our Father. We are adopted sons and daughters in the household of God. Eternal life is to be our inheritance.

There is an important parallel concerning inheritance found in the OT. This particular parallel is likewise given attention in two different places in the New Testament. The parallel of inheritance is that of Esau who sold his birth right for a pottage of lentils in the Old Testament. Esau is mentioned in unfavorable terms in the book of Romans and in the book of Hebrews in the NT. It is said in Romans that God hated Esau and that there was no injustice on God’s part.

In Hebrews 12:15-17 it says:
“See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” spring up and cause trouble, and by it the many become defiled; that no one be immoral or irreligious like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.”

The Church imposed discipline concerning meat and or sacrifice on Friday is not unlike what we see with Esau. Is your inheritance as an adopted son of God not worth more than a hot dog on Friday? Shall we be like Esau, and be unwilling to sacrifice some small thing and thus trade it for what is otherwise our eternal inheritance?

We must test ourselves in our faith and the Church gives us a great and simple opportunity to do so. We can easily find out if we prefer a pottage of lentils or a hot dog over our salvation. It isn’t legalism. Instead, it is an obvious choice of something small in preference to our Lord and savior. The lesson of this goes deeper than meat of Friday. We make choices all the time and we must be careful not to put any person, place, or thing above the Lord.

I hope this helps.


In Nancy’s defense (and not to cause an argument) probably anything on this board could be taken to the attention of their local priest. I don’t know about you, but we don’t have priests sitting by the phone around here ;). There are plenty of people around here willing to answer these “common sense” questions.

Nancy, the Didache (teachings of the Apostles) says:



**Fasting – Prayers **

1 Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but do you fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.



On the other hand, if the Church is what the Church says the Church is, then whatever seemingly insane thing it says should be done should be done on no other grouds than that the Church knows what it is doing.

When I see that I am writing sentences like the preceding it is time for me to stop posting and go to bed. Good night.


there are 10 commandments and 6 laws of the Church, which of these is giving you a problem?


This is the way I see it too. One can follow all the rules, be legalistic about them, and wind up in hell. Or one can understand the INTENT of the rules, and allow them to draw us closer to Christ.

God Bless,


This article from Catholic Answers is pertinent:

Is Friday Penance Required?

By Jimmy Akin

As a result, there appears to be **no legal obligation in the United States to practice penance on Friday**, but Friday remains a day on which the bishops have **urged** all to do penance and, in particular, **recommended** the continued practice of abstinence.

This change to the Friday observance has come from the USSCB (as allowed under canon law) and not from the Vatican so is only the US norm. What is the Universal Norm? Has it changed or is Friday Abstention still a requirement in other countries? Where can we find the norms for our particular countries? Everything in the English-speaking world has seemed to default to the US norm so I’m wondering if there have been any pronouncement by Bishops Councils from other countries on this subject.



Paul also wrote:

Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:26-27)

And by his example we see:

*]Acts 13:2
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
*]Acts 14:23
Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.[/LIST]Paul and Barnabas were commissioned with prayer AND fasting; they did the same when appointing others.

In our society, we’re cool with prayer…just not so keen on fasting…but Paul clearly fasted and disciplined himself to be freed from desires of the flesh.

Hope this helps. :tiphat:

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