Is Catholicism legalistic?


Yes, & this agrees with Scripture on the matter as written in James 2 NABRE (USCCB):

Faith and Works.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?
If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day,
and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?
So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Indeed someone may say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.
You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble.
Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless?
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?
You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works.
Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called “the friend of God.”
See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
And in the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by a different route?
For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.


I would disagree with that. I am coming from outside the Roman Catholic Church, and seeing how the structure (‘ecclesiastic organization’) of the church and its mandates/teachings is extremely legalistic. There is a hierarchy that lists expectations for how one lives and practices the faith. There is an ethical code for day to day life, and there is a spiritual code for how and when to worship. And it is all very precise and laid out for the members of the church.

My thoughts are that the Catholic Church has pretty much taken over the role of the Second Temple Pharisees. (I say this in a non-judgmental way.) The Pharisees oversaw worship in the Temple - how the priesthood functioned and the rules and guidelines for sacrificial worship. They also were very precise in the legal system of day to day life - how the Sabbath was kept, who was keeping and who was breaking the moral codes, and how Judaism functioned logistically. The set of laws were laid out in Scripture and included behavior as well as confession and reparation when one transgressed in specific ways.

If you look at Catholicism, it functions in the same way. The legal/ethical structure is very precise. When I read through the postings on this forum, I see questions again and again, 'Am I sinning when I do this, or when I do that? What are the rules around attending a funeral of non-Catholics? Can I go to a Jewish gay wedding? Is it wrong to watch an R-rated movie? Do I have to confess if I had a dream about something sinful?

From an outsider’s perspective, Catholicism is ALL about the legal system, which tends to be very black and white. And if I were an Evangelical looking at the rules, it would strike me in contrast even more so as extremely legalistic.

I hope you understand that legalistic doesn’t have to be pejorative. It is a very precise and clearly-defined system, which I believe is important to the running of the church. For some, though, it may be problematic.


I read the article by Tim Staples (recommended by mrsdizzyd). It made some very good points. It was a bit technical, so it deserves more meditation on my part. I also reread the Catechism article on Justification (recommended by Wesrock), as well as the subsequent articles on Grace and Merit. I really could not find any fault with what was expressed in those articles. Grace was a predominate theme throughout. I actually had those sections bookmarked in my copy of the Catechism.

I do believe that through grace, our works are acceptable to God, and therefore they are pleasing to him. But it is ultimately the righteousness of Christ that is credited to our account (Romans 4:22-24). Quote from the Church Catechism: “For I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice” (p. 542). As Christ said, “Why do you call me good. No one is good but God” (Mark 10:18).

So what is so scary to me? Maybe an example will help – the Catholic teaching on the Sabbath. My understanding is that the Church considers it a mortal sin to miss Mass (unless, of course, attending Mass is impossible). But there are times when I yearn to be alone with God, in private meditation and prayer. Is the issue not a matter of one’s heart, of one’s disposition toward God? The apostle Paul went into Arabia for three years. Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days. What about when I’m visiting unbelievers? What about when I’m simply exhausted? When I go to cannon law, things get more confusing. There’s an answer for everything. All I have to do is look it up. But then it becomes a matter of following the rules, not living according to a good conscience before God.

It appears in Catholicism that I am bound to the rules, not to my conscience before God. And the intricacies as multitudinous as those of the Pharisees, which the apostle Paul rejected in favor of simple faith in Christ. Since God’s holiness is absolute, can we, in any of our thoughts or actions, truly measure up? Even if we could for a brief moment, is there anyone who believes that he can live an entire day in a state of absolute purity before God? What if I miss the mark for a brief moment? A lustful thought? Was it a mortal sin or a venial sin? Can I get to a priest in time for confession? Was my confession sincere – or sincere enough?

If I cannot rest, truly rest in the grace of the Lord Jesus, is there any hope? Tying my salvation to anything other than his mercy seems to lead only to bondage, not freedom. This does not mean that I do not fight the good fight against sin, the flesh, and the devil. It does not mean that I do not submit to the lordship of Christ. But I simply rest, once and for all, in his love for me, in his death for me, in his power to sustain me.


@ComplineSanFran But that was exactly my point as well. I’m not sure if you read my earlier post in this thread, but I said outright that Catholicsm is legalistic. I added that this doesn’t come from its roots, but from its ecclesiastic organization and its inclination to give elaborate rational arguments for its “ways”. Seems to me we’re saying the same thing, so I’ll just take your disagreement as agreement :slight_smile:


Oh, but you are not seeing this through the eyes of the love and care Catholicism imparts to us. Jesus gives us a FEAST once per week and tells us we must feed on His Body and Blood in order to remain healthy branches on the vine. We are privileged, invited guests, and we understand that it is vital we eat of the bread and drink of the wine of his body and blood in order to stay intimate with him (and thus be able to do his will). Like a good parent instills good and life-giving habits in their children so that they mature, the Church commands we attend to this command of God to keep holy the Sabbath in the greatest way possible.


Works are very necessary in our salvation, which is why the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther wanted to remove the book of James from the Bible. His faith only theology doesn’t work in James.

James 2:21 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?


It does seem that we are saying the same thing. Thank you for that clarification.


Well, it’s not that you are saved by your works, but it seems self evident that faith in Christ would inspire you to do good works. I don’t understand really what you fear, good works are the proof that you do indeed believe in Christ and follow his message.

It’s not that the sacrifice of Christ is deficient in power to save you, but as Catholics we understand that we must co-operate with this by acting as Christ did and loving our neighbour.

I don’t really think the Church is particularly legalistic. The “legalism” doesn’t really affect me in my everyday living of the faith. It seems logical to me that an institution founded by Christ Himself would have a framework of rules and regulations to refer to on important matters.


The book of James is still in my definitely Lutheran Bible.

This is the current joint standing on justification.


It almost sounds like you’re looking for a reason not to convert. What I am gathering from your overall premise is, “why bother, Jesus hooked me and I can do a deathbed confession later”.


I don’t think the problem here is Catholicism. I think the issue is one of perspective. You can absolutely rest in the Lord and rely on his mercy while fighting against sin as you say. The Catholic Church gives you tools for battle not stones to stumble over.

You don’t have to be perfect. You have to strive toward perfection and admit when you fail. You can do this first in your Heart (contrition) and then fully and completely in the sacrament of reconciliation.

The Sunday Mass Obligation is not meant to be a chain around your neck. You put God first by prioritizing mass and communion with the Lord. Once a week for an hour. The church is helping you order your steps as you strive for Christian perfection.


It is important to distinguish initial justification from the ongoing state of sanctification. Catholics make this distinction by referring to a “state of grace”, which is about being in right relationship with God.

Yes - this is a semantics problem that the JDDJ was intended to address.

Yes. The main difference in Reformation theology is that we believe the Apostles taught that the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit did not change the nature of sin. Sin still separates people from God, thus it is possible to fall from grace.

The works that befit repentance are produced by grace, through faith. They are not “other” than the shed blood that saves us. It is no longer we who live, but Christ, who lives in us. We “work out” what is already at work within us.

This is a misunderstanding, and a form of semi-Pelagianism, which is a heresy already defeated by the Church.

Works do complete our salvation, but it is because He is at work within us, as you say.


We can add ourselves. We are to make of our whole lives a living sacrifice. Our hands, feet, tongue, etc. Protestants are fond of stopping at Eph. 2:9, but Catholics include v. 10.

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God— 9 not because of works, lest any man should boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

We should walk in them, but not because they “add” to the sacrifice of Christ. We walk in them because he ordained that we do so. We walk in them not by our own ability, but by the same grace by which we are saved through faith.

I am sorry, I think you lost me here. How can any rules and regulations possibly become a means of your salvation? This is Pelagianism.

I am at a loss about how you got to this conclusion, I am sorry.

I don’t know. What makes you think there is something wrong with it?


Not once a week - daily! :smiley: Most Catholics just don’t choose to feast so often…

  1. are you implying that the Anglican Communion’s hierarchy has zero expectations on their faithful? If so, they have truly departed from the teachings of Christ.

  2. all peoples and good organizations have laws. Otherwise, we don’t know what acceptable vs what isn’t.

  3. laws set us free. Without laws, we have anarchy. Laws allow us to know the boundaries which we can live our lives and we can feel free to move all around and even up to those boundaries.

  4. Finally, Jesus never taught that we needed to get rid of the laws. He simply taught that we must understand the spirit of the law, not be hypocrites, and not have laws that contradict the moral law.

Has the Church (or at least Church members) ever become too legalistic? Yes. The Jansenism Heresy was arguably very legalistic. Plus, there are many things that individual Catholics have taught their kids or even what legalistic priests have said that have defied Catholic teaching (not being able to read the Bible at home is one of them).

But the Church always corrects herself when she leans too far into legalism, just as the Church will eventually correct herself as some priest, bishops, and religious sisters have moved too far into the other direction with misplaced mercy.

God bless.


Happy birthday kainosktisis!


Yes, the Epistle of St. James still is in the Lutheran Bible because all of Luther’s allies convinced him no the remove the New Testament epistles that he wanted to remove.

God Bless


Aw, thank you, me dear! 55 years old today! And my joints are letting me know it more & more! :smiley: God bless you!


In the Catholic faith, it’s Baptism that “justifies us”, removing original sin from our souls. From that point on, I believe that our free will can be practiced. Faith is a gift from God; and it must be followed up by good works. These works don’t earn us a place in heaven; and neither does “faith alone”. But they are a response to God’s loves, which is recognized through the “presence of the Holy Spirit”. Good works are a sign that we love God and others.


For you to post this on a Catholic forum is disrespectful and insulting.

You didn’t “allow” us to do anything. You are not our boss.

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