Legalism of Catholicism


Hi, this isn’t an attack, it’s a genuine concern. I am listening to archived podcasts of Catholic Answers live, and several people have called in asking about the validity of marriage and receiving communion. It seems almost everyone has to be an expert in canon law to know how to be a good Catholic. The more I hear stories like this, and the more I see Catholics on this board get upset of this detail or that detail of the Mass, it seems like Catholicism is too legalistic and has too many needless rules, like the Pharasees. Why are all these rules necessary? And how is the Catholic Church not Christian Pharaseeism?


Some things are right and some things are wrong and some people understand that fact.

Others don’t.


The Pharisees acted that way for temporal gain, prestige, and wordly respect–not out of love of God. That’s why the Pharisees were bad–they were hypocrites. A Catholic who were to act that way would also be guilty of Phariseeism, but simply desiring to do things right in and of itself is a good thing when done for love of God (or even for fear of Hell, but it’s less good to have that motivation).


I don’t see anything in my faithful Catholic belief and in the Church’s teaching that qualifies the comparison to the pharisees. What aspect of Catholicism can you cite that ever teaches us to do our good works before men for our own glory?


Keep in mind that people who have no questions about their marriage don’t call in to request guidance. For instance, my wife and I are both Catholics, we married each other in the Church, and we’ve never had any previous marriages of any kind, civil or religious. Since there’s no issue, there’s no reason to call and seek help. You’re only hearing from the people who do have issues relating to marriage, not from a representative sample of all Catholics.


First of all, and I say this with the utmost charity possible, do not judge the Church entirely by the posts on this forum…or those who call in to Catholic Answers…remember that you are reading and this place does attract Catholics who may display and reflect “pharaseeism” characteristics…but they like me are only on a journey of faith.

I think my spiritual director said it best when he said that the Catholic Church is the Universal Church and there is room for everyone in this church, we are all on different stages of our journey but as long as we are following Christ and praying and seeking God within the guidance of His 2,000 year institution then we are on the straight and narrow path that leads to eternal life!

For a true representation of the faith that we’re all striving to follow read the Cathechism of the Catholic Church, and reflect on John Chapter 6.

God Bless,



Indeed! The problem with the Pharisees was not that they had all sorts of rules and were legalistic. The problem was that they applied these rules to everyone else and often did not keep them themselves. They were hypocrits.


Keep in mind that the argument can go both ways. One of the things that always bothered me about being a Protestant was the vast preponderance for individual moral relativism. Meaning, that each denomination seems to be “convicted” about all sorts of different things. (i.e. infant baptism, salvation, predestination, alcohol, etc…) There always seemed to be this pervasive attitude among the faithful that what was “right and wrong” was many times a personal interpretation of scripture and individual guidance by the Holy Spirit. One pastor might feel very convicted about one topic, but a congregation in another town might feel convicted towards the opposing view. It was certainly more “free” from a legalistic standpoint, but also very frustrating. How could the Holy Spirit “convict” one pious and holy man towards a particular “truth” and not the other? I often asked myself these questions and could never articulate a very good answer.

Naturally, as Catholics, we view this sort of individual relativism and personal interpretation of scripture to be irresponsible and dangerous. Where you see legalism and rules, we see a cohesive framework of consistent Christian teaching laid down from the apostles onward that can’t be altered by our own personal interpretation, no matter how “convicted” we feel about it. It’s an enormous weight off our shoulders because we don’t have to worry about whether we are interpreting scripture correctly or not because we have the Church to guide us. The rituals and rules always seem legalistic and rigid on the outside, but once inside, you soon realize that they are there to integrate themselves into our lives, giving more individual moments and causes to reflect on their purpose and meaning.

Judaism was and is legalistic and ritualistic to an extent. Christianity throughout the ages has been also since many of the rituals were based on Judaism and the apostles were all practicing Jews. Many “rules” are symbolic in nature and serve to give us cause to reflect on a spiritual meaning as well as keep us from sin. There really aren’t that many in my opinion. For instance, Catholicism is much less “legalistic” in my opinion than fundamentalist protestantism, but that’s for another thread. You could think of it this way… This idea of individual interpretation of scripture and freedom from “rules” or Church regulations is very new in the grand scheme of history, being only a few hundred years old since the reformation. If you took the protestantism that you feel comfortable with and traveled back in time to show it to the Christians throughout the ages, they would be as equally perplexed as you are now.


I also notice that you are a new member and being such, I can’t really tell much about what tradition you are coming from and what brings you to these boards. I would however like to encourage you to keep learning about Catholicism. If for no other reason than to learn more about the history of Christianity. The Catholic Church more than likely beget your particular tradition in some capacity so you owe it to yourself to learn more about where “you came from” so to speak. Rules and regulations about the mass may seem a bit strange until you learn more about why the mass is such a “big deal” to a Catholic and the polyvalent symbology infused throughout the entire mass giving Catholics so many truths to reflect on and enrich their spiritual experience. It all naturally seems strange to a protestant where the typical Sunday service revolves around the preacher’s “sermon”. I can remember being horrified when I learned that priests rotated through parishes every few years because as a Protestant, the Church truly revolved around the preacher and his particular interpretations of scripture. Not so with Catholics, but I’m getting off on a tangent. Anyway, keep reading. As a Protestant, Catholicism started out as a simple research project for me in an effort to better understand “those lost Catholics” so I could more effectively debate them as a Protestant. The little Saturday afternoon research project turned into a full blown conversion experience over the course of a year and a half, but don’t let me scare you. :wink:

And if you’re just a Catholic voicing your own private thoughts then you can disregard most of my rambling.


There always seemed to be this pervasive attitude among the faithful that what was “right and wrong” was many times a personal interpretation of scripture and individual guidance by the Holy Spirit.

All was fine until some found out that I would shoot pool in a pool hall the odd Saturday afternoon that happened to sell beer to boot, … I don’t drink! Folks weren’t quite so cheery after that and it only got cooler when I did not stop going.

… I can shoot pool with my Parish Priests now when they’re not too busy :smiley:



That reminds me of a story my grandmother told me when she was a member of a Baptist church. She was friends with a group of ladies and regularly invited to different events and luncheons until she made the mistake of ordering a glass of wine in a restaurant. All the ladies’ eyes got as big as saucers and they completely ostracized her from that point on. She was never invited anywhere again and ended up changing churches because of the experience. Those Baptists take drinking seriously! lol


Were not the all pre-Christian Jews highly legalistic?! Judiac law left little to the iumagination or individual determination. I would agree with the OP’s concern and I would add the legalism becomes troubling when it begins to trump common sense, charity and the primacy of following Christ’s example of charitable love and compassion. One can be “right” about the propriety or truth of any given regulation, but in application the effect may be different–as in harsh, sterile or unnecessarily punitive.


Those Baptists take drinking seriously! lol

… odd thing is, I have a Baptist buddy who enjoys his Rye when he gets home from work and sure likes seeing “the cart” come by when we’re golfing :thumbsup: and he’s a deacon.

??? :hypno:


We are all discussing how legalistic the Church is. Have you looked at how the legal system in this country has mushroomed since the end of the 19th century. I swear every tenth American must be a lawyer.:slight_smile: :slight_smile:


The “legalism” of the Catholic Church is to help us obey the two great commandments. Indeed, that is the purpose of most of the Bible. The problem arises when we obey the rules but forget the purpose behind them. Fasting and “giving up” something for lent are two examples that come to mind. We go through the motions but frequently forget that one of the purposes of self sacrifice is to share what we have foregone with those less fortunate. When we stop after the first part, fasting or giving up something, we only have half the loaf. It becomes complete only when we follow through, in love, on the second part. Viewing the rules in this light may help you understand them a little better.


Thank you all for your responses, you have been helpful.

I’ll fill you in on my background, so I don’t confuse or deceive you in anyway.

I am Catholic and a relatively new convert to the Church (4 years). I came from a Baptist background, but to be honest, I never learned that much about the Baptist church or Protestantism in general, except through Catholic Answers. Lately I’ve started to reflect more on my decision, and I’m not as sure I’ve made the right one.

Listening to Catholic Answers brought this issue to the forefront of my mind, but it had been developing over the last several months due to my confusion with sin and confession. What has been bothering me is determining the difference between when I sin mortally and sin venially. I know that all sin, including venial sin, is wicked, but it is only mortal sin that leads to damnation. I konw there are the three requirements for something to be a mortal sin (grave matter, full knowledge, and full consent) but when it comes down to actually living this, it is complicated. The line about what is grave matter and whether or not I was fully consenting in sin becomes blurred, and I am not sure if I should immediately go to confession, abstain from communion (and potentially lose those graces), etc. Confessors never seem to be of any help.

Today I was praying about this (before the Blessed Sacrament). I have become to doubt the real distinction between mortal and venial sins. There seems to be a clear moral difference (lust in the heart is clearly not as evil as adultery) yet our Lord says it is. How can we reconcile commonsense with our Lord? I would say that the ontological value of sin is equal (“the wages of sin (per se) is death” not “the wages of (grave) sin (with full knowledge & consent) is death” but not the moral value. Thus sin with a lesser moral value where we don’t have full knowledge or consent would earn us fewer blows (Lk. 12:47). The standard proof text (1 Jn 5:16-17) seems to say that unrepentant sin (of any kind) is what leads to death (and the Douay-Reims notes seem to concur).

I realize that this is a departure from the original post, but I would still appreciate any help.


1 John 5:16-17 actually draws a distinction between sin which IS unto death and sin which is NOT unto death. This may refer to unrepentant sin - but it also refers to the distinction between sin which DOESN’T result in death of the soul (which is venial) and sin which does - the word ‘mortal’ actually means deadly.

Of course all sin is offensive to God, and if we love him we will try to avoid even venial sin, and certainly will repent of venial sin when we’re aware of it. It is the manner in which we must do so in the case of venial sin as opposed to mortal sin that is the difference.

Venial sins can be remitted by a private Act of Contrition, in the Penitential Rite at Mass (where the priest will often actually say ‘may almighty God … forgive us our sins’ - that’s kind of a general absolution, though insufficient for remission of mortal sin) and reception of the Eucharist. Mortal sin can only be remitted by sacramental confession though.


The rules aren’t that hard for 99%. Its the exceptions and the "but what if"s that can get difficult.

It seems almost everyone has to be an expert in canon law to know how to be a good Catholic.

Maybe they need to know their faith a little better.

The more I hear stories like this, and the more I see Catholics on this board get upset of this detail or that detail of the Mass, it seems like Catholicism is too legalistic and has too many needless rules, like the Pharasees.

If everyone just does their own thing the Catholic Church wouldn’t be very catholic (universal), now would it?

Why are all these rules necessary?

People have questions, they want answers.

And how is the Catholic Church not Christian Pharaseeism?

Like the Church leadership just can’t wait to complicate people’s lives? The Church gives us the faith and moral teachings of Jesus to save us from ourselves.


I can vouch for that. I wish those other 9 would hang it up, the competition’s tough. :crying:


re-Post number 6.

Well said, McKevin.

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