There are a lot of rules in our Church. I would never go so far as to say those rules are not necessary; plainly they are. But the rules are not themselves the Church, and with only a few exceptions, every rule of the Church may in the right circumstances be broken in the service of a greater good.
But all too many people, Catholic and otherwise, priest, Bishop, layman, heretic and orthodox, mistake the rules for the Church. James Carroll continued the confusion only last week, writing about “good Catholics” and “bad Catholics” using a rules-based paradigm. I am part of the ongoing dispute over at the “bustedhalo” message boards, from which Greg Popcak has been banned for pointing out that some posters there were advocating as Catholicism something that deviated so much from the rules as to be unrecognizable. The Lidless Eye types run around, policing blogs, looking for minor deviations in orthodoxy, which they define as a set of rules established under Pius X and unalterable for all eternity. Rod Dreher bemoans in the pages on National Review and on Mark Shea’s blog the failure of the pope—the Pope!—to enforce the rules as CEO of the Church.
Every one of these examples, on its own, can be justified, or at least explained. But as part of the pattern of background noise, they are exasperating. The rules exist to help you conform your heart to Christ’s teachings. Your heart does not exist to give the rules purpose.
Far too many Catholics—and I am at times egregiously, sinfully, culpable of this—think of Catholicism as some kind of set of metaphysical traffic laws. A legalistic interpretation of these laws creeps in, where so long as I don’t exceed the speed limit on this stretch of road (or exceed it by more than 5 mph), or stop for a “one-two” count at that stop sign, I am okay. Soon enough, a driver begins to think of the manifestation of Virtue that is “obeying traffic laws” as the Virtue itself.
It is certainly true that these are good driving habits, and generally necessary. But there is a manner of following them that is entirely correct vis-à-vis the law that nevertheless is selfish and obnoxious in the extreme. There are also times when speeding significantly and treating stop signs with less-than-meticulous care (on the way to the hospital, for instance) is entirely justified.
Staying in right relation to the rules is a poor substitute for staying in right relation to God. It is easier to do the second when one does the first. But achieving the first is absolutely no guarantee of achieving the second. And we have so bloody many rules, it is extraordinarily easy, and almost infinitely tempting, to confuse the two.