I am a deeply disorganized person by nature. As a kid, my bedroom was always chaos. As an adult, my desk looks much the same. So I didn’t think I’d be a very schedule-focused mom before I had children.
Since my first was a baby, though, I have seen time and again how kids thrive with structure. I have become “that mom” who relies heavily upon a consistent bedtime, specific snack and meal times, and “5-minute warnings” for my children.
And it’s not because I love creating and enforcing rules. It’s because I can see how much happier and more relaxed my kids are with a reliable edifice to guide their day and give them some sense of what to expect from others and themselves.
When I hear questions about why the Catholic faith is defined by so many “rules,” this is the best analogy I can offer to defend the Church. So let’s dig into that today.
Faith and Obligation
Do we Catholics have a lot of rules to follow? Absolutely.
Catholics are beholden to weekly Mass obligations (plus a few other obligatory days throughout the year), highly countercultural expectations of sexual morality, obedience to the hierarchy of bishops on many issues, fasting requirements (although these are greatly limited in the modern era), and, of course, pursuit of the sacrament—to name some of the big ones.
When we break these, we are obligated to go to Confession so that we can act on our repentance and know of our forgiveness from God. This isn’t meant to shame us or give the priest in the confessional inappropriate power over our relationship with Jesus—not at all. Instead, by confessing to an ordained representative of Christ, we give voice to our mistakes in a way that acknowledges how they have distanced us from God, and we are given an opportunity to have that slate wiped clean by God. Each time, He forgives without exception. We are left truly guilt free.
Still, the list of rules can seem like a lot. It might even look like a weight tied to our ankles as we seek out every opportunity for happiness.
But I challenge you to look at it another way: The structure of Catholicism isn’t a weight that drags us down, but the buoy that keeps our heads above water in an ocean of uncertainty.
Lost at Sea
I think the one thing everyone on this planet can agree on is that our world is not perfect. And because that’s true—because there is pain in our world—we are forced to navigate an infinite number of difficult choices on a journey toward fulfillment and betterment. But how? How can any of us find our way across broken bridges with torn-up maps?
From a Christian perspective, we believe that man and woman were made in the image of God, designed for a life of paradise in unity with our Lord.
However, we were also made with free will, because our Creator wanted to give us the gift of real, authentic love. And when that free will was tempted by selfishness, paradise became fractured.
The bad news, now, is that we’re left with this imperfect world featuring great sorrow and suffering.
The Good News? Life is still full of hope, because Jesus has saved us and we are destined for a joyful eternity.
To reach that destiny, we rely on the mercy of God to see past our mistakes, heal the wounds we inflict on ourselves by choosing to do wrong, and welcome us into His embrace. And He is ready and willing to do so. He wants to give us these gifts. We were, after all, made for them and the joy that they bring.
Still, we are capable of rejecting those gifts—or losing sight of them. We are swimming at sea, trying to spot them on a seemingly endless horizon. Very quickly, caught up in the current, we lose track of up and down, left and right, north and south. Sometimes we make a bad call on which direction is best. Sometimes we get tossed into an unfortunate position by the pitching of the water. Either way, it is exhausting. In fact, it’s barely survivable.
We are swimming for our lives. But faith keeps us afloat. The faith in our hearts reminds us that there is an end to that horizon and we will find it, in time.
Having faith gives us a life preserver in this stormy sea. The practice of that faith is what makes us strong enough to hold on and ride the waves until the time comes to rest and find our reward.
How Accountability Bears Fruit
Just like my kids, if I’m left to conduct my life without structure—never quite clear on where to go or when to get there, without guidance on responsible behavior, unsure of what habits and patterns will help me grow best—I’m not really set up for success.
Worse, I won’t be able to tap into the full potential of who I was made to be. Instead, I’ll spend so much attention trying to define my boundaries that I’ll risk blowing past the deeper introspection that will help me nurture my best qualities.
Put another way: If I am too concerned with looking outside myself to sift through ambiguities and learn what good conduct out in the world looks like, there will be no energy left for looking inside myself to foster real growth.
On the other hand, with well-defined guideposts giving me clarity on what “good conduct” means, I am free to look deeper into my own soul and my relationship with God. I don’t need to learn the best practices of life, because I have a structure in place to give me those lessons from the start. There is no “reinventing the wheel” on living well. I am well practiced in discipline and self-control. Thus, I’m not only confident in the way I’m living my external life, but I’m reclaiming the time and space I need to cultivate a healthier and more fruitful internal life.
Faith formation and my initiation into the sacraments established this structure for me. Then, when I dug deeper into that structure as a young adult, I was able to see the truth that motivated all of it—and better understand how the “rules” aid me in blocking out the bad things in life in favor of preserving and exploring the very best things.
It’s also reassuring that this structured faith is 2,000 years old—initiated by Christ himself—and has been deeply questioned, tested, and explored by the brightest theological minds of human history. There is great comfort in leaning on tradition; it lends authority to the rules of today. Plus, there is palpable reassurance in knowing that many beautiful souls have led this life before me, and found God on this path. If I can love God and follow their example, I can be holy, too.
All of this being said, the real key to understanding the beauty of accountability is to seek to understand it for yourself. I could go on and on about what it means to me, but it isn’t likely to be enough for you.
The human mind is a creative, independent, logical, and curious thing—and it is never enough to be told what to do “just because.” God made us this way. He gave us deep intellect and an adventurous mindset so that we could take ownership of this life, exploring its nuances and the motivations of our faith, and becoming closer to Him in the process.
So, if you’re feeling restricted or put off by the structure of religion: Rather than turning away from the rules, explore them. Educate yourself on what they are and what motivates them at a theological level, and meditate on what you learn in light of what you’ve experienced for yourself.
If you want to chat about where to start, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I’d be happy to help offer recommendations. And I bet your priest would say the same!