Volume > Issue > Rules for Happiness

Rules for Happiness


By David Mills | December 2010
David Mills, the deputy editor of First Things, is the author of Discovering Mary (Servant) and writes the "Catholic Sense" column for the Pittsburgh Catholic.

“What about Catholic legalism?” asked my Protestant friend. She didn’t mind having rules, she said, but she did mind having so many of them, especially when some were, she insisted, downright silly. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Robert Frost noted, and I know that feeling much too well. I know that little ball of resentment and anger that can grow in the middle of the chest when someone says, “You can’t do that,” even if the thing I can’t do is something I hadn’t wanted to do until then. I know the annoyance with which I hear “You must do this,” even when I was already planning to do it.

And I know the feeling of disbelief at some of the technicalities and fine points of the Catholic Church’s rules, which look at first glance like something you’d read in a parody of lawyers. One part of the Code of Canon Law — the official rule book — goes on and on defining “domicile” and “quasi-domicile,” and where a child is domiciled depending on his parents’ marital status, and how to define a temporary resident, and what to do when someone has two homes, and so on.

It is really only a way of being clear where everyone in the Church belongs, to ensure them the pastoral care and the privileges of membership to which they have a right. But it looks silly, especially to the outsider.

A Map Refined

That said, I quite like having rules, for the same reason I like having a map when I’m traveling to a new place, especially if I have my family with me and we’re driving deep into the woods or through a bad part of the city. If I’m not certain I know how to get where I’m going, I’d rather not endanger the people I’m responsible for protecting by getting lost while trying to find the way on my own.

Friends have told me that I must have become a Catholic because I wanted someone else to do my thinking for me. They think this is a conclusive argument, and expect me to protest. I don’t. It’s obviously not only true of me but is the wise course for any man. I could, I suppose, make up my own map from the sources I have, but why should I take the trouble and time to do so when those who know the area so much better than I have already drawn up an infinitely better map than I could create? A man has to make many decisions about many things, some of them big, and usually make them on the run, and often make them for others like his family. He’d be a fool not to depend on people wiser and more learned than he.

The Catholic life is like a trip through another state we don’t know very well. We may think we do, the way certain men think they can find any place on earth without asking directions, but we don’t. All the rules and regulations of Catholic life are a map drawn by people who know the way. Indeed, it’s a map that’s been corrected and refined by traveler after traveler for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Take one of the most famous rules: the obligation to go to Mass on Sundays and on certain holy days (found in can. 1247 of the Code of Canon Law and no. 2042 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church). Intentionally missing Mass is a mortal sin and you must go to confession for it before receiving Holy Communion. This rule may seem overbearing and legalistic — making a rule for an action that should be free and uncoerced — or even a little desperate, since people should want to go to Mass. The Church shouldn’t have to threaten them.

Well, yes, in theory. But in reality, most of us need the direction, and many of us need the threat. We will draw lines for ourselves, but the lines we draw are often broad and flexible. We tend to turn the thing we know we should do into an ideal or a goal, and we know that no one ever reaches the ideal or the goal all the time. Failure is expected, and acceptable. We may even turn the thing we know we should do into one good thing competing with other good things and decide we have to strike a balance between them.

People who stay up late with their friends on Saturday night may say to themselves on Sunday morning, as they turn off the alarm and roll over, “God’ll understand.” And He does understand. He understands they didn’t arrange their lives to make sure they got to Mass. He understands that they valued talking with their friends and watching a late movie and knocking down another beer more than they valued being present at the divine sacrifice. He understands only too well.

They may have stayed up for good reasons, to deepen their fellowship with old friends they don’t see very often or to accommodate guests who just wouldn’t leave, but this does not free them of the obligation to get to Mass the next morning. Getting to Mass bleary-eyed and having to give up Sunday afternoon pleasure in order to take a nap may do them good by itself.

But the man who rolls over with the comforting thought of an understanding God does not think of this. It’s only one Sunday, after all, and he’ll be sure to go next week. Ideally, yes, he’d like to get to Mass, but practically, this week it’s just not going to happen.

The rule helps most of us live better lives than we would if left on our own. The Church exercises her love for us in saying, “Get to Mass on Sunday. Period.” She wants us to get the blessings God will give us in the Mass, which we can get nowhere else. We certainly can’t get them by rolling over and going back to sleep. Adam and Eve might have said to themselves about that tempting fruit, “God’ll understand,” and look where it got them.

The rule isn’t just an arbitrary demand given by people who like telling others what to do. It’s a pointer to reality and therefore to human happiness. It tells us something about the Mass, about the Church, and about the local fellowship. It’s the signpost for a blessing. Why else would the Church tell us that we have to go, unless by going we gained something necessary for our happiness, even if we don’t see it that way?

The rule tells us that in the Mass we get what we can’t get elsewhere, most importantly the reception of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, but also worshiping with others, hearing the Scriptures read and proclaimed, offering our gifts to God, being blessed as we go back into the world to love and serve the Lord, not to mention all the extra-eucharistic blessings, like being able to talk with friends as we leave. It tells us that we must arrange our lives around this event, that it comes first; it tells us what the rest of our life means and what it ought to be like.

The Church is making sure that we get what we need, and what we really want, though we may give it up to take lesser but more immediate pleasures. We really want the fine old red wine, even though we often grab the cheap cherry soda for the sugar high. We really want Jesus, even though we often choose the cheapest and most fleeting of worldly pleasures instead of Him.

Virtuous Rules

As I say, I like having such rules, though I also understand how angering they can be. I’d like to think this is wisdom, but it might just be laziness. Other people don’t like them at all, and still others, like my Protestant friend, worry that the Church has too many rules and that some of them are foolish and petty. They are not being unreasonable in worrying, though they are quite wrong about the danger.

Why do Catholics have so many rules? Why is the Code of Canon Law such a thick book, and why did it take so much time and so many people’s effort to put together? Why does the Church give orders on so many things that the Protestant churches leave open, like how often we must go to church? What about grace? Is the Church run by control freaks who have nothing else to do but make up rules?

The short answer, as the example of the rule about going to Mass on Sundays shows, is: The Church gives us so many rules because rules make our lives better. They are not ways of escaping from God’s grace, but God’s gracious way, conveyed through His Church, of helping us live in and through His grace in the world. They free us to do what God has given us to do without having to figure out everything on our own. And after 2,000 years of experience, the Church has worked through almost any problem a person or a group like a parish or diocese is likely to face.

My friend gave as an example of a “downright silly” rule an explanation of the use of holy water she had heard on a Catholic radio show. “Apparently,” she wrote, “if you are running out of holy water, you can add some regular water to stretch it. If you have a cup of holy water, you can add up to half a cup to stretch it, but no more. If you add half a cup plus one tablespoon to your cup of holy water, it is no longer holy water. Can you see how such a thing would appear to be a bit too precise and legalistic to a non-Roman mind?”

I have no idea where the radio show got this rule. It’s not in the Code of Canon Law. But wherever it came from, the rule helps to explain something important about the Church precisely because the problem is so small and the answer seems so ridiculously precise.

Whatever we do, whether we’re raising children or running a parish, the moment we start making decisions, we are going to begin working out all the little details and distinctions, and start drawing fine lines between one thing and another. We will make up rules, some of them really precise. Those who don’t think about the practical questions of life are going to complain that we are being absurdly obsessive about it all, and get annoyed at us for caring so much about mere rules.

Rules Rule, O.K.

Take as a test case the problem my friend raised. She thought the rule was silly, but what is to be done when a church runs out of holy water and the priest isn’t around to make more? The simple, easy, “un-silly” answer is to say, “Just wait till he gets back.”

But that is not necessarily the right answer, not least because people want and need holy water. Blessing oneself as one enters and leaves a church is an important act of dedication and reflection, and a habitual way of marking the transition between the world and the church. The worshiper will miss it if he arrives at the church and finds the stoup dry. Of course the Lord in the tabernacle is still awaiting His friends, but walking into His presence without blessing oneself just feels wrong.

If holy water can be stretched a bit — it’s water, after all — the question to be asked is: How far can it be stretched without ceasing to be what it is? Even the supposedly anti-legalist Protestant will see that diluting it very far destroys the thing itself. If there are two cups left in the dispenser and someone throws in four gallons of water, most people would agree that what is inside the dispenser is not what is advertised on the outside.

There is some point at which holy water ceases to be holy water and becomes plain water with some holy water mixed in it. It is not “legalistic” to try to figure out where that point comes. It is practical and helpful. It’s thoughtful. The parish secretary faced with an almost empty dispenser when the priest is out for the day has to know what to do. The people of the parish want her to know what to do.

It is just no good saying something un-legalistic like, “The amount doesn’t matter, because it’s holy water as long as it does what it’s supposed to.” It can do what it is supposed to do only if it is what it is supposed to be, and the people who use it can be sure it is what it is supposed to be. There’s a reason for the “holy” in “holy water.” Otherwise we’d simply call it “water.”

Secular Parallels

Any human institution has to do this kind of precise and extensive rule-making. There are any number of secular parallels to the Catholic’s concern for getting the holy water right.

Apparently, non-alcoholic beer cannot be brewed without some alcohol remaining. Many states let 18-year-olds buy it. So someone in those states has to answer the question: What alcohol level makes it real beer, and therefore only for those 21 or older?

Whoever has to answer that question — and someone will have to — will try to figure out what effect different levels of alcohol have on young persons’ brains and behavior, and how much of it they can have without harm. It’s not a matter for which a precise number can be set with scientific certainty, but a precise number has to be set, or there’s no use having a law at all.

If the number is 0.5% ABV (alcohol by volume), what makes 0.4% O.K. for an 18-year-old to buy and 0.6% not O.K.? Isn’t that just legalism? Isn’t it silly to care about such a tiny difference? Wouldn’t it be petty to stop a business from selling 0.6% non-alcoholic beer? The policeman’s answer is that the definition may not be exact, but we need one, and it’s the best one we have, and it would be useless if it weren’t specific. He would point out that if 0.6% is alright, what about 0.7%, and 0.8%, and 0.9%? If the law doesn’t draw the line somewhere, stores will be selling real beer to minors.

That is the kind of decision life requires in a million ways. The post office does it. The gas company does it. The library does it. The little league does it. The IRS does it. But usually only the Church (and the IRS) gets blamed for it.

Our Protestant brethren also enforce a whole host of rules, though unfortunately for their people many of the rules have never been put into words, nor have they been well thought through. That so many of their rules are unarticulated social norms does not make them any less binding — try dressing the wrong way for church on Sunday (don’t wear your tie in some churches, don’t forget it in others) — but it does make them less useful, and very often less rational and less just and, in a sense, arbitrary.

The Catholic system is more clearly articulated and much better thought out, and therefore much kinder. With the Church, you know where you are.

The Church Practical

I have no opinion on the rule that bothered my friend, but certainly we can use a rule of such precision, on that and hundreds of other matters. Knowing from 2,000 years of practical experience what people need to know, the Catholic Church thinks through even a question as small and odd as how far we can stretch the holy water, because doing so helps her people know what to do, and assures them that the Church can provide what she says she will.

That’s why the Catholic Church has so many rules, and why the Code of Canon Law is such a thick book, and why the Church gives orders on so many things the Protestant bodies leave unsettled. The Church knows how to live in the world, and that her people need a map. She is very, very practical.

Hers is a kind and prudent practicality. She has even the small things covered, the things most people don’t even notice, that some would think “downright silly” to worry about. She has the answers to our questions before we have to ask them. That is one sign of a true Mother.




A lot of Catholic rules, like what to do when the church is running low on holy water, are matters of custom and convention, though not to be ignored even so. The truly binding law is given in the Code of Canon Law, last issued in 1983 and revised a little since then. It needs both to make practical what Catholics should do and to allow adjustments to circumstances. That is a tricky balance to maintain, and may explain the precision of some rules and the apparent vagueness of others.

As Pope John Paul II said in Sacrae Disciplinae Leges, his apostolic constitution introducing the 1983 revision, the Code “is in no way intended as a substitute for faith, grace, charisms, and especially charity in the life of the Church and of the faithful.” It is intended to order the Church so that these can develop naturally in her life and in the life of those who belong to her.

The Code, the Pope continued, “is extremely necessary for the Church…organized as a social and visible structure,” and he gives four reasons why: The Church must have such laws to make visible her “hierarchical and organic structure”; to organize the duties God has given her, especially what the Pope calls “sacred power” and administering the sacraments; to regulate “the mutual relations of the faithful…according to justice based upon charity, with the rights of individuals guaranteed and well-defined”; and to foster, sustain, and strengthen the things Catholics do together “to live a Christian life ever more perfectly.”

But what about all those times the New Testament seems to condemn “the law”? Jesus, the Pope explained, did not “in the least wish to destroy the very rich heritage of the law and the prophets which was gradually formed from the history and experience of the people of God in the Old Testament, but he brought it to completion (cf. Mt. 5:17) such that in a new and higher way it became part of the heritage of the New Testament.”

When St. Paul explains in Romans that we are saved by faith and not by works (3:28), he still accepts the “binding force” of the Ten Commandments, as he insists a few verses later (3:31). He often gives the churches he founded rules for living (see, for example, 1 Cor. 5 and 6).

“Thus,” John Paul II concludes, “the writings of the New Testament enable us to understand even better the importance of discipline and make us see better how it is more closely connected with the saving character of the evangelical message itself.” The Church’s canon law is one of the graces God has given us.

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