Welcome to the CHNetwork Online Community Forums Doctrine and Theology (Except Mary) Why is the Catholic church so legalistic?


8 replies, 8 voices Last updated by  chancew 9 months, 2 weeks ago
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    After speaking with a local priest yesterday, he detailed the road I would have to follow if I wished to become Catholic, and it is a long and tedious one by the sound of it.  The thief on the cross had only to ask Jesus and he was instantly in Christ, and by extension his church.  In Acts 8:36, the eunuch asked what hindered him from being baptized.


    So why does the Catholic church have so many forms, classes, and hoops through which one must jump in order to join the body when that is not the pattern we see in scripture?



    My knee-jerk reaction would be to say the Catholic Church is not so legalistic but people within the Catholic Church can be legalistic. You talked to the wrong priest. When I started the process leading up to Easter Vigil I no longer considered myself non-Catholic. I considered myself a Catholic as soon as I made the decision to be Catholic. If I filled out a form which asked my religious preference I would check Catholic. We also say everybody is Catholic, they just don’t know it yet.

    There are many personalities in the Catholic Church, just like everywhere else, and some of those personalities (Myers-Briggs) are sticklers for details, others fly by the seat of their pants. Talk to one in the first group and you’ll find yourself filling out forms and following formulas. Talk to one in the second group and you’ll find yourself partying with the Saints. All those personality types have left their marks on the Church and I read somewhere it might be unfortunate there were such long periods in the Church when meticulous types dominated.



    Thank you both for your responses.  You gave me something to chew on and mull over for sure.



    I totally get your perspective, but as has already been mentioned, it’s an ancient practice to take time to instruct new people. This *is* very different to praying a prayer and you’re completely in for life.

    But that’s the thing, it’s a long process to ‘become’ Catholic, but it’s an even longer process to walk every day of your life in holiness after you become Catholic, and it’s no bad thing to learn the ‘walk’. It’s not like a sprint, it’s a marathon.


    Howard Hampson
    @Howard the Pilgrim

    I think it is helpful to think of the process of becoming a Catholic as a spiritual formation process, however long or short it happens to be.  I read somewhere that coming into the Church in the early centuries became a three year process.  I don’t have a reference for that, perhaps David, Ken or Jennie can come up with a reference off the tops of their knowledgeable heads.

    Becoming truly Catholic is a paradigm shift from Protestantism or secularism.  It is a different way of spirituality, a different worldview, a different understanding of the nature of the Church and what it means to be a part of that Church.  It is a different way of relating to God.  I have heard people say that Texas is a state of mind, which always makes me laugh.  Well, being Catholic is a state of mind and soul.  It is an identity much more like an ethnicity or a nationality.  It is becoming part of a large, extended family that transcends culture, time and space.  It takes time to become Catholic and the job isn’t finished when you enter the Church but the Church at least wants you to have a good head start on the process.

    Really, we are talking about what Protestants call sanctification and Catholics call conversion, being conformed to the image of Christ.  It is a lifelong process.  And the Catholic Church offers a lot more intentional and helpful way of going about it.  I’ve grown leaps and bounds more in the last 7 years of being a Catholic Christian that I did in the previous 36 years of being an evangelical believer, Bible teacher and lay preacher.  My family will attest to it.  They tell me I am a much better husband, father and now grandfather that I ever was before.  Why?  Because the Catholic Church helped me really become a man of prayer who really communes with God and told me that being a family man is my vocation before God.  And the Church has been teaching me what true sacrificial love is through the Sacraments, the teachings of the Church and the examples of the saints.  And I am learning forbearance, forgiveness, humility, kindness, gentleness and self control.

    So yeah, it’s not easy but nothing good is.



    I remember the “three years in the early Church” as well in terms of their catechetical rite, Howard, although like you, I cannot remember where I have read that. I think as well, the Church wants us to be deliberate about this being Catholic. It is not like jumping from pool to pool as a Protestant, changing denominations as you change your mind, or your location, or your friends. Once you become Catholic, you are Catholic for life in the Church’s mind and therefore, dare I say, in God’s mind. I knew instinctively what was expected of me IF I became Catholic. I knew that at this point I was playing for keeps in my choice. It is why I studied this faith so deliberately, making sure that I could agree with all of what it said. I think this is why the Church makes us wait things out. It wants our choice to be deliberate and not just some whim of the moment.


    David W. Emery
    @David W. Emery

    Some Evangelical denominations have a very short list of doctrine and practice for newcomers. I recently read an account of a certain denomination whose “catechism” is all of two pages long. How many sessions does it take to cover that amount of material? Contrast this with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which in its standard English edition is 900 pages. There is just so much more to Catholicism that an extended period of instruction is absolutely necessary.

    In the time period covered by the book of Acts, the imparting of instruction went from the hearing and receiving of the kerygma, in the form of a lengthy sermon, followed by baptism, to a catechumenate of several months’ duration. The differences in time required seem to be coordinated with whether the Catechumens were of Jewish or pagan background.

    A footnote in Wikipedia on Jewish practice in early Christian times states that Josephus (d. circa 100 A.D.) speaks of a three-year catechumenate, specifying their separation from full-fledged Jews and some details on the curriculum.

    The Catholic Encyclopedia (Link) provides a detailed description of the fourth century Christian catechumenate, mentioning a statutory two years of doctrinal instruction and moral/spiritual formation.

    A Protestant publication (Link to PDF) states on pages 43–44 that the sources mentioning the three-year catechumenate are the Apostolic Tradition 17.1 and the Apostolic Constitutions 8.32.16. Both of these works are also from the fourth century.

    Religious instruction in early Christian times was all done orally. Written catechisms did not exist until mass reproduction of materials became feasible with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1439. Individual instruction, following the Catechism of the Council of Trent (also known as the Roman Catechism) or one of the regional catechisms, such as the Penny Catechism in England or the Baltimore Catechism in the U.S., was the norm after the Council of Trent (1545–1563) through to the 20th century. (As a convert myself, I was instructed by a priest over a six month period using the Baltimore Catechism in 1962–63.)

    The Second Vatican Council, at the request of bishops in mission territories, re-instituted the ancient concept of the catechumenate. The standard instruction period then became one to two years for Catechumens (those who are not yet Christians and have not been baptized) and a flexible schedule for Candidates (those who are baptized Christians coming from other Christian entities), based on their knowledge, faith and moral/spiritual formation. Later, a standard curriculum was formed, supported by the release of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) in 1993 (revised edition issued 1997, primarily to include statements by Pope John Paul II on war and execution of criminals). Some national councils of bishops also issued their own catechisms. For example, the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued its United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (600 pages) in 2006.

    In the documentation establishing the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), the program for Catechumens is supposed to be separate from the program for Candidates, due to the presumed different levels of knowledge and formation. The problem with the way RCIA is run in most parishes of Europe and North America is that both Catechumens with Candidates are combined into the same class, then everyone is taught on the same ultra-basic level. This has aroused the ire of many former Protestants who desire to become Catholic. They rightly say that they are not starting from square one, and that there ought to be a higher level of teaching and a shorter term of instruction for them. Unfortunately, Catholic parishes typically have neither the volunteer manpower nor the expertise to offer separate and more sophisticated classes for Candidates.

    Enter the Coming Home Network. This apostolate offers material, dialogue and instruction for any stage of inquiry and any level of sophistication. At the top level, it deals with clergy of other faiths and those whose livelihood depends on their institutional affiliation. The CHNI Forum is designed to help anyone who believes he could benefit from dialogue with knowledgeable Catholics. It can be seen as a supplement to any RCIA program for anyone who feels he is not getting all he could out of those classes.


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