“Ask a Priest: Hasn’t the Church Sold Out by Easing Its Rules?”

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Q: If Church authorities over the years makes changes that lighten restrictions just to keep people in the Church, they are sellouts. For example, changing no meat on Friday to only no meat on Friday during Lent, and even allowing fish on days of fasting because fasting is too hard for people. And they changed the standard Mass out of Latin so that people will attend more – that is selling out, if it was originally supposed to be in Latin. These actions prove that the Church is a sellout for members. If the Church bends to the times, then God’s original rules were not good enough, and if God is infallible, he is not real if his rules need to be changed. So, my question is, if the Church makes changes just to keep members as opposed to keeping members through faith alone, how can one argue that the religion is not fake because they are moving the goalposts to keep members? – J.S.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It might be good to re-examine some of your presuppositions.

The changing of the rules regarding meat on Fridays wasn’t intended to make things easier but to give people more flexibility on what they could sacrifice. Friday remains a penitential day. If getting rid of the particular rule on meat didn’t work out, that is a different issue. The Church could certainly change the rule again.

As for the Latin Mass: Latin remains a viable language for the Mass. Some priests use Latin in their private Masses, and some parishes offer the Novus Ordo in Latin. One shouldn’t assume that Latin is the timeless standard, however. Many of the earliest Masses were probably in Aramaic or Greek.

The move toward the vernacular was to help people engage with the Mass more, which many do. The drop in Mass attendance since the 1960s is a complex phenomenon and can’t be tied to just the language used in the liturgy. Mass attendance was dropping in Europe, for instance, in a big way since the French Revolution — and that at a time when the Mass was in Latin.

As to the general notion that the Church waters down rule to keep the faithful, it is good to remember that the Church holds the line of all kinds of unpopular positions.

It still opposes contraception, divorce and remarriage, abortion, homosexual activity and a whole range of things that the world accepts. Catholicism remains committed to the truth as revealed by Christ. Which is anything but popular nowadays.

Jesus, by the way, gave the Church the power to “bind and loose” (see Matthew 18:18) its disciplinary rules, but not its dogmas. Dogmas are unchanging.

The heart of our faith is always our relationship with Jesus. Concern for the Church should always impel us to go deeper in our prayer life and friendship with Christ.

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  1. Good Response Fr. Edward McIlmail.

    I see in this reader’s question, the same difficulty in the question prior with regards ‘why sins of the flesh get more attention?’ The focus in that question was ‘who is bad’ and not ‘what is bad.’ (Subjective vs. Objective)

    In same pattern of seeing, this reader is questioning the subjective church rules or ‘laws’ aka canon laws rather than the reason for the canon laws. The canon laws of God’s family (church) is no different than the laws set down in any earthly family home to all members. Brush the teeth after meals, take a bath, don’t slouch at the table, say please and thank you, no fighting with siblings. These household rules are put in place to assist the DISCIPLINE of the ‘human will’ in smaller matters, so as to be disciplined in knowing what to do when larger decisions need to be made with regards LOVE OF GOD (first) and neighbor.

    The earthly household rules are certainly flexible with regards situation. ie: if the family is eating in a restaurant, the rule of brushing teeth after the meal might need to be altered, that doesn’t change the understanding of taking care of one’s teeth. If one is sick, waking the sick one up to take a bath, may need to be altered, but the objective of cleanliness did not change The ‘rules’ are shown mercy, with regards specific subjective situations. ie: if grandma slouches a little, there are reasons beyond just that grandma is being lazy.

    As you said, Father; while the specifics of fasting from meat on all Fridays changed, FRIDAY, the day our Lord ‘died to self’ for sake of others, is still a penitential day when we ‘in gratitude’ imitate in a small way giving up something of comfort FOR LOVE of God. (or doing something for LOVE of God) It isn’t wrong if one keeps the rule of saying NO to eating a tasty steak and instead eats Tuna Fish– without Mayo and Celery.

    The objective of laws is not to be burdensome but to bring AWARENESS of GOD., also called LOVE. If saying Mass in the vernacular of a given population helps in understanding the Mass, certainly the Mass can be spoken in German, French, Spanish, English . . . but the OBJECTIVE ORDER OF THE MASS LITURGY remains the same wherever it is celebrated. A good Catholic of any language, can walk into any Mass Liturgy
    and understand what is happening. (even if the words are foreign to the ears.) The liturgical order of the Mass cannot be changed.

    There is Canon law of the church, to assist people to disciplining their will to God’s will (which is LOVE)
    and then there is GOD’S LAWS (10 Commandments at basic) that the ministerial body of Christ never alter.
    Thou shalt not have strange gods before THE God, Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain, Thou keep holy the Lord’s day, with Worship (praise, thanksgiving and petition as One Body. (praise, thanksgiving, petition) As you said, THE CHURCH always stands firm on GOD’S LAW… and as you said Father, such firm resolve in honoring GOD does not make THE CHURCH of JESUS CHRIST popular in the world.

  2. “It might be good to re-examine some of your presuppositions.”

    It seems to me that all of the easng of the “rules of the Church” are not the “rules of the Catholic Church” in the first place. Ordained priests operate here in persona Christi and Jesus gave them to His Church to help us remember the Ten Comandments of His Father, His teachings and Sacraments that He brought to us while He was here on earth. They are the rules of God the Father via the TenCommandments and the edicts of Jesus the Son of God. The Church teaches the people of God about God and His precepts and and gives us exercises (i.e. not eating meat on Friday, observings holy days of obligation, offering days of adoration and prayer to the Holy Eucharist, etc.) to help strenthen us and keep us strong in the Faith and keep us close to Jesus. I don’t believe that the Church waters down it’s exercises to keep people in Church but as stated, to provide flexibility by accomodating the changes in lifestyle and social construct. The Church does not and cannot “water down” the teachings of God.

  3. To sum up the topic on ‘rules’ aka canon (church) law, we need only to remember Jesus’ words:

    He came not to abolish law but to FULFILL the law WITH LOVE. (With His merciful self) That response was with regards the endless law upon law upon law the pharisees held to with regards the temple.

    THE CHURCH can change canon law with regards specific situations, but THE OBJECTIVE reason for the laws remain same. To draw people to come to know, love, and serve GOD, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Friday’s remain a day of penance (giving something up) Mass Attendance is obligatory, but certainly if one is ill,
    in a hospital, or cannot get to a Catholic Church for reason of traveling, it is not a sin, The vernacular language of Mass can be as per what is the language of the people, but the Liturgical Order and Words of Mass cannot be changed.

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