The long arm of the Church

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese are reason Nos. 10, 11, and 12 in the series. Please read my introduction and explanation here.

As expected, I’m getting push-back from some Catholics regarding this series I’m doing. It feels personal to them, and I get that. I’ve tried to make a clear distinction between the doctrine of the Catholic Church and the Church’s members, but for most “cradle” Catholics, any criticism of their church feels like an attack on them. My prayer is that these posts will prompt them to look objectively at the Church’s teachings and practices as if they had learned them at university, rather than at their mother’s knee.

One of the primary objections I have to the Catholic Church, which I am exemplifying in three reasons, is her claimed jurisdiction in the lives of her people. She assumes for herself the right to command or restrict the faithful regarding particular deeds and practices, without biblical warrant.

Such as abstaining from eating meat on certain days. “You shall observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence” is one of the five precepts of the church outlined in paragraph 2043 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. According to Catholic Answers, the law of abstinence has been modified over the years and varies in its scope depending on location. In the Lenten season in the United States “the faithful are allowed to eat meat at their principal meal on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, the second and last Saturdays excepted.” So, “On Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as on the second and last Saturdays of Lent, flesh meat is not permitted.” What’s more, “The beginning of the four seasons of the year is marked by Ember Week, during which Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday are days of fasting and abstinence. Ember Week occurs after the first Sunday of Lent, after Pentecost, after the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and after the third Sunday in Advent.”1

I recognize the spiritual benefits of the disciplines of fasting and abstinence. But to make them mandatory is unscriptural overreach, and leads to counteracting accommodations like the feasting at church fish fries.

Another of the five precepts is the requirement that Catholics confess their sins to a priest at least once a year. The Bible says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.2 We are to confess, to acknowledge, to agree that what we have done is sin, but “to one another.” No priest or clergyperson is required.

The Church’s reach extends even into what to name the baby. I vividly remember feeling constrained by this when I was pregnant with one of my three oldest children. I was taught that the name needed to be the name of a saint or some derivation of it. Paragraph 2156 in the Catechism says this: “In Baptism, the Lord’s name sanctifies man, and the Christian receives his name in the Church. This can be the name of a saint, that is, of a disciple who has lived a life of exemplary fidelity to the Lord. The patron saint provides a model of charity; we are assured of his intercession. The ‘baptismal name’ can also express a Christian mystery or Christian virtue.” And in 2165, “Parents, godparents, and the pastor are to see that he be given a Christian name.”

I don’t disagree with the advisability of selecting a name that signifies virtue or fidelity. I just don’t believe it’s a matter that comes under the Church’s authority.

Because the Catholic Church believes God’s Spirit dwells in her in a unique way, she asserts the right to command and demand in all areas of a believer’s life. But if he does not, then she does not have that right, and every believer is accountable to God alone, whose Spirit dwells within each of us.

1 James D. O’Neill,
2 James 5:16