Rules and Spiritual Growth

The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have recently reinstated the practice that the obligation of Friday penance is to be met by fully abstaining from meat on Fridays. Some time ago, I saw the fact that this was being considered reported on someone’s blog, where it prompted several people to express the hope in comments to the blog post that the American bishops do the same. More than one person wrote that the practice of abstaining from meat was a good one and that therefore it was good for people to be told they had to do it.

The other day, my friend Marc wrote a post on Mirror of Justice, a group blog of which he and I are both contributing authors, about the reinstatement in England and Wales, prompting my friend Rick (also a contributing author on the blog) to comment that he thought it would be great if this were instituted in the U.S. as well.

Recalling the prior comments I had read on this issue, Rick’s comment prompted me to inquire about the necessity of the Bishops imposing a mandate on this. If one thinks it is a good spiritual practice to do so, why not just refrain from eating meat once a week, I asked. If it is beneficial, why does one need to be forced to do it? Several people responded with good points about the value of a common ethic and way of life and the value of a leading voice calling people to reinstitute the practice. Some suggested that rules were an important starting point – that compelling a practice was a good thing and that perhaps the time would then come when the mandate was no longer necessary. (You can read the post and all of the comments here.)

My concern is that while rules may be a good starting point, they too easily become the end point. Far too often, the effect of rules is to stifle rather than encourage spiritual development. Rules lead many people to think all they need to do is follow the rules that are established by some authority (here, the Bishops) and they’ve fulfilled their Christian duty. Others very carefully follow the letter of the law, forgetting about the spirit. (With respect to this particular practice, when I was growing up there was nothing penitential about no meat on Fridays – every kid in my neighborhood thought it was a treat because we got to eat pizza or macaroni and cheese for dinner. And I know many Catholics who go out for nice sushi dinners on Fridays during Lent.)

I am not suggesting there is no value in rules. But I do think a mature spirituality has to move beyond rules – to move to our doing things out of our relationship with God. Doing them not because we “have to” but because our will and God’s have become one. (What came to mind when I was posting on Mirror of Justice was Augustine’s “Love God and do as you please.”) And I fear that many people look for clear rules precisely because they are easy – they take all the responsibility off of the individual to do anything other than simply what they are told to do.

Rules have a place, especially with children. But we need to be careful to be sure that rules are aiding spiritual growth, not impeding it.