What are we OBLIGED to do? (Or, “What?!? Are you saying that people who don’t exercise are going to HELL?!?”)

In yesterday’s post on Taking Your Little Ones to Church, many people attempted to argue against my points by saying that the Church does not oblige them to bring their young children to Church. That is true. Here are several other things the Church does not strictly “oblige” us to do.

-Look both ways before we cross the street.


-Take time to play with our kids

-Make a budget.

-Cut our grass.

-Wash the dishes.

-Do our laundry.

-Help our kids with their homework

-Take out the trash at least weekly

-Eat three balanced meals a day

-Go to the doctor when we’re sick

-Fix a leaking roof

-Throw away moldy food

-Wear deoderant

-Oh, and take our small kids to Church

Shall I go on?

We are not obliged by our faith to do any of these things and many, many, many, other things besides. That said, they are all very, very, very good things to do.

Now, it may happen that I might have a good reason for not doing one or any or all of these things at some point in my life. That’s understood. But I would be a fool to then attempt to turn that deficit into a virtue by, for instance, saying, “Not wearing deoderant is just as good as wearing it and how dare you try to make me feel bad for smelling like GOD made me to smell! Don’t you know how frazzled I am?!? How DARE you write a blog post–on the very day I didn’t have time to de-stinkify my pits no less–on the fact that our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and that self-care is pleasing to the Lord and failing to do so robs us–ROBS US YOU SAY?!? –of the opportunity to enjoy social interaction to the full. How. DARE. You!”

Just because the Church does not oblige us to do something doesn’t make not doing it a virtue.   So, for example, having the skills to be able to successfully take your small children to Church is, objectively speaking, better than not having the skills to make that happen.  Successfully being able to take your little ones to Church is a desirable thing to learn to do.  If you don’t know how to do it, it would probably be good for you to learn.  It’s ok for you to not know how to do it, but it is hardly a virtue to be incapable of successfully bringing your small children to Church.  It is foolish to try to pretend that it is.

Let me confess something to you. I don’t exercise. I hate it. There are many things I am good at. Exercise is not one of them. Imagine that I read a blog post that says, “The body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. St. Irenaeus says that ‘the glory of God is man fully alive!’ and all medical science tells us that exercise is key to living a full and healthy life. Further, the Theology of the Body tells us that the body is a visible sign of all the invisible things that make you a person and projecting an unfit image does a disservice to the wonderful person God created you be. Not exercising robs you of the chance to be the fully healthy and glorious masterpiece you were created by God to be. Therefore, you should exercise.”

There is nothing about that statement that is untrue. That statement, to some degree, convicts me. Exercising may not be my priority in life right now. I may even struggle to live up to it. But that doesn’t mean that the way I live  is, “just as good as” the way someone else who exercises lives. True, my life works for me. My BP and cholesterol are, surprisingly, just fine as they are. But that is not the point.   I could, objectively, stand to learn something from this other person who is living in a healthier way than me.  If I’m healthy now, just imagine how much healthier I could be if I took this dude’s advice. But that’s really hard for me to do, therefore, I might not like what I read.  Even so, maybe it just isn’t a time in my life where I can really start a serious exercise program. So, I read the post. I think, “Hmm. Interesting. Good points. Wish I could do that right now, but I don’t think I can. Maybe I should think a bit more seriously about that. Perhaps I may yet do better!”

But it would be foolish to me to try to make my deficit a virtue. It would be foolish for me to go into the exercise blogger’s combox and post, “Dear Captain Exercise, How dare you suggest that I am not perfect just the way I am for not exercising. I’m just fine. I’m not going to hell for not exercising. The Church doesn’t require me to exercise! Don’t you know how FRAZZLED I am?!? Why are you trying to make me feel guilty for saying that there is some virtue to be gained from exercising?!? SHOW me where that is in the Catechism. I dare you.”

I don’t do that, because that would be ridiculous. I recognize that it is not responsible to claim my deficits as a virtue. If I don’t know how to make something work, or if I have made choices in my life that prevent me from enacting some “best practice”,  I have to deal with the fact that my life just isn’t as healthy as it could be.    So what?  Welcome to the human race.

The bottom line is that it is possible to say that some ways to live are better than other ways. Every way is simply NOT as good as every other way, and even if the Church doesn’t “oblige” us to behave in a certain way, that still doesn’t mean that some ways aren’t better than others. That’s where experts come in. The Church DOES tell us that we have an obligation to take the words of experts, not as gospel, but seriously. In the Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, for instance, the Church says, “Parents who are not always prepared to face up to the problematic side of education for love can [be] guided by expert persons who are worthy of trust, for example, doctors, priests, educators.”   Likewise, Pope John Paul II in his statement to mental health professionals of the world said, “You and your associates make an important contribution to the future of society by seeking to point out, in the light of a dispassionate commitment to truth, the limits of certain models of social life….”

And that’s what I am trying to do here. I’m not interested in making anyone feel guilty or arguing with anyone. But, in my capacity as a professional Catholic pastoral counselor, marriage and family expert, university professor, author, and radio host, I am exercising my right to interpret the data and say that certain choices are in fact better than other choices.

Those who are of a mind to listen may do so.  Those who aren’t are free to go elsewhere.

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