The Whys of Catholic Legalism – With Solutions

Nov 2, 2022

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

Legalism. Legalism has been getting a lot of negative press. No one wants to be labeled a legalist. In recent years, Pope Francis has been calling out legalism, though he does not always use that particular term. Here is an example from his homily from Mass at Santa Marta Residence from October 31, 2014:

This way of life, of being attached to the laws, distanced them [the Doctors of the Law] from love and from justice. They followed the laws and they neglected justice. They followed the laws and they neglected love. They were the models. And for these people Jesus had only one word for them: hypocrites. On one hand, you travel across the world looking for proselytes: you’re looking for them. And then? You close the door. Closed-minded men, men who are so attached to the laws, to the letter of the law that they were always closing the doorway to hope, love and salvation… Men who only knew how to close doors.

But what is legalism?

Surprisingly, despite all the ink spilled in the Catholic press about legalism, I have been unable to find a concise definition of legalism from a reputable Catholic source. But let’s not let that deter us. Let’s wrap our minds around what legalism is.

Theopedia offers the following: Legalism, in Christianity, is a term referring to an improper fixation on law or codes of conduct for a person to merit or obtain salvation, blessing from God, or fellowship with God, with an attendant misunderstanding of the grace of God. Simply put, legalism is belief that obedience to the law or a set of rules is the pre-eminent principle of redemption and/or favor with God.

Christopher O. Tollefsen in The Public Discourse article What is Legalism? tells us that “Contemporary legalism downplays, ignores, and occasionally denigrates the “rules” of morality in favor of mercy, accompaniment, and integration.”

So now we are getting the picture. Legalism is about following the rules, the laws at the expense of everything else. Legalism is being a Pharisee, a hypocrite, being blind to the “big picture” of our Faith.

Criticisms of legalism

We see Jesus being critical of legalism in Matthew 23:16-28, where he says

Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If any one swears by the temple, it is nothing; but if any one swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If any one swears by the altar, it is nothing; but if any one swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; and he who swears by the temple, swears by it and by him who dwells in it; and he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. You blind Pharisee! first cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

The costs of legalism

Legalism sacrifices justice, love, mercy, relationship, and connection on the altar of blind rule-following. In addition, Russell Shaw writes in Legalism, Old and New that “…legalism, correctly understood, is opposed to authentic morality.” And it is.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker in The Traps of Legalism and License writes:

After more than half a century of being a Christian – first within the world of Protestant fundamentalism, then in the mainstream Church of England, and now as a Catholic priest – I am convinced that there are two extremes that play against each other to kill true Christianity. The first is legalism and the second is license.

Legalism kills true Christianity. Ouch. That’s not good.

Legalism also fosters a kind of self-absorption, which results from having to focus on dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s and making sure you are always coloring within the moral lines, walking a moral tightrope. This compromises your ability to connect in a deep way with God or others.

From a pragmatic perspective, another problem is that legalism doesn’t work. It doesn’t bring about the desired ends and causes frustration and fatigue. Henry Karlson in his article from October 19, 2022 titled Rigid Legalism Will Only Wear Us Out writes the following:

Rigid legalism offers us an unbearable burden which can and will wear us out if we succumb to its temptation. If we heed its call, it will place more and more demands upon us, until, at last, we find it tries to obligate us to something which we cannot do. For, it is clear, its demands are never-ending, while our potential is limited. So long as we think we must obey its every whim, we will not be able to attain the peace and joy God desires for us, because we will never find ourselves in a position where we think we have done enough to receive it. Such rigidity is not a temptation everyone has, but for those who do, not only do they wear themselves out trying to appease it, they will make others suffer, placing the same (or possibly even greater) extreme demands upon them.

Fr. Longenecker also grasps this phenomenon:

The consequences are dire because, of course, we can never be good enough. And if we are locked into legalism, the realization that we can never be good enough starts to sour our whole world. Desperately wanting to be good enough, we assume a posture of self-righteousness to convince ourselves that we really are good after all. Like the addict who is never satiated, when our goodness fails, we become more legalistic, not less.

Then the real rot sets it. In a continued effort to make ourselves feel good enough, we find those who are worse than we are. We point fingers. We tut tut. We blame others. We find scapegoats. We exclude, persecute, and eventually plot to destroy the sinners. This pattern of legalism and the spiral of destruction began with Cain, climaxed with the Pharisees and continues its cancerous way in our world with the extremes of fundamentalism in every form of Christianity.

Legalism deprives us of peace and joy in its insatiable demands on us. Legalism is bad. Legalism doesn’t work. Legalism alienates others. OK. Got it.

Curiosity about legalism

But here’s my question. What motivates Catholics to become legalistic in the first place? Given all the costs and downsides and criticisms of legalism, from Jesus Himself onward – why do Catholics still “go there”?

Apart from the passage above from Fr. Longenecker’s article, none of the dozens of online articles I reviewed ever addressed the question, “Why legalism? What is the perceived good in legalism?”

That is troubling to me. Why is there so little interest in getting to the causal roots of the phenomenon of legalism? I do not know. It seems to me so important to understand ourselves if we are to better love ourselves. And even if you do not personally struggle with legalism, it’s likely that you know someone who does. Understanding others is so central to being able to love them.

Frankly, I am unimpressed when mere mortals condemn the behavioral phenomena (like legalism) of other mere mortals without any effort to understand the underlying motivations that fuel the behaviors. It’s like saying: “Legalism is bad. Therefore, don’t be legalistic. There. Fixed that.” It’s just not that simple.

I’m especially interested in the perceived goods that people are seeking when they sin or engage in maladaptive or disordered behaviors. If we know what goods they are really seeking, we can help them find alternative ways to have legitimate needs met. That seems much more constructive than condemnation. So why do people engage in legalism, despite its manifest disadvantages and costs?

Reasons for legalism

When I consider the motivations for any behavior in the natural realm, I go back to ten basic human needs, five integrity needs and five attachment needs.

I discussed these in Episode In episode 62 of my podcast Interior Integration for Catholics, titled A New and Better Way of Understanding Myself and Others, and also made note of them in weekly reflection from September 7, 2022 titled The Top 10 Needs That Fuel Modern-Day Idol Worship, but let’s review them briefly, starting with the integrity needs:

Five integrity needs

  • My need to exist and survive
  • My need to matter
  • My need to have agency
  • My need to be good
  • My need for mission and purpose in life

Let us break these down, starting with the first two. I think many people caught up in legalism may be trying to avoid losing their existence in hell. Let me explain. I think so many people harbor terrible God images in the unconscious – hard, demanding Gods that require them to toe the line, even in the little things. If they give up attempts at legalism, how could they hope to make themselves acceptable enough to God? How could they become good enough so that God would notice them and smile upon them – so that God could accept them?

Let us also consider the fourth one – a need for a felt sense of being good. Many people struggle with unconscious shame, a deep sense of inadequacy. Legalism might be an attempt to compensate for this deep, vague sense of ontological badness by looking better outwardly. The need to be good, coupled with a need to use agency in a good way, might also motivate a person to try to impose legalistic standards on other Catholics – if he doesn’t do that, God may be displeased or he may look down on himself for not carrying out his mission on earth.

Legalism may seem to provide a pathway for self-perfection and growing in virtue without the vulnerability required in an intimate relationship with the three Persons of the Trinity and our Lady. As Fr. Longenecker writes:

Too often we fall into an immature insistence that all we have to do is avoid the “don’ts” and do the “do’s”. We tell ourselves that if we just keep the rules, we will be all right in the end. Order will be brought out of the chaos. Everything will be hunky dory. God will be happy with his good little boys and girls. And if we are very, very good, nothing will go wrong and one day we will get the lollipop of eternal life.

So one can consider legalism as a maladaptive way to try to preserve or to increase one’s integrity. Often the underlying processes are unconscious and not part of a person’s God concept, who he or she professes God to be.

Five attachment needs

  • My need for felt safety and protection in relationship
  • My need for a felt sense of being seen, heard, known, and understood
  • My need for a felt sense of being comforted, soothed, and reassured
  • My need for a felt sense of being valued, treasured, delighted in, and cherished
  • My need for a felt sense of support for my highest good

It is my sense that those Catholics invested in legalism are less focused on attachment and more centered on integrity. But my experience of Catholics who are legalistic is that they do not generally have a deep, felt sense of any of these attachment needs being met by God. For some people, legalism is more of a misguided attempt to position oneself to eventually be able to experience closeness with God. There seems to be a little sense of being valued, treasured, and delighted in by God for those who struggle with legalism. Legalistic spiritualities may seem to have very little relationality in them at all.

Legalism and parts

As many of you know I think each of us has a multiplicity and a unity in our psyches — I don’t believe in a single, homogeneous, monolithic personality — see my weekly reflection from August 24, 2022 titled Why I Reject the Concept of “Personality” for more on why.

When a person is thinking or acting legalistically, I interpret that as the person being dominated by a legalistic part who is driving the person’s bus (like when the red Anger character takes over the control panel in the Pixar movie “Inside Out’). That part may seem very large and in charge, but that part does not represent all of the person’s being. I see legalistic parts as trying to protect the person from danger or harm – for example, incurring the displeasure or even wrath of God.

You can learn more about parts and how they work in Episode 71 of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, titled A New and Better Way of Understanding Myself and Others.

Action Plan

So what can we do, brethren? How can we address legalism in ourselves and others? Here are some ideas:

  1. As an overarching principle, the ultimate remedy for legalism is to experience a secure, loving, personal relationship with the three Persons of the Trinity and with our Lady.
  2. Remember that the whole person is unlikely to be legalistic – that a legalistic part of the person happens to be in charge right now.
  3. Consider how legalism may be a maladaptive attempt by the protective part to have some deeper integrity or attachment need met. This can have a humanizing effect and decrease the propensity to judge harshly and immediately.
  4. It may be possible to find out what that deeper need is through internal conversation with parts. One question to ask is “What is the feared outcome if the legalism is let go?”
  5. Consider alternative ways to meet the deeper needs, once they are revealed.
  6. Recognize that legalism is likely to increase with stress and a sense of threat. Situational stressors can exacerbate legalism.
  7. Individuals with legalism tend to elicit judging, condemning reactions from others. See if you can resist that pull, remaining open, receptive, and curious to what is going on beneath the surface of the legalistic front.

I hope that is helpful! Stay tuned for next week, when we discuss the flip sides of legalism – the polarizations around legalism. And we will get into what happens when people throw out the Law with the legalism, the baby with the bathwater. While I agree that legalism is a real problem, I also recognize how discarding the Law in favor of one’s own “being guided by the Spirit” creates a whole host of other problems. So tune in for that next week!

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S. If this kind of approach to understanding legalism is appealing to you, consider joining the Resilient Catholics Community – we are 120 Catholics on a pilgrimage to much better human formation, informed by Internal Family Systems and grounded in a Catholic anthropology. We are growing in ordered love for God, others, and ourselves, together in community. Learn more on our landing page. You can reach out to me with questions at or at 317.567.9594.

P.P.S. If you or someone you know is in crisis, I highly recommend The Upper Room. The Upper Room Crisis Hotline at 1.888.808.8724 is available 24/7 and I am impressed with the their staff and their crisis intervention services, which are available for everyone, not just priests, deacons, and religious.

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