Rules and Fools

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Are we fools for obeying rules? Absolutely, yes — and no. I am firmly committed to both sides of the question.

On the other hand, are we fools to make rules? Without a doubt, except sometimes. Again, I am securely and comfortably ensconced astride the fence.

This apparent ambiguity was triggered by the funeral I attended last week. As I creep toward my dotage, I find myself spending more and more time at mortuaries, and attending funerals. And the funeral featured a eulogy.

So what? Well, here’s what: I am a Catholic, and this was a Catholic funeral. And eulogies are not permitted at Catholic funerals. It’s a rule. Should you doubt that (perhaps having attended a Catholic funeral yourself recently) let me quote from the Order of Christian Funerals, published by the Vatican in 1989: "A brief homily based on the readings should always be given at the funeral liturgy, but never any kind of eulogy." Has that rule been changed? No. In 2000, Pope John Paul II promulgated the revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which included this rule: "At the Funeral Mass there should, as a rule, be a short homily, but never a eulogy of any kind."

So the rule, twice stated, is unequivocal: NEVER a eulogy. The practice, on the other hand, seems, to my experience, universal as well: ALWAYS a eulogy. Are priests ignorant of the rules of their own liturgy? I wouldn’t dismiss that possibility, although it seems odd that I, a layman, should know the liturgical rule that is unknown to the priest. Or do they simply shrug it off as unimportant? That is likely, given our modern disregard for authority.

Similarly, the General Instruction prescribes the way the liturgy is to be celebrated. No priest has the authority to add or subtract a single word from the liturgy, but it happens all the time. Some priests seem to regard themselves as performers, and give us their own idiosyncratic version of Mass.

I cite these examples from Catholic teaching and behavior because I am familiar with them, but the question I raise has nothing to do specifically with religion, namely: what if they made a rule and nobody paid any attention to it? In the case of the Church, the disobedient can thumb their noses at the rules because the Church does not seek, nor wish to have, the power to physically punish them.

But what about the state? It makes innumerable rules, which it calls "laws," and fully expects obedience to them. But disobedience, at least in some areas, is widespread. Traffic laws, for example, are widely ignored. Few people pay much attention to speed limits, unless they spot a police car in the area. Probably the only reason why tourists adhere to the laws regarding the bringing of contraband into the country is the fear of punishment if caught, but even that fear does not prevent them from packing a sausage from Italy among their clothes, or sneaking a few tulip bulbs from Holland in with their toiletries.

Numbers make the difference. If most priests scrupulously observed the rule prohibiting eulogies, the ones who regularly eulogized would be conspicuous by their disobedience. The nail that sticks up is the one that gets the hammer! But if ALL of them stick up?

Libertarians are often asked what to do about those encroachments of government that they so readily decry. If a single person asks that question, the answer would seem to be: you can do nothing; you are in danger of making yourself the nail that sticks up. But consider prohibition. That "rule" was simply ignored, not by a few, but by millions. And what could the government do? Ultimately, despite much huffing and puffing, nothing. The Eighteenth, or Prohibition, Amendment, became and first and only Constitutional Amendment to be repealed — by the Twenty-first Amendment.

There’s a lesson to be learned there. Tyrants are not likely to be overthrown by a knight on a white charger. More likely, their downfall will come when a small boy observes that the king has no clothes, and everybody laughs. Or when millions raise their eyebrows in disbelief and exclaim, "You want me to do WHAT?" No organization is needed; no by-laws, constitutions, or meetings. There are thousands of rules, with more all the time. The rulers expect us to take their laws seriously, while they themselves ignore the Constitution that they’ve sworn to uphold. Obviously, some laws are to be taken seriously, others are not. Which rules are we fools to obey? Can’t we simply ask which are which, and why?

It’s about time.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is author of All Work & No Pay, which is out of print, but may occasionally be obtained on eBay.

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