Tuesday, June 18, 2013


   We've all heard the "mantras," "I'm spiritual but not religious," and "I don't have a religion, I have a relationship with God."  Many Christians today are rejecting religion in favor of their own spirituality and faith.  But that presents a problem.  We cannot be spiritual or believe in a vacuum.  A valid Christian spirituality and faith must arise from a Christian faith tradition.  

  Our Christian faith puts us in a relationship with God by making us members of the People of God.  Our faith calls for us to join with others in a communion of love, and moves us to prophetically act, along with others of good will, for the good of others and the world.  In sum, our faith automatically puts us in a religious community.  So it seems to me that many believers are not rejecting religion, but are rejecting bad religion.  Similarly, just because some of our schools are bad, we don't reject education; we reject bad education.  And there's plenty of both to go around these days.

   I also believe that some of today's professed atheists are actually rejecting bad religion.

   Our spiritual seekers do make an important point.  There is a difference between faith, morality and spirituality on one hand, and religion on the other.  
         Our faith can be described as our individual and communal, loving, trusting "belongingness" with God, and includes what we believe.  Our  faith is based in God and centered in Jesus Christ.  
         Our morality can be described as our loving conformity with the Catholic code of conduct.
         Our spirituality arises from our personal relationship with God.  It includes our personal experience of God, along with our discernment of God's presence and intentions, our personal vocation, and our prophetic actions that move us and our society toward the ever conscious fullness of wholeness-in-love.  
         Our religion can be described as the way we organize, teach and present what we believe.  Today's Christian religion runs all the way from the Catholic and Protestant mainstream, to radical fundamentalists who believe that every word of the Bible is literally true, to militants who want to impose their faith on our country, to storefront churches, to those who picket military funerals and harass gays.  Our Catholic religion includes the monarchical authority structure in which it is organized and presented.
   Our Catholic faith is essentially the same today as it was for the first Christians 2000 years ago.  Our Catholic religion, however, has changed drastically.  First century Catholicism (though  it wasn't called that) was very much a "people's religion."  Christians met in their homes for the Eucharistic meal, and they openly discussed and even debated what Christ meant to them.  One of the results was the four Gospels, in which the same faith was organized and written down from four different points of view.  And even before the Gospels were written, St. Paul changed Jesus' Jewish presentation of the faith, e.g., the Kingdom of God, into a presentation (religion) that suited his Gentile audiences, e.g., the Body of Christ.  Later, Christians changed Jesus' agricultural presentation of faith, e.g., mustard seeds, wheat and weeds, vineyards, shepherds and flocks, into a philosophical presentation, e.g., of God as the Supreme Being, and of the soul and body.  The whole idea was to create a religion that was as suitable, relevant and open as possible, so that the people could give the fullest and most meaningful expression to the one, Christian faith.  

   Through the centuries, as our understanding of our one, Catholic faith evolved and was clarified, it was also locked up in an authoritative structure and teachings that were increasingly removed from the people's everyday culture and experience, e.g., democracy, freedom of the press, separation of church and state, etc., and tightly guarded by the church's power elite.  In many ways, the Catholic religion became an obstacle to the one, living Catholic faith.  Vatican II tried to re-open the way to a timely, relevant, world-wide people's expression of our Catholic faith.  The council recognized that there are new, contemporary ways to understand the world and what it means to be human in today's world.  New ways were therefore needed to express our faith, e.g., ways that considered dialoguing with today's world, the role of the laity, and the dignity and role of women.  

   Actually, one way that Vatican II found these "new ways" was by going back and revisiting the old ways of the early "people's church."  The council "opened windows" but the power elite closed them.  And Catholics started to walk away from their increasingly irrelevant religion.  Sadly, many of them are walking very much alone.  Hopefully, they have not also walked away from their faith.

   Pope Francis has stirred some hope that our Catholic religion may once again become officially open to relevant, contemporary expressions of our faith.  If he succeeds in removing the obstructions (against what, at this moment, are heavy odds), we will see a great leap forward in elevating and healing today's church and today's world.  If he fails...well, let's pray that he doesn't fail.  



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