Religion is an extremely unpopular subject in the modern world. Critics like to complain that it is, and always has been, a cause of division between people and of war between nations. The implication is, of course, that if only the human race were to abandon all religion, then peace and harmony could prevail. By this reasoning, however, the human race should also abandon all forms of government, economic systems, property, and even human rights, since these also are, and always have been, causes of division and war.
One would expect certain people to be highly critical of religion; for example, atheists, agnostics, secularists, and humanists. Such persons hold to ideologies that despise formal religion, so that their criticisms of it are only natural and consistent with their principles. But alongside these critics are also many people whose comments are a bit ironic and inconsistent with their own daily practice. I refer to Christians, who, in spite of their name and beliefs, make nearly as many disparaging remarks against religion as do the atheists. Such Christians often frame their anti-religious remarks in the following way:
“Jesus Christ established a spiritual movement based on the Gospel. But unfortunately, men have turned this movement into a religious institution, a hierarchical Church with all sorts of dogmas, rules, regulations, and obligatory devotions. Christ preached a simple faith for the ordinary folk, but men have spoiled this faith by enlarging it into yet another complicated world religion with all the usual systematic trappings.”
I’ve heard similar comments many times from Bible Christians who feel that the most effective approach to take against the Catholic Church is to criticize it from the bottom up, by deriding it as…gasp…a religion, a religious institution that is the modern equivalent of the Pharisaism of Jesus’ times. But in doing so, such Christians only increase the volume of the modern world’s anti-religious bigotry, and they share in the assaults of the anti-Church.
The all-important question is, then, what is religion? What does the Catholic Church mean when she uses the term religion?
The word “religion” is derived from the Latin word “religio,” which in turn seems to be derived either from “relegere” or “religare.” Relegere means, “to recollect,” and religare means, “to bind.” The etymology of the word “religion,” therefore, suggests two harmonious ideas: first, that of recollection or reflection, and second, that of binding oneself to God.
To give another example of the confusion caused by anti-religion religionists: I once heard an Evangelical preacher say that the word religion means, “to bind.” Correct, so far. But he then wrongly claimed that religion binds man to religion and to its many man-made customs and beliefs. Such may have been his personal opinion or attitude, but he was incorrect. In fact, this opinion is quite common among Bible Christians, who claim to be not religious at all, to abhor religion as a corruption of the simple Gospel, and who relish criticizing Catholics for their overt religiosity nearly as much as do atheists.
To put aside all prejudice, now, and get at the heart of the issue: the term religion, as used by the Catholic Church, refers to an interior life in which one freely and willingly binds or attaches oneself to God. The direction of true religion is upwards to the one true living God and to the things of God. Religion concerns man’s relationship with the Almighty. It is centered on the transcendent, rather than the mundane, and the eternal, rather than the temporal.
This is not to say that religion is unconcerned with the problems of this world, with poverty, injustice, and violence. By no means. But, consistent with its transcendent nature, religion addresses such problems in light of the good and the true, in light of a divine moral law, and in light of the ultimate end of man, which is not merely to live in this world for as long as possible, but to finally live forever with God.
Can religion be abused? Can persons in the religious domain give themselves primarily to mundane pursuits, to greed, hatred, hedonism, and even perversity? In this age of Church sex scandals, we can only respond emphatically in the affirmative. But in such cases, religion and religious institutions have ceased to be authentically religious. They have betrayed the essence and purpose of true religion, which is always to lead man upwards to God through truth, grace and prayer. But to conclude that all religion should be abandoned, due to the failure of a few or even of many, would be absurd.
Are there not many corrupt doctors and nurses who neglect or abuse their patients and charge them outrageous fees for “care” that actually does them harm? Are there not misdiagnoses that overlook serious ailments such as cancer, which then lead to the unnecessarily early death of the patient? And are there not cases in which a wrong limb or organ is surgically removed? Yes, such tragic cases are not even rare. But only an irrational simpleton would conclude that, therefore, all doctors and nurses should be mistrusted, and the field of medicine itself should be abandoned.
On the contrary, many people take advantage of the failures and scandals caused by religious individuals as opportunities to irrationally blame the very idea of religion, as if religion itself were the cause. But why should the sins and crimes of a relatively small number of persons produce a permanent reputation for the many, as if it were a matter of grave guilt by association? This makes no sense whatsoever. And yet, it is a common view among many opportunistic people towards religion alone. They offer a generous tolerance and patience towards countless fields and professions, but then exercise an extreme impatience and intolerance towards God, religion, and religious people.
Authentic religion entails three areas of teaching: belief, behavior, and devotion. It declares what we should believe about God, how we should live before Him, and how we should pray to Him. Any group of people that teaches or promotes these three fields is, by Catholic standards, a religious group, and that which they proclaim is a religion.
Thus, Christians who self-righteously criticize religion are just kidding themselves. Their Gospel faith, if it is at all consistent with that which Jesus Christ taught, is entirely concerned with belief, behavior, and devotion. Whether or not they are willing to admit it, they are religious. And rather than join their voices with the shouts of atheists, agnostics, secularists, and humanists, they should courageously join the ranks of those of us who suffer at the hands of the world because we are openly, professedly, and proudly religious.
The truth is, the problem with modern Christianity is not that it is religious, but rather, that it is not religious enough. It is too often concerned exclusively with humanity, with human interests, and with the here and now.
Missionary statements are very popular in the contemporary Church. One can find them posted in Church bulletins, vestibules, and on parish lawns and websites. These statements can often be painfully mundane, describing the Church’s mission as serving the community, developing peoples’ gifts, and creating a safe environment for people of all ages, lifestyles, and sexual orientations. The homilies one hears at Mass, and the songs used as well, often speak of these same themes. The Gospel is perfunctorily proclaimed, but then our Lord’s often difficult teachings, which can be quite contrary to the spirit and practice of the times, are carefully avoided. Instead, one hears about the obligations to be tolerant, open, and non-judgmental towards others, to love and believe in oneself, and of course, to recycle one’s bottles. In other words, the homilies are often non-religious in content, and sound more like campaign speeches filled with self-help platitudes.
The Catholic Church, however, has an official missionary statement that was given to her by her founder, Jesus Christ. Immediately before His Ascension into heaven, Jesus said to His apostles,
“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you all days, even unto the consummation of the world” (Mt. 28:18-20).
This is the authoritative missionary statement of the Church, and it should be posted in every Church bulletin and vestibule, and on every Church lawn and website. It is the mission given to the Catholic Church by God Almighty Himself. And it is inescapably and undeniably religious. The divine mission of the Church is to proclaim all of the doctrinal, moral, and spiritual teachings of our Lord to all people for all time, and to sanctify with the sacrament of Baptism all those who would respond to Our Lord’s teachings.
In addition, at the Last Supper Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22:19). How is the Church to worship the thrice-holy God? As revealed and commanded by Christ, she is to “do this”. The Church is to worship God with that unique and extraordinary act of worship called the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which is the most perfect act of divine adoration that is possible this side of heaven.
In this manner, by means of doctrinal, moral, and spiritual truth, together with the grace of the sacraments – and most especially the Holy Mass – the faithful are to freely and joyfully “bind themselves” to God. And this constitutes what we can and must declare to be the one true religion.