There are many religions on the face of the earth. There are many spiritualities, philosophies, and world views. And there are countless self-proclaimed preachers, prophets, visionaries, and reformers – most of whom claim to have the one truth that can set us free, the single uncorrupted interpretation of Scripture, or the final urgent end times message from heaven. Our world is dense with religious demagogues peddling their wares, advertising the latest and greatest doctrines and morals for those in the market for a deluxe new and improved religion. For the restless seeker of truth, who observes this often insincere marketing of religious ideas, it is only too tempting to dismiss the quest as simply hopeless. Indeed, choosing a denomination, spirituality, or philosophy in the modern world can be comparable to shopping for cereal at a supermarket: you look to the left and the right, and see nothing but cereal to the vanishing point. In the end, you choose the cereal that is the sweetest, the cheapest, or the nearest. Or else, you go home and create your own.
And so it is with truth in the modern world, so that one is tempted to denounce the religious riddle as unsolvable. There is guidance, however, in the very word, “religion.” The term “religion” is most likely derived from the Latin word, “religare,” meaning to tie, fasten, or bind. The religious person ties, fastens, or binds himself to God. The essence of true religion is not in a person binding himself downwards to man, but in a the person binding himself upwards to God. Hence, in Col. 3:1-2, St. Paul wrote,
“Therefore, if you have risen with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Mind the things that are above, not the things that are on earth.”
The movement and orientation of authentic religion, then, is upwards; it is vertical, rather than horizontal, transcendent, rather than mundane, and eternal, rather than temporal. True religion directs the human mind above itself to the great and Supreme Other. It summons the human person to follow, not the movements of the heart or the cravings of the passions, but instead, the designs and intentions of the eternal God above.
Hence, when a person discovers the living God and offers to Him their life, they experience a conversion. The term “conversion” means a “turning.” In a conversion, a person turns from one thing to another thing; they turn away from themselves and to God. This entails the submitting of the free will and the person’s assorted beliefs to that which God has revealed. For true religion consists, not only in what one believes, but also in what one does not believe. Conversion requires that a person purge from their hearts and minds all that is contrary to the truth.
Religion that lacks conversion is a contradiction in terms. If it instructs a person to turn, not away from themselves, but instead, to themselves, to dwell on their feelings and opinions with confidence and self-esteem, rather than on God and the truths He has revealed, then such a so-called religion is actually an anti-religion; it is the very opposite of true religion because it ties, fastens, and binds one downward to oneself. Such a “spirituality” – as it is more often called – is only glorified self-absorption. And that describes much modern religion – the glorification of the self.
Today, it is far more common for a person to convert a religion to himself rather than for a person to convert to a religion. For example, consider a Catholic mother who has a homosexual son. Religiously speaking, she has two options: either she can favor the faith, or she can favor her son. If she favors the faith, then she will understand that homosexual acts are sinful and that loving her son means praying for him and helping him to resist his homosexual desires. For if she loves him with a holy love, then she will desire his eternal salvation above all the passing pleasures of this life. In other words, being converted to the true God and His truth, she will remain faithful, even in such a difficult and painful situation, and even if her son rejects her for it. But if the mother instead favors her son over the faith, then she will make all sorts of excuses for him, speak of him only in glowing terms, and condemn the Church for having such harsh teachings. In other words, she will convert the Catholic religion to her situation, and anything that the Church teaches that is critical of the homosexual life style she will claim is simply wrong and needs to be changed. Hence, the conversion is headed in the wrong direction. Ultimately, it is God who is being told that He must convert to her, and be tied, fastened, and bound downward to her!
Consider another common situation. Say, a Catholic man believes in reincarnation. He likes the idea because, first, it seems to explain why bad things happen to good people, second, it acknowledges the existence of life after death, and third, it provides an escape from the finality of the Christian teaching on a final judgement immediately after this life. Like the mother, this man has two choices; either he can favor the Catholic faith, or he can favor the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation. If he favors the faith, then, after doing some catechetical and biblical research, he will firmly reject reincarnation as irreconcilable with Catholic teaching. But if he favors reincarnation, then he will submit the teachings of the Church to a doctrine totally contrary to the faith, and to whatever degree he recognizes this conflict, he will say that it is Catholicism that is wrong and needs to change. In other words, again, the conversion goes in the wrong direction; the faith is converted to the opinions of the man, so that it is tied, fastened, and bound downward to him.
Both of these common situations reveal the antithesis of true religion in which the self is regarded as the supreme being and the author and judge of all doctrines and morals. They depose God and demand that He be the humble convert.
The life and teaching of Jesus Christ are thoroughly transcendent. He taught us to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” When He prayed, blessed, healed, or restored the dead to life, he lifted His eyes upward. He asserted that the first and foremost commandment was to love God with all of one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, such that the other great commandment – the love of others – must always remain subservient to the first. All the days of His earthly ministry, He spoke of his heavenly Father and of the Kingdom of God. And when Our Lord departed this world, as if to offer us one final lesson, He ascended into heaven. Jesus consistently emphasized the essential truth that His religion was a transcendent religion – one from heaven, teaching heavenly doctrines, bestowing heavenly grace, and leading its adherents to heaven.
The transcendent orientation of Christianity has always been manifested in the environments in which Catholics worshipped. The mind of the worshipper was drawn upward to God and the things of God by dignified ritual, language, gesture, music, and architecture. Sanctuaries shimmered with the heavenly, with the finest vestments and sacred vessels, with pillars, arches, frescoes, stained-glass windows, and spires, all of which elevated the human mind and drew it upwards to the thought of the otherworldly and divine. Even the distracted mind that wandered at Mass could be brought back to the godly by such purely religious designs. And sacred music especially, chanted in sweet clouds of rising incense, rehearsed the human soul for the day of salvation. Such internal and external religion served the internal and external nature of man. It responded to the truth that the human being is an inescapably religious creature, such that the human heart burns for the supernatural and the mysterious, so that, without these, it withers and despairs. The human being is by design and nature a religious being whose true vocation is not natural, but supernatural. Man was made for God, to know Him, love Him, serve Him, and enjoy His divine presence for eternity.
How, then, may the spirit of man be most effectively broken? How best subjugate him with emptiness and misery? Not with wars, poverty, injustice, and loneliness. Rather, if the soul of man is to be broken, then let his religion be corrupted. Take from the human person true religion, give a poor substitute in its place, and the source of man’s strength, virtue, mission, hope, and the very purpose for which he was created – eternal life with God – will all at once be lost.
Now, how may religion most effectively be corrupted? Simply, by reversing its orientation, by supplanting the transcendent with the mundane, the vertical with the horizontal, the upward with the downward, and the eternal with the temporal. Let the Gospel of salvation become the Gospel of social justice. Let Christ the Redeemer become Christ the community organizer. Let the homilies offer, not exhortations to repentance and faith, but platitudes about self-esteem and self-love. Let religious education offer, not sound catechesis, but a warm community experience. Let churches be built with low ceilings, thick carpets, and loud PA systems. Whitewash the frescoes, jack hammer the high altars, tear down the pillars, and shatter the stained-glass windows. And the music? Oh, fill the nave, not with that magnificent repertoire that has carried the faith through the ages, not with the Church’s music, but with the world’s music; not Gregorian chant and Palestrina’s motets, but with rock and jazz. Celebrate Mass with…a polka band. Forbid the use of Latin – that ancient language that rings with the sound of the sacred. In a word, reverse the orientation so that the new religion of the new man will sing of human goodness and human achievements. Let the hymns proclaim the greatness of our race and celebrate, not man’s need for God, but God’s need for us!
If it isn’t obvious, the foregoing litany of reversals is not imaginary, but an accurate accounting of the changes made to Catholicism over the last fifty years. It is as if the City of God had given way to the secular city. And because true religion has been abandoned, man has been abandoned; or rather, man has liberated himself from his divine liberator.
This modern distortion of authentic Catholicism is unworthy of the name religion, for it ties, fastens, and binds man to this world and asks him to turn from, and be converted to, nothing.
But is there proof for the dramatic claims I’ve made? Yes, I believe so. The proof is found in the modern mass exodus of Catholics out of the Church. Is this the result of the many clerical sex scandals? Yes, in part. But the sex scandals are part and parcel of the new religion of the new catholic. After all, if the homilies we hear year after year are void of references to the divine and natural moral law, then why should we be surprised if the men who preach such homilies are found to be living immoral lives? It actually makes perfect sense. They’re just practicing what they preach, or what they don’t preach, which is a pseudo-religion void of both morality and doctrine. Hence, to state what should be obvious by now, the most rapidly declining religious body in the United States today is the Catholic Church.
Every single departure from the Catholic Church is a tragedy of eternal proportions. Each one is a repetition of the tragedies that followed our Lord’s Bread of Life Discourse, in which many of His disciples rejected Him specifically because they rejected His Eucharistic teaching. And who was the most infamous member of this faithless band but Judas Iscariot himself, whose betrayal is first mentioned in relation to his Eucharistic unbelief. In the midst of this mutiny, Jesus did not compromise His teaching. He did not omit those truths which repelled the crowd, but maintained them simply because they were true. Yes, He was the living Bread of Life, and to consume His Body and Blood would be to receive His divine life. It was not mere metaphor, simile, or figures of speech; it was literally true. His Flesh would be true food and His Blood true drink. By means of His Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist made present among the faithful by transubstantiation in the context of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Christ would remain Emmanuel for all time – “God with us” by a sacramental mode of presence.
Such is the sacramental vocabulary that the Church developed over the centuries. Through controversies and necessary clarifications, the Church carefully refined her teaching, in order to express with precision the profound truths contained in Holy Scripture. But the Apostles had no such benefits; they lacked such a developed sacramental theology, and yet they believed in the Person, Jesus Christ, in His divine authority, power, and nature. Thus, when Our Lord turned to the twelve and asked, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered with the confidence of faith, saying,
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”
After one has found the true God and the true religion, there is no other place to go, no other spiritual domain except that single domain of saving eternal truth.
So, where can a person go after leaving the one true Church of Jesus Christ? Where can a Catholic go after having at their daily disposal the fullness of God’s truth and grace for our salvation? As a Catholic, and as an adult convert, I have a duty to publically confess that there is no other place to go, no comparable denomination, religion, spirituality, philosophy, or world view. Catholicism, which is the fullness of the Christian religion, bears the totality of God’s gift to humanity in Christ, the truth and grace for which man was created.
On the topic of the various world religions, in the encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, Pope Saint Paul VI wrote,
“Obviously, we cannot agree with these various forms of religion, nor can we adopt an indifferent or uncritical attitude toward them on the assumption that they are all to be regarded as on an equal footing, and that there is no need for those who profess them, to enquire whether or not God has Himself revealed definitively and infallibly how He wishes to be known, loved, and served. Indeed, honesty compels us to declare openly our conviction that the Christian religion is the one and only true religion, and it is our hope that it will be acknowledged as such by all who look for God and worship Him” (#107).
All religions contain some truth. Even Satanism holds to certain ideas that are correct. But some truth is only some truth. God has far more for us than merely some truth. Whereas the various world religions comprise man’s search for God, the Christian religion comprises God’s search for man. In Christ, the one true God literally entered the human scene and shared in the human condition. In the Incarnation, God literally walked among us, teaching us what we must believe and showing us how we must live. In this revelation alone, humanity may find its answers and its peace of soul.
But why should any person believe such exclusive claims? And how, in the era of tolerance, diversity, and religious pluralism, can Christians still make such claims? The answer is always the same: Jesus Christ. For Christ is not merely the founder of another world religion. He is not merely the priest and prophet of Christians. He does not compare with Muhammad, Buddha, or Zoroaster. These men were only the founders of their particular religions.
Christ is no mere founder of a religion. Rather, He is the Savior of the world and the only hope of salvation for the entire human race and every member of it. He is, then the Savior of Muhammad, Buddha, and Zoroaster, if ever they could be saved.
Christianity is, then, Christ, and Christ is the living God come in human flesh to offer to His Father what no human being could offer – namely, a spotless human life made eternally valuable, due to the divine Person to which it was joined. Thus, it would be an insult to speak of Him as merely the founder of the Christian religion, for He is its God as well. Thus, we sing at Christmas,
“God of God, Light of Light. Lo he abhors not the Virgin’s womb. Very God, begotten, not created. O Come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”
Christ is divine, and therefore, Christianity is divine.