The Transcendence of Christianity

 

Birth of ChristThere 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.

Response to an Irish Atheist

Fetus IIThe following piece is part of an online exchange I recently had with an Irish atheist who claims to be a medical doctor and enthusiastically voted for abortion.  He obviously feels that Ireland has gradually emerged from its Catholic darkness, with the outcome of the referendum of May 25 being only the latest proof.  I do expend a lot of time and effort responding to such people, with the expectation that I will probably not be given a response from them.  Regardless, my comments are there for others to read, so it’s worth the effort.

I’m posting this exchange because I think it offers a useful example of the manner in which a Catholic should respond to such charges made by an opponent of this nature.  I do not believe in the milk toast, saccharin, hyper-sensitive, coddle-them-like-little-babes approach that is common today.  If such an approach were effective, then the Church would be filled to overflowing with converts, since everyone in the Church has been using it for decades – popes, bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people.  The fact is, such an approach was not used by Our Lord when confronting His staunch opponents, nor by the Apostles, nor by the great apologists and evangelists of the Church.  It has the effect of misrepresenting the Christian religion as an ideology for the timid and effeminate, so I do not use it.  At all times, Christian charity – absolutely – but charity often requires firmness and directness, as every parent knows.  Treat people like adults, and they just might behave like them.  Treat them like babies, and babies you’ll have.

The atheist’s comments have been altered for obvious reasons, but the substance is exactly the same.  I’ve also given him a new name which I think is appropriate, in reference to Herod the Great, that maniac responsible for the slaughter of the Innocents.  His taunting comments are typical anti-Catholic rubbish such as we hear all the time, which is the reason I’ve decided to post them, along with my response.

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Doctor McHerod’s Comments:

I’m thrilled to know that you admit Ireland is no longer a Catholic country!  Catholicism is a rancid wicked body of beliefs that I had the misery of enduring for a long time.   But now the pedophile priests have had their day and I’m very happy about it.

The Catholic Church bears the responsibility for the happy outcome of the abortion referendum.  You folks have driven away the good and enlightened people of Ireland, so that they can’t get far enough away from you.   But I noticed in your previous comments that you enthusiastically encouraged people to vote against the introduction of abortion in Ireland.   Well, where were you during the pedophile rampage?!  I couldn’t find your enthusiastic posts denouncing such crimes.

The Catholic religion is so filled with flaws, as are all religions.  There are 7,000 supposed gods, and none of them exist, just like your god.   And that’s the reason you don’t stand a chance.

The Irish today are an especially well-educated people that can easily perceive your deception.   But you can’t, so you are doomed!  They have voted for divorce, contraception, gay marriage, and now abortion.  And you still don’t understand it all; you haven’t gotten the message.

The Irish people are finally awake, and they no longer want you around.  So, GOOD BYE FOREVER!!!  CHEERS!!!

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My Response:

Doctor McHerod,

Let me answer your questions directly.  I live in the United States.  When it was discovered that perverted priests and bishops were molesting people here and elsewhere, I was immediately screaming about it more angrily than you are now, – online, in the classroom, and on the radio, and at some risk to myself in my own diocese.  So please spare me the self-righteous finger-pointing.

I noticed that you twice referred to “pedophile” priests.  Nice dodge.  The vast majority of sexual crimes committed by priests – approximately 90% in the US – were not between men and very young children, but between men and boys and men and young men.  That’s not pedophilia, that’s homosexuality, so call it what it is.  The Catholic Church was, and still is, a rat’s nest of homosexual clergy.  As a man who went to seminary for one year and almost entered a religious order, who’s been Catholic since 1990 and worked in the Church all that time, I can tell you this firsthand.

And by the way, what’s so bad about men sodomizing children?   The only aspect your side really objects to is the forced nature of the act, that it was rape.  Well, I couldn’t agree with your side more on that point, but I would go much further with my outrage.  The evil in these sexual attacks is not only that they were forced on others, but in the very nature of the act itself: sodomy.  Whether it’s forced or consensual, whether it’s between a man and a child, a man and another man, or a man and a woman, sodomy is a disgusting, unnatural, perverse, and damnable act.  Do you agree with this?  I don’t know; let’s hear from you.  But if you do disagree, as the radical left does, then the only thing that actually upsets you in these scandals is the forced nature of the acts, and not the acts themselves; which means that, if only they had been consensual acts of sodomy, you would have been fine with them.  And that is disgusting.  But again, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt for now and let you answer for yourself.  But that’s the social, cultural, political left – crying out with indignation over the sex scandals in the Catholic Church, while promoting and defending sodomy far and wide, night and day, as just another intimate expression of affection.

Now go ahead and say it: “You should be ashamed to still be a Catholic.  You’re directly supporting and condoning an institution of rapists.  If you were truly opposed to it all, you would have left the Church years ago.”

No, Doctor McHerod, I’m directly condoning and supporting an institution of truth and grace that helps people of every type to grow in wisdom, sanctity, and the love of God, and to attain the end for which they were made – salvation.  But are there rotten apples in the Church?   To answer in the affirmative would be an understatement.  There are rotten orchards in the Church – whole hillsides of stinking decaying fruit!  But all such rot is the antithesis of Catholicism.  If you want to know what genuine Catholicism produces, look to the saints, not the unrepentant sinners.  Saints are the by-products of authentic Catholicism, while unrepentant sinners and scandal-mongers of all types are the result of the rejection of it.  So, to heap the whole Catholic Church into one mass of guilt is to make an entirely emotional judgment, not a rational one.  It is to accuse the numberless innocent Catholics – both clergy and laity – of guilt by association.  Well, in that case, we are all guilty because we are all associated with corruption – both that of others, as well as our own.

I know how to support the good in the Church, but avoid the evil, how to condone the Gospel, the virtues, and the sacraments, but condemn whatever is contrary to them.  I direct my resources and support very carefully and attend only the best of churches.  Any Catholic who cared enough could do the same.  If I see something contrary to goodness in the Church, then I withhold my support from it.

How about yourself?  Do you support evil of any type, in any way?  Yes, you do.  You just supported it with your pro-abortion vote.  You are part and parcel of a movement that kills many millions of innocent human beings in the womb.  They will die for the “crime” of being young and defenseless in a society with no heart for them.  In order to pacify your consciences, you redefine them as non-persons.

And do these “non-persons” feel pain?  Why don’t you watch a video of an abortion, and see for yourself whether that tiny victim embraces the abortionist’s deadly instruments, or desperately tries to escape them.  No pro-life propaganda in that approach, but just the demonstrable facts.

Instead of looking to these pre-born children with any sense of humaneness, you take from them their right to live, and concern yourself only with their mothers, whom you care for by allowing them to become the murderers of their own flesh and blood.   In taking from one the most fundamental right of life, you give to another the invented liberty to kill the innocent.

And apparently, this is motivated by your hatred for the Catholic Church and religion in general?  Killing babies in the womb – babies who aren’t even Catholic – is a strange way of getting back at the Church.  In fact, it’s a complete miss that strikes dead a perfectly innocent party.

But let’s take another approach.  By any chance, do you pay federal taxes?  Is your government in any way corrupt?  Have any of your officials committed crimes, been bribed by donors, or failed to fulfill their campaign promises?  Has your government ever supported unjust violence or war any place in the world?  Those were rhetorical questions, of course.  But do you at all give financial support to your government?

Did you ever attend a public school or a college?  Our public schools are filled with sex scandals.  There are now countless instances of female teachers having sex with very young male students.  The latest involves a thirty-two-year-old Ohio woman who had sex in her classroom with a fourteen-year-old boy, and who told him to lie about it to the principal.  The pictures of middle-aged women accused of rape have become a semi-regular feature in the news these days.  Out of a consistent indignation, should we not, therefore, denounce the public school system as a whole?  Should we not withhold all taxes that will be used to support it, and withdraw our children from it?

And what about Hollywood and its decades-long practices of systematic widespread abuse, harassment, and rape of countless girls and boys and women and men?  You know, those rich and famous Hollywood elites who live in mansions or gated communities, who are outspoken anti-gun activists, and yet, make a living shooting guns and glamorizing violence on the big screen?   Surely you’ve heard about Roman Polanski, Harvey Weinstein, Oliver Stone, Kevin Spacey, and most recently Morgan Freeman – that darling of the left?  Except for Harvey, who interestingly has a knack for distributing anti-Catholic films through his company Miramax, all of these people are still out free and enjoying life.  I’ll stop there with the names, but the list goes on and on.

Now are you still supporting the horribly corrupt institution of Hollywood by watching its movies, or have you been too busy taking part in anti-Hollywood protests?  And can you point me to your outrage online?   By your own reasoning, you should be publically denouncing and permanently boycotting Hollywood by refusing to enjoy any of its movies.

Come to think of it, are any of our famously outspoken social justice warriors presently boycotting Hollywood and all its movies?  Hmph, I can’t think of even one that is.

What about the medical field?  Have you ever considered the barbaric practices of medicine in recent centuries, including the horrific mental institutions and state hospitals from the twentieth century which used, for example, electro-shock therapy?  Have you considered the countless doctors in all fields of medicine who have groped women during examinations, or neglected or misdiagnosed patients who then went to early deaths?  How about the countless surgical errors that have resulted in the mistaken removal of healthy limbs or organs, or the errors on the operating table that resulted in worse health crises than the patients had when being prepped?

Doctor McHerod, have you been busily denouncing your own field of medicine and all its personnel for their intolerable cruelties to the innocent?  Or rather, do you save all your indignation and righteous anger exclusively for the Catholic Church, or for religion in general, which you personally dislike?  I see a double-standard of righteous anger here.

We could play this game all day and all night, moving on to such fields as science, the military, the police, and the media.  I hope by now you’ve gotten my point.

The fact is, if you want to play the indignation game and be consistent about it, then you need to withdraw from all institutions and society as a whole to the innocent woods, where you can live in peace with your sensitive social conscience and high standard of social justice.  Until you’ve done so, please spare me the selective indignation directed only at the Catholic Church.  It’s old-fashioned calculated bigotry of the most obvious kind.

The truth is, you’re perfectly fine with corruption and injustice.  The proof is in the fact that last week you voted for the most corrupt and unjust act imaginable – the slaughter of the innocent in the womb.  The abused, the molested, and the raped have a second chance.  With counseling and the compassion and support of others, they have the hope of recovery and a new beginning.  But for the aborted there can be no such hope, but only a voter-approved agonizing end to their brief little lives.

May the God that you reject move you to repentance with His grace, restore your empathy and understanding, and have mercy on your soul before the Day of days when the opportunities for repentance will be past.  I am praying for you, Doctor McHerod.

Addendum:

If anyone would like to propose atheism as a solution to the problems of religion turned rotten, please consider the following atheistic regimes casualty numbers:

  • Jozef Stalin (USSR 1932-39 only): 15,000,000 people murdered
  • Pol Pot (Cambodia, 1975-79): 1,700,000 people murdered
  • Kim II Sung (North Korea 1948-94): 1.6 million people murdered
  • Tito (Yugoslavia 1945-1987): 570,000 people murdered
  • Suharto (Communists 1967-66): 500,000 people murdered
  • Ante Pavelic (Croatia 1941-45): 359,000 people murdered
  • Ho Chi Min (Vietnam 1953-56): 200,000 people murdered
  • Vladimir Ilich Lenin (USSR, 1917-20): 30,000 people murdered
  • Adolf Hitler (Germany 1939-1945): 12,000,000 people murdered
  • Mao Ze-Dong (China, 1958-61 and 1966-69, Tibet 1949-50): 49-78,000,000 people murdered

Dwarfing these numbers is the casualty count of abortions in America since 1973: 61,000,000 babies murdered.  The present US rate is about three thousand per day.

According to the CDC, the deaths of women due to abortion is a matter of voluntary reporting by abortion clinics.  Chillingly, the number is therefore unknown.

What Is Religion?

Introduction

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?

 

Part I

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.

 

Part II

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.