The Problem of Privatized Religion

Some years ago I preached a sermon that covered the Christian and Biblical teaching on Hell. I believe the Gospel that day was from Matthew 7:13ff  wherein Jesus warns that we should strive to enter through the narrow gate and declares that, “The road that leads to destruction is wide and many follow it. But the road that leads to salvation is narrow and the way is hard and how few there are who find it. I preached what I thought was a very balanced teaching on hell and also the reason it made sense as a doctrine. After the Mass a woman approached me and said, “I didn’t hear the Jesus I know in your words today.” “But mam,” I said,  “I was quoting Jesus!’  Unfazed she replied, “We know he never really said those words, the Church merely invented them to scare us.”

There is a tendency for many to “privatize” the faith today. The faith communally declared and held by the Church is considered adaptable by them. They chose rather to have a private faith, a personal doctrine. Pope’s bishops, catechisms and creeds are all rejected in favor of a private, personal and ultimately self-serving and egotistical private doctrine. Those who scoff at the need for a Pope become pope themselves. Not content with the faith revealed in the Scriptures and in Church teaching have chosen to refashion the faith in a way that pleases them. In effect they invent their own religion and their own “designer” god. The God of the Bible does not suit them, so they make up a new one. I think the Scriptures have a word for crafting your own God and worshiping it: “idolatry.”

Bishop Tobin of Providence Rhode Island has entered into a rather public discussion with Congressman Patrick Kennedy who claims that he is still a faithful Catholic despite a consistent record of voting to fund abortion. In his own words Kennedy says, The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic. Hmm…sounds like privatized religion to me. The communal consensus of Catholic faith going back 2000 years is not “essential” to his being a Catholic. Rather, he has a privatized faith. Bishop Tobin, his bishop,  has rejected any such notion and strongly teaches that one cannot merely redefine Catholicism according to their own whim. Here are excerpts from his statement released today:

….[W]hen someone rejects the teachings of the Church, especially on a grave matter, a life-and-death issue like abortion, it certainly does diminish their ecclesial communion, their unity with the Church….The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” says this: “Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles, ‘He who hears you, hears me,’ the faithful receive with docility the teaching and directives that their pastors give them in different forms.” (#87)….If you don’t accept the teachings of the Church [Congressman] your communion with the Church is flawed, or in your own words, makes you “less of a Catholic.”….Being a Catholic means that you’re part of a faith community that possesses a clearly defined authority and doctrine, obligations and expectations. It means that you believe and accept the teachings of the Church, especially on essential matters of faith and morals; that you belong to a local Catholic community, a parish; that you attend Mass on Sundays and receive the sacraments regularly; that you support the Church, personally, publicly, spiritually and financially.

Congressman, I’m not sure whether or not you fulfill the basic requirements of being a Catholic….Your letter also says that your faith “acknowledges the existence of an imperfect humanity.” Absolutely true. But in confronting your rejection of the Church’s teaching, we’re not dealing just with “an imperfect humanity” – as we do when we wrestle with sins such as anger, pride, greed, impurity or dishonesty. We all struggle with those things, and often fail. Your rejection of the Church’s teaching on abortion falls into a different category – it’s a deliberate and obstinate act of the will; a conscious decision that you’ve re-affirmed on many occasions. Sorry, you can’t chalk it up to an “imperfect humanity.” Your position is unacceptable to the Church and scandalous to many of our members. It absolutely diminishes your communion with the Church.

Perhaps most key to our discussion here are these words of Bishop Tobin: being a Catholic means that you’re part of a faith community that possesses a clearly defined authority and doctrine, obligations and expectations. But many today do not want to be part of a community with clearly defined authority and and doctrine. They want instead a private religion that answers to no one. They want a religion they can define on their own and still claim to belong to the community, a community  they really want little to do with if it comes to soemthing they don’t like. Some go even further and insist on a designer God who has exactly their understanding, their priorities, their views. This god is made in their own image and is an idol. The “Jesus I know” over-rules the Jesus of Scripture. The reinvented god trumps the God revealed in the Scriptures.

Privatized religion and a designer God, these are surely signs that point to the arrogance and ego-centricity of our times. The challenge for all of us is to have the true faith, the faith of the Church, the faith and the God revealed in Scripture. Anything less is privatized religions, worse yet heresy’ a designer God, worse yet, idolatry.

18 Replies to “The Problem of Privatized Religion”

  1. We Catholics used to regularly express in prayer, with the Act of Faith, our accord with the teachings of Holy Church – ALL the teachings of the Church:

    O MY GOD, I firmly believe that Thou art one God in Three Divine Persons, Father, Son and Holy Ghost. I believe that Thy Divine Son became Man, and died for our sins, and that He will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe these and all the truths which the Holy Catholic Church teaches, because Thou hast revealed them, Who canst neither deceive nor be deceived.

    Why is this prayer no longer emphasized as it was before? I think it might help promote an understanding among faithful Catholics that the Catechism is not put together out of Lego bricks, from which people are at liberty to build their own set of beliefs as they decide to pick and choose the bricks they like and the ones they don’t.

    1. You insight is a good one. When an adult is received into the Church they are asked to state the following credo: “I believe and profess all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches and professes to be be reveale by God.” Further, when installed as a pastor the priest is required to make an oath of fidelity. You can read it here: So I think we’re sobering up in the Church to the fact that such things cannot be presumed they must be affirmed under solemn oaths. We’ve a way to go in insisting on all this for the faithful in general but it is a start to demand it of pastors, bishops, those who teach theology and have other teaching offices.

      1. I have been blessed for the last couple of years to be able to use a Roman Missal (1962) (Baronius Press) as a handy daily prayer resource, and as a missal whenever I’m able to attend Mass in the Extraordinary Form, which is quite beautiful. The Missal has a wonderful chapter “Devotions for Communion” with excellent prayers for before and after receiving communion, “Devotions for Confession” which has prayers for before and after making a confession, as well as an examination of conscience guide to help me make a good confession. There’s also a mini-Catechism describing the doctrines of the faith. It’s a very complete and helpful guide.

        The section “Most Necessary Prayers” has lots of great prayers and litanies, including the above-mentioned Act of Faith, as well as the Acts of Hope, Charity, and Contrition. They also include a section on suggested Morning and Evening Prayers during which the Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity are recited. So, Everyday faithful lay Catholics were taught, as recently as 1962 (the year I was born and Vatican II was convened) to recite the Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity at the beginning and end of every day!

        We seem to have lost sight of this basic, but essential form of Catholic spirituality – that is to assert in prayer what it is we believe, every day.

  2. This is the best analysis of the grave disease that is wreaking havoc in the church from within. I love the concept of “privatized religion”. I think it is a great way to reach the Kennedy/Pelosi/Biden crowd. Everyone loves a great cafeteria so I think “cafeteria Catholic” doesn’t have much bite. Maria Shriver recently said she was proud of being a cafeteria Catholic. For the record, I am for health care reform, against the Iraq/Afghanistan war, pro immigrant etc., no federal funding of abortion – in other words an independent. I try to take my philosophy from the great encyclicals of our time written by PaulVI, John PaulI, and BenedictXVI, rather than the popular talking heads on cable TV. Read Progressio Populorum – its radical!! Very few Americans -Democrat or Republican would agree with PaulVI. For example he says that in some cases(he gives several reasons)expropriation of land estates is justified and even demanded(section 24).
    Please, Catholics who love Christ and His Church, spend as much time reading the encyclicals and great Fathers of the Church as you do listening to the pundits on the right and left!!

    1. Yes, your comment also reminds me that too many Catholics tuck their religion under their politics and worldview when in fact it is the faith that should lead over politics and worldview. I am glad you allow your faith to take the lead and that the faith and the great encyclicals lead the way for you.

    2. I thought I must have heard Maria Shriver wrong when I heard her said that. Anyone who would be proud to be a cafeteria Catholic obviously, like her cousin, has no idea what it means to be Catholic!

  3. I find it ironic that a “law maker” believes he can define the rules of citizenship in the Church for himself. Imagine if the American people said to congress: “though we choose not to follow the laws you pass, it does not make us any less American.” It would be crazy arrogant to then believe that, because we say we are justified as equal Americans, we are unaccountable for our disobedience and immune from any consequences.

  4. It was in response to a letter from the bishops sent to all member of congress that the senator publicly voiced his dissent along with that caveat, “it doesn’t make me less Catholic.” He left Bishop Tobin no choice but to also respond publicly. He needed to respond publicly so others would firmly understand that the senator’s words were 100 wrong.

    When I read Kennedy’s words, I was astounded. The Catholic Church is the largest healthcare provider in the world, but he accused the Church of attempting to deny people care. He suggested that their stand against the then healthcare bill was not pro-life. He accused the Church of “fanning the flames of dissent and discord.” I think the senator is guilty of a little more than privatizing religious teachings.

    Bishop Tobin’s response was exactly the kind of “Defense of the Faith” (from yesterday’s post) that we should see more of.

    1. Thanks for recalling the fact that the Church is a huge provider of healthcare. Susan Timoney made this point about a month ago in a blog post here. I would also agree with your other points, especially the point that indicates the congressman is guilty of more than privatizing the faith. This is true, hostility to the free exercise of our faith and the right of the bishops and other Catholics is also among his transgressions. Being part of a national discussion does not mean that we are “fanning the flames of discord.” His remarks indicate hostility to the Church.

  5. My high school theology teacher brought up this point:

    He said that Protestants often argue that, “you Catholics don’t get to think for yourselves, yadda yadda.” My teacher replies that the only things we Catholics absolutely have to accept as facts are those which the Pope says “from the see,” an event which happens very infrequently.

    What’s your take on this analysis? Must we accept every word in the Catechism and from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to be good Catholics? If so, aren’t the Protestants right to mock our lemming-like devotion to consensus?

    1. I guess the teacher meant “from the Chair” rather than fromm the See. But of course we have to accept more than that. We must accept all the dogma and doctrines formally revealed by God through the Church. While the Pope ratifies all such things, the magisterium is broader than the Pope speaking ex cathedra (from the chair). The vast majority of revealed doctrine comes from Councils of Church, the bishops in council speak in common and the Pope ratifies all ecumenical (i.e. Councils representing all the worlds bishops). In addition to the Councils, there is Scripture and those truths that are enshrined in the Apostolic Tradition. Now as to the notion that we Catholics cannot think for ourselves I would like to make two points. 1. Catholic Dogma is not so comprehensive that there is no room for diversity of thought and practice. What the dogmas and doctrines of the Church do is to set up guard rails beyond which we must not go but within which there is freedom, Take any given scripture passage. Catholic preachers will often draw a variety of interpretations from a text. One emphasizes one thing another emphasizes something else. The Church does not require only one view or interpretation. However there ARE some interpretations that go beyond what is permissible. Say a preacher denied the divinity of Christ, or perhaps that he really had worked a certain miracle. Suppose a preacher used a text to say that God was in fact powerless or non-existent. Such interpretations would go beyond the gurad rails. Your Protestant teacher would have to admit that even those Churches have some gurad rails, at least the evangelical Protestants do. Don’t go into a conservative evangelical Church and deny the divinity of Chirst, they will not accept such an interpretation any more than a Catholic would. So Church teaching provides a framework, a playing field if you will that sets the terms for the discusssion but does not dictate every detail or conclusion in a micromanaging sort of way. Now the second thing I would like to say to your teacher is that completely independant thinking does not exist. We all have teachers and premises that both influence and limit our “free” thinking. For example, words have to mean things, grammar has to be obeyed for their to be communication. So called free thinking has its own premises and limits.

      As far as the Catechism goes we do have to accept what it formally teaches however the Catechism expresses doctrine which as I said above sets limits but permits discussion and variety with those limits. As for the USCCB most of what is said there is not binding on Catholics per se since it is not a doctrinal body. However when the USCCB reiterates Catholic teaching formally defined it is binding, not because the USCCB said it but because it is revealed doctrine. There are disciplinary norms the USCCB might issue that bind Catholics but only if their local Bishop promulgates its. Disciplinary norms are not doctrine and they can a dn do change but for the sake of good order Catholics should observe disciplinary norms.

    2. The Church guides us down the “narrow way”, which isn’t especially easy. Of course people would prefer to take the “wide way”, with all the latitude of freedom it offers. But the narrow way leads to salvation. So take up your cross and follow Christ.

  6. Good day greetings in Christ Msgr. Pope, I like to share with you a vision way back 1972 and God in His kindness has given me the privilege of answering some questions in my mind. I asked Jesus if there is a paradise, purgatory and hell and if possible can He show it to me. Every time I ask Jesus i always do it in prayer and fasting. And in my dream Jesus showed to me paradise it was pictured as a vast green land a quiet one, a very beautiful scenery and peaceful, i can see animals just wondering around and then we walk to a place and He showed me a room painted in white and I saw people dressed in white and to my surprise, I saw my favorite auntie inside the room but I asked Jesus, because I did not saw my father inside that room, where my father was? And Jesus just smiled at me. And then I asked Him where “hell” is and Jesus answered me..” it’s a very far place you need to cross 7 mountains more from this place where we are standing.” With that answer…i did not asked Him any further, instead, i just said ” thank you” for the privilege of answering my question and giving me a chance to be with Him even in just a dream.

    I have observed as a catholics the actions of catholic leaders.. they put up their own group or organization making them different from others not knowing that it makes them away from the very essence of “being united in the body of Christ.” because the tendency is that they make interpretation of the words in the Bible according to their own way and not God’s way. When I accepted the gift of the Spirit in my life, it made me more fearful of God so much so that I have to ask guidance from the Priest every time we do Bible sharing in urban communities or BEC i always see to it that the interpretations must be in accordance to the teachings or interpretation of the Priest in the Homily and the only time that we are given freedom to express something is through our sharing of life in the spirit. I always follow the teaching of one of my favorite Monsignor Romano (may He rest in peace and I do believe it because Mama Mary told me to visit him on the day he died and accompany him to the where his body will be put to rest in their home province) when he told me to always pray 1 – I Believe (that would guide me of my faith as a catholic) 1-Our Father (in honor of our God the Creator) 1-Hail Mary (in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary the mother of our Savior Jesus Christ) and 1-Glory Be (in honor of the Triune God). When I feel week i meditate on those prayers and pray the Rosary to give me strength (that is what Mama Mary wants for her children on earth). Thanks again Msgr. Pope and God bless us always.

  7. If Catholic Bishops took seriously the upswing of this and many other articles directed at public servants who are Catholic, then two things would be manifestly different. First and foremost the same things would be communicated during homilies, said to parents requesting baptism for their children, as well as required of converts going through RCIA. But it isn’t. Second, after a period of public and private discussion with entreaties to repent, bishops would ex-communicate wayward Catholics. But they don’t.
    The failure they see in the Catholic faithful, is the failure of their own leadership. Bishops act like it is the catholic congressman who is responsible to reform the flock and through it world. Where in all of this is their responsibility? I don’t see too many articles written about that.

  8. I understand from this blog and elsewhere Bishop Tobin made some comments about Congressman Kennedy. I really can’t respond to what the Bishop said about the Congressman. Some months ago the Bishop wrote in the offical newspaper of his diocese a crude, bellicose and polemical conversation he imagined he had with the President. It struck me as something more like Glenn Beck (or Michael Moore, from the other end of politics) than from a shepherd of souls. He put words in the President’s mouth and lowered both dignity of the Office of President and the Office of Bishop. Given this behavior and the fact I am not of his diocese, I really don’t see any reason to bother listening to him.

  9. It seems to me that one aspect of this issue could be condensed down to “what we wish to hear” as opposed to “what we need to hear.” When I find myself upset by something which is told to me it may be due, in a few cases, to something erroneous in the statement. Usually, however, it’s due to my self destructive complacency being threatened by “what I need to hear.”
    I’ve learned, with great difficulty, to look favourably on statements which bother me.
    Piling uncomfortable, but necessary, facts onto someone so fast and furious that they can’t deal with it may cause them to withdraw however, those who have the courage to bring uncomfortable truths at a rate which allows for growth have been my best benefactors.
    Christ told us that we would learn the truth and that it would make us free (from sin) and some have since pointed out that it (usually) will, first of all, make us very angry. I don’t know if this interpretation is true however, my personal experiences tend to support it.

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