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.

Admonition and Prayer on the Feast of All Saints

On this Feast of All Saints we commemorate men and women who lived heroically among us. The word “Saint”  comes from the Latin word Sanctus meaning “holy or set apart.” The Saints lived in the world but were not of it. Indeed if we understand the root meaning or “being set apart” we come to understand that an essential part of holiness is to live in distinction from and in contrast to the values of world. It takes great courage to stand apart from what is merely current or popular. More than ever as our world turns very secular we need strength to distinguish ourselves and to summon the world to God’s truth.

This is especially evident in the Church. Pray especially for bishops and priests. As the world continues to grow in hostility to the faith the clergy will need great zeal, conviction and courage. We must speak boldly and clearly and lead the Catholic faithful through difficult times.

Pray also for Catholics who are in public and civil authority. Many of us have been saddened at the poor example of faith that many (not all) Catholic politicians have exhibited. Pray for conversion where necessary and their courage to live their faith publicly and in a way that distinguishes them from non-believers. There are so many Catholics in public life! If they could stand together for the truth of faith and be of one accord with the Church in the moral issues of our day we would be at a far better place.

What we need is holiness in the leaders of the Church and in Catholic Lay Leaders in our world. We need saints. Consider the following admonition from the Book of Wisdom to those in Civil Authority:

Hear, therefore, kings, and understand; learn, you magistrates of the earth’s expanse! Hearken, you who are in power over the multitude and lord it over throngs of peoples! Because authority was given you by the LORD and sovereignty by the Most High, who shall probe your works and scrutinize your counsels! Because, though you were ministers of his kingdom, you judged not rightly, and did not keep the law, nor walk according to the will of God, Terribly and swiftly shall he come against you, because judgment is stern for the exalted- For the lowly may be pardoned out of mercy but the mighty shall be mightily put to the test. For the Lord of all shows no partiality, nor does he fear greatness, Because he himself made the great as well as the small, and he provides for all alike; but for those in power a rigorous scrutiny impends. To you, therefore, O princes, are my words addressed that you may learn wisdom and that you may not sin. For those who keep the holy precepts hallowed shall be found holy, and those learned in them will have ready a response. Desire therefore my words; long for them and you shall be instructed. (Wisdom 6:1-10)

And to the religious leaders of Ezekiel’s day God said:

Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?  You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.  You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost….’Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD : As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock,  therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the LORD : This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. (Ezekiel 38:2-8)

And so on this Feast of All Saints, pray for saints. Saints among the clergy and among civil leaders and politicians. Pray for us to fear God God more than man, to love the truth more passing opinions, and to serve rather than be served. Pray for all in authority because we will be held to a stricter account. God is still looking for saints. Heaven isn”t filled yet. Your prayers are essential. On this feast of All Saints pray for more saints especially among the “leaders of the people.”

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:1-4)

I’m in the Holy Land this week until November 8th. I have scheduled blogs that will appear each day while I’m away so stay tuned! My participation in the comments however may be a little light since my time with the internet will be sporadic. Comments will be moderated by someone else on the team and I’ll participate when I can. – Msgr Pope.