Arts and Culture

Spiritual But Not Religious?

by Father Robert Lauder

Third in a Series

There is so much that is good in Father James Martin’s book, “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything” (HarperOne), that I feel as though I could write a column about every section in the book.
In one section, Father Martin tackles the current idea among many people that consider themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
I think that his treatment of this popular stance has encouraged me to take an approach different from the one that I have been taking with many people who no longer practice their Catholic faith. Often they describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. They seem to have an almost totally negative attitude toward the Catholic religion.
When people tell me that they are no longer Catholic because of the sinfulness in the Church, I tend to sympathize with them and to agree with them that the Church is made up of human beings and therefore made up of sinners. When they mention particular failings among members or historical periods in which the sinfulness of the Church is obvious, I also tend to agree and to admit that there have been problems in the Church and there always will be.
However reading Father Martin’s book has helped me to see that I should be a bit more balanced in my approach and in my response. Perhaps, without being confrontational, I can still point out to them that they are neglecting to consider much in the Church that is marvelous.
Yes, there is sinfulness in the Church but there is also a great deal of good. The history of the Church is not merely a story that reveals the sinfulness in the Church but also a story that reveals the greatness of the Church and the sanctity of many who have lived Catholic lives. The Church is human but also divine because of its founder and because of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Noting that some authors insist that religion is one of the worst of contemporary evils, responsible for wars around the world, Father Martin points out that this is a rather one-sided and myopic view of religion. He writes the following:
“Still, I would stack up against the negatives the positive aspects: traditions of love, forgiveness, and charity as well as the more tangible outgrowths of thousands of faith-based organizations that care for the poor, like Catholic Charities or the vast network of Catholic hospitals and schools that care for poor and immigrant populations. Think too of generous men and women like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena, Mother Teresa, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Speaking of Dr. King, you might add abolition, women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement, all of which were founded on explicitly religious principles. Add to that list the billions of believers who have found in their own religious traditions not only comfort but also a moral voice urging them to live selfless lives and to challenge the status quo.”
In the future if I am speaking to someone whose background is Catholic but who almost never attends the Eucharist, I think I will ask two questions: What do you believe about Jesus? What do you believe about the Eucharist? I think those two questions are crucial to an intelligent discussion about why someone whose background is Catholic almost never attends the Eucharist.
I am baffled by people who respond to a survey saying that they believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist but in responding to the same survey admit that they rarely, if ever, attend the Eucharist. If someone never attends the Eucharist, what does it mean to say that such a person believes in the Real Presence? How can a person believe in the Real Presence and never attend the Eucharist?
Of course if someone does not believe that Jesus, the Son of God, is the Savior and does not believe that the Risen Lord is present in the Eucharist and that we are invited to receive Christ in the sacrament, then it makes a great deal of sense to not attend the Eucharist. If there is no faith in the Eucharist, why bother to attend?
I suppose I know as much about the dark spots in the Church’s history as anyone and I am probably as aware as anyone of the presence of sin in the contemporary Church but to claim that the Church has done more harm than good in the last 2,000 seems to me absolutely ridiculous.
After reading Father Martin’s book, I am looking forward to the next discussion I have with someone, especially a Catholic, who describes himself or herself as “spiritual but not religious.”