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Last Word - September 2010

Private Religion

The Barna Group, a research company which studies the relationship between spirituality and culture, has reported that “71% of United States adults say that they have developed their own slate of religious beliefs, rather than accepting the tenets of a particular faith or religious group.” I don’t get it.

In 1939, Bishop Fulton Sheen preached the homily at the death of Heywood Broun, a famous journalist of the early 20th century who had converted to Roman Catholicism. In it, Bishop Sheen quoted the reasons that Broun had been attracted to the Catholic Church. Among the reasons was the following statement: “To me there is nothing more ridiculous than individualism in either economics, politics or religion. I see no reason why I should have my own individual religion any more than I should have my own individual astronomy or mathematics.”

If I said, “I have developed my own slate of understandings of physics, rather than accepting the tenets of scientists like Newton and Einstein and in my own physics there is no such thing as gravity,” you would think I was out of my mind. Physics is a real objective thing. We might not know everything there is to know about physics, and there is certainly always room for new theories consistent with the evidence, which is then subject the peer review, but I don’t get to fill in the blanks, much less contradict the wisdom of the ages, with whatever feels good to me.

There is plenty of good room for subjectivism in religion, that is, for your own intuition and personal experience. I am not trying to rule out anyone’s genuinely religious experiences. But ultimately, religion is about meeting the living God. It is about discovering the real and objective truth about human existence and about God. Christianity is not merely a warm glow in the atmosphere of the soul. It is about engagement with a particular Jew, who lived a particular time, in a particular place, who taught particular things. That means that one opinion is not simply as good as another. It is a matter of truth, not merely opinion.

To know the truth in any subject, you consult with others known for their expertise. And you must be willing to allow your theories to be tested against competing evidence. The authentic searcher for truth does not withdraw into himself or herself but studies the accumulated wisdom of others over the ages. The Bible is an obvious source of such wisdom in our tradition. So also is the teaching of the Church and its tradition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has collected the insights of Fathers of the Church and the words of many saints. And every parish offers a variety of opportunities for adults to explore more deeply the mysteries of our faith in order to come to a more complete understanding of the tenets of our faith. Using such tools is so much more profitable than simply concocting one’s own private religion. And, more importantly, is much more apt to reach the truth about God.

Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal