When people learn that I am a priest, they often want to share their ideas about religion. I know what to expect. Although they seem to think that their ideas are somewhat unique, they are often strikingly similar to what I have heard before. They tell me they firmly believe in God, but they are suspicious of organized religion because it is full of man-made rules and hypocrites. I hear this idea so often and explained so similarly that I suspect these people are repeating a single source. Needless to say, I don’t agree with the idea and I’d like to finally put it to rest.
Organized religion is certainly full of man-made rules, but so what? Every organization has rules made by its membership. Of course, I understand that the real charge is that religion presents these man-made rules as divine commandments. I rarely get more than one or two examples. All of the cited “rules” are in fact divinely sanctioned:
No remarriage after divorce – Jesus teaches this clearly: “I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery” (Mt 19:9).
Homosexual activity is sinful – The Bible is clear again: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (Rm 1:26-27). Some people would like to dismiss this passage because it belongs to St. Paul, not Jesus. But Catholics consider the authority of all biblical books to be equal. Others would like to dismiss it as merely expressing the dominant views of Paul’s culture, but the apostle is clearly teaching God’s view of homosexual acts. If we believe in biblical inspiration at all, we have to take him for his word.
Mandatory celibacy for most priests – This is a man-made rule, but the Church has never said otherwise. It is considered a discipline, not a doctrine. It is not forced upon anyone. I knew that I had to be celibate in order to become a priest, but I freely chose to become a priest. The Church made the rule because it considers celibacy a valuable discipline for clergy. However, it is not without some biblical foundation. Jesus told his disciples, “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” (Mt 19:12b).
Many people of these people I talk to “on the street” believe that churches are full of hypocrites. Supposedly, these hypocrites come to church for an hour on Sunday morning to appear holy but their behavior the rest of the week is, as one woman told me, “appalling.” As a priest, I’d hate to learn that this is true about most or even many of my parishioners. I can’t say for sure since I don’t accompany them to work Monday through Friday or observe much of their interactions with family, friends, and neighbors. However, I do get to know many of my parishioners well, joining them for important events like baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals. I get to know other parishioners even better, joining them frequently for meals and other celebrations like birthdays and holidays. Some of these events can create a lot of stress and yet what I observe are Christians struggling to live their ideals like anyone but never giving up. Of course, I do encounter a handful of parishioners who seem perpetually angry and who complain frequently. I don’t kick these people out. Instead, I hope that God’s grace and Jesus’ teaching will eventually transform these people. Ironically, many of the people who complain about the Church judging people are judging my parishioners!
I don’t think a single written source is responsible for these tired old ideas. I certainly don’t think reality is the source of the ideas. They are simply the common misconceptions of religion in modern society. Because they are uncritically repeated by many, they are taken “on faith” and form a modern creed about religion. It’s time Christians demand evidence for these false beliefs. When someone comes up empty-handed in our conversations, we have the opportunity to proclaim to that person the real Creed.
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