Have you ever stopped to think for a hot second: Why is there such a thing as organized religion? Why all the congregations and rules and traditions and teachings and stuff? We can pray on our own, we can love God on our own, so why do we need anyone else telling us how to do it?
It’s a seemingly reasonable line of logic, right? If we could still have the ability to obtain salvation without active participation in organized religion, then we probably wouldn’t need it, right? Especially when we are living in a sort of isolation — outside of a physical community — during COVID-19 — why is Mass and the Church still important, even if everything is shut down? I mean, we can love God without religion… So how is participating in an organized religion any different? Especially when, sometimes, it seems like all religious institutions have to offer is four walls, some archaic rules, scandal, and greed…
If that is not your experience of organized religion, praise God! I pray the beauty of the Church continues to be revealed to you authentically. But, for many people, organized religion carries with it a sort of negative tone. Some have been wronged or seen wrong and are often turned away entirely, not wanting to be associated with an institution like that. This reaction is very real, but organized religion actually is an integral part of our faith and I think it’s worth taking the time to explore why.
I might not be able to fully satisfy every question you have regarding organized religion, but my hope is that you might start to better understand (and maybe even begin to love) organized religion, particularly, as it exists in the Catholic Church.
1. Humans, at their core, crave community.
If you were to take a broad course in the history of mankind, you would see a few trends across the centuries. There is one in particular that reoccurs with every generation and it is especially pertinent to our conversation: Humankind’s desire for community.
From the very beginning of time, human beings have desired belonging — whether it was in a hunting and gathering community, military community, family community, religious community, or (even) sports community, humans have always had this innate desire to belong somewhere, or even to someone. Man is not meant to live out life alone and that’s made clear by our desire to connect with others. If we were meant only for ourselves then why do we desire community and human connection?
“What about individualism?” Some might say. “Isn’t it better to think for ourselves than to let an institution dictate our belief systems?” Yes, it is good to question and to grow in our belief based on our own intellect and will, but organized religion provides what our intellect and will cannot: a community that understands the human experience and a place for worship of someone greater than ourselves. We learn from one another, lean on one another, and share life’s joys and struggles with one another because at our core, we know, life is more meaningful when we share it with others whose lives are oriented towards the same understanding of purpose, life, death, and eternity.
2. Jesus established a Church community from the very beginning.
If you disagree with this claim, just take a walk back through the ministry of Jesus and ask yourself the question: Did Jesus value and establish community wherever He went?
From the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus gathered people in one place. He could’ve very easily said, “I’m here to teach you, but when you go out do not gather anyone but just live your life on your own, so long as you pray to me.” Nope. Not even one bit. He said, “go out two-by-two” (Luke 10:1), and “for where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).
Take a look at how our Catechism speaks so beautifully about this communion of Jesus with His people: “From the beginning, Jesus associated His disciples with His own life, revealed the mystery of the Kingdom to them, and gave them a share in His mission, joy, and sufferings. Jesus spoke of a still more intimate communion between Him and those who would follow Him: ‘Abide in me, and I in you… I am the vine, you are the branches.’ And He proclaimed a mysterious and real communion between His own body and ours: ‘He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in Him’” (CCC 787).
Nothing about Jesus’ ministry (with the exception of His 40 days in the desert) was done by Himself, not even His death. Jesus gathered people together as a community wherever He went. He did not establish a Church for people to go off and find Him apart from others, but rather He deeply desired a communion between Himself and the Bride of Christ, His Church to last for all time.
3.The Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, but still made up of a bunch of sinners.
A common argument against organized religion is based on a clear and recurring trend of corruption. Even during Jesus’ time, the Pharisees exemplified what pride and greed can do to a religious institution. Jesus spoke of this and was very clear about eradicating corruption, but He was also clear about the fact that the temple and law must remain. He didn’t just say “destroy and abolish” but also, “fulfill and raise” (Matthew 5:17). Even when Jesus alluded to destroying the temple, He quickly followed it up with how He would raise it again in three days (John 2:19). While corruption will always be a consequence of the reality of human sin that exists in the Church, this is the Church Jesus has instituted: One that is founded in His fulfillment, not eradication.
There is a beautiful quote, generally attributed to St. Augustine that says, “The Church is not a hotel for saints, it is a hospital for sinners.” When we confuse these points we easily forget that no human-run institution is ever going to be perfect. Yes, it would be problematic if we ignored the issues, but it would be equally as problematic to overthrow the institution completely without any attempt to heal its wounds.
4. Without structure, religion would be like a game of football without any rules.
Think for a minute what a football game would look like without any rules. Nope, not just without referees, but without ANY kind of structure… just 22 men or women on a field with a football and no other objective other than getting the football across the endzone. It’s very likely you’ll see some variety of chaos. Without structure, a football game lacks continuity in the understanding of how the game is played, leaving a lot of room for confusion and disagreement. While the objective: “football arriving in the endzone” can still be accomplished, the experience of the game is wildly different than one with clear guiding rules for play.
While you wouldn’t fit religion into the same category of “sports recreation,” the concept still remains: The teachings, the liturgy, the Sacraments, the priests, and bishops are all institutions of guidance within the Church in order that the people (you and I) are able to most fully participate in the community and sacraments Christ has established for us. To use another analogy, if the Church is our ship to help us travel from Earth to heaven, we need a ship that operates under some collective guidance and structure other than our own.
5. Organized religion is not a distraction from Christ, but rather an avenue toward Christ.
There was a point in my life where I was so wrapped up in the rules and structure of the Church that my experience with religion became more like meaningless rigamarole than an actual vessel for relationship with Christ. It’s imperative that we remember the fact that the “organized” part of organized religion is never meant to hold any more meaning than a descriptive adjective.
The Catholic Church has existed for centuries with only one thing in mind: bring all people to heaven. That’s it. That’s the whole entire point. And, anything else is a distraction. It is with this in mind that we approach our participation in the Church. As our homes and schools have structure so that we are able to stay safe, healthy, and happy, our Church too operates with this same mindset.
Here’s the deal, friends: The Church is a beautiful institution, but our Church is made up of sinners just like you and I, so she is as human as they come. There is great joy in this because she is not too good for us. She knows our pain, she knows our struggle, and she knows what it means to journey to Christ through all the trials that a life this side of heaven throws our way. It has taken me years to love the Church as I do and I am still very much finding my place within her arms, but the more I learn about her history, the more I am convinced she — in all her organized-religion-glory — is home.
Don’t stop asking questions, my friends. I am rooting for you and praying for you always.
Photo by Nick Bernard.