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January 30, 2014
What does 'spiritual, but not religious' really mean?
By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *

What does 'spiritual, but not religious' really mean?

One of the fastest spreading phrases popping up in serious conversations is the slogan “I am spiritual, but not religious.” Not surprising. Everybody wants to be spiritual, from Hollywood celebrities to sports figures.

Fortunately, today, it is very acceptable to be “spiritual.” Not so acceptable to be “religious.” For some, religion has become a synonym for institution, organization, power and corruption. Yet, “spiritual” still captures for many the idea of holy, the transcendent and unimpeded access to God.

Anti-religion sentiment has been greatly fomented in our secularized culture. Religious symbols in public are constantly targeted. The tenets of religion that go against popular trends can no longer be freely voiced without being labeled “hate speech.” Some unbelievers and secularists dislike the Church’s teachings and criticize her. Sadly, even some believers join their chorus. The claim to be spiritual, but not religious, makes life less controversial. Once the individual severs a connection with any institutionalized form of religion, it no longer becomes necessary to face society’s criticism of the Church.

Over the last 10 years, 22 percent of the population and 30 percent of those between the age of 18 and 29 have baptized themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” This self-branding label not only affirms their desire for the good, the lasting, the divine, but also guiltlessly absolves them from any community form of faith or worship. It frees them to do their own thing.

“Not religious” is just another way of saying that faith is something between me and God. No doubt faith is a question of me and God. But is it really only me and God? Here is the heart of the matter. Is the seeking of God merely a private affair?

As a religion, Catholicism has a treasure of wisdom and reflection that span centuries and cultures. Deep insights. Practical advice. Moral guidelines. Much can be said for digging deep down into this tradition and coming up the richer. Why, then, is it so easily jettisoned?

Catholicism as a religion makes demands. Hard demands. Unpopular demands. Generosity. Love. Compassion. Fidelity. Chastity. Practical deeds. Acceptance of truths taught by the Church. Mass every Sunday and Holy Day. These are not just words. They are the way of life required of a practicing Catholic. They demands require effort. They require sacrifice.
It is all too easy to simply dismiss religion as dry dogmas and antiquated rules. Isn’t it more comfortable to make one’s own rules, fashion one’s own truth, live one’s own experience of God? Is “spirituality…without religion … a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community”? Is it “plain old laziness”? (James Martin SJ, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, Harper One, 2010, p. 50). Perhaps, in some cases.

This ever-increasing popular opposition of “spiritual” to “religious” obscures the inherent coherence of spirituality and religion. Religion, particularly Catholicism, is a way of spirituality. What makes Catholicism unique and distinguishes it from any self-chosen form of spirituality is its origin in divine revelation. It is God’s gift for humanity, not so much a way for us to seek God, but the way to be found by God who is seeking to enter into a relationship with each of us in Christ.

As St. Augustine taught, the word religion derives etymologically from the Latin re-ligare, i.e. re (again) + ligare (connect). It means “to reconnect” (cf. City of God X.3). Thus, Catholicism, as a religion, reconnects us to God. But it does so, not according to our will and our preference, but according to God’s will and God’s truth as revealed in Christ and through his Church.

The Church is not an afterthought in God’s plan. From all eternity, God wills “to call all people to communion with him, to friendship with him, indeed, to share in his own divine life as his sons and daughters…[The Church] is a work of God, born precisely from this loving design which is gradually brought about in history” (Pope Francis, General Audience, May 29, 2013). The communion that God desires us to share together with him in heaven, He wills to begin here on earth in the Church.

Being connected with God means being in God’s family the Church. Is this too much for those who prefer to make their own rules and live by their own truth? Does spiritual vs. religious practically translate as complacent vs. committed?

Posted with permission from the Diocese of Paterson, N.J.

Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.
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