The Separation of Church and Religion – Anna Aversa

Every person’s religion is a way of life. If a person is religious, it helps them form their beliefs and may influence their decisions, for example, choosing how they dress or how many children they may have. But what do we do with the fact that we often learn about our Gods through institutions or organized traditions? As a Roman Catholic, religion surrounds the God I worship through the large and expansive institution I worship in. Catholicism has created a culture around its version of Christianity, which exerts major influence on its adherents, even those that hardly attend Mass.

I once had a conversation with a friend where she joked that being Catholic is nothing more than saying you are Catholic. In the Church people joke about “Cafeteria Catholics”, individuals that identify as Catholics, but don’t live out the teachings of Catholicism. The majority of Catholics I know do not attend mass on a regular basis. In fact the majority of Catholics I know attend only a handful of times a year but still have crosses all over their homes and pray before they eat. I myself haven’t attended mass in quite some time due to the pandemic.

What is interesting to me about this, is that many Catholics use their religion as justification for their traditional lifestyles or political affiliation, but don’t seem to value communication with God; though hardly attending mass, they are eager to follow their local congregation’s cultural  and political directives. For them, God and the Church are synonymous; the Church is the only way to God, even when they are not frequently attending mass. For example, some Catholics don’t believe in gay marriage and as a result will not accept gay individuals. While the Catholic church will not marry gay people, Jesus preached acceptance for all his children, which to me means accepting and supporting gay individuals. To me, there are some disconnects between the Bible, God and the teachings of the Church. And when there is a disconnect oftentimes ‘Cultural Catholics’ or ‘Cafeteria Catholics’ will just default to the Church’s teaching, never considering whether this is truly of God, or in line with Jesus’ teachings.

Theirs is one way of practicing Catholicism, but there are plenty of ways. Just consider my family: My father rarely attends mass while my mother often goes after work on Saturday nights. My next door neighbors sent their children to Catholic school but only attended mass on Christmas. My ‘Italian Catholic’ Nonna puts prayer cards in birthday cards and attends mass at her elderly community home. My Grandma on my mother’s side was an ‘Irish Catholic’ that grew up going to Catholic schools and told me “swearing isn’t against the 10 Commandments”. The bottom line is, is that every Catholic I know worships slightly different. There are over 1.2 billion Catholics in the world and everyone practices in the way they see fit.

Same for me. I’m a Catholic, and feel justified in not following the Church’s every teaching — because, to me God is ultimately without a church. God is simply too large to fit in one religion, and with an institution as murky as the Catholic Church, I can’t be sure that Catholicism is the one true religion. Nonetheless, I admire the tradition of the Church, and it remains important to me. The Church has taught me the love of God and God has taught me to love my brothers and sisters, that is, my neighbors, those in need, and all human beings. I will never worship an institution but by remaining a part of the Church I can do my part to help it improve. Catholicism is not my way of life, pursuing God is, Catholicism is a means to an end.

To my Fellows: Do you see your institution as synonymous with who/what you worship? What’s the relationship between your personal practice, and fidelity to the institution?

7 thoughts on “The Separation of Church and Religion – Anna Aversa”

  1. Hi Anna,

    I am not sure that I agree with your post. If Catholic Church teachings are not essential to belief, then what separates you, or me for that matter, from a Protestant or an Evangelical? If we remove teachings in favor of personal belief, then how are we not just nondenominational believers? I do not mean to imply that we cannot disagree with a Church stance or dislike certain doctrine, but if we do away with the dogma of the Church, then what is left of Catholicism as separate from Methodism or Lutheranism? If we remain Catholic for the community of people (friends and family), then are we not remaining Catholic for people and not for God. I do not mean to call you a cafeteria catholic or send an offense. Instead, I struggle with the idea of church dogma – which separates out faith from many sects – and personal individual faith.

    1. Hey Ethan! I was hoping you would comment, I wanted to see another perspective of another Catholic. I think your comment just goes to show how there are so many Catholics with many different opinions. I did not mean for my post to completely diminish the all of the Church’s teachings but rather say in some way most of us don’t follow all of them. What separates me from a Protestant or Evangelical isn’t that I don’t do somethings Catholics do but rather that I DO most of the things Catholics do. I pray my rosary, attend adoration, I pray to saints, participate in confession. While simply ‘walking the walk’ doesn’t make someone Catholic, I don’t remain a Catholic purely for the community, but rather the tradition that I adore so much and helps connect me to God (sidenote: my Catholic community is not all that strong at home). I think it is important to highlight here communities such as groups in Africa that still use witchcraft in their daily lives but are practicing Catholics or our guest speaker from a few weeks ago that uses Buddhist meditation but is a practicing Catholic. The Catholicism we (western Roman Catholics like you and I) practice is very different from other forms of Catholicism (yet still all Catholic) so removing the Church’s teachings for personal belief doesn’t always make people nondenominational believers. My post was more meant to highlight those that are ‘culturally Catholic’ or abide by the Church’s teachings blindly rather than putting God at the center of their worship. I feel justified not following every teaching of the Church because those change, with new interpretations, the times we are in or even a new Pope, because after all, the bible is the word of God interpreted by Man. I am super happy to see your side on this and actually slightly happy you don’t agree (I love a good challenge to my personal beliefs and bias) and your comment helps me explore this complicated relationship with the Church even further! (p.s. sorry for the long post! So many thoughts!)

      1. Hi Anna,

        I don’t really have a dog in this fight, but I’m glad that you and Ethan are having this dialogue. I see you referenced the Azande witchcraft material from Nesper’s class and I just wanted to expand on this a bit. I think what it highlights is that the platonic ideal of the Catholic does not, in fact, exist. Every person brings their culture to their religious practice, although perhaps some more so than others. How could it be any different? By being raised in a society, you are socialized into certain attitudes and behaviors, some of which may come into tension with any religion.

  2. Hi Anna!
    This was a super interesting blog post to read, especially the discussion between you and Ethan at the end. In terms of your question, since Judaism is such a decentralized religion, it’s kind of hard to talk about it in terms of a large scale institution. We do have various branches that practice in different ways, and in Israel the government sometimes has to interpret religious laws concretely (if buses can run on Shabbat and what counts as kosher, for example), but in the US, every congregation is pretty much on their own trip. I guess maybe a parallel conflict could be my personal faith versus the traditional way of practicing, which could be a stand in for an institution. I think that sometimes I feel a little guilty or like I am doing it wrong if I stray from the traditional way of practicing, but I still do it a lot. Like recently to rest on Shabbat I have been doing crafts/art even though that is technically “work” and not allowed on Shabbat, because you aren’t supposed to create anything new. But I think it is in the spirit of the law because it replenishes me to show up more fully for the rest of the week. I guess that’s kind of a parallel to what you were talking about, about zooming out and living according to the life of Jesus, for example, rather than getting too bogged down in certain pieces of dogma that don’t serve a constructive purpose in your life.

  3. Hey Anna,

    I found your post fascinating! I definitely don’t see my worship synonymous with an institution. Growing up Muslim I had never been to the Mosque, instead, I prayed at home, with family, and learned about my religion on my own. When I came to college, I wanted an institution like the Mosque to find community, but I didn’t feel as connected to one near campus. For me, my religion or faith has been so personal and always about my own relationship with Allah (God). This unique perspective of mine that has developed being outside of the religious institution of my own faith, learning about my faith on my own, through interreligious gatherings and visiting other faiths places of worship has made me understand my own faith in a way that is different to many friends of faith I have met (both in and outside of my faith).

  4. Hi Anna,

    I really like this post. I don’t know if I can fully comprehend the idea of worshipping Gd without the church, but I think I understand the sentiment. At least in my understanding of how Judaism (and I assume Catholicism) developed, core beliefs were established early on through texts and writings, but then the institutions of religion developed and expanded upon the core beliefs to create a larger framework of belief. I know for me, my religious practice is much more community based, than a specific institution.

  5. Anna – I really enjoyed reading your post! I found it super interesting because it touched on issues that I myself have grappled with in the past. For example, I often wondered if me not attending the Gurdawara (Sikh Temple) made me an unfaithful Sikh as there have been stretches in my life where I was unable to consistently go to the Gurdawara. At the same time, attending the Gurdawara sometimes seemed like the last place where I could find connection to my faith and beliefs. While the shabads (prayer hymms) sung interested me, I found that other aspects such as the social nature of the Gurdawara sometimes did not settle with me, especially contradictory beliefs and actions people exhibit Thus, I believe that my faith and my relationship with it goes beyond the Gurdawara – the Gurdawara is only a medium in which I can ground myself to be in a state to mediate, reflect and try to connect with God. However, if I can create the same medium within my home or any place I go, then I will choose to do that. I once did believe that the only way for me to connect to God was by attending the Gurdawara but I now realize that it is up to me create the space through which I try to connect to a higher power. Sikhi teaches us that every living being has divinity inside of them; thus, my daily interactions with people (and even animals) could be a way for me to connect to God. Additionally, Sikhi emphasizes the importance of maintaining all bodily hair because it is seen as a gift of God and thus, many Sikhs choose not to cut their hair (including myself); however, I don’t believe that cutting one’s hair would make them any less of a Sikh than someone who doesn’t because I believe Sikhi is encouraging its followers to the best versions of themselves – someone can cut their hair but still help others and engage in selfless acts of service (seva). For me, I choose to take the best parts of my faith and apply them to my life to help see the light in everyone and everything.

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