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?