Organized religion provides a balance to the uncritical acceptance of easy “groupthink”
Cardinal Newman once observed that if religion tends towards “feeling and taste”, and if “it is the right of each individual to have him say exactly what pleases him”, then such a religion becomes “so personal” and “so private” that we must necessarily ignore it. In his Apologia pro Vita Sua he writes: “Religion, as a simple feeling, is for me a dream and a mockery”.
Characteristics of organized religion include gathering for common prayer, collective action, leadership, doctrine, and tradition. Once these aspects are minimized, what ultimately remains are the feelings of the individual, a disparate set of voices and a vague sense of being “spiritual”.
At the heart of Christianity is charity – love of neighbor, inspired by God’s love for us
Organized religion, on the other hand, provides a coherent body of teachings that is the fruit of centuries of reflection on revelation, and dialogue between faith and reason.
The principles of Catholic social teaching, for example, articulate fundamental truths about the human person and his destiny while allowing individuals the latitude to pursue the common good in concrete circumstances.
Despite sustained efforts to confine it to the private sphere, organized religion continues to play a major role in the local and global discourse on the common good. It offers a stimulating – hopefully prophetic – voice and provides an important balance to the uncritical acceptance of easy “groupthink”.
Internally, its authority serves as a bulwark against privatized interpretations of religion that sometimes turn into fanatical distortions, extremism and violent fundamentalism.
Coleridge spoke of religion as a kind of “compensatory counterforce”; a “perpetual friendly opposition”. Amidst an ever-changing consensus in society, organized religion seeks to build a stable base by upholding and defending core values and non-negotiable ethical principles – not in an effort to stifle freedom, but to protect it against moral relativism.
The Catholic Church is often excoriated in fulfilling this role, particularly when it speaks in favor of the sanctity of human life or the nature of marriage, but it can also encounter opposition when it insists on the preferential option for the poor or on the need for responsible management of creation.
At the heart of Christianity is charity – love of neighbor, inspired by God’s love for us. Organized religion adds value to individual acts of charity; it has the capacity for a collective response to need; it is not afraid to affirm the voice of “the other”, and to bring its members to go beyond their limits in a spirit of solidarity and common objective.
The Church’s historic commitment to founding and operating social services such as schools, hospitals and universities testifies to this community spirit of charity, mission and often heroic action in the service of humanity – especially towards the poor and vulnerable, and those who cannot defend themselves.
Organized religion also draws on the natural human desire and need for belonging and fellowship. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we have witnessed the importance of interconnectedness and interdependence.
Coming together in faith provides a crucial community of support and companionship; in times of crisis, he helps us face life’s most emotionally charged issues together, such as the mystery of suffering and the inevitability of our death.
Today, many people declare themselves as “nones” – people without religion – while identifying themselves as “spiritual”. To go beyond organized religion in this way is to reverse the whole idea of religion – instead of faith as humanity’s reception of what God has revealed, we end up with the notion of a religion centered on humanity reimagining God in the image of humanity.
The religious community can only regain its attractiveness when its leaders and members are faithful to their vocation and consistent in their witness.
We are not atomized individuals who were created and then abandoned by God to dig our own path. Each of us is loved by God who became flesh for us and who wishes to share his life with us as we journey together on Earth.
The church is the vessel that brings together the people of God and communicates to us the closeness of God.
It is understandable that believers become discontented when religion is corrupted by power and institutional failures. Although all organizations have shortcomings and can fail, people are rightly shocked and disillusioned when core gospel values are undermined by infidelity, sin, and sometimes even horrific crimes.
This is why organized religion must continually be open to repentance, renewal and conversion.
Church leaders would do well to bear in mind Chesterton’s remark that “the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it was found difficult and was not tried”.
The religious community can regain its appeal only when its leaders and members are faithful to their vocation and consistent in their witness. This is the challenge that continually stands before me, and all of us in organized religion.
Archbishop Eamon Martin is the Catholic Primate of All Ireland. This is an edited version of his speech opposing the motion ‘This house would go beyond organizingof religion’ at a recent Oxford Union debate.’ The motion was defeated.