The Question: In his speech to U.S. bishops last week, Pope Benedict XVI said: “Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted . . . To the extent that religion becomes a purely private affair, it loses its very soul.” Do you agree or disagree? Why?
The Pope was on a mission to do more than inspire. He came to stop the steady sinking of a leaky boat. Faced with declining membership and widespread disgruntlement, the Catholic Church in America shows every sign of emptying out its parish churches and cathedrals. They are already empty, more or less, in Europe. Therefore the phrase “private matter” means, “Don’t go off on your own.” And faith losing its soul is code for a familiar theme to lay Catholics: without the Mother Church you are lost.
As Cardinal Ratzinger, this Pope helped to enunciate a papal edict in the late 80s that condemned meditation and specifically mentioned Eastern meditation. Finding your own soul path is anathema to the Church hierarchy. As early as Constantine’s conversion in the fourth century the bishops in Rome were condemning the Gnostics as heretics, and although it’s not entirely clear what the Gnostics believed or who they were, their enemies saw them as anti-authority. Ordinary men and women could lead a Gnostic congregation as the spirit moved them. Salvation was seen as a personal matter between the worshipper and God. Revelation of inner mysteries took precedence over official dogma.
The Gnostics were brutally expunged, but their strain of Christianity could never be fully suppressed. (One aspect, rejecting the need for intercession through saints and the Virgin Mary, formed the core of Protestantism.) Individual seeking holds enormous appeal today as millions of people take up their own spiritual journey — a decidedly “private matter” — and ignore the Church’s threat that they will lose their souls in the process. Yet the Pope, however conservative and dogmatic he sounds, brings up a genuine threat. Can any of us be our own spiritual teachers? There’s something arrogant and deluded in complete autonomy, as if we can rely on our own egos to defeat the shortcomings of the ego. After all, we don’t ask surgeons to operate on themselves. Without guidance from a wisdom tradition — and whatever else it may be, the Church does embody such a tradition — the individual seeker runs a huge risk of being distracted and misled, not by the powers of darkness but by an ego-personality that will do anything not to let go of its cherished habits, beliefs, and conditioning.
I think the Pope realizes this, but it would be better if he conceded that those who have gone on a private search for God had good reasons for doing so. Tradition had begun to shackle them more than it liberated and guided them. Italy, the home country of Catholicism in Europe, has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. This implies a resort to contraception, and yet Church dogma calls that a sin, forcing its parishioners into Hobson’s choice. They are free to seek a relationship with God; it just has to be entirely on the Church’s terms. Modern Christians won’t stand for that the way they did in the great ages of faith. That’s why they have been silently walking away — they’re voting with their feet. If Pope Benedict wants to draw them back in, he needs to acknowledge reality. The vote has already been taken. He had better start a new race and offer a better set of policies.