Catholic Sense 7

The Unspiritual Catholic

By David Mills

I must admit to feeling annoyed when someone tells me, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual” or “I’m into spirituality, not organized religion,” or some other version of the claim that while the believing Catholic depends on human institutions for his faith, the speaker is open and free and in touch with the true spiritual realities. You are a sheep, he is an eagle. You need the crutch to hobble along, he runs free.

Almost every Catholic has heard this from someone. Probably most painfully, some have heard it from children explaining why they don’t go to Mass anymore. It’s one of those easily remembered phrases that work like a “get out of jail free” card for anyone who feels he has to explain his lack of religious practice.

As often happens, the best response to this kind of claim is a question. Many of the most popular anti-Christian lines aren’t very well thought through. The people who use them don’t really know what they mean by them. You may do them some good by forcing them to see this themselves, and helping them see that the choice they face is not so easy.

In this case, you might ask the person who’s dismissed Catholicism with the claim to be spiritual rather than religious: “What spirit do you worship?” This may well surprise him, because he’s never thought that being spiritual had much to do with any spirit in particular.

But a man can’t be spiritual without having some conscious relation to a spirit or to some spirits or to the spirits. The idea makes no sense otherwise. You can’t be a loyal fan without supporting a team. You can’t be a faithful husband without having a wife. You can’t be spiritual without knowing a spirit.

The question may only unsettle him, but that’s enough to start, because the more he tries to define the spiritual, the more vaporous and empty it should appear to him.

G. K. Chesterton nailed this about one hundred years ago in The Dumb Ox, his book about St. Thomas Aquinas. He talks about people who promoted “religion” over Christianity, “religion” meaning then what “spirituality” does today. Against the settled doctrines of the Church, “These people generally propose an alternative religion of intuition and feeling,” he wrote.

This is pretty much what the “spiritual” people of our day mean. They feel there’s some higher power out there or some deeper meaning to the universe, in any case a reason for optimism — though usually not, and this is important, a reason to change their way they live. Whatever it is, it doesn’t speak to them, but that’s okay, because it makes them feel all right about life.

Being “spiritual” works fairly well when you are healthy and have enough money to enjoy life. But being “spiritual” doesn’t help you much when things go from good to bad. The man wasting away from pancreatic cancer will get no help nor comfort from the “spiritual,” which may seem a lot less friendly and comforting when he feels pain morphine won’t suppress.

This was true in the so-called Dark Ages, when life really was very hard, Chesterton pointed out. If “there had been a religion of feeling, it would have been a religion of black and suicidal feeling.” People then might reasonably have felt that the world was a horrible place and the body a curse. Think of a world without aspirin, dental care, indoor plumbing, athlete’s foot medicine, and deodorant. It would have been easy to go mad with disgust.

But however the medieval man felt about life, he “could not deny that a good God had created the normal and natural world; he could not say that the devil had made the world,” because he was a Catholic. What we would call “religion” reminded him of truths he was tempted to forget.

There were “spiritual” groups back then, like the Manichees, who did say that the body was a curse, and who felt about marriage the way most of us feel about slugs and sewage. The Church condemned them because she saw the body was good. Jesus has one, after all. We can enjoy weddings today because the Church then was dogmatic and institutional — was “religious” and not “spiritual.”

As Chesterton concludes (I’ve changed the terms to the modern ones): “A modern emotional spirituality might at any moment have turned Catholicism into Manichaeism. But when Spirituality would have maddened men, Religion kept them sane.”

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared in the Pittsburgh Catholic on November 9, 2009.