A Defense of “Organized” Religion

We frequently hear people criticizing “organized” religions and boasting about not belonging to one. What exactly do they have in mind? They aren’t hankering after disorganized, disunited, or anarchic religion. The discontent seems to be something like the following:

Some are for religion, but against organized religion. For example, those who pride themselves on being “spiritual,” but completely free from any creed or conventional religious practices. (Although some “spiritual” persons who are against organized religion, organize with others to combat organized religion!). In this same category are people who see religion as something essentially and completely spontaneous. Individuals might decide to get together once in a while to receive and share inspirations, and even pray, but without any established rituals.

But there are also others who are for organization of all kinds, as long as it isn’t a religious sort of organization – for example, the “New Atheists,” who portray attempts to transmit religious teachings or practices as a kind of pernicious mind-control and threat to human freedom. (Paradoxically, materialism can’t really allow freedom; in a materialist perspective, all “free” actions are mere determinations produced by the brain and nervous system reacting to physiological or environmental influences.) Also included in this category are practical materialists (not card-carrying materialists) who have never had the least thought about anything besides their everyday pursuits (which are organized in various ways in the search for their own satisfaction).

When I hear the first type, who give lip service to the importance, or at least usefulness, of religion, I begin to think, “Are they serious”? Religion without organization?

I am perhaps overly influenced by Aristotle, who declares that we are instinctively socio-political beings. He goes on to say that a completely unsocial “loner” would have to be either a beast or a god. The animalized type would be someone living on the level of the lower animals, purely sensualized, unable to enter into normal human interactions. (Aristotle was unfamiliar with physical or mental handicaps or diseases that can make individuals appear animal-like.) For the god type, it is not clear that Aristotle had any specific person in mind. There may have been ancient Grecian mystical equivalents of the Hindu Yogis who retreat from society for constant contemplation on a mountain top; or, as a Christian equivalent, St. Simon Stylites in the fifth century, who ascended a pillar to remain in constant contemplation and prayer for twenty-seven years. Apparently he did not come down even to go to church.

But any religion that is between these two extremes, and compatible with human nature, would have to be organized – maybe even supremely organized, if it was large and wanted to remain unified. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Auguste Comte, who scarcely had a religious bone in their respective bodies, looked to the Catholic Church as a model to implement their utopian ideals for civic-secular unity. And mainstream Protestant churches, even when they try to avoid looking “hierarchical” like the Catholic Church, develop more decentralized, but still highly organized, administrative and jurisdictional schemes. Even the Quakers, who are against not only ecclesial organization but also Baptism and other sacraments, at least get together systematically in meetings to allow the Spirit to inspire them.

      Jesus establishes His Church upon Peter, the Rock (Raphael)

Anyone serious about becoming “spiritual” ought to note the elaborate and painstaking ascetic rituals and gradations of meditation techniques that some Hindus and Buddhists adopt, who wish to attain the status of spiritual proficients.

For a Catholic, Jesus Himself (Matt. 16: 13-19) gives the original organizational impetus, while he and his disciples were standing next to a massive rocky cliff, dotted with niches containing statues of pagan gods – a rock on which the city of Ceasarea Phillipi was built. On this occasion, as God had changed Abram’s name to Abraham, Jesus changed the Apostle Simon’s name to Peter, and promised that his Church, analogously to Ceasarea Phillipi, will be established on a rock (Cephas), the rock of Peter (Petrus as the masculine form of the Greek translation of Cephas). He also entrusts the very specific and non-reproducible keys to the Kingdom of Heaven to Peter.

Contemporary Protestant commentators tend to interpret Jesus’ words choosing Peter as the authority in his Church as inauthentic, inserted in the Gospel by Matthew to indicate the prevailing understanding of ecclesiastical authority in his time; or else, interpolating actual words spoken after Jesus’ Resurrection into a narrative concerning a particular event during Jesus’ ministry on earth.

The Interpreters One-Volume Commentary on the Bible works this vein hard:

• “The designation of Peter as ‘the rock’ does not view him as the first bishop of Rome and the founder of the Roman hierarchy, but as the first witness of the Resurrection and therefore as the prime apostolic witness that God raised Jesus from the dead.”
• “The word translated church (in Greek ekklesia) refers to the community of faith, not to an ecclesiastical organization as the church later of necessity came to be.”
• “The exercise of authority to bind and loose has to do with the regulation of the inner life of the community.”

In other words, in a Protestant construal, some necessary, but definitely non-hierarchical, organization is necessary to coordinate the development of the ecclesiastical community, preserving its unity and identity. But the “rock” is not Peter, just the “faith” of Peter.

This leads to all sorts of difficulties. Building up the church on the basis of faith as a subjective state, involving private interpretation of the Bible, has resulted in multiple divisions and denominations among non-Catholics (often accompanied by dissenting “Catholic” theologians and Scripture scholars), and their continuing disagreements regarding fundamental Christian doctrines and/or morals. The rock of Peter is buffeted by these swirling challenges, but has remained – for those not sitting on that ecclesial Gibraltar – irritatingly unmoved.

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • James

    Well done, professor, in pointing out the “multiple divisions and denominations among non-Catholics,” but could it not be said that Catholics are nearly as divided?

    First, which is the “One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic” Church — the Four Marks that are claimed both by Rome and the East? That is a huge divide that remains after some 17 centuries since the First Council of Constantinople revised the Nicene Creed. Perhaps Kipling was right about east never meeting west, and clearly this theological hurdle goes to the central point of which authority — Roman Catholicism vs. Eastern Orthodox — is the true Rock.

    Then there are numerous other divisions within Catholicism over doctrinal issues. British Catholics, for example, in a recent poll disagree strongly with official doctrinal views on social and ethical issues. Only 6 percent agreed abortion is not permissible under any circumstance and 11 per cent believed it should only be permitted as an indirect consequence of life-saving treatment. On homosexuality, only 11 per cent agreed with the Church’s perspective that ‘homosexual acts’ were morally wrong.

    On artificial contraception, just 4 per cent of respondents agreed with the Church’s official view that artificial forms of contraception should not be used, with 71 per cent of those questioned answering that condoms should be used more often. (This poll was taken before Pope Benedict’s latest comments on condom use, which are clearly being misinterpreted by many as a liberalizing of Humanae Vitae).

    Britain is but a microcosm on conception. Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan acknowledged in a 2002 speech, “large sectors of the Catholic population disagree with church teaching on contraception.”

    On other matters, there also are widely divergent views within the Catholic Community about the Charismatic Movement, celibacy, the death penalty, etc., etc.

    So, what of the “organization” of the Church, which seems so disorganized? It’s like the character in a movie who was asked about “organized crime,” and he responded, “believe me, it’s not so organized.”

    Just one question, Professor. I was baptized as an infant as a Catholic and have since fallen into the “cafeteria” category picking and choosing from which Church doctrine to accept. The question is, “Once Catholic, always Catholic?”

  • Alana LaPerle

    Orthodox Catholics are not divided. I thank God everyday for the rock of the Catholic Church which protects and promulgates the faith established by Jesus Christ. God help us if we allow public opinion polls to shape the Church!!

  • Howard Kainz

    To James: Maybe we can agree that most of the divergent opinions you cite stem from dissent from the papal encyclical on contraception. (I published an article on this in The New Oxford Review in Sept. 2009.) But the Church certainly takes on the characteristics of a rock, as it still stands unperturbed by that dissent or opinion polls.
    As far as baptism of infants is concerned, that makes one a Christian, not necessarily a Catholic. How “indelible” the mark is, I’m not sure. It’s probably still there down deep, don’t you think?

  • James

    Howard, I fervently hope it is still there. And, I will add this: Despite my reservations about Catholic unity, I still admire the Church for “sticking to its principles,” however unpopular among some who calls themselves members. It seems to me that if you disagree with dogmatic teachings, you can always find refuge elsewhere. So far I have no found another “rock” as strong as the Church, but there are so many yet to be discovered in this vast cosmos.

  • Bill

    Great article and great responses. To understand why so much has become unclear is to understand Vatican II. The progressive “Catholics” quietly removed Hell. Everyone is therefore saved. This is a heresy of course, so they must do this quietly.
    In 1917, three children were shown a vision of Hell by the Virgin Mary to remind EVERYONE that it exists. It still does with the SSPX and the FSSP and other Traditional groups, and that is why they will endure. Without this belief, other Catholics will become members of Catholic(?) sects and denominations and slide down the slippery slope. Evidence of this is all around us every day.

  • Pete brown

    In fact, the foremost critical commentator on Matthew (dale allison, a protestant) holds both that Matt 16:16=18 is an expansion from Mark and is also an authentic saying of Jesus. In fact he also thinks the minimalistic interpretation you referenced is special pleading.

    The traditional Catholic rendering of this verse can and must come to terms with critical scholarship on the gospels in general.

  • Graham Combs

    I’m a bit surprised with all the talk of disunity above and no mention of the recent surge in unity. Five Anglican bishops aren’t merely leaving the Church of England but joining the Church of Rome. The Cross of St. George as a symbol of 21st Century Christian unity may well be God at His most humorous. The Church has 22 rites plus the new Anglican Use liturgy. I’ve had the pleasure of attending at least six different rites of the Church (Southeastern Michigan is home to all 22 rites) and they may look and sound different but the theology is the same. Wasn’t it Chesterton who said that orthodoxy is the only true diversity? Please correct me if I’m wrong. God does allow us to choose — and at some point we have to. The Sacraments and the Magesterium are not side dishes on the cultural menu of Hollywood or academia or the media. Otherwise an act of contrition is meaningless.

  • Other Joe

    I believe that many, especially Protestants, would submit that salvation is personal. It is between God and the individual. It involves accepting Jesus and talking directly to God without the interference of middlemen. This seems to allow the comforts of religion (spirituality) with none of the bother. The Catholic Church has not well expressed the very compelling counterpoints, which, as noted above, were emasculated by the hiding away of sin and hell. If the hiding away was intended to refill the churches, it hasn’t worked.