“Man-made Religion”

The above phrase turned up in Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI’s comments on the recent scandals. Of course, its origins are much older. One can find it operating in the secular religions developed during and after the French Revolution, for example. Then, new religious expressions had to be developed because even the revolutionaries knew that there was an inescapable religious dimension to the big events that were taking place, such as at the funeral of the assassinated Marat. They celebrated Marat’s funeral in the Church of the Cordelliers. They had overthrown the Church, but they still felt impelled to dream up  some sort of substitute.

The phrase shines a light on a fundamental feature of true religious reality – namely that it is, most emphatically, not man-made. Abraham did not make up a God merely to keep his clan in line. Jesus Christ was not a huckster starting his own religion either. As John put it: It is “not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.” (I John 4:10)

He then started the Church on the foundation of God’s working with the Jews. He did this. Not even Paul or Augustine could claim that they started the Church. It was always the Church of Jesus Christ. Catholicism is all gift.

Moreover, the gift in Catholicism is that revelation comes to us complete. There is a theory of humanity, society, good and evil, all wrapped up. For this reason, there is a great line in the Divine Office where the celebrant prays: “May the Church rely only on your gifts.”

Not even the pope can make up doctrine as he goes along. Vatican I was very clear: “For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.”

A king can do what he likes; not a pope.

Apparently then, there are two basic routes that you can take in hope of discovering your humanity. Either, you make up things that you imagine are “religious,” or worse “spiritual.” This is the revolutionary, or leftist, or romantic option. All three are based on idealism, fickle as it is and deceptive as it is.

Or you stand before the gift of revelation and take it in, by the grace of God, in faith.

John Paul II once asked: “Why be a human person – and how?” This is the most fundamental question we ever have to face in life. The “why” part is the answer to the basic paradox that we face: i.e., I can only save my life by losing it.


The “how” is answered by Jesus himself: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:35)

In the words of Vatican II: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.” Suddenly, we are subordinate to someone outside of ourselves. In John Paul II’s words: “For a person discovers the new sense of his or her humanity not only in order ‘to follow’ Christ but to the extent that he or she actually does follow Him.” Only persons can do this with respect to a personal God.

For the leftist romantic, this presents a problem, either because his own thoughts are paramount, so everyone else outside of himself is wrong. This includes the Church. Or the thoughts of the political elite (to whom I have handed over my consciousness) are paramount.

Here a new dynamic enters the equation– romantics discover that the man-made religion is political. It is not true necessarily. That is not even a consideration. It is what is in vogue at the moment.

This is disastrous – of course, because human beings are fulfilled by truth. Indeed, only by the truth. They are not fulfilled by untruth.  The political noise that dominates our world and the Internet often contain elements of truth, but rarely is it fully, deeply, divinely true.

This is the fundamental problem with words like “diversity,” for example, as it is being used in the preparatory document for the Amazon Synod. It’s a very trendy concept. But Catholicism is mostly not about diversity. There is no diversity of gods or saviors or Churches.

There may be a diversity of languages or nations, but Catholicism is still about the Jewish man in Israel in the first century and about the universal truth and grace that God chose to offer to His people.

Catholicism is fundamentally historical and incarnational. Teaching about Jesus in a different locale does not change the fact that he took bread and wine to consecrate them in first-century Palestine. Whatever the customs of eating and drinking may exist in various places around the globe,  one of the many ways we stay faithful to him is to be faithful in the institution of the Eucharist. Anything else is mere romanticism.

It is man-made religion – and not worth the time of day.


*Image: The Last Supper by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, c. 1896 [private collection]