The Other I

September 25, 2012

Is it a spiritual problem?

Some time ago a neighbor who is active in her local church asked me why I never attended Sunday services.  I paused to frame my answer in such a way as not to suggest that I think every religious believer reflects the power-hungry hypocrisy of the institutional church or believes all the doctrinal teachings which seem to reflect a scientific view four centuries out of date.

Misunderstanding my hesitation, she suggested sympathetically “Is it a spiritual problem, dear?”

I thought at that point that I’d rather try to explain quantum physics to a six-year-old than explain my problem with religion.  I mumbled something about the problem of evil, which is indeed the core of my difficulty, but which was philosophical enough to end the conversation, and we moved on to safer ground.

Asked that question by a believer today, I would not be quite so dumbfounded.  I would give examples instead to illustrate my problem.

The first might be a recent decree by the Roman Catholic bishops of Germany that Catholics who do not continue to pay a mandated 8% tax to the church will no longer be permitted to receive Holy Communion or to be buried in a Catholic cemetery.  In other words, if you can’t – or won’t – pay for it, salvation isn’t on offer.  How can the bishops possibly rationalize this as a manifestation Christian charity?   Jesus said to his disciples when they asked how one knew who to follow “By their fruits you will know them.”  In other words, look at how they live, how they treat their fellow-man, not at what they say.

Truly, truly, I can usually figure out some explanation that makes sense for a point of view even if I don’t agree with it, but this decree is completely outflanking me.  If anyone reading this can offer a Christian justification for a decree like this, please,  consider adding it as a comment to this post.  I promise it will be read with a serious intent to understand (if not with a promise to agree).

To scandalize me further, I have recently discovered that according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated by the Vatican in 1992, the account of the fall in Genesis refers to a real primeval event that took place at the beginning of the history of man.  Since then, “history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.”  In addition, the Catechism decrees that the fall of the angels was also a real event, which is why there are now real devils still led by the arch-devil Satan. Between them, these two events can explain many of our gravest sufferings, including physical disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, and ultimately of the fact that each of us is destined to die.  Death, the church teaches, is a punishment for these original sins.  Before that, humans were destined never to die.

Some people – many of whom I count among my friends – can attend church and are not as disoriented or perturbed as I am by decrees such as those of the German bishops or teachings such as those of the Roman Catholic catechism.  But I am.  I cannot be inspired by hymns and rituals reflecting attitudes and behaviors like these.  They don’t help me love my fellow-man.  On a good day I am patronizing and isolated.  On bad days I’m furious.

So is it a spiritual problem, dear?  Yes, but not, I think, what my neighbour meant.




  1. how else can the church pay off for the pedophile priests – auction off a painting or two – sell prime land, empty palace seminaries – palm off a ciboria or two? really. get a grip.


    Comment by kateritek — September 25, 2012 @ 6:04 pm | Reply

  2. I so relate! Why anyone with a brain, half a brain, would give money weekly in an organization that teaches this crap is beyond me. People need to gather, to be gathered, and love their local priest…and community…and that’s all there is for them. The rest, not to worry. They don’t agree but don’t think about it.I CAN’T STAND IT!Must be temperament. Maybe there are 18 types of people and we’re the type that can’t stand the b.s.hahahaLove,Beth Date: Tue, 25 Sep 2012 15:44:37 +0000 To:


    Comment by E Bastasch — September 25, 2012 @ 9:39 pm | Reply

  3. When I left the priesthood (without a formal dispensation) 26 years ago, I moved to Germany. A year later I married in a registry office. With that act, according to Canon Law, I was formally excommunicated. But because I was formally registered as a Roman Catholic, the Church continued to take my money (automatically deducted from your wages by the state and passed on to the Church). So they caught me the other way around; not entitled to the sacraments but still obliged to pay! I had to go to the courthouse and formally declare that I was no longer a Catholic in order to be freed of the obligation.

    In the meantime, my life’s journey has led me to “weak atheism,” and it doesn’t really bother me. But, in Germany, it can have other consequences. Many health and social services in Germany are run by the churches (with state money) – hospitals, nursing homes, home care services, kindergartens, etc. Catholics will employ Protestants and vice versa (and once you’ve got a job nobody worries about your flavour of Christianity or the extent of your commitment to the church any more). If you are recorded as having “no religion,” or having left one of the Christian Churches, they just won’t employ you. If you formally leave the Church, they will fire you.

    As a result, many people retain formal church membership for job purposes and pay the tax. It’s high time the German state stopped collecting taxes on behalf of the churches – but, of course, if the German Churches had to survive on the voluntary subscriptions of their (mostly disengaged) members, they would find themselves in bad trouble!


    Comment by Francis Hunt — September 26, 2012 @ 11:15 am | Reply

    • Your account is fascinating. I’m an American living with my English husband in Britain, but I had no idea of the German system. It puts the difficulties of some of the other social care and educational systems in a different perspective. In any case, it certainly doesn’t reflect an attitude of Christian charity or the parable of the Good Samaritan, does it?

      I’m not familiar with the term “weak atheism,” though I can make several guesses. I’m not a Richard Dawkins, but I do think the anthropomorphic person-god of most Western Christianity based on an all-powerful dictator who can be bought off by the execution of his only son would be laughable if it weren’t so horribly destructive.

      Thank you for sharing.


      Comment by theotheri — September 26, 2012 @ 2:06 pm | Reply

      • A little research has since taught me that the more common expression for my position is negative atheism. None of the arguments for the existence of “God” – in the most common senses of this term – convince me, though I cannot rule out the possibility that the contrary may occur at some stage in the future, even if I see this presently as unlikely. But our convictions, certainties and beliefs are all parts of the continually developing stories of our lives. There are things which are true for me today of which I had no idea twenty years ago, and my journey through life continues to bring all sorts of new experiences – through which I (hopefully!) continue to develop and grow.

        I really enjoy your blog and your formulations of the way you think about things. It was a cousin of mine, Maureen A. (formerly McN.), who shared some of the Maryknoll experience with you, who suggested that I drop by 🙂


        Comment by Francis Hunt — September 26, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

      • Thank you for the reference to the distinction between “hard,” and “soft” atheism. As you probably can guess, I am emphatically a “hard” atheist when it comes to the anthropomorphic concept of god underlying most of Christianity and insisted on”infallibly” by Roman Catholicism. But there are concepts of mystery that have a long solid theological tradition which some people term “god,” which seem tenable to me. Although I have to admit that I’m afraid for myself, the term “god” is so contaminated that I cannot use it as a term describing anything in which I remotely believe.

        I know what you mean, though, about continuing to learn. It’s simply astonishing, isn’t it? To think that I had all the answers at the age of about 20. It’s been all down-hill since then. Thank goodness.

        Also thank you for thoughts about my blog. It means a lot.



        Comment by Terry Sissons — September 27, 2012 @ 3:46 pm

  4. Christianity, I’ve come to believe, is a political entity, maybe more than it is a religious one. Its religious demise may have occurred the year Constantine made it the officially protected state religion. So you see, “dear,” what else can we expect of it but hardball power politics. I shudder to think sometimes what the Church would be up to if it had the kind of power it had in the past. Any church. Any religion.


    Comment by pianomusicman — September 26, 2012 @ 2:29 pm | Reply

  5. I’m not sure who wrote the following, but it does express for me why I am a Catholic.

    Yet there’s another Catholic Church as well, one I admire intensely. This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty.
    This is the church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children. This is the church of the Brazilian priest fighting AIDS who told me that if he were pope, he would build a condom factory in the Vatican to save lives.
    This is the church of the Maryknoll Sisters in Central America and the Cabrini Sisters in Africa. There’s a stereotype of nuns as stodgy Victorian traditionalists. I learned otherwise while hanging on for my life in a passenger seat as an American nun with a lead foot drove her jeep over ruts and through a creek in Swaziland to visit AIDS orphans. After a number of encounters like that, I’ve come to believe that the very coolest people in the world today may be nuns.
    So when you read about the scandals, remember that the Vatican is not the same as the Catholic Church. Ordinary lepers, prostitutes and slum-dwellers may never see a cardinal, but they daily encounter a truly noble Catholic Church in the form of priests, nuns and lay workers toiling to make a difference.


    Comment by djc1 — October 1, 2012 @ 8:46 pm | Reply

    • Thank you so much for posting this comment. Like you, I know many grass-roots Catholics who are heroic in their care for others. I can only bow my head in recognition their selflessness, and often their creativity to making things better. And I know they are not represented by the attitudes of the RC hierarchy.

      Why, then, am I not still a Catholic? You’ve got me thinking about it again, and I think I will make it the topic of my next post. I’d be seriously interested in your point of view if you read it. (Not that I want to change your mind — you know I have no sense that your mind needs changing! But your point of view often keeps me from wildly careening too thoughtlessly away from many fundamental values I learned in the Catholic family in which I grew up.)

      Again , deep thanks. Terry


      Comment by Terry Sissons — October 2, 2012 @ 11:13 am | Reply

  6. […] my post last week, “Is it a spiritual problem?” one reader commented with a description of some grass-roots Catholics whose generosity and dedication is life-long and […]


    Pingback by Why I’m (not) a Catholic or a Muslim or an Aborigine either « The Other I — October 2, 2012 @ 2:58 pm | Reply

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