An Encouraging Word – Spiritual, but not religious?

Father J. Ronald Knott
Father J. Ronald Knott

We are only earthenware jars that hold this great treasure. II Corinthiams: 7

I have spent a lot of time, in my 47-year priesthood, talking to Catholics who are having a hard time being members of the Catholic Church.

It started a few hours after ordination when a woman approached me at my first Mass reception. She stood in front of me and unloaded years of anger. “I can’t believe that someone as intelligent as you appear to be would still be a Catholic, much less a priest! I got out of that silliness a long time ago!” It started there, but it did not end there.

Sometimes, these struggling Catholics blame themselves and their honest sharing has a tinge of sadness with an underlying longing to feel some deeper level of connection that eludes them no matter how hard they try.

More often, they blame the “institution” for not offering them a more dynamic and engaging ministry. Like the old lady in the Wendy’s commercial several years back, they voice their own version of, “Where’s the beef?” Experiencing the Church as more bun than beef, they cannot see the treasure but only its crock.

What I believe is at the root of the problem, quite often, is that many of them struggle with being a church member before they struggle with being a disciple. A serious disciple can tolerate an imperfect institution and does not need the institution — a field of weeds and wheat growing together — to be perfect to remain a member of it.

If one struggles with being a member of the church, without first struggling with being a disciple of Jesus, one will end up either perpetually frustrated or will eventually throw the baby out with the bathwater — rejecting the church, the living Body of Christ, because, in its human aspects as an institution, it is not perfect.

For survival in the Roman Catholic Church, one needs to be a serious disciple before one can survive as a functioning member.

On the other hand, more and more people these days say they want to be a disciple of Jesus without being a member of his church. They proudly claim that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York said this about them, “People now want a king without a kingdom. They want a shepherd without a flock, a general without an army, spirituality without religion, faith without the faithful, and Christ without a Church.”

The sterility of organized religion gave birth to this “new age movement,” revealing a rapacious appetite for spiritual growth that organized religion was failing to feed. The biggest weakness of this movement is its tendency to focus on “individualism.”

Organized religion has come a long way in its social teaching, but in the process, it may have neglected its mystical tradition and its personal dimension. Religion needs personal transformation to give it soul and the experience of personal conversion needs religion to give it depth and breadth.

To read more from Father Knott, visit his blog:

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2 replies on “An Encouraging Word – Spiritual, but not religious?”
  1. says: Don Noltemeyer

    Thoroughly enjoyed this essay, and think you’ve summarized the situation in your final paragraph.


    Don Noltemeyer

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