Reduction of Religion
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
February 2010

Sociologists and demographers have noted a growth in the number of Americans who change their denomination or even religion during their lifetime. Contemporary Americans are less likely than those of previous generations to remain in the faith tradition of their birth. The trend is not surprising and will probably continue. Americans have long had a willingness to question and leave their roots, family, place of birth, and more for something that they think will be better. Now we have added religion to the list of the disposable.

In one sense, the trend is welcoming. After all, we want converts. If the people of Roman Empire were not willing to shed their old ways Christianity would not have spread so rapidly. More recently, a willingness to embrace something new - and true - accounts for the rapid growth of Christianity in Africa. Converts and those who re-embrace their faith as adults can bring new energy and commitment to parishes, counter-acting the complacency of those “cradle Catholics” who just “go through the motions.”

Problems arise, however, when religion is treated as a “personal choice” no different from deciding where to live or which car to drive. First, religion itself is diminished in the eyes of society and the law. Second, the individual’s preference becomes paramount, trumping even the tenets of the religion chosen by the individual. (Another problem is the growing tendency of some Catholics to leave the church because they don’t like the priest, the music, the bishop, or something else, but for this column I am just discussing problems with political consequences.)

We can see the consequences of the first problem in the growing threat to religious liberty our country. Some states have laws that require employers, including Catholic entities, to include contraceptives in their employer-based health insurance policies. Some jurisdictions require all adoption agencies to provide services to same-sex couples. Physicians and pharmacists sometimes have little or no legal protection if they are compelled to act against their consciences.

Those who support denying conscience protection are well aware that such policies will, in practice, cause people and entities to make choices between their religious beliefs and their professions. The reduction of religion to a mere personal choice, however, has made religion, in their minds, no more significant than choosing what cereal to eat or what college to attend. As such, the ability to choose is something that they think can be denied to achieve what they perceive is a higher good.

The second problem occurs when individuals, raised to believe that all religion is personal, choose what part of their religion they want to accept. For Catholicism, that should be seen as impossible. The faith is a whole and cannot be divided. A person acting in good conscience cannot decide to accept this teaching, but not that teaching. Such acts ultimately set ourselves, not God, as the judge of what is right and what is wrong.

While it may be easy to spot and judge such “cafeteria Catholics,” especially those in the political limelight, we should check our own behavior for a variant of this phenomenon. This happens when we let our personal political, economic, or ideological preferences shape our interpretation or application of church teaching. Sometimes it is the interpretation of laws and information rather than the teaching itself that is the problem. Self-proclaimed Catholics can engage in specious and tortuous twists of logic and facts to justify their personal positions. Examples of this occur when people find ways to support health care reform even when it clearly expands abortion funding, or justify torture by finding supposed loopholes in legal definitions and ambiguities in the church’s teaching, or support the death penalty despite the fact that nonlethal means are available to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor.

Lent provides an ideal time to examine our own lives in this regard. Ask: Have I reduced religion to a non-significant choice? Have I respected the religious rights of all in private practice and public policy? Have I accepted some of the church’s teachings, but ignored others? Have I let my own partisan, ideological, and personal views shape how I apply the church’s teachings in the public sphere?