Can a person claim to a member in good standing of a religious organization yet not believe it’s core doctrines? The short answer is “No.” The long answer is, “It’s Complicated.” Obviously, I think, a person is being disingenuous to claim membership in a church and not believe the core doctrines of that faith. In this case a person is essentially thumbing his or her nose at god saying: “I don’t care what you say I should believe, I’m going to believe what I want.” Yet, after making such a statement, which the Bible might describe as a “high-handed” sin, the same person claims to love and believe in the very god he won’t obey! Disingenuous is not a strong enough word. Even hypocrite is weak. However, I think if truth be told, the vast majority of believers fall into this category. In a poll recently conducted in Ireland, it was found that many Catholics just don’t believe core church doctrines:

THE MAJORITY of Catholics in Ireland do not attend Mass regularly and significant numbers do not believe in key tenets of the church’s teaching, according to an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll… When it comes to the church’s teachings, many Catholics do not subscribe to key tenets such as transubstantiation. Almost two-thirds (62 per cent) believe the blessing of bread and wine during Mass only represents the body and blood of Christ. Just over a quarter believe it is transformed (26 per cent). (The Irish Times)

Transubstantiation

Transubstantiation, the doctrine that the bread and wine blessed during the Mass actually turns into the body and blood of Christ, is a core Roman Catholic belief (No Unity Here – Part III. The Lord’s Supper). How can a person claim to be Catholic and not hold to this doctrine? This kind of insincerity caused Richard Dawkins to state:

“If they don’t believe in transubstantiation then they are not Roman Catholics,” Dawkins told the audience in the National Concert Hall. “If they are honest they should say they are no longer Roman Catholics. (Richard Dawkins calls for Catholic “honesty”)

While there are intelligent Catholics who believe in transubstantiation, in Ireland (and probably other countries) almost 3/4 of those very “good” Catholics don’t believe this core Catholic doctrine! Again I ask – “How can this be?” One way of looking at this discrepancy is to take the tack of Colum Kenny who says:

But the teachings of Jesus cannot be reduced to a neat set of club rules or medieval doctrines. How their truth is articulated is through the hearts and lives of Christians. The Eucharist is at the very heart of how Christians understand their faith and their church and themselves. Generations of Irish people have found consolation and meaning in the act of Communion, while not understanding or not fully accepting convoluted medieval theories about it. Such Christians have been as much a part of the Church as is any bishop…The gospels tell us that Jesus referred to such consecrated bread and wine as his body and blood; he bid his followers to do as he had done and to eat and drink in memory of him. But did he mean that Christians who did so would literally be eating his body and blood? Such an idea of “transubstantiation” seems barbaric to some people, with its echoes of human sacrifice and cannibalism, and simply unnecessary to others… Even the medieval church authorities recognised the problem of arguing that a literal transformation occurred…Transubstantiation never made much sense to many believers. It makes even less sense today unless it can be reinterpreted and integrated into our scientific knowledge of physics and psychology. (Is the Church a club with rules you accept or leave?)

Actually Mr. Kenny, that is exactly what the Catholic church teaches and what you are expected to believe, regardless of whether it makes sense to you. According to Catholic doctrine it is the Church, not you, who interprets the teaching of Christ and reveals them to you. It is clearly stated by the Catholic Church:

The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. (#85 Catechism of the Catholic Church)

Mr. Kenny, if you can’t accept this teaching, why the heck are you a professing Catholic?

Moral Issues

This problem isn’t just limited to Ireland or the doctrine of transubstantiation. On the topic of birth control, which the Roman Catholic church opposes, there is the following disparity between belief and official Church teaching:

Eighty-nine percent of American adults say birth control is morally acceptable, according to a Gallup poll taken May 3 through May 6. Notably, 82 percent of Catholics are fine with birth control, the survey found. Catholic groups have been the most outspoken against the mandatory birth control coverage included in the 2010 Affordable Care Act. (A 2011 study by the Guttmacher Institute found that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women use or have used unnatural birth control.) (Most Americans, Even Catholics, Say Birth Control is Moral)

On the topic of abortion, which again the Roman Catholic church opposes:

The institute (Alan Guttmacher Institute) found that more Protestant women obtained abortions than Catholics: Forty-three percent of women over age 17 in the 2000-2001 survey said they were Protestant, while 27 percent said they were Catholic. But Catholics were more likely to get an abortion: The abortion rate for Catholic women was 22 per 1,000 women; the rate for Protestants was 18 per 1,000 women, according to study author Rachel K. Jones. (Abortions: Comparing Catholic and Protestant Women)

There are also differences between official Roman Catholic doctrine and church members when it comes to premarital sex, the death penalty, and abortion:

More than six in 10 Catholics say premarital sex is morally acceptable. Ditto for the death penalty.Fewer Catholics, but nearly half, buck the church and say homosexual relations between consenting adults are morally acceptable. The fewest, three in 10, say abortion is morally acceptable when the woman’s life is not in danger.Fifty-two percent of Catholics who attend church weekly say premarital sex is morally unacceptable.For instance, 56 percent of Catholics who attend church weekly say the pope has influenced their religious beliefs, and 52 percent say he’s influenced their moral views. But majorities even of these most-churched Catholics say the pope hasn’t influenced their personal behavior or their political opinions.(U.S. Catholics Admire, Disagree With Pope)

So, once more, how can a person claim to be Roman Catholic (or any other denomination for that matter) and not believe what the church teaches? This is a bigger problem for Catholics than many Protestant denominations since the Catholic church believes that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth. When he speaks ex cathedra, he is speaking for god and his pronouncements are infallible:

Papal infallibility is a dogma of the Catholic Church which states that, in virtue of the promise of Jesus to Peter, the Pope is preserved from the possibility of error when, exercising his office of shepherd and teacher of all Christians, he solemnly declares that a teaching on faith or morals is to be held by the whole Church. (Papal infallibility)

When the church says that during the Mass the bread and wine becomes the literal body and blood of Christ without any obvious change in its material structure, it means just that. It means that this is what God Himself has stated. When the Pope says birth control is wrong – it is WRONG. It doesn’t matter what a member of the church thinks or feels, if you are a Catholic, the teaching is that birth control is a sin. When the church says premarital sex is wrong. It means you can’t be a Catholic in good standing if you are living in “sin” with your significant other. How can a good Catholic partake in a Mass, which calls upon the magic of transubstantiation as the highlight of the Mass, and not believe it is happening? How can a “good” Catholic live with their significant other without the benefit of marriage? How can that “good” Catholic boy or girl use birth control? Can these people be called Catholic, let alone a “good” Catholics. Well, no, they can’t. But, of course, the real answer is “It’s Complicated!”

It’s Complicated!

It’s complicated because of 2 basic reasons:

  1. Many believers, especially in Western countries, want to believe in god on their OWN terms. In other words, they basically believe in a god of their own making. A god who is made in their own image. You can thank the Protestant Reformation for that! So god is reduced to who I want him/she or it to be. What the “church” says, isn’t so important. In fact, this is one reason why we have some 36,000 to 38,000 Christian denominations. Most people aren’t going to go out and start a new denomination, so they stay put and believe what they want. But why? Why not be honest and just leave or find a denomination that believes what they do? Well, that’s where the 2nd point comes in.
  2. For many people, religion isn’t so much about belief in a specific type of god or doctrine, but rather it is a social connection with others who believe, roughly, the same thing. I’m not saying that spirituality isn’t important to church goers. What I am saying is for many spirituality is mixed with the social element and it is this social element, rather than doctrine, which glues many to a particular denomination. If doctrine was more important, then the religious would gravitate toward a denomination whose doctrine they care about. (This is more common in some evangelical Protestant churches.) What is difficult for some people to understand, is that for many Catholics (and probably other religious traditions) your identity is wrapped up with your “religion.” You are a CATHOLIC, irrespective of what you actually believe. It is part of a cultural tradition of belonging, not primarily of believing. This is why rejection of the label “Catholic” isn’t a rejection of “god” in so much as it is a rejection of a social tradition and the people that make up that tradition.

Religion can shape a person’s identity:

Similar to other forms of identity formation, such as ethnic and cultural identity, the religious context can generally provide a perspective from which to view the world, opportunities to socialize with a spectrum of individuals from different generations, and a set of basic principles to live out. These foundations can come to shape an individual’s identity. (Religious Identity)

This identity also has some big benefits, including feelings of happiness and well-being, two powerful forces that are often-time mistakingly attributed to god:

Our study offers compelling evidence that it is the social aspects of religion rather than theology or spirituality that leads to life satisfaction, … friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient in religion that makes people happier. (Social Ties Link Religion to Life Satisfaction)

In a strange sense, a person who rejects the Church is rejecting their heritage which is much, much more important than the rejection of some invisible, nebulous god. This doesn’t mean that god or faith isn’t important, it is just less important than culture, heritage and identity. Years ago, when I left my old church, that hardest part was the rejection from everyone I once thought were friends.

Conclusion

So today’s Catholic can be comfortable not believing what the Pope and Church tells them to believe, live a life the Pope and Church says is sinful and still proudly claim to be a Catholic in good standing. But folks, this is dishonest. For people who pride themselves on their moral superiority and their dedication to the 10 Commandments, this hypocrisy has to stop. If a person can’t believe in the god expounded by their religious authorities, then they need to be honest and leave. Richard Dawkins is correct in stating,. “If they are honest they should say they are no longer Roman Catholics” (or Baptists or Methodists or whatever).

If you are in this situation, stop thinking it doesn’t matter. It does matters if you stay in religion or church that you don’t believe in. Imagine what would happen if everyone who was “Catholic” but didn’t believe in the doctrines or practice of the church would say – enough! What if they packed up and took their money and membership with them? Would the church still view birth control as wrong? Would it still insist on a incomprehensible doctrine such as transubstantiation? Would they still protect pedophiles? Even if they did, wouldn’t you feel more comfortable knowing you are no longer supporting something that you don’t believe in?

The hardest part of being honest and leaving, is the social cost. That is a high price to pay for many people, but believe me, it is an excellent way to find out who your true friends really are. It may be hard on family, but for many families, blood is indeed thicker than an invisible friend or a religious social club.

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I’m not really trying to pick on Catholics in this post, although they are the focus of the article. You can basically switch out Catholic for any Protestant denomination and write the same post. And while most Protestant denominations don’t have a practical doctrine of infallibility in their leaders, as with the Pope, in practice, the pastor is pretty much put in the same category. Maybe he or she isn’t infallible but close, very close.

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