Thanks to Dan Brown’s controversial novels, there is a renewed fascination with the centuries-old traditions of the Catholic church, particularly the election of a new pope — the apostolic successor of St. Peter, the Bishop of Rome, and spiritual leader of a flock of more than 1.2 billion people throughout the world. Having served 8 years as the 256th Pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) announced his resignation on February 28, 2013 becoming the first pope in 6 centuries to resign. The sudden resignation sets the stage for spectacular theater: the gathering of the College of Cardinals at the secretive papal conclave held in the Sistine Chapel. Each day, cut off from contact with the outside world, the 115 eligible cardinals will vote in the morning and in the evening until a pope is elected, while out in St. Peter’s Square, thousands of the faithful anxiously pray and await the puff of white smoke, signaling that the Church has a new Pontiff.
It was this set of circumstances back in 2005 (the media frenzy regarding the election of Pope Benedict XVI) that prompted Fr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who is the founding director of the Center for Action and Contemplation and a prolific author and speaker on spiritual issues, to write a thoughtful essay regarding religion. The essay, titled “Thoughts on the Papacy: Container Versus Contents” makes a distinction between the container (organized religion; the rituals and traditions of a religion) and the contents (true spirituality; the inner experience of the search to truly know and love God/a deity). Rohr writes: “The world’s response to the Papal events of the last month… made something very clear to me. There will always be a need for religion… Religion gets most of us started on the [initial] spiritual path, and keeps prodding us with relevant questions along the way. It creates the container, keeps the edges hot… creates satisfying rituals, and boundary-setting commandments. It is very good and even necessary—as far as it goes. But after 35 years as a priest, I am convinced that most people stop right there. They confuse the maintenance of this container with the contents themselves. They confuse the rituals with the reality that they point to. I no longer believe that religion is always the same as a sincere and personal search for God.”
Rohr recounts an insightful story about spirituality from the life of the Dalai Lama. When a person asked the Dalai Lama about how he could begin on a spiritual path, the Dalai Lama quickly responded: “If you can possibly avoid a spiritual path, by all means do so! It will take your whole life away!” Although it sounds counterintuitive or perhaps even facetious, the Dalai Lama is echoing another great spiritual leader — Jesus who said, “Whoever would save his life, must lose it.” To Roher, the need to lose oneself is critical to spirituality: “I believe that most religion is an attempt to feel spiritual and superior in a very measured and culturally correct way, largely by emphasizing one or two mandates or one or two rituals. This cleverly allows us to avoid discovering and surrendering our ‘whole life.’ No wonder religion is so popular. No wonder piety sells. It is a great bargain. Join, attend, perform, obey here and there — and you can basically live your life unchanged… [Western culture offers] a vicarious spiritual path.” In other words, according to Rohr, the cultural pattern for many religions is to promote outer assurance rather than inner experience. “In fact,” adds Rohr, “I find a rather clear correlation between one’s preoccupation with outer forms and one’s lack of any inner substance.”
Rohr’s perspectives on religion and spirituality are not particularly revolutionary. There are many spiritual leaders and writers who have expressed similar concerns. Another modern writer, the witty and inspirational Jesuit priest, Anthony De Mello, wrote extensively about spirituality, and the need to explore outside the confines of religious dogma. De Mello was essentially ex-communicated by the Catholic Church for his writings that were considered “incompatible with the Catholic faith” by none other than Cardinal-Prefect Joseph Ratzinger (before he was Pope). De Mello would probably agree with Rohr that religion, specifically the ritual and traditions, is not the sine qua non of the spiritual life, but a welcoming entryway to true spirituality: “If you want and need religion, I think the [tradition of the] Papacy is rather excellent at providing just that. No one does it better, and it will continue to appeal to a large percentage of humanity, many young people, and then again at the end of life. Individuals need the container to get started; nations and cultures need religion to hold together. Institutional Christianity, and the Papacy in particular, will give you intellectual arguments, enchanting rituals, grand historical sweep, a fine belonging system, and a clear morality to give you pleasing ego boundaries. This will hold you together quite well. It works at deep and good levels. It can create the real beginnings of spiritual desire, as it did for me. But just remember, it can also give you just enough of God to quite effectively inoculate you from any need or search for the real thing.” Real food for thought — in an age of skepticism and unbelief.
For further reading: The Vatican by Micahel Collins, DK (2008)
Why Be Catholic?: Understanding Our Experience and Tradition by Richard Rohr and Joseph Martos, St. Anthony Press (1990)
Awakening: Conversations with the Masters by Anthony De Mello, Image (2003)