st-laurentius church fishtown

Religion as tradition, not rule

Like others I knew in the middle class U.S. Northeast in the 1990s, I was raised Roman Catholic by a family who felt limited by the religion’s slowly moving moral structure. I was there for a foundation that I could return to later in my life, by my parents encouragement. For all the complaining I did then, I am thankful for that.

For the first time in years (excluding weddings, though even mine wasn’t Catholic), later this week on Christmas Eve I plan to be in a church service. But there still isn’t much there for me. I’m saddened by that.

Nearly 20 years after I received my Confirmation, choosing as an adult for the first time to be part of the faith, I haven’t regularly received communion since. I’ve certainly been to church in that time — for occasional holidays, visiting churches and ceremonies — but, like many of my peers, I have had little need or time for it.

Today, I don’t have any Sunday morning urge to be in a church. But I think about its future, particularly when walking passed the very pretty Catholic one near my home in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood (above is a shot of the formerly-adorned inside of the historic Polish Catholic St. Laurentius, though there is a still active congregation at Irish Catholic Holy Name). Even more so when I see the mostly gray-haired congregation leave some mornings.

My friends with other major religious backgrounds — Jewish and Muslim and other Christian sects — seem to be in similar states of indifference. Philadelphia, for one, is not unfamiliar with lapsed Catholics. Religiosity worldwide is in a long state of decline. In large part, that’s because generally as people become more educated, they become less religious.

It doesn’t seem inevitable to me. Sure, 1,500 years of tradition have a way of locking one in, but traditions can be adapted. Religion is at its best when it is a philosophy, a worldview, not immobile dogma. Religion can be a place for tradition and community, but for all of its good, we know that organized religion has likely caused more bloodshed than any other institution in the history of mankind.

I thought about this earlier in the fall when Pope Francis visited my home city. People from around the world were there — more than a million people all told. Many were there as committed Catholics. Others, like myself, were more interested by a moral and philosophical leader. With access to all the world’s information, I don’t want decisions made for me. Today, I seek wisdom, not doctrine.

And so, inside most Catholic churches, I don’t feel like there’s anything for me there on Sunday morning. I haven’t heard many great sermons — mostly tired perspective or, if modernized at all, hollow and hateful. I have been to more New Age services — some very beautiful and welcoming ceremonies at places like the Broad Street Ministry but they just aren’t something I need right now in my life.

What the Catholics have for me that no one else does is a tradition and rigor that gives me comfort — that’s the cultural context through which I built friendships and family ties. I don’t have much need for religion, but if anyone had a chance at having me, it would be the Catholic Church.

But the Church is so far from who I am, that it doesn’t seem likely.

The only rule I held true to from my early catechism school days was the old Golden Rule: do to others, what you want done to you. It’s something I think about regularly — there was an old, faded poster above the doorway inside St. Joseph’s school. I remember so vividly staring at it. Even today, it motivates me in small and large ways. Most religions have some version of that, and it’s powerful.

I want to be treated humanely and welcomed warmly. I want to be supported and laughed with and heard from. I want to be spoken to honestly. And so that’s how I try to treat other people. That’s what I got out of my Catholic upbringing.

But I don’t think that’s what happens most often when religion is invoked. Of course, this is nothing new, but I lament it just the same.

This time of year, I will often sing to myself old Christmas songs, with lyrics so religious they might otherwise sound bizarre coming from me. There’s a tradition to them that matters — I remember singing them in church with my family and neighbors, ringing bells and sticking my tongue out at young friends. So I’ll plan to be in church again on Christmas Eve, but I don’t expect there to be much more for me than an old feeling I wish I could get more from than an annual ritual.