True Religion

True Religion

Twenty-Second Sunday of the Year. Fr Benjamin Earl considers the meaning of religion that is ‘pure and undefiled’.

Every so often it’s worth asking ourselves what we mean when we say certain things; and this perhaps all the more so when we are dealing with religious language, or indeed, with the word ‘religion’ itself which appears in today’s second reading from the letter of St James.

We are used, in these days of secularism, to people rejecting or ignoring ‘religion’. But I was particularly struck some years ago when a friend – not a catholic – said to me that he didn’t believe in religion. This surprised me because my friend is no atheist: he believes in God, goes to church, says his prayers and tries to be good; yet he says he doesn’t believe in religion. Well, it seems that he must mean by ‘religion’ something rather different from what St James means.

The Greek word used by St James derives from a notion of fear of God – or indeed the gods – and normally refers to acts of worship. Of course we Christians participate in acts of worship and speak of ‘fearing God’ in a positive sense. This is only right and proper, and indeed commanded by God himself in the scriptures. But St James makes it clear that ‘religion that is pure and undefiled’ is much more than that.

Religion can be taken to mean the religious organisation and discipline, so that ‘Catholic religion’ means Church structures, norms and rules. Of course we are called to worship God as a community, structured and governed in a particular way – that is right and proper. But true religion is much more than that.

Those notions of religion as belief in God, acts of worship or structures and discipline are the ones you are likely to find in a dictionary; but they aren’t the ones you find in the New Testament.

Understanding religion in those dictionary terms runs the risk of the sort of pharisaism that we hear about in today’s Gospel. The Pharisees, to be fair, clearly have a concern for the commandments of God which is, in itself, commendable. As a result they have a strong sense of the closeness of God as emphasised by Moses in today’s first reading. All that is well and good. But their application of those commandments is so rigid that it misses the point.

The point of all those commandments is that we might be holy, that what comes from inside might be pure, and not make us unclean, and that we might shun all those vices listed in the gospel passage.

I wonder whether when our contemporaries reject ‘religion’ it is in fact this ‘pharisaism’, or at least perceived pharisaism, that they are rejecting. Probably it is.

True religion, as the Church understands it, is in essence the virtue of doing our duty to God. That certainly includes worshipping him, and includes being active members of Christ’s body, the Church. But it also includes striving for holiness, for that is what God created us for and redeemed us for. It includes, therefore, helping the afflicted, seeking the good, avoiding those things from inside that make us unclean. ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled… is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world’ (James 1:28).

We may go to church regularly; we may seem, from the outside, to be living our lives in accordance with the commandments of God and the Church; we may seem to be people who do not murder, steal and so on; we may hear the word of God, and even endure the homily without complaining. Well done if you do; but if that is all we do, then we deceive ourselves and are ‘hearers’ of the word only and not ‘doers’. If that is all we do, then it is not surprising that ‘religion’ unfairly gets a bad name.

We must, in fact, put the word into practice. Not just seem ‘religious’, but actually be holy, helping the poor and suffering, ourselves being pure in what comes from inside. Only then do we deserve to be called ‘religious’ and only then can we hope for the virtue of true religion to be seen and sought for what it is.

Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8|James 1:17-18,21-22,27|Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23

Fr Benjamin Earl is Procurator General of the Order of Preachers, responsible for representing the Order to the Holy See and for canonical issues in the Order's General Curia