By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
I am not sure why I have been hearing the term “spiritual but not religious” more than I used to. It is not that I am moving in “bad circles” lately. But if that is not the explanation, what is? Let’s use Occam’s razor: The simplest explanation is the best. If I had to guess, I would say that there are more people these days who use the term to describe themselves.
It strikes me that there are different types of individuals who describe themselves as “SBNR.” One group seems motivated by an understandable, even commendable, reason; another seems drawn to the label for shallow and trendy reasons. And there are also those who use the self-designation as a way to excuse self-centered motives. Each of these groups should be approached differently, especially if they are Catholics or ex-Catholics looking for a way to participate in parish life.
The “understandable and commendable” advocates of a SBNR view of life are those who seek to distance themselves from doctrinaire naturalism and its exclusion of the spiritual and supernatural elements from life. These individuals are open to the existence of God, or gods, and an afterlife; they do not dismiss the possibility of miracles or “paranormal” occurrences. Granted, all too often this search leads them to questionable beliefs, everything from astrology to the occult.
Then what is commendable about them? I would argue that we must keep in mind the role of grace in our spiritual lives when dealing with this group. The people searching for “meaning” in Third World religions, modern versions of Druidism, native American shamanism, and one form or another of nature worship, if they are sincere in their search, may be just one spiritual awakening away from conversion. The possibility of such a change in heart should make a difference in the way we interact with them. Successful missionaries know how to nurture this non-Christian spiritual yearning; how to build upon a quest for the divine in life. Ordinary Catholics should seek to replicate that approach when we meet sincere people in our community who tell us they are SBNR. Cut them some slack; listen to them.
There are also what could be called the “trendy” proponents of a spiritual but not religious lifestyle. I have in mind those who define themselves as SBNR to indicate that they enjoy poetry readings and abstract art more than capitalist fat cats and their bourgeois neighbors who spend their time at their children’s hockey games and stock-car races. This form of SBNR is a form of elitism. There is no reason for Catholics to go out of their way to accommodate the complaints of those who find Catholic parish life unworthy of their refined sensibilities. Trying to do so is a fool’s errand. Elitists will always find some way to separate themselves from what they consider the “common folk.”
The third version of a SBNR individual? People in this group present a challenge to Catholics serious about their faith and the Magisterium. These SBNRs hold to views with which there is no room for compromise; an approach to life and moral responsibility that challenges the core of Catholicism. What they are looking for is a religious “experience” without dogma or doctrine, a form of moral relativism. A parish that seeks to make itself open and welcoming — and nonjudgmental — to those who are SBNR in this manner is playing with fire.
When I hear someone who upholds this version of “spiritual but not religious,” I am always reminded of Archbishop Sheen’s quip when confronted by an ex-Catholic who described himself as “raised Catholic, but a nonsectarian Christian now.” Sheen cut to the chase. He bluntly asked the man, “What’s your sin?”
Sheen had seen the phenomenon many times in priestly life. When people leave the Catholic Church, they may complain about money-grabbing pastors, boring sermons, or intolerant priests, but their real objection is to the Church’s refusal to give its blessing to their decision to violate one of the Church’s moral teachings — usually in regard to divorce and remarriage or extramarital sex. In their eyes, because the Church does not agree with their behavior, the Church must be wrong. They do not leave open the possibility that they may be in error or living in sin. They convince themselves that the conflict between themselves and the Church is rooted in a hierarchy that is hidebound, backward, rigid, inflexible, behind the times, and not worthy of their obedience.
It has been my experience that many Catholics and ex-Catholics who define themselves as SBNR fall into the same category. It is not the “lavish” spending by the Popes, the priest sex-abuse scandals, narrow-minded homilists, or the lack of a vibrant Christian community committed to social justice that is at the root of their disaffection.
It is what Archbishop Sheen called “their sin.” They are engaged in a behavior or living a lifestyle that the Church condemns. They find themselves uncomfortable at Mass when they hear divorce, homosexuality, or couples “living together” described as morally unacceptable, as a sin when engaged in with “sufficient reflection and full consent of the will,” in the words of the old Baltimore Catechism. Calling themselves SBNR is their way of making the point that, even if their pastor and the Pope think they are behaving immorally, God the Father and Jesus do not. Jesus would agree with them, they are convinced, if some way could be found to bring Him into a discussion between themselves and the backward leaders of the modern Church.
Their contention is that they are good people, moral people, people who value the supernatural elements of the Church’s mission. They do not want to be cut adrift from the spiritual comfort and consolation that comes from “being Catholic” merely because unimaginative clerics who have not read the writers they find spiritually uplifting, and who insist upon defending old-fashioned moral codes. Defending those “old-fashioned moral codes” is what they mean by being “religious.” The more laid back and nonjudgmental understanding of Christianity they favor is what they mean by being “spiritual.”