Yesterday, the Pope warned against "DIY" religion. The BBC represented it this way:
The Pope told the crowds there were dangers in people finding their own religious routes.
"If it is pushed too far, religion becomes almost a consumer product," he said.
"Help people to discover the true star which points out the way to us: Jesus Christ."
I understand that in matters of religious belief and doctrine, the correct interpretation is whatever authorities say it is. There is no such thing as a sensible or strategic approach. Religious leaders are obliged to represent the will of God as this has been revealed to them.
Still, the Catholic Church has from time to time done the strategic thing rather than the orthodox one. Keith Thomas documented one historical moment of this accommodation and the adjustments were extraordinary and thoroughgoing.
Ironically, the Pope has put his finger not just on any feature of contemporary culture when he objects to “DIY religion.” No, he has managed, no doubt in his wisdom, to identify what is perhaps the single most important feature of contemporary religiosity.
It’s a pity then that he insists on using this particular language. To use "DYI" makes religious belief sound like a home improvement project, regrouting the bathroom, say, or building a new deck out back. (And the Pope would diminish still further by attributing a profit motive.) But it is wrong to think of the DYI aspect of our culture as self indulgent, giddily wrong headed or opportunistic. This is to miss the anthropological point, and to underestimate how formidable is DYI as a competitor for even faithful hearts and minds.
How much better it would have been if the Pope has used a term like “chosen religiosity.” In our culture, the act of commitment (to marriage, to identity, to commitment of many kinds) almost always now begins with an act of choice. We are a culture that has moved from assignment to choice in virtually all the dimensions of personal belief. Certainly, there was a time when people were Democrats because, and so to honor the fact that, their parents were. But now this idea is unthinkable. People choose. It’s not doctrine that is obligatory. It’s choice that is. This is what it is to be a culture devoted to individualism. More simply, every one of us is more or less entirely DIY.
I understand that choice is precisely what the Reformation was for, and that the Protestant churches may be seen as so many deliberate variations on how much freedom of choice the individual may exercise. But there must be a way of making room for choice within approved options, say. Or, declaring some things open to choice (yes, “indifferent”) as long as the fundamentals are honored. The alternative is to insist that the Church knows better than the individual even when the individual is prepared, accustomed, and in many cases obliged to decide for themselves.
Anon. 2005. Pope warns against ‘DIY’ religion. BBC. here.
Thomas, Keith. 1971. Religion and the Decline of Magic. New York: Penguin.