I am going to describe the Catholic Church, a worldwide organization, that is hierarchically and autocratically, not democratically, governed by a central authority in Rome as an example of how religions systematically ruined spiritual freedom through gradual and systematic development of convenient doctrines and dogmas on the theoretical level, and rituals and devotional practices in the practical day-to-day life. Spiritual freedom is the basis of other freedoms such as emotional or inner freedom and physical freedom. In this context, it is good to recall that Christ is believed to come to give all humans the “glorious liberty of God’s children”, and model a life of freedom, not different degrees of enslavement and bondage, as his sole mission. One can only imagine what the status of the world would have been if the most powerful Catholic Church of the sixteenth century, in many ways corrupt and abusive of basic human rights, would have continued undivided into the present time! I am attempting to compress volumes of history into a very small article. The Christian religion has the highest number of followers in the world. The Catholic denomination or the Catholic Church is the most powerful section of the Christian religion. It is also the best organized entity that is tightly governed at the grass roots level through its dioceses all over the world, and is answerable to the Pope, the highest authority who has his government in Vatican in Rome. Vatican is also an independent city state (nation) that has embassies or diplomatic missions all over the world.
It is very likely that the Catholic Church as the first highly organized and tightly controlled religious body modeled religious freedom for other religions that came later (for instance, Islam) or organized later (for instance, Hinduism). The Catholic Church at one point thought that it had not only spiritual but also temporal power over the entire world, thus crowning even kings and rulers who had fealty to the pope. Certain doctrines such as the divine right of kings, infallibility, the primacy of the pope, the inerrancy of the Bible, that developed out of expediency, and the manipulation of people through supremacy, power, and control, were given divine or moral sanction and protection. These doctrines were not needed either for spirituality and holiness or for salvation. They were mere products of an unenlightened dark middle ages. There was such a confusion of boundaries related to spiritual and temporal powers that emperors or kings determined the selection of a pope or appointment of cardinals or bishops to dioceses. The popes or the kings in their misguided ways did evil things in the name of God and religion. Instead of spreading the Kingdom of God, a kingdom of truth and justice, a kingdom of peace and reconciliation, and, above all a kingdom of love and freedom, they often spread unquestioned faith and blind obedience and feudal vassalage and loyalty. Catholic Church believed to be a divine institution could not be questioned with regard to its doctrines in medieval times without risking harsh censures including imprisonment and death penalty. The fact that all were children of God who is Father and Mother of all destined in divine providence to be judged by a loving and merciful parent was not given the due importance.
The whole preoccupation turned out to be with us saved versus them damned. The teaching of Christ was pretty much replaced by sterile rubrics and ritualized practices. The memorial at the last supper that Christ left with us was meticulously ritualized and institutionalized. It (the Mass) became the center of Christian worship that can only be performed by priests duly ordained after long years of training prescribed by official hierarchy. Mass became unreachable to ordinary Christians who were called lay. I wonder how the simple carpenter of Nazareth with no formal training, who preached against all the shackling norms of his own religious authority of the day even to the point of death, think about all this! When God-worshipping persons of good will who belong to other paths or groups did things what his disciples did, Christ reassured them that they were alright since they were not against them. Before the time of Christ the official Jewish priesthood did not listen to the warnings given by their prophets. After the coming of Christ one can say the main stream Christian Churches including the Catholic Church do not listen to the teachings and the warnings of Christ. The most powerful churches in Europe and the USA rolling in wealth are not compassionate as Christ was. Nor are they concerned about the poor, the oppressed, and the down-trodden. The disciples of Christ till the very end wrongly thought that Christ as the Messiah (the Anointed,savior) would liberate the Jews from the oppression of the Roman empire. That was why they were so disheartened when he was dishonourably and shamefully crucified on the cross between two thieves.
History repeats for those who do not take lessons from it. Catholic Church, divine or not, is no exception. Fine theological phrases like the Deposit of Faith that is entrusted to the Church, and that can only be interpreted by the official church do not matter when it comes to the interpretations of the scriptures or traditions. Any sincere person of good will or faithful follower of Christ can validly and legitimately interpret them. This is one of the most valuable insights contained in Christ’s teachings. Questioning the mighty religious authority of his own time, Christ empowered his disciples to question authority when it went wrong. That spirit of Christ, I am sure, is what made Paul, a murderer of Christians turned a follower of Christ, question Peter, the first pope, regarding his hypocrisy in an open meeting. The signs have been and are all over for those who want to see. There are Christian denominations fighting one another in the name of Christ and even going to the secular courts to settle their disputes. The wars that resulted after the Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church lasted for 30 years. All honest religious institutions are divine in their own inscrutable and mysterious ways guided by the same Holy Spirit. A sincere search of the scriptures will manifest that.
History of religions down the ages has been one of curtailing or suppressing freedom often imposing hard to bear burdens on the unthinking ordinary and often poor faithful who are heavily programmed under the threat of social sanctions in the present life and the eternal damnation in the next. Such censures and sanctions can only lead us to bondage not freedom. That does not bode well for religions as they preach and represent God who gave us freedom as the greatest and most precious gift that alone makes us truly human. What I said about Catholic Church can be said a fortiori to other Christian denominations and religions. At least Catholic Church is attempting to reform its ways. Other religions like Islam is still living in the dark ages wherein conversion from one’s religion to another can mean death. Hinduism is still guided by strictly prescribed and enforced ritual purity. A Hindu woman, for instance during her life-time of menstruation (supposedly during the age between 10 and 50) cannot visit the deity in a very popular shrine of Hindu pilgrimage in the Sabarimala hill. We need to thoroughly examine ourselves with regard to human rights – the most basic God-given rights – as far as religions are concerned? Can these rights be abridged or eliminated altogether in religions? The answer is a most emphatic no. My long term prediction is that religions after a long period of painful reformations and purifications over many years, perhaps centuries, will shed all their ungodly ways and become paths to God as intended by their founders or inspirers. Meanwhile during the long transitional period, we may have no choice other than going beyond religions to spirituality as a way to God while studying as well as affirming all that is good in all religions and working for human welfare and the Unity of Humanity.
Swami (Dr) Snehananda Jyoti