Growing up Catholic, I was taught that ours was the “one, true Faith,” that all other faiths were in error or out of line with the history of the Church. I was told that to enter any other place of worship was a sin and that baptism and the laws of the Church were the only way to heaven. A very different world back then.
I was very young, in parochial school, an altar boy; I left home for the seminary at age 13. The seminary years reinforced my beliefs. I was a missionary in training, looking forward to bringing the Word of God and the one true Faith to those most in need.
The odd part of those formative years was that I felt free, that my religion gave me permission to dream and believe that I could change the world or at least live to make it a better place. In 1962 I was ordained by Francis Cardinal Spellman, was chosen to teach and further my education. Then I began to grow up.
Vatican II exploded in and expanded my mind, showing me a far wider world. My ideals met reality; I became restless and began to ask questions. My arrested adolescent started acting out when I discovered the truths I had been taught early on did not “set me free” as much as they entrapped me. Religious freedom became an oxymoron to me. The Church was suddenly rigid in its demands for belief and I started wondering why religions had to be so divisive in our world.
Freedom of religion is an essential hallmark of our democracy. But what about freedom in religion? That tiny preposition makes a massive difference! People should be not only free to believe what they need to but also to be who they are. Ideally, democracy’s arms are open wide to embrace that principle but that does not apply, unfortunately, to many religions that require certain mindsets.
At this stage of life, I am finding a freedom in my Catholicism that has become more spiritual than religious. My parents and the Church gave me a solid grounding for life but what I have encountered in myself and found in a wider world has set me free to see something of God’s goodness in everyone, and in all of creation. There is no place for discrimination. No need for judgment, though there is, too often these days, a struggle for acceptance when understanding is beyond reach. But acceptance of “what is” provides the workplace for what might be.
If one can believe that there are as many “religions” on the face of the earth as there are individuals, religious freedom – or freedom IN religion – has to be seen as a personal responsibility. And religion itself should inform every conscience that truly “we are all God’s children.”