Every relationship comes with certain expectations, boundaries, dos and don’ts, acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, etc. In other words, rules. The rules might be spoken or unspoken, but they are there. Even saying, “Our relationship has no rules” becomes the rule! Examples of relationships include:
- Police officer/citizen
- Pet/pet owner
- The list goes on and on.
Every relationship comes with rules and boundaries that help to define it. This is why, for example, a dating relationship, an engaged relationship and a married relationship are different, even though the same man and woman are involved. Different words are used for different types of relationships.
The relationship between God and humanity also has certain expectations, boundaries, dos and don’ts, acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, etc. In other words, rules. The word that describes this relationship is “religion.” This is why it makes no sense to claim that Christianity is “relationship not religion.”
The fact that there are different religions with different rules simply means that we must discern which set of rules is legitimate. Ultimately, we will either settle on a religion that meets our own terms, or one that meets God’s terms. Jesus (God) said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” In other words, in order to be in right relationship with God, we must follow the expectations, boundaries, dos and don’ts, acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, etc. established by Jesus. In other words, the rules, the religion of Christ.
The religion of Christ cannot be fully discerned by reading the Bible alone. This fact is evident when we observe the multitude of Christian denominations that have conflicting rules and ideas about how to be in right relationship with Christ. While these many denominations all possess some truth, they can’t all possess the fullness of truth Christ intends for his Church. Christ promised to lead his Church into all truth, not into a plethora of conflicting interpretations of scripture.
Christ established a visible Church with a visible hierarchy possessing his own authority (Jesus told his apostles, “He who hears you hears me).” Without that authority, believers end up following rules of their own making based on their own interpretations of what a relationship with God should look like. In other words, religion on human terms, not on God’s terms. We lose sight of God’s terms when we abandon the authority of God’s Church. Hence, the ultimate result of the Protestant reformation has been confusion and fragmentation rather than true reform and unity.
Christianity cannot possibly be a “relationship without religion.” On the contrary, in order to fully realize the relationship, we must choose the right Christian religion. Anything else is less than what God desires us to have, even if it does contain elements of God’s truth. After all, God came to us, we did not ascend to God. It behooves us to heed and embrace his terms for the relationship.
Can a non-Catholic Christian have a relationship with Jesus? Yes. Will that relationship include everything God intends for a relationship with him? No. It will not be the fullness of the Faith. Much of it will be based on human interpretations of scripture which followed the rejection of Church authority. This is the reverse of the process in which Jesus first establishes an authoritative, teaching Church from which scripture emerged. To take those same scriptures and attempt to build churches apart from the original authority results in the confusion and disunity we see today.
Due to all the confusion and conflicting doctrine, people have largely given up on trying to resolve discrepancies and concluded, “Oh well, I guess it doesn’t matter which church you go to as long as you love Jesus.” The popular meme “it’s a relationship, not a religion” makes it easier to swallow the idea that any set of Christian rules will do since we really can’t agree on the rules anyway. In some cases, it results in outright hostility towards legitimate practices of a “religious” nature (the definition of which depends on the opinion of the observer). Catholics, for example, are often accused of not being Christian at all because they do “religious” things. The irony is that all Christians do “religious” things.
Christians, of course, do have much to agree on. This can be a starting point, but it is not the unity Jesus and the apostles demanded and prayed for. Catholics and Protestants are united (albeit imperfectly) in Christ through baptism. However, the reality still exists that the thousands of Christian denominations with their conflicting doctrines and practices cannot all be correct. The Holy Spirit does not lead God’s people into conflicting “truths.” Only one Christian Church has claim to the historical, apostolic authority given by Christ. Like it or not, Catholicism is the only historically credible choice.
Catholicism is the fullness of the Faith. This does not mean that all Catholics have a good relationship with Christ (many do not). It does not mean that non-Catholic Christians have no relationship with Christ (many do). It means that, to have the fullest relationship with Christ as Christ intends, being Catholic is the way to go. Catholicism is the religion of Christ. It’s where we meet Christ on his terms and learn the rules for the relationship.