By Kathy Ponce
One need only search the web for “spiritual care of the nonreligious” to discover the many articles on this topic in the past several years. We Catholic chaplains need to think about how we minister to atheists, agnostics, those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious, and those who identify with no particular religious tradition. But perhaps the most important part of our personal reflection on our ministry involves our own attitudes toward those who may be very different from us from the standpoints of faith and belief.
I’d like to draw your attention to some great information currently available to all chaplains. An excellent introduction to and description of spiritual care of the nonreligious comes in the first and second parts of a three-part series by Rev. Mary Martha Thiel and Rev. Mary Redner Robinson, (both of whom are United Church of Christ ministers with strong involvement in chaplain education), and published in PlainViews in recent months. They also provide very concrete and practical tips for chaplain ministry within these populations. I would urge all chaplains, regardless of their denominational affiliation, to read these articles by clicking the links above.
Rev. Thiel has also presented a webinar sponsored by the ACPE Academy. It, too, is an excellent resource for all chaplains in clinical practice. The audio as well as the PowerPoint slides of Rev. Thiel’s webinar are available on YouTube.
One of the most striking aspects of Rev. Thiel’s message, in my view, was her admonition to work continually to develop a cultural humility and a deep respect for the spiritual complexity of those we encounter in our ministries. This calls for a critical examination of our attitudes toward the “nonreligious.”
For those of us raised in a particular religious tradition, it may be difficult to imagine NOT having a belief in God steeped in a tradition that also provides a community of those who share our beliefs. For many of us who are Catholic chaplains, our religious tradition may have been a part of our formal education anywhere from eight to 16 or more years. We may have come of age when the attitude of our church was somewhat triumphal and even contemptuous of those who were not part of our tradition. Our Catholicism, both the admirable aspects and the less admirable ones, may be far more a part of who we are than we might realize at first blush.
Developing humility as Catholic chaplains also entails understanding and appreciating why some people leave their traditions. It does not necessarily mean rejection of belief in God. Sometimes leaving is a result of hurts caused by exclusion — a feeling of not belonging because of disability (think of the many worship spaces that even today, are physically inaccessible); differences in culture or race (think of resistance by some to worship services in other languages); differences in age (think of young people who feel excluded if they show up in denim or with unique hairstyles); or differences in sexual orientation (think of the alienation experienced by gay members of a congregation, regardless of whether they are out or still stuck in “don’t ask, don’t tell”).
But aside from those reasons, there are those who truly cannot conceive of a higher power. Persons who espouse agnosticism or atheism have often moved beyond a “synthetic/conventional” faith stage to an “individual/reflective” faith stage or possibly to a unique variation on the “conjunctive” stage of faith in which an alternative community of like-minded thinkers becomes important. (For more on this topic, see Stages of Faith by James Fowler.) Because they often reflect much thought and study, the stances of atheists and agnostics are not to be dismissed by providers of spiritual care. People’s highest values and meaning in life are not necessarily tied to belief in God, but they are important and worthy of our investigation and our respect.
The times, they are a-changin’. As more and more people have abandoned organized religion or have difficulty with a belief in a deity (or deities), we Catholic chaplains need to take a very close look at ourselves to recognize our own biases and blind spots. (If you doubt that you might be very conditioned/ingrained in your tradition as a believer, just think of how often, when concluding a spiritual visit, you automatically say “God bless you,” “May you feel God’s presence in your illness,” or “I’ll keep you in my prayers.”)
As we Catholic chaplains explore the very real world of SBNRs (those who are “spiritual but not religious”), agnostics, atheists, and those who have abandoned organized religion, it is important to strive continually not just for tolerance, but for understanding through profound self-examination, personal reflection, and perhaps a careful rereading of James Fowler. As Catholic chaplains, humility is our best asset in providing spiritual care that meets the needs of all people of all cultures, faith traditions, and degrees of belief or non-belief.
Kathy Ponce, BBC, is an adjunct instructor at the Institute of Pastoral Studies of Loyola University in Chicago.