I am still a Catholic because of the beauty of Catholicism, beauty being truth in its most attractive form. It is the beauty of the images and stories of Catholicism which keep me in the Church, not the wisdom or intelligence or the virtue of the Church leadership. Beauty, truth in its most attractive form, is not weaker than prosaic truth but stronger.
.I am also still a Catholic because of the warmth of the social support which the Catholic community provides, most often though not always through the neighborhood parish.
I’m still a Catholic because I was born Catholic, raised Catholic, educated Catholic and like being Catholic. I’ll never stop being Catholic, despite the fact that many of the current leaders of the institutional church are corrupt thugs, from the parish right up to the Vatican. The word “still” might be construed as suggesting that we who remain in the Church are somehow a declining minority. In fact 85% of those who were raised Catholics are “still” Catholics. It is those who depart who are the exception. Moreover the departure rate has not changed in the last thirty five years, despite the enormous turbulence which has shaken the Church since the end of the Second Vatican Council. If the idiots who are running things (most notably bishops and we priests) have not driven the lay folk out with thirty five years of insensitivity and stupidity, then I suspect that they will never drive them out.
But surely “thinking Catholics” have a harder time staying in the Church?
About two percent of the American population can be classified as “intellectuals” – writers, artists, teachers, professors, scholars, researchers, musicians. Two percent of American Catholics all into the same category. Their defection rate from the Church is lower than that of other Catholics and their Mass attendance rate is higher.
One does not justify one’s own Catholic allegiance by counting noses. But one does refute the foolish myth that Catholics, especially well-educated Catholics, are leaving the Church and clears the ground for a discussion of a more serious subject: whence Catholic loyalty?
Catholics like being Catholic. Why should they leave?
I once had an argument with Sam Donaldson (a nice man) on the Sunday morning with David Brinkley program about whether a Catholic who disagrees with the Pope is no longer Catholic. Mr. Donaldson said that he had “always believed” that such was the case. I’m not sure that I persuaded him. In fact, one stops being Catholic only when one formally renounces the Church or joins another Church. Of those who leave the Church about half do so at the time of marriage to someone who is not Catholic and who is stronger in his/her religious faith than the Catholic party is. The other half leaves because of reasons connected with sex or authority.
“If you don’t like being a Catholic,” a right wing kook recently wrote me, “why don’t you join a Church in which people don’t think birth control is wrong, support women clergy, disagree with the Pope, think a woman has the right to an abortion, and approve of married clergy?”
I didn’t reply to him, because I don’t waste my time replying to right wing kooks. But if I had I would have said that I belong to such a Church and its name is Catholicism.
To which he would have said that such people were not good Catholics. Perhaps, but judgments of that sort should be left to God.
Doubtless some of the authors in this volume will say that they are Catholics because Catholicism provides certainty, that papal authority gives them the confidence that their convictions are right, that they possess the “Truth.”
You ask such folks whether they believe slavery is moral, that coeducation is against the natural law, that the sun revolves around the earth, that those who are not Catholics cannot be saved, that the theory of religious freedom is wrong – all doctrines that Popes have taught, most of them in the present century. They avoid the question because they define papal infallibility far more broadly than the Church does, because they are ignorant of history, and because their personalities require an absolute certainty which the human condition cannot provide.
For such men and women (misunderstood) infallibility is more important than the core doctrine of Christianity that God is reconciling, forgiving love – the central truth about God which Jesus came to teach.
Such rigidity is most like to occur among converts who came to the Church seeking for total and absolute certainty or among cradle Catholics who find in such religious rigidity confirmation for their own radically conservative political convictions, the kind of person who feels that when he uses the word “liberal” against someone else, that person is dismissed from the list of those who are entitled to civil discourse and respect for their human integrity.
I am not denying that there are certain clearly specified times when Popes are immune from mistakes. I am rather asserting that such times in the history of the Church are rare and that far more frequent are those times when Popes, like everyone else, make terrible mistakes.
I have been called an incorrigible liar for my list of papal mistakes. Events like that, it is said, never happened. That is the way the integralist responds to the facts of history.
Most of us who are still Catholics remains so for these two reasons – the stories and images the Church discloses and the community support Catholicism provides. This an assertion based on reflection of what appeals to us in the Church and not a spontaneous answer. For most of us not being Catholic is unthinkable. What else would we be if we were not Catholic? We might have drifted to the fringes of the Church in our late teens and or young adulthood, but when it comes time to marry and especially time to raise our children, we look around and say to ourselves, “It might not be much of a church right now, but it’s the only one I have and I don’t want to be anything else.” This might not seem like rational behavior. It might rather seem like instinct, “feel,” habit, inertia. Yet, if religion is story before it is everything else and story after it’s everything else, then feel and instinct for the quality and the attractiveness of the story is all important.
Before we reach grammar school, before our formal religious instruction has begun, our imaginations have been filled with Catholic images and stories, pictures of God and Jesus and Jesus’s mother which will never be extirpated from our imaginations. In this sense, the dictum “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic” is true. We might leave the Church, temporarily or permanently but we cannot escape the images and the stories.
I tried to make this point in my first major novel The Cardinal Sins : the key scene in the book occurs when two childhood friends who were once very much in love and will always love one another meet, one wanting to go to confession to the other.
“I focused on all the ugly things and forgot about Father Conroy and Sister Caroline and First Communion and May crownings and High Club dances.”
This scene is patently the core of the book, it articulates the book’s major theme, and explains the lifelong relationship between Kevin and Ellen. None of the mean and nasty critics who attacked the book commented on that scene. Somehow they missed it.
Yet that scene tells why I am still a Catholic and why most of us, at least when we come to think about it, are still Catholic, why even the most arrogant, ignorant, insensitive leader cannot drive us away from our Catholic heritage.
We were taught in the seminary that the Mass was the center of Catholic life. I found that hard to believe, because it was so boring in those days. Yet now I am convinced that our teachers were right, though characteristically for the wrong reason. When people who have been away from the Church for a long time – whether for reasons of the right or the left or for what some damn fool priest has said to them – the first thing they usually say is how they will be happy to participate in the Mass again.
When one considers that for many of them the Mass they knew was mumbled in obscure Latin and that even today is often celebrated in monotone and accompanied by semi-literate lectors, rotten music, sinfully bad homilies, and insulting commentators, the appeal of the Mass is astonishing.
The other story which has incredible power for Catholics is the story which “constitutes” Catholicism (and Orthodxy) over against the other religions of Christianity – in the sense that it sums up at the level of metaphor and story the Catholic conviction that our reconciling, forgiving God lurks everywhere in the objects, events and persons of our life experience.
It is, of course, the story of Mary the Mother of Jesus who represents the mother love of God, the truth that while God loves us in many different ways, She also loves us the way a mother who holds a new born child in her arms loves that child. Any religious heritage with such a story is well nigh irresistible to its members. If the love of the mother for her child to whom she has given life and is about to nurse is a valid metaphor for what creation and life and death are about, then that is very good news indeed, perhaps too good to be true, but true nonetheless.
So some of our stupid ecumenists, having no idea what the metaphor of Mary means (and not caring about it either) have been willing to sacrifice on it on the altar of Church unity. The may crowning which meant so much to Kevin and Ellen is passé, unfashionable, and neither politically nor liturgically correct.
Liturgy, properly carried out, should be a representation collectif as Emile Durkheim called such celebrations, an experience which creates an “effervescence” of happiness and joy among the congregants. No matter how discouraged or depressed I am when I begin the liturgy, at the end I am filled with hope and joy.
That’s not the purpose of liturgy, the liturgical purist protests.
Isn’t it? Why else do we call it a celebration? Why else is it a continuation of the family celebration of the Jewish seder?
Why are most Catholics still Catholic? Why am I still Catholic? As a quick, shorthand explanation – on which there could be much commentary – because of the Eucharist and the Madonna and because of God’s reconciling, forgiving, ever-pursuing love which both stories make flesh. We Catholics know that, even if we are not used to articulating our answer in that form.
The second appeal of Catholicism is its communal emphasis, which in the Ellen-Kevin scene is closely related to the sacramental imagery. Catholics are much more involved in community than are Protestants, a phenomenon which is revealed in their attachment to neighborhoods, their involvement in parish activities, their social and political attitudes, and their family lives. (Catholics for example aremore frequently in contact – personal and telephonic — with parents, children, siblings, and other relatives than are Protestants.)
For the purpose of the present essay, the issue is not whether this difference is good or bad (though patently I think the Catholic way is better, but then I’m a Catholic), but whether it is. In my research on religion around the world, I have found in every country I have studied that Catholics place more emphases on community relationships than do Protestants (net of all other background variables).
One would expect such difference in imagination if theological perspective still matters: for the Churches of the Reformation, salvation is essentially an individual activity. For Catholicism it has always been essentially a communal activity.
I discovered how the combination of the two work (and a proof that they do work) in a recent research exercise. The first finding was rather surprising: Catholics are more likely to attend symphony concerts, operas, dance performances, and art exhibitions than Protestants. The second finding was even more surprising: church attendance correlated positively for Catholics fine arts participation for Catholics and negatively for Protestants. It was precisely among regular church attendees that one found the difference in artistic involvement between the two denominations. Liturgy, even bad liturgy (and most Catholic liturgy in this country is bad liturgy), affects Catholic behavior.
As I looked at the models which emerged from this analysis I heard Kevin and Ellen talking again.
I grew up in a neighborhood parish of the nineteen thirties and the nineteen forties, more progressive than most because we had the dialogue Mass. I lived each year through the cycles of the liturgical seasons and devotions to the saints. I knew the warmth and comfort of this environment long before I went to school. While the Catholic school which I attended celebrated both community and story (sometimes better than other times)there seemed to be little connection between the religious environment and the doctrines I learned from the catechism. We lived the sacramental (incarnational) imagination, but we really did not know what we were doing or why. Only later when, heavily influenced by David Tracy and John Shea, I began my several decades of sociological and later story telling work on the religious imagination did I begin to grasp what we were doing and why and the enormous appeal that the sacramental imagination possessed.
It is why people like being Catholic and stubbornly refuse to leave. When I explain my theory to the laity they are rarely surprised. Of course that’s why we stay, they say. Have you just figured that out?
I confess that I have not been very successful in persuading bishops, priests, and theologians of the advantages of this perspective. In general such people are prosaic. They consider metaphors to be a distraction.
Nowhere in this rationale for “still” being Catholic do I mention doctrine; I say nothing about infallibility (which everyone knows is the most important Catholic doctrine!) or primacy or authority or resurrection or life after death.
In fact, doctrine results from reflection on experiences and images and stories. It is essential because we were are rational reflective beings and we must articulate our experiences and our insights in prose sentences and in systematic organization of such sentences. We cannot do without creeds and catechisms and theology. But the origins and raw power of religion are found in the stories.
Catholic stories are incarnational, they speak of God incarnate in the human condition at Christmas time and God going down to the valley of death with us and returning alive with us on Easter. They speak of a community of the followers of Jesus bonding with one another to pass on the heritage which is formed by the stories. The doctrines are latent in the stories. Both are necessary, but the stories come first. Alas, for much of which passes for Catholic religious education, the stories are discarded in favor of the doctrines. All the Trinitarian and Christological controversies in the early Church, as important as they may be, do not have the appeal or the value of the image of Madonna and Child.
(As the Orthodox seem to know better than we do, the story of the Trinity is the story that God is a relationship and that is our task to reenact for those around us, the mystery of the Love that binds God together. It is not an optional and unintelligible story for them, as it seems to have become for us.)
The doctrines help us to stay in the Church when we find ourselves reflecting on religion (as least when the doctrines are properly explicated), but the stories make us want to stay in the Church.
I’m “still” a Catholic because of the stories I heard while I was growing up in the nineteen thirties and forties in St. Angela parish on the west side of Chicago. I have reflected on the stories and on the doctrines which I learned in my various educational endeavors and, with the help of Fathers Tracy and Shay and my theory of the sociology of religion, I see how the stories (now embraced in what Paul Ricoeur calls the second naivete ) and the community still drive my religious life and underpin my religious faith.
The only difference between my experience and that of most other Catholics who are “still” Catholic is that my various professions (priest, sociologist, story-teller) have forced me to make more explicit the link between St. Angela in 1934 and the present than has been necessary for them. They also tend to think that my explanation when I offer it is self-evident.
Where does the institutional Church fit into this paradigm of why I am a Catholic? Do I think that the stories are more important than the Church? That is a foolish question. The Church exists to tell the stories (and, as Father Shea says, to break the bread, to preside over the community). It also exists to protect the stories from misunderstanding and distortion down through the years and the centuries. It is not an option, it is essential. But it is not a proper object for worship. It is made up of human beings with all the faults of human beings, and through the centuries some of these faults have been horrendous. The men who hold office in the Church have great responsibilities but they are not sacred persons. We honor them, but we do not worship them. We worship only God.
Only those who are unaware of history think that Church leaders are sacred people. The leadership of the Church has not improved all that much since the time of the apostles – and they were on the record no prizes. It is time and long past time to desacralize Church leaders.
On the other hand those who leave the Church because they have discovered how flawed are many leaders, are ignorant of history. Jesus never promised us saints. Nor did he promise that the saints who on occasion might be in charge would be either effective administrators or wise leaders.
Peter was not a sacred person and didn’t act like one. Whenever Popes began to think that they were sacred, they made a catastrophic mistake. We worship the God we encounter in the stories, the God we reflect on in our doctrines, we do not worship our institution or our leaders. We acknowledge the necessity of the former and the modest respect due the latter.
And nothing more.
If I had been born a Baptist or a Presbyterian, would I still be one? Probably. Americans tend to settle for the religion of their parents in their own adulthood. I might think that Catholics were idolaters because of their angels and saints and souls in Purgatory, and their worship of the Mother of Jesus. I might think that their blind obedience to the Pope makes it impossible for them to think for themselves. This essay is not an attempt to refute anyone else’s religion, rather it is an explanation of why, given my background and experience, I like being Catholic.
There are problems with the Catholic imagination. Precisely because it believes that God lurks everywhere, that everything can be a sacrament, and that all is grace, it is prone to superstition, folk religion, idolatry, and institution worship. It can easily succumb to what sociologists call the Iron Law of Oligarchy: means become ends and the ends are forgotten. When Catholics worship the Church instead of God, they become victims of that law. The Church has become an end in itself and not a means for the revelation of God’s reconciling love. The familiar phrase “for the good of the Church” becomes an excuse for much evil. As the late Jesuit John Courtney Murray once remarked ironically of a prominent archbishop, “He’s a perfectly honest man. He would never tell a lie except for the good of the Church.”
The Church must always therefore be involved in the process of reforming itself, “Ecclesia Semper Reformanda.” That constant reformation must occur everywhere from the papacy on down.
The demand that the papacy and the whole institutional church always be in a process of reform will be shocking only to those who think that the perfection of the institution and its leadership is the proper object of faith. But our faith is not in an institution or in institutional leadership (despite the Catholic conservatives in this book) it is in the God of love revealed in the teachings of Jesus, in the stories he told, and the stories we tell about him – the stories which are passed on by our heritage. The institution exists for the heritage (indeed is essential for the transmission of the heritage), the heritage does not exist for the institution.
Doctrine never exhausts the truth and the beauty of story. Thus, if I am asked whether I believe in the Madonna and Child or the Incarnation, my answer is that they are one and I believe in both. The doctrine of God become human is surely true, thought it is an abstract statement of the truth contained in the story which begins with a journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
It is worth noting that it took four centuries to make the doctrine reasonably precise while the story was there at the beginning. Both require one another, but it is the story that appeals to the total human. It is the beauty of the story which holds Catholics to their heritage.
I’m still a Catholic because of the beauty of the Catholic stories.
So are most of us Catholics.
An appeal to beauty may seem a weak argument; surely it will seem weak to many of the Catholic conservatives who write in this book. Again I remind them that we were Catholics for several centuries before the doctrines acquired some precision. It was the beauty of the stories and the lives inspired by the stories, particularly the Christmas and Easter stories which appealed to those who heard them. Whatever appeal our idiot leaders have left us is still to be found in the beauty of the stories.
Beauty is not opposed to truth. It is simply truth in its most attractive form.
I wonder how I would be able to explain that I am still a Catholic to Sam Donaldson. If I said to him it was because of the beauty of Catholic stories, he wouldn’t know what I was talking about.
Or to the ineffable Phil Donahue whose main concern seems to be whether masturbation is a mortal sin. Or to those Catholic conservatives for whom a list of doctrinal assents is the proper measure of Catholicism.
One of which assents is NOT to the notion that God is love, a notion which they find dangerous.
Too bad for St. John.
They are the heretics, the falsifiers of the tradition, the scribes and Pharisees of our time, the false prophets.
Pay them no heed.