Why Catholic?

Today, we’re answering a young girl from Australia, whose maturity and thoughtfulness are awesome, in the true sense of the word.

Dear ACG,

Hi, I’m a fourteen-year-old Australian girl who adores your blog, and I was wondering… I get why we are Christian (although I have immense respect for Muslims and Jews, etc.). But one thing I always grapple with…

Why Catholic?

I was wondering whether you ever considered being, um, maybe a Mormon? (Considering your respect for the Mormon faith is obvious.) Or why not Uniting Church? Or another Protestant denomination? There are even some Christian groups who allow women to preach, preachers to marry, and are more liberal in other issues that (and rightly so) fire you up.

So why, after everything, are you still Catholic?

I am a bit confused on that front, you see, with regards to myself. You seem like level-headed, feminist women, so I’m sure your answer to my question would be insightful.

Anxiously awaiting your reply,

Anna

Dear Anna,

We Catholic girls were so delighted to get your question! It reveals so much about you—that you are inquisitive, searching, and kind, that you are open-minded and deeply respectful, and that you are looking for the best way to live. It will serve you well in this confusing endeavor of being human.

So you ask, Why Catholic? Why not something that fits our politics? Something that is more flexible and open?

In fact, yours is a question I’ve been struggling with for most of my life. And I still struggle with it every Sunday, as I decide whether or not I should attend mass. I struggle with it every time I do attend mass, and while there, I ponder the mystery of the Eucharist, which is something I absolutely cannot believe and that, paradoxically, I cannot help but believe. I struggle with it every time I see the Catholic Church in the headlines, whether for totally disregarding its foundational principles to win a lawsuit, or when I burst into tears—who knows why? relief?—because the pope is resigning the papacy.

It’s a question I ask myself continually, one that is difficult to answer because, for me, the Catholic Church is a paradox—in much the same way I see the Eucharist—that I cannot abide but I cannot leave behind. And this has as much to do with who I am as it does the Catholic Church itself.

First, the personal part. I grew in a very small town in the state of Texas, and being Catholic made me feel a part of something much bigger. In that small town, where history was short, where there was little “high” culture, where other churches were casual and chatty and relied on emotional ploys for conversion, I saw something very different in the sacred spaces and sacred words and sacred rituals of the Catholic Church.

And I loved that sacredness, and I loved the trail we traced, through apostolic succession, back to Jesus himself. Though I was small and insignificant, I felt that I could tap into that tradition, the tradition of over one billion people and stretching back thousands of years, helping the young girl I was feel bigger than most measures would suggest.

That was half my life ago, and I have (mostly) outgrown that need to feel validated by an outside source. But—and here’s the second part, the part about why I still hold to the Catholic Church itself—I have not outgrown my love for the rituals of that faith. After visiting many other churches as a child and as an adult, after teaching at a Baptist school for two years, after living on a hospital ship amid a very vibrant Protestant community, nothing has felt sacred to me in the way that the Catholic Church feels sacred.

Please do not misunderstand me. I do not believe that the Catholic Church has a monopoly on sacredness. I believe that it is only one path among many to God.

No, I do not believe the Catholic Church is more sacred or more right than any other Christian denomination, or Judaism or Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism. I only believe that for me, it is home. It is my spiritual anchor. How I understand our common search for the divine is to sit, stand, and kneel in concert with the rest of a congregation, surrounded by gilded altars and statuary, speaking and singing in unison with tens or hundreds or thousands of others under the same roof, with the billion other Catholics across the world, bowing in unison, and maybe, hopefully, communing with God in unison.

Yet, as with all of this, it’s a paradox, because my church is rife with flaws and contradictions, and over the course of millennia, my church has perpetrated many evils in the name of God. In many ways, I am frustrated by the Catholic Church, or at least its leaders. I am frustrated by their lack of humility, by their obstinacy, by their refusal to admit when they’re wrong, and by the fact that when they do, it’s appallingly late. More than anything, I wish they would admit they don’t have all the answers, and that much of the institution is human, not divine.

But I know that many of my core values come from the fact that I was raised Catholic. I know my Church prizes education and esteems intellectual rigor. It advocates for the poor. It emphasizes sacrifice and selflessness and loving-kindness, which might be the only path toward reconciling our broken world.

Lots of statistics are out about how many people are defecting from the Catholic faith—lapsing, as we’d say. Some weeks, I’m an active Catholic. Some weeks, I’m closer to lapsed. And when I lapse, I am part of that amazing statistic: one in ten people in the United States is a lapsed Catholic.

And half of us lapsed American Catholics are drawn to another Christian denomination. Half of us turn toward a Protestant faith, and become, say, Episcopalian. And those converts are overjoyed to have a woman priest, maybe one who is married, maybe one who openly gay. Or they become Methodist, and they are relieved to attend a church service that seems more connected to their daily trials and tribulations.

But for various reasons, that other half of us doesn’t look for another church. Some don’t because they have lost faith. For me, it’s because there is no substitute for what I feel when I am practicing the ritual of a Catholic mass. It is deeply part of me. Inescapably, the Catholic Church is my home, and I will always be Catholic.

That said, I do not dismiss another’s attempt to find meaning elsewhere. I read a book a few months ago called Why I Am Still A Catholic, and one essay in it was penned by the writer Andre Dubus. Like me, he was drawn to the sacredness of the Catholic Church—to the sacraments.

“A sacrament is an outward sign of God’s love, they taught me when I was a boy, and in the Catholic Church there are seven,” Dubus writes. “But, no, I say, for the Church is catholic, the world is catholic, and there are seven times seventy sacraments, to infinity.”

The Catholic Church is where I first experienced the sacred, and where I go to remind myself of it. But like Dubus, I know that there is so much grace, so much sacredness in the world around us, in every faith that is reaching toward the divine, much as a finger points at the moon.

And yet, as the Buddhists would say, the finger is not the moon. Each one of the world’s many religions are seeking God in imperfect, flawed, and human ways.

I am still a Catholic because I know that I can go there to find the sacred, and I return there because I need to experience the sacred in order to manifest love and kindness and compassion and patience in world that is filled with injustice, with suffering, with senseless cruelty.

You might find that sacredness in the Catholic Church, or you may find it in a different place. And if that’s the case, I say, go there. Go to the Uniting Church, if it is what feeds you, anchors you, calls you to be a better person. Or go to the Anglican Church. Or go to a monastery in Nepal.

Go wherever you need to go to feel humbled, to feel awed, to feel like there is something greater that demands you love your neighbor, that you turn your cheek, that you do whatever you can to reconcile the rifts between friends and families and nations.

For that was the mission of Christ, and our highest calling as Catholics. So go, Anna, wherever you can find that sacred space.

Carmen

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I was raised Catholic, but can’t accept it all. How do others, especially women? Part II.

In Part II, Nadia answers a question from “Where Is the Room for Gray,” found here.

Dear “Where Is the Room for Gray,”

How do I take what resonates in my heart and disregard what makes me squeamish? One of my best friends who in the last couple of years went from having no religion to being a Non-Denominational Christian told me, “Religion is first and foremost about your relationship with God and our community.” It’s these relationships that lift us up the most, not our relationship with the institution. I go to church on Sunday, yes, to feel community and ask for prayers, but also to have a chat with my Heavenly Father and Mother Mary in a sacred space.

I spent years feeling guilty (Carmen’s right, we do that so well!) about my beliefs or lack thereof. I once sat across from a family member and cried because I could not wrap my head around the need for Christ’s Atonement or Catholicism in general. This family member, who I am terribly close with, asked me if I believed every line of the Apostles Creed. Still in tears I told her I wasn’t sure. She looked me in the eyes and said, “Well, that’s what it takes to be Catholic.”

Her statement is flat out not true. It isn’t scriptural, part of dogma, or the way I experience Catholicism. Even in times of pure and utter darkness, I knew I was Catholic for two simple reasons: I was baptized, and I chose to be confirmed. That’s it. It’s done. I am Catholic.

The Church can’t get rid of me. I took part in sacred, ritual rites of passage. I refuse to go anywhere. They have to accept me, feminist Nadia, questioning Nadia, renegade Nadia.

How do I take what resonates in my heart and disregard what makes me squeamish? I put everything that keeps me up at night before my Heavenly Father. I tell him, “You’ve got to be kidding me! Really? Mary’s perpetual virginity? Pedophile priests? Woman can’t be priests? Etc. etc.”

I have thrown out what Mass is supposed to be and replaced it with what I need it to be. I have thrown out what prayer is supposed to be, what my role as a woman is supposed to be, what being a good Catholic girl is supposed to be.

I don’t know what it means when Catholics don’t follow every precept of the church other than to say it doesn’t surprise me. It doesn’t surprise because the Church has a lot of rules but a poor way of disseminating information. It doesn’t surprise me because the way people choose to practice religion rarely aligns perfectly onto the dogma prescribed by an institution.

And even though I live my entire Catholic life in a giant gray area, the Church’s teachings on contraception do not bother me. I was taught that fertility is an integral part of my personhood and my divinity. Contraception stipulates that there is something wrong with my fertility and that it needs to be reduced or eliminated in order for me to have choices and freedom. Just as fertility is integral to me, it is integral to men as well. When we use contraception, we withhold a portion of who we are from our partner. Same goes for men. When they put on a condom, there is a literal barrier between the totality of their personhood and their partner. Sexuality as I’ve been taught is the total union of partners. I am in the Natural Family Planning camp of Catholics. (admittedly I don’t know where this leaves our brothers and sisters who cannot have children. I’m still sorting that one out)

If you’re staring at your computer screen thinking, “This girl is crazy! How can she call herself a feminist?” Let me tell you, this particular teaching really resonates with me, but I don’t expect it to feel right or good or divine to everyone. I prioritize human agency over church teachings. The church teaches a lot of things, makes us feel guilt about our very human foibles, but in the beginning God created agency. He gave us minds and hearts and he expects us to use them. Fertility is not the only thing integral to who you are. It’s your questions, love of community, the things that bring you joy, your desire to work things out, the things you find humor in, the things that scare you, the things that frustrate you… you are not supposed to turn any of those things off, to your God, to your family, to you significant other, or to your church.

If you’re are sitting in your pew ready to tear your hair out or think the Church doesn’t want you, I’m here to tell you that I want you. I need to know that Catholics like me are sitting in the pews on Sunday, too. Knowing there are people out there with questions and heartache and a touch of anger brings me tremendous comfort. I find you and Catholics like us the answer to my years of praying, “God, you have got to be kidding me.”

much love,

Nadia, a Catholic Girl