Maybe you’ve heard some variation on this line: “I’m an American. Just because I disagree with much of what America’s doing, I don’t run off and become a Canadian.”
I heard it years ago from a friend explaining why he remained a Catholic despite his massive disappointments with the Church.
I’ve used it myself when somebody asks: if you disagree with the church on gays, birth control, women, their handling of the sex abuse crisis, etc. – why not become an Episcopalian, a Methodist, a Quaker, a Jew? Why stay when you’re at odds with its teachings?
Here are some reasons.
My roots, my family, my ancestors.
It’s been a lifetime of Catholic weddings, funerals, baptisms, and wakes. My cousin and I played First Communion with flattened Sunbeam Bread in her long second-floor hallway. On Saturdays, we’d walk two blocks to Holy Name Church and try to eavesdrop on penitents in the confessional. I remember my father, all 6-foot-3 of him, kneeling to pray before getting into bed, a grateful man. I remember my mother, a musician, wincing at off-key, post-Vatican II folk singers and confronting a nasty nun who shoved a baseball cap on my head so hard I cried. My sin: forgetting my required mantilla for church. I also remember my mother, schooled at Sacred Heart, going off to weekday Mass, hiring St. Vincent’s Home orphans as babysitters, bringing homemade food and groceries to different women, old and alone, she somehow knew.
Like so many Catholics, I stopped going to church in college. Then came the faith-shopping period. The Universal Unitarians sounded good. The Episcopalians even better. But when my children were born — and baptism hovered — well, it all seemed a leap too far. It’s bred in the bone, my Catholicism. I couldn’t pretend to be something else, due respect to my many Catholic friends who long ago abandoned ship.
Another reason: At some point I realized there is amazing intellectual history in 2,000 years of Catholicism, but I knew nothing about it. Of course most Catholics, including me, don’t know the New Testament well, never mind the rest of the Bible. We know little of the great Catholic saints, mystics, theologians, and philosophers: Ignatius of Loyola, Blaise Pascal, G.K. Chesterton, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, to name just a few. We know Mother Teresa cared for the dying in India. But that’s about it.
I was stunned to find saints with a sense of humor, especially ancient ones. Yet here’s the teenaged St. Augustine, torn between his wild life of debauchery and a call to sanctity, famously praying way back in the fourth century, “Lord make me chaste … but not yet.”
Here’s a frustrated Teresa of Avila even more famously complaining in the 16th century, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”
We’ve heard about “Brides of Christ.” How about this steamy dialogue from Catherine of Siena, who entered a “mystical marriage” with Christ in 1366: “The more I enter, the more I find, and the more I find the more I seek of thee. Thou are the food that never satiates …”
Catherine of Siena lived during one of the many periods of complete corruption in the church. Yet she differentiated between the faith, and church politics.
Maybe Catholics today have a harder time making that distinction. Turned off by politics, we jettison the faith we know but superficially. Or we stay, enduring what too often are dry, rote, unsatisfying, and uninspiring Sunday Masses. We don’t think much about what else there is to explore. We’re not that curious, I guess, about The Big Questions.
More reasons why I’m still a Catholic:
The sensual parts of Catholicism. The bread, wine, incense, candles, phenomenal stained-glass windows. Smudged forehead ashes at the start of Lent. Anointing with oils. Palm Sunday. White lilies crowding the Easter altar, the liturgical season in sync with our own.
Daily Mass, 365 days a year. It is peaceful, short, intimate, a holy half-hour of quiet before or after a frantic day. Some people stay afterwards to say the Rosary, in unison.
Community. The older I get, the less I like “Bowling Alone,” as Harvard’s Robert Putnam wrote in his book of that name. I like being in a prayer group with people who don’t think I’m crazy. I like parish life, the chances to volunteer, meet and greet. I like seeing the same parishioners in the same pew week after week. I like being with people very different from me but the same in this: we are seekers, some days frustrated doubters, some days drawn, as if magnetized, into the mystery. Many, like me, were born Catholic. Keenly and even painfully aware of Catholicism’s many and gargantuan flaws, we stay Catholic. And we will die Catholic, too.