A Fuller Life

To my friends and colleagues at the college where I teach, I’m the Wrong-Way Corrigan of the twenty-first century. Seven years ago, at the age of fifty-three, I left my lifelong atheism behind and joined the Catholic Church. At a time when those who declare themselves atheists were vigorously insisting that religion is a delusion that educated people must no longer tolerate, my conversion seemed at best an instance of academic apostasy. Now, seven years later, the Catholic Church remains scandal-ridden by its long cover-up of priestly pedophilia, American bishops are strengthening the hand of those who oppose health-care reform, and the Vatican is calling American religious women to account for spending too much time caring for the poor and not enough speaking out in support of the church’s positions on gender and sexuality. My friends like to ask if I’m having second thoughts. Well, I’m not. The Catholic Church has enlarged my life too much for me to leave it. But I am distressed by these recent actions by the Vatican and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and especially by the false impression they create of the church. Catholicism is not just about bishops imposing restrictions on others.

I did not become a Catholic in order to become a better or more moral person. I don’t believe Catholics or Christians or religious believers in general are more moral than anyone else. Nor did I become a Catholic in order to tell others—younger people especially—that they can’t do the very things I did when I was their age. In other words, although discipline is an essential part of the spiritual life, I didn’t become a Catholic to narrow either my life or the lives of others. Rather, I became a Catholic to enlarge my life. But if the bishops are aware, as they must be, that enlargement rather than restriction is at the heart of Catholic faith and life, they certainly haven’t been proclaiming that truth effectively.

Adamant self-declared atheists—Richard Dawkins, say, or the late Christopher Hitchens—speak and write as if religious believers are ignorant, as if believers don’t know as much as they do. I doubt that is true. I still know what I knew when I was fifty, and a lifelong rationalist with a PhD. I understand the most up-to-date scientific models of how the universe and life evolved, and will continue to accept these models until science comes up with better ones—something creationism surely hasn’t done. But I also know something that I didn’t know before I became a Catholic. Catholicism has convinced me that an unfathomable mystery underpins the tangible world science helps us know and understand. And I know too that to live fully in the presence of this mystery, to live more fully than I did as an atheist, is to live in the presence of the God Jesus reveals.

That’s why I became a Catholic. I wanted to live my life as fully as possible in that presence. That God is present each week at Mass, especially in the Eucharist. And with that understanding comes an acceptance of the beauty of the church and the richness of its traditions and rituals. The church is a community much larger than myself, and one that works every day toward a more loving, peaceful, and just world. It is a community much larger and deeper than America’s hectoring and claustrophobic culture. At the same time, I am grateful to live in a society that allows me the freedom to choose the church as my true home.

Yet I find the recent actions of the Vatican and the USCCB misguided and disheartening. I see little evidence that my religious freedom is under a new and unprecedented threat, and I fear that an already divided church will become even more fragmented by the bishops’ actions. My secular friends and colleagues understand little of my distress. And why should they? The Catholic Church they know is the one in the newspapers. To them the Catholic Church is a hierarchical and sexist institution, hypocritically telling others what they can and can’t do, particularly in the realm of sexuality. And who can blame those outside the church for thinking so? Indeed, who can blame the faithful now leaving the church? The USCCB and the Vatican don’t seem interested in trying to communicate anything else to people in a way they can understand. So yes, I’m distressed by the bishops. I pray that they will do much more, in their words and in their deeds, to give expression to the fullness of life the Catholic Church makes possible. If they truly care about the future of the church in America and about the future of American society, as I believe they do, they must find a new voice with a different emphasis.

Published in the 2012-09-28 issue: 

Paul K. Johnston teaches American literature at SUNY Plattsburgh.

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