Why I Stay Catholic

The Bonds of Belief & Friendship

Some time back, I got an e-mail from an old friend with whom I had lost contact many years before. He was an ex-seminarian from Argentina who had been imprisoned and tortured during the “dirty war” of the military dictatorship. That he had gotten out alive bordered on the miraculous.

His scars were real and permanent. Not the least of them were psychological wounds caused by the silence of most of the Argentine hierarchy and the active collaboration of some of its members during that period of brutal repression. So I was not overly surprised when he told me he had left the Catholic Church. His faith was intact, but he had lost all confidence in the institution. Initially, he found a home in the Episcopal Church, but there was no Episcopalian community where he was now living. He had also been attracted to the spirituality of Orthodoxy, but there was no Orthodox church near him. So he was praying alone with icons-as if it were only in the church triumphant, free of all ambiguity, that he could find his community. He could do much worse. He sent me a long list of grievances against the Catholic Church-most of which are very well founded. Far be it from me to judge my friend. I understand him all too well. He made me question my own motives for remaining in the church.

The most obvious and simple reason is that I’m used to it. I was born and brought up Catholic. I happen to be Catholic just as I happen to be American. It’s an empirical fact-the rather prosaic underpinning of my fidelity.

Because I’m a Catholic, I go to Mass on Sundays (or Saturday evening), and I’m relatively at ease. I know when to sit, stand, and kneel, and I know the responses. I am deeply aware of Eucharistic theology, and I want to respond to this gift with all my being. Yet I often feel as though I’m just going through the motions. The people around me are strangers, the music is led by a choir singing a couple of octaves above what most of us are capable of, the songs themselves are sickly sentimental, and the sermon is often insipid. It has occurred to me that I feel more “at one” with the people on the 5 a.m. bus I take to work every morning than with the people at church. We at least know one another, however superficially, and we are on a similar adventure. At church, I have the impression that we are a motley crew fulfilling an obligation. There is a clique of dedicated people in the parish who keep things rolling, but I’ve never been tempted to become part of that group. I simply don’t have a vocation to lay ministry. These are very good people who are trying their best. The worst of it is that I haven’t a clue as to how things could be improved.

So I can’t stand outside and throw stones. The very things that pain and disappoint me in the church exist in myself, and I don’t like them there either. Often I feel like a hypocrite among hypocrites-all of us pretending to live something we are constantly contradicting.

That is the nitty-gritty level. In the larger context, there is a whole litany of complaints: the church’s obsession with micromanaging the sexual life of the faithful and imposing its one-size-fits-all regulations; its courtship of the rich and powerful (who are the laypeople who sit on diocesan boards and consulting committees? Are they representative of the people of God?); the political posturing (morality must be legislated). The litany could go on and on.

Along with being a practicing Catholic, for the past fifteen years I have been singing in the choir of a small Russian Orthodox community. Through this I have discovered the riches of the Eastern churches, and this, in turn, has opened my eyes to aspects of my own tradition I hadn’t seen before. This has been a wonderful, vivifying gift, but I have never been tempted to convert to Orthodoxy and am excluded from its sacraments. The contradictions in Orthodoxy are perhaps very different from those in Catholicism, but they are no less real. There is nothing “mystical” about the interchurch squabbles, the jurisdictional rivalries, and the petty jealousies. I’ve often felt that if the purest part of each tradition were to complement that of the other, many of the shortcomings of both would disappear. But this would require a purification and an openness neither side seems willing to assume.

Is it simply out of inertia that I continue to be a Catholic? I hope not. Faced with so much that puts me off and the temptation to simply walk away, I find myself replying with Peter: “To whom else will we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

A long time ago I copied a phrase from a now-forgotten source that goes to the heart of the matter: “We know what is human in the church...in the measure in which we are unworthy of knowing what is divine in it. Those who are best qualified for taking scandal at the faults, defects, and even deformities in the church-the saints-are those who never complain about them.” Not being a saint, I complain, as at least some of them surely did. Still, I want to know and to believe in what is divine

Our human communities will always be terribly imperfect, fragile, and ambiguous-sources of enriching friendships but also sources of antipathy and deception. The true Christian community is on a transcendental level, anchored in the Beatific Trinity, and hidden from human eyes. It is a communion of broken people who are very different from one another, who have different preoccupations and outlooks, but who nonetheless are united in the blood of Christ. I don’t think we should pretend to “like” everyone, even if each is a good Catholic. The Apostles continued to bicker among themselves even after Pentecost. The history of the church is full of stories about saints who couldn’t get along with one another. The failure of communion on a human level is part of our historicity and our legacy of sin. It is real and besets us from all sides. Yet this is precisely the raw material that becomes the temple of the Spirit and the body of Christ.

There is another aspect that is seldom mentioned: the very personal nature of our faith. What unites us, empirically, as Catholics is the profession of belief in the dogmas and teachings of the church. But the faith of each person is unique. If a hundred Catholics were asked what their faith means to them, there would be a hundred different answers. Faith is not simple acquiescence to an abstract dogma or teaching. It is an experience of Christ that leads one to make this dogma or teaching one’s own, to appropriate it personally. It is not something that can be imposed, however subtly, from without. It must be vital and free, something understood and interpreted in the depths of one’s being according to the gifts with which one has been graced, according to one’s vocation and limitations. A faith that is not rooted in a deep interior conviction is not a living faith. We may not “feel” what we want to believe; we may even have surface doubts; but there is a core conviction that gives meaning to our existence, without which all would become an obscene joke. As a Catholic, my conviction is the love story the church offers me-the love of a God who becomes my brother, who suffers in me and with me, who takes upon himself the sin of the world, and descends to the depths of hell to seek what is lost. Although this gives meaning to my existence, it does not necessarily make me “feel good,” for it challenges me at a level where I do not want to be challenged, and exacts more than I am comfortable giving. What the church puts before me is the wisdom of centuries: of confessors and martyrs and fools for Christ. This wisdom is incarnate in the ambiguities of both history and my own life, but it represents the continuity of the communion of the saints, the heritage bequeathed to me by my ancestors in the faith.

In our better moments, when we have experienced what is divine in the church-and this requires discernment-the human element becomes less troubling. Then one experiences an obscure but real anchor, an instinct, I suppose, that is akin to the idea of the sensus fidelium.

Although faith is personal and individuated, it is not individualistic. On the contrary, none of us is saved or perishes alone. Our moral acts affect the whole body of Christ, for better or for worse. They know no limit of time or place. If there are many mansions in the house of the Father, I doubt any of them is single-occupancy. In spite of all the difficulties I experience being “at home” in collective worship or prayer groups, I have been terribly blessed with many profound and wonderful friendships. Even though the faith of each person is unique, there are affinities in grace-a certain common way of seeing things, of acting and reacting. Perhaps my deepest joy and surest support is this sense of sharing such affinities with others. It is as if we spontaneously recognize one another. There is no need for preliminaries; we are on the same wavelength, we understand one another, we feed off one another. I have experienced this both inside and outside the canonical boundaries of the Catholic Church. In one of her letters to Fr. Joseph Perrin, Simone Weil wrote: “Nothing among human things has such power to keep our gaze fixed ever more intensely upon God than friendship for the friends of God.” For me, it is like a foretaste of the definitive Kingdom.

In a way, my “community” resembles that of my Argentine friend. It is composed of living icons-some of whom still walk this earth, others who, although deceased, live in God-a cloud of witnesses who sustain and encourage me and whose destiny is mysteriously linked to mine. I believe that we do something wonderful together, although I’m not exactly sure what that is-nor is it my business to know.

Published in the 2007-02-23 issue: 

Jerry Ryan, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, died on January 23. Requiescat in pace.

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