What Makes One Catholic?

A few weeks ago, my mom said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if people could ‘shop’ for their church just like they can shop for their dentist? If everyone could just choose the one that felt best to them?”

I laughed, and said, “Mom, you can. What do you think I’ve been doing every time I move in the last ten years?”

And although technically what I say is true, I’ve been reflecting on it more lately and realizing that, to my mom, it doesn’t feel true. It’s not emotionally true. I suspect this has something to do with her Catholic guilt, but lately, I’m thinking it might not be as simple as that.

My husband and I rarely attend Catholic services anymore. Instead, we’ve been attending a vibrant, inclusive UCC church, which feeds us so well spiritually that we’ll often rearrange our schedules and give up our one chance per week to “sleep in” so that we don’t have to settle for going to a “lesser” church. Although we could have more flexibility in our schedules if we went to Catholic services, of which many more Mass times are offered, we’ve decided to forgo that.

Although I’ve done a lot of “church shopping” that has allowed me short stints at many denominations, this is the first time a non-Catholic parish has really “stuck” with me. This is the first time that I don’t often feel that something is missing. Or maybe, it’s just that I feel like less is missing at these services than in the Catholic services available to us (such as: female leadership, inclusive language, affirmation of GLBTQ individuals, plain-spoken English, more talk of Jesus, less talk of birth control, tradition, rubrics, and legalism).

Throughout most of my life, I’ve attended Catholic services, despite the myriad tensions this has often caused within myself. Now that the cornerstone of attending Catholic Mass has fallen away, I ask myself: What makes someone Catholic? Have I become one of those people who has decided to leave the Church, rather than work to change it? What does this mean for my Catholic identity?

Last week, I ran into someone I used to know when I was involved in Christian extracurriculars in college. I’d never realized until that conversation that he had also been raised Catholic (the activities we’d been involved in were non-denominational.) Even though his wife is Lutheran and they don’t regularly attend Catholic services, he said, “But as you know, once you’ve been Catholic, you can’t really get out of that!”

This reminds me of my mother’s wistfulness over the idea of ever being able to switch churches; it makes me think about my own Catholic identity crisis, to wonder what it means to still consider myself Catholic although I “practice” it in an official capacity less than I ever have before. Still, there is something in the geography of my spirituality that has been profoundly shaped by Catholicism, that will always keep something essentially Catholic at the heart of my faith life … I have to agree that, “you can’t really get out of that!”, but I’m not sure exactly what that is.

I recently read A Church of Her Own: What Happens When a Woman Takes the Pulpit. At one point, the author recounts struggling with whether she should leave the Episcopal church. Her husband tells her, “If your relationship with the Church were a relationship with an abusive boyfriend, you would have left long ago.”

At first, this really resonated with me. I thought, yes, why do I put up with the sorts of things from my church that I’d never put up with in another relationship? But again, it’s more complicated than that. Because while a romantic partner is chosen, and the relationship is begun later in life, your religious experiences, your experiences with Church, are part of the very fiber of your upbringing, mapped inextricably into your moral framework. As such, my relationship with Catholicism is more like a relationship with a sometimes-abusive parent. And despite the way it has wronged me and others, I cannot sever my connection with it completely without cutting out something essential about myself. And I would be remiss not to be grateful for all it has provided to me throughout the years.

But now I’m grown up, and I can make my own decisions. I can still love the Church, but it’s perhaps healthy to gain some distance from it. You can’t ever completely leave a dysfunctional family (and what family isn’t?), but you can decide to limit your interactions to the really meaningful ones — holidays, births, weddings, deaths. And I guess that’s where I am with Catholicism now — I still love it, I still feel gratitude for it, but based on the way it hurts me and others, I think it’s healthiest if we see each other a little less often.

8 thoughts on “What Makes One Catholic?

  1. This is great. I know any number of folks who have reached the same conclusion. I never thought about the analogy of an abusive boyfriend, but it sure fits. I’m still trying to figure out what to do on my journey.

  2. Interesting that you bring up “A Church of Her Own.” I read it last year around this very time and that very quote about abusive relationships stuck with me as well. It rings true. I didn’t have a good response for Sarah then and I don’t have one now. My best stab at an answer for why I still identify as Catholic–and I hope this doesn’t sound too cheesy–is the example of Jesus. He was such a free spirit that the leaders of his own religion perceived him (correctly) as a mortal threat to “the system,” but he always understood himself as a Jew doing Jewish things. All of my own rebelliousness, perceived and real, is precisely because I understand myself as a Catholic doing Catholic things. I don’t know how to take that self-image to another denomination. I don’t think I’d make as much sense elsewhere. I’d just keep quoting Jesuits no matter where I went anyway.

    • Justin, well put. You’re helping me find some context for my own “rebelliousness”. I just try to help the folks in the pews, and think often about the folks who used to be in the pews. I write a bit, and this annoys some. (www.phrogge.com). I appreciate your wisdom and enthusiasm, also your willingness to share.

      • Phrogge, I never knew that you also kept a blog! I’m glad you shared it here; I read a few posts and they are wonderful. Thanks so much for the good work you do — on the web, and out in the world.

  3. Pingback: What Makes One Catholic? « LL Word

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