“Welcome back to non-practicing Catholics!”

I was in Seattle for the Easter Triduum, and on Holy Thursday I ended up at St. James, the diocesan Cathedral, for Mass. The pomp-and-circumstance of their liturgy is not my style, so I found myself very susceptible to distraction—particularly once I spotted the little yellow card in the pew shelf in front of me.  In big bold letters it read, “Welcome back to non-practicing Catholics!

I picked up the card immediately.  It advertised a bi-annual, 12-week series for “non-practicing Catholics” who have “been away” from the church and are considering a return.  The unique advertisement was fuel for thought for the remainder of the liturgy.

My intrigue was deeply ambivalent.  On one hand, it was delightful to see a church consciously reaching out to the hoards of “non-practicing Catholics” in the community who have been hurt, bored, confused or pissed off by Catholicism.  I have been disappointed by Catholics who simply respond to this population with blame: “Well, if they took the time to understand…” or “If they weren’t so apathetic…” or “If they weren’t so selfish…then those who have left would realize they are missing out on the ‘One True Church’ and come back!” Having very intentionally ceased regular participation in Catholicism for four years—not out of misunderstanding or apathy or selfishness, but out of genuine disappointment and frustration—I am quick to correct Catholics who think “leaving” the Church is merely the easy way out.  My time as a non-practicing Catholic was full of difficult grappling with my tradition, and I would have loved a program like the one advertised on that little yellow card.  It would have been nice to feel like my absence mattered.

On the other hand, there is something about the basic premise of this ministry that rubs me the wrong way. What does it mean to be a “non-practicing Catholic”? 

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My Big Fat Catholic Family

So maybe borrowing the title of the 2002 hit film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is a little old and over used, but it came to me when I recently heard about another small group choosing to break from the Catholic Church. One of the reasons I am still Catholic, aside from the Catholic DNA running through my veins, is that I love that we are a global church. I have really struggled with certain positions of the hierarchy (do I really need to name them?), but I am reminded over and over again that my struggles, that is our struggles, are not new. There has been someone fighting for a better Church in one way or another for 2000 years beginning with Jesus himself.

We read in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of Paul that there have ALWAYS been feuds in our Christian family. Even among “The Twelve” there were arguments of arrogance over which disciple was “greater.” We must not forget the first ecumenical Council of Jerusalem with the trouble of initiation rites (must gentiles become Jews before they become Christian?), followed by a litany of heresies in those early centuries including Marcionism, Gnosticism, Arianism, etc…which all caused breaks in some form within the early church community.

Then came the “Great Schism” of 1054 where the Eastern and Western Churches used the Holy Spirit as an excuse to part ways. Though no one then, or now for that matter, could really point to a major theological problem that was not reconcilable if they had wanted to find common ground, it seems that they just could not stand being in the same church anymore. This break in the “Church family” has always reminded me of my mom and her younger sister who really never got along at any point in their lives even though they were the two youngest siblings of nine and the closest in age. Everyone clumped them together and just assumed they were content being each other’s best friend in spite of the real tension. They tolerated each other for years and followed the fictional expectations for the sake of the “family.” Certainly they loved each other, but they really just did not like being with the other. When my grandmother died, they decided to use the distribution of her stuff as a reason to finally break ties. Certainly, they could have gotten through the great charm bracelet/china hutch debate of 1995 if they had wanted to, but it was easier to throw 40 years of harbored animosity into those two stupid objects and use them to keep the walls up for 13 years now.

In the 16th century, the dysfunctional family of the Christian church finally broke wide open with the biggest divorce in history: the Protestant Reformation. There were certainly problems on all sides of this schism, and each definitely was also at least partially right. Today we talk about the presence of Truth in each denomination as we slowly strive for some form of reconciliation through the ecumenical movement. Yet while many of us keep working for unity, more people are, often for good reason, alienated, oppressed or hurt by the Catholic Church. Some stay and harbor resentment, others leave religion all together or find another denomination that has resolved that “issue,” and some even set up a “new” church of their own. For some it works, and if they are being fed spirituality and are closer to God in that place, I am quite happy for them. At the end of the day for me, however, is my connection to a truly global church that keeps me tied to Catholicism. Not only does it have missions, hospitals and relief services in all parts of the world making our earthly community better for all of its members, it has traditions that go back centuries and millennia while also maintaining flexibility to adapt and dialogue with the modern world. It is a church which always preaches hope in the Good News, and no matter where I go, whether it be a prairie in Wisconsin, a rural mountain community in Guatemala, or a beautiful fairytale city in Austria, I know that I will find members of my Big Fat Catholic Family there to offer thanks and praise to God in liturgy and partners to work for a better world in Christ’s love. The church is much bigger than a single parish or a hot button issue; it is both a “home” to find comfort and the place that nourishes us by providing companions for the trials ahead as we work for the Reign of God.

Becky Schwantes, a Minnesota native, is currently a Master of Social Work candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2008 and has worked as a parish faith formation minister, social worker and in college campus ministry. Becky also holds a B.A. in Theology and Social Work with a minor is Social Justice and Peace Studies from the University of Portland, Oregon. Her primary areas of interest are Christian Social Ethics, Eco-Feminist Theology, Mental Health and issues of Aging. In her free time, she enjoys traveling the world, walking labyrinths, singing, and laughing with friends. Her favorite saints are Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.

Catholics and the Bible

Bishop Richard Sklba of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is an internationally recognized and highly respected Scripture scholar, and he is extensively involved in ecumenical and inter-religious activities throughout the U.S. and the world. Earlier this month, he wrote a wonderful article on the change in use and study of Scripture among Catholics, and he comments on the influence fundamentalists, particularly converts to Catholicism, are having on the way Catholics read the Bible: http://www.chnonline.org/main.asp?SectionID=2&SubSectionID=2&ArticleID=985&TM=22488.24

It both frustrates and worries me that so many people use and misuse the Bible to prove their arguments without learning the history and culture of the authors, intended audience, and social location. It has rightly been said that one can “prove” anything using this text, and surely we have seen numerous examples over the centuries of how God’s inspired Word has been distorted to oppress, injure and even kill. The Pontifical Biblical Commission warns:

“The Fundamentalist approach is dangerous, for it is attractive to people who look to the Bible for ready answers to the problems of life. It can deceive these people, offering them interpretations that are pious but illusory, instead of telling them that the Bible does not necessarily contain an immediate answer to each and every problem. Without saying as much in so many words, fundamentalism actually invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide. It injects into life a false certitude, for it unwittingly confuses the divine substance of the biblical message with what are in fact its human limitations” (quoted from Origins, January 6, 1994, p. 510).

Prior to Vatican II, many Catholics rarely if ever opened their Bibles, that is if they had one, and surely had little use for studying the context of this sacred text because they allowed their priests to interpret it for them. In recent decades, Catholics have come to read their Bibles on their own more and more, but unfortunately it is rarely a study Bible that offers footnotes on history, culture, politics, symbols, etc… Reading the Bible is not necessarily an easy task because our 21st century culture is so far removed from the peasant, agrarian society of this literary, historically, and culturally diverse library (Biblia is Greek for “the books” or “library”) that spans at least 2,500 years with countless different authors and audiences.

In the U.S., where one is now just as likely to bump into a Catholic as they are an Evangelical Fundamentalist (both denominations teeter between 20 and 30% of the population), the fundamentalist influence on how Catholics read the Bible has swayed to taking passages and mere verses out of context and applying them to modern life, moral decisions and political arguments. Professors at Catholic universities speak of the change in students, both Catholic and others, over the past years, witnessing a new close-mindedness to reading Scripture form a historical and critical interpretation. Bishop Sklba, however, rightfully reminds us:

“It is Catholic to want to know the history of things. It is Catholic to insist that verses of Scripture never be taken out of their original historical and social context. It is Catholic to insist that effort be made to determine whether a passage from the Bible is poetry or history or general admonition to a specific cultural presumption. It is Catholic to distinguish direct affirmations from the unexamined assumptions of the past. Their astronomy is not ours, nor was their sense of family order identical to ours…It remains open to the judgment of the authorities in the church in order to offer assurance that a translation remains truly faithful to the original inspired text of the Bible. To help guide the understanding of individual readers, the Catholic Church insists that some explanatory notes be provided with every published translation. That is yet another way in which the Bible remains the Book of the Church!”

Bishop Sklba’s insistence that the Bible is a book for all people, and not just reserved for the elite, is heartening. It means that we all can and have the capacity to learn from and be inspired by the Scriptures to live our lives in a faithful manner. Yet we must be careful in reading it, for we do not want to disrespect God or our Judeo-Christian ancestors who were leaving us stories and lessons in their context and not ours. Bishop Sklba believes that “because Scripture is indeed an inspired work of literary art, it is open to a variety of legitimate interpretations, like all types of good literature … as long as they do not contradict or oppose the original meaning of the text itself.” So in reading and interpreting our religion’s sacred text, we must be diligent to do it justice, but we also must be open to the Spirit as She offers us new insights and lessons for our day.

Becky Schwantes, a Minnesota native, is currently a Master of Social Work candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2008 and has worked as a parish faith formation minister, social worker and in college campus ministry. Becky also holds a B.A. in Theology and Social Work with a minor is Social Justice and Peace Studies from the University of Portland, Oregon. Her primary areas of interest are Christian Social Ethics, Eco-Feminist Theology, Mental Health and issues of Aging. In her free time, she enjoys traveling the world, walking labyrinths, singing, and laughing with friends. Her favorite saints are Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.