Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Elizabeth Scalia (a.k.a., The Anchoress) recently invited the general Catholic blogging world to reflect on why they remain Catholic. This response was inspired by the rather dire Pew numbers relative to those who have left the Church. So, I thought I’d try to answer the question to join in with the general blogging world.
In some ways, it is impossible to answer this question without attention to one’s biography. I’m a millennial Catholic (barely), whose formative experience of Catholicism occurred in the Diocese of Knoxville. In my little parish in Alcoa, TN (Our Lady of Fatima), I was introduced very early on to a wide swath of Catholic liturgical practice and service. Within a month of joining our parish, it became clear that everyone knew who we were. Arriving with little money to Tennessee, we were greeted that first Christmas with gifts and foods by the parish hospitality committee. And I immediately found opportunities to become involved as a young man including serving on the altar, acting as a catechist’s assistant to my grandmother, and becoming a far too active (and annoying) member of the youth group.
It was through my parish’s youth program where I encountered the fullness of what it means to be Catholic. My parish youth group was never oriented toward emotional manipulation. In fact, there was something deeply holistic about youth ministry in this Diocese. We spent summers praying with the monks of St. Bernard’s Abbey in Cullman, Alabama, as well as taking classes in Scriptural interpretation, Eucharistic theology, and how to facilitate a decent retreat. Through my experience in youth ministry, I believed that I had a vocation to the priesthood, somehow ending up as an undergraduate seminarian in the Congregation of Holy Cross at the University of Notre Dame.
If the Diocese of Knoxville passed on to me a robust Catholic faith, it was nurtured at the University of Notre Dame in Old College. I encountered homilies from Fr. Charlie Gordon that broadened my Scriptural and sacramental imagination. The daily practice of praying the Office formed me away from the expectation that Catholic existence consists of constant feelings of total divine union. I learned that faithful Catholicism is a good deal about showing up and engaging in those practices that make one Catholic; to learn the grammar of the Church’s prayer, allowing it to change one’s whole identity. Though I did not eventually become a priest in Holy Cross, I did learn the salutary nature of Catholic practice. The way that showing up, even when you don’t want to, can be the path to salvation.
In the classroom, I was deeply formed in the gift of the Catholic theological and intellectual tradition. John Cavadini, my first theology professor, showed me that faith and reason were not incompatible; and that it was not simply possible but salutary to devote one’s reason to seeking God. From there, I discovered in Catholicism not simply one system of ideas, one option for assembling a coherent account of Christian doctrine. Rather, in Catholicism, I discerned the possibility of a tradition in which literature, science, music, philosophy, theology, politics, art, and all those disciplines that are part of what it means to know as a human being can reveal the splendor of God’s creation.
There were moments in my life in which the “Catholic faith” was put in question. While studying abroad in London my junior year, I began for the first time to consider the attraction of “High Church” Anglicanism, precisely because I was moved by the aesthetic dimension of this prayer. I discovered those who did not believe, and I began to wonder if this was indeed an option for me as well. During my doctoral studies in theology at Boston College, I wondered on a number of occasions if what I was studying was in fact “real.” That is, if God didn’t really exist, then was not the study of God a kind of waste of time? These latter questions often surfaced in the midst of times in which my prayer life was absent, in which I found myself virtually separate from the parish community.
Of course, the most challenging moment of my life (thus far) has been the struggle with infertility, a topic I have written often enough. It was never the Church’s teaching that was a challenge to me. Rather, it was the sense that though I prayed and prayed and prayed for a child, I heard nothing but absence. More could be said about this, but only later, did I realize that through the mystery of Divine Providence that I was being formed for a deeper capacity to love, one that the richness of the Catholic Eucharistic life made possible.
Yet, it was not until I was in the midst of teaching Henri de Lubac’s Catholicism that I had quite the right reason for why I remained Catholic. Quoting de Lubac:
She is the Catholic Church: neither Latin nor Greek, but universal. Heir to the Catholica bonitas [Catholic goodness] of God himself she ever proclaims, as in St. Augustine’s time: Ego in omnibus linguis sum; mea est graeca, mea est syra, mea est hebraea, mea est omnium gentium, quia in unitate sum omnium gentium [I am in all tongues; mine is Greek, mine is Syriac, mine is Hebrew, mine is the language of all the nations for I am in the unity of all nations]. Nothing authentically human, whatever its origin, can be alien to her. ‘The heritage of all peoples is her inalienable dowry.’ In her, man’s desires and God’s have their meeting-place, and by teaching all men their obligations she wishes at the same time to satisfy and more than satisfy the yearnings of each soul and of every age; to gather in everything for its salvation and sanctification…there is nothing good which Catholicism cannot claim for its own. To see in Catholicism one religion among others, one system among others, even if it be added that it is the only true religion, the only system that works, is to mistake its very nature, or at least to stop at the threshold. Catholicism is religion itself. It is the form that humanity must put on in order finally to be itself [my emphasis].
I am Catholic not because I find Catholicism to be the “optimal” religious system. Indeed, I am often disappointed in her leaders (both lay and cleric). I’m not always inspired by the homilies I hear preached. I wish that there was greater attention paid to the art of liturgical practice. I surely could imagine a Church in which there was not quite so much involvement in the party politics, whether that be Republican or Democratic. But, in Catholicism, I become something more than myself. I become part of that transformation of humanity, which is the destiny of all humankind. We are not made for division, we are not made for in-fighting. We are made to be one in the unity of the triune God, who is love. And every time we gather together to celebrate the Eucharist within the Church, this reality of unity comes into being.
In other words, I remain Catholic because when I am saved, when I enjoy the fullness of the beatific vision, it will not be as an individual, who has employed private judgment. It will be as a member of a body of believers, whose vocation is simply to love. To love with perfection as one single body of divine praise. To separate from this body would be, for me, to give up on the hope that one day all will be one. It would be to give up on that salutary art of giving up my own will to a tradition that will exist long after I pass on.
To be Catholic, then, is not to belong to one religious denomination among others. It is to practice being fully human, letting the entirety of our lives as a social body be a fragrant offering of love to the triune God. This is not always an easy task. There is sin along the way by all of us, who pilgrim along the way. But, where else can I turn not simply for my own salvation but to the very salvation of the world, where all humanity will be made one. Where all my tendency to sin, to introduce disunity in the world, is slowly erased through the practice of loving all those who belong to this body of wounded lovers. That’s why I remain Catholic.