The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Why I'm Catholic

I have often felt the need to explain--and understand--why I am Catholic. I am not sure why.

Many reject the Catholic Church over its policies regarding women or homosexuals. Many reject the way the Church conducts itself in scandals or hypocrisy. Many don't believe in this or that dogma. I have always thought of myself as a natural candidate for the improvisational nature of Protestant worship and the progressive church structures of certain denominations. All those are very understandable positions, but for me they don't quite say it.

This isn't to say that there isn't anything obviously good about the Catholic faith, because there most certainly is. I'd be glad to talk about that. But in a culture where being Catholic can be an unpopular thing, where there are some very obvious parts of the Catholic Church that are quite uncomfortable, where there is much public attention on the faults of the Church and misunderstandings galore, I feel the need to say something.

Unfortunately, I may have to defer to the words of someone else, but I think these words do justice to what I'm trying to describe. Here is what Andrew Greeley has to say about the Catholic Imagination:

The Catholic "classics" assume a God who is present in the world, disclosing Himself in and through creation. The world and all its events, objects, and people tend to be somewhat like God. The Protestant classics, on the other hand, assume a God who is radically absent from the world, and who discloses (Himself) only on rare occasions (especially in Jesus Christ and Him crucified). The world and all its events, objects, and people tend to be radically different from God.

The downside of this quote is that is sets up a dichotomy between a Catholic worldview and a Protestant one. Those are not the only two religious options out there. Furthermore, each denomination or individual person may find themselves embodying a blend of the above criteria, so a comparison like this will always seem unfair and possibly divisive. However, for the sake of discussion, I think this dichotomy is useful, at least as a starting point. What I do like about this quote is that it shows that what it means to be a Catholic (or Protestant) goes much deeper than a particular rule or the Church's administrative structure. It has to do with how we relate to the world and how we imagine God to be present (as a side note, the rules and administrative structures should reflect this worldview, but that is a discussion for another day).

There is lot between the two camps that is very similar. The two traditions don't disagree on much, as far as basic dogma goes. Even most educated Catholics will say that Luther got it right--with conditions. It all starts from Faith. Period. One very important caveat is that Catholics see Faith, Hope and Love as one single gift of Grace. In other words, a person who has Faith will also have Hope and Love (works), too. You can't have one without the others. However, Protestants don't necessarily disagree with this, either. Most people may be surprised to find out that Catholics and Lutherans have issued joint statements in recent years stating that there are no major differences in their respective theologies on justification. How about that!

We also have in common the belief that all goodness comes from God. Our total dependence on God is probably the purest and most singular message in all of the Biblical and Church traditions: It's in the Psalms. It's in the Gospels. It's at the core of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and on down the line. The Church Fathers went to great lengths and great pains to maintain this distinction.

Greeley's quote, however, captures the essence of what is actually a pretty huge divide between Catholics and Protestants. What is different is how this relatively singular theology has come to be distilled through centuries of diverse culture and tradition. Protestants have taken this dependence on God to a different logical conclusion and a very different worldview unfolds as a result.

Protestants are focused on the relationship of the individual to God. To some denominations, everything hinges on this personal relationship. No Catholic would ever doubt that our God is unbelievably personal. However, Catholics are steeped in the Aquinas worldview that sees all of Creation as part of the unfolding of Grace. Our theology involves the whole Cosmos. Protestants, focusing on the idea that all goodness comes from God, have ended up seeing Creation as absent God and as a result not something to worry about. The world is simply the setting and the scenery. If you take this to Calvinist extremes, you can find yourself talking about the sheer depravity of all Creation and hating all that is here on the Earth, including yourself. To Protestants, the world is an alien land--get to know Jesus and forget the rest--grab his hand and hold on for dear life. Anything else is distraction, or even worse, a possible lure away from Jesus and, by extension, salvation.

To Catholics, the world is an access point to God--as evidenced in the theology of the Incarnation. God has come in human form, and the people of faith comprise the Body of Christ. We seem more willing to see the Mystery of the Incarnation as something of an ever-present reality, rather than just a one-shot deal with the person of Jesus.

Catholics are sacramental. I have to take this moment to tell my Protestant friends that you won't understand Catholics without understanding what it means to be sacramental. In the sacraments, the mundane becomes a way to touch God, to grab a hem of His garment. The bread & wine are the Body and Blood of Jesus. The waters of Baptism and the oils of Confirmation are ways that God touches us--for real. It is not just an abstract metaphor, but rather it is as real as the dirt under our feet. It is as ordinary--and extraordinary--as that. The "official" sacraments like (Baptism and Eucharist) lead us into an overall sacramental way of thinking. We see grace in and through Creation. The world can be blessed. God can come to us in bread, wine, water, and in the laying on of hands. The world is not a distraction but rather a place to learn about God, a place to touch God. The world is not God, but the world can show us something about God, and God can be present in this world.

Our Church experience is radically different than a Protestant service. For us, going to Communion is the climax of the service. The experiential nature of consuming the bread and wine and sharing a corporeal closeness with our Creator and Redeemer is what happens at Mass. Sometimes, we don't even have a homily. We are immersed in churches with rich atmosphere, the smell of incense, the light peering through stained glass windows, the meditative chants. We feel the discomfort of the wood of the kneelers, we kiss the wood of the Cross. We see the beauty on the face of Mary on a well-carved statue and it tells us something about God. We are a very earthy people. Protestants are more into words and The Word--it is more cerebral and relational.

The Reformation debates over having religious statues probably represent this the best. Nothing on this earth can represent God to Protestants--many Evangelicals today don't even want to see Jesus depicted on the Cross. Putting Jesus here on earth is somehow missing the point for them. For Catholics, it is pure Incarnation--Emmanuel, which translates as "God with us." Protestants have worried that soaking up the spirituality through a statue will lead someone to worship a false idol by mistaking the statue for what it represents. But it goes deeper than that--the very idea that a statue--a piece of this world--could represent any form or aspect of God is itself an idea uncomfortable to many Protestants. To a Catholic, we see ourselves as earthly beings and are going to use earthly means to learn about God, and God will come to us in and through this world.

The end result is that Catholics have a culture that is sensual and earthy. God is in the mundane. We dance, we drink, we revel in beauty and drama. I think we allow ourselves to be human, trusting that God comes to us through our humanity. We still have to transcend this world at some point, but it is to us a fulfillment of our humanity more than it is a discarding of it.

You could say that we all run the risk of falling into so-called "heresies." Protestants are in danger of falling into Gnosticism, seeing God as totally apart from the world. Catholics are in danger of Pelagianism, thinking that there is some inherent goodness in Creation just by itself. Catholics can sometimes not be relational enough and end up downright formulaic. Catholic can become too concerned with the material trappings of the Church. Protestants can disrespect the earth, thinking it doesn't matter. Catholics can forget their dependence on God. There are pitfalls no matter which way you go. Neither tradition affirms these heresies, but both can run the risk of leaning these ways.

These distinctions go further. There are ways in which these traditions nurture either individualism or a community vision. Catholics tend to have more of a community orientation. One could also argue that the Calvinist idea of the predestination of the Elect--even though it has been largely rejected--is still is a driving force in society and have generated an anxiety and a level of industriousness that is unhealthy. I'll leave it at that and might discuss these in more detail at another time. For the moment, I just want to say that these aspects also influence my Catholic identity.

I have mixed feelings about weighing my Catholicity in opposition to another tradition, in this case Protestantism. Maybe that's an antagonistic way to go about it. I could have written another post about being Catholic vs. Buddhist. While I have been enormously enriched by ecumenical dialogue and worship, while I can't imagine life without members of other faiths around me, at my core I have never really felt myself swayed by other faiths. The answer lies--at least the starting point--somewhere in this discussion.


  1. I originally wrote:

    "I think we allow ourselves to be human, trusting that God comes to us through our humanity. "

    Maybe I should have said:

    "Our humanity is part of our spirituality, not something that gets in the way of our spirituality."

  2. Thanks for sharing your feelings about this. I have a friend who was brought up in the Catholic Church, wandered around in various Protestant churches for a while, and then returned to the Catholic Church even though she disagreed with the official positions of the church on such things homosexuality and the role of women. For her, Catholic worship what she grew up with and it felt like home to her. I can appreciate and respect the things about Catholic worship that appeal to many people, especially those brought up Catholic, even if it doesn't have appeal for someone like me who was not brought up in the Catholic church.

    I think that non-Catholic churches can be sacramental but to varying degrees, ranging from the more highly sacramental Anglicans and Episcopalians all the way to the other extreme, the completely non-sacramental Quakers (or maybe one could say that Quakers think everything is a sacrament). I have an ambivalent relationship with sacraments myself--probably a result of my Protestant upbringing.

    The idea of the goodness of nature is something that Matthew Fox, who was once a Catholic, is very much a part of his Creation Spirituality. That same Catholic friend of mine once told me that you almost have to be Catholic to appreciate what he had to say, which is perhaps why, as much as I wanted to like his books, they never really spoke to me. The funny thing is that, as a panentheist, I am a strong believer that God is NOT separate from creation, and this is something that I agree with Fox on.

    The other comment I would make is that Fox's creation spirituality strikes me as standing opposed to the idea that human nature was tainted by original sin, which I was under the impression came originally out of Augustine. Also, I think that this love of nature seems to contrast a bit with am ambiguous approach towards sexuality, as manifested in Augustine as well as in certain doctrines and practices, such as priestly celibacy. I think that a true celebration of the glory of God's creation would not consider sexuality to be a distraction from the divine calling of priesthood, but rather a glorious manifestation of that creation of which sexuality is an essential part. My two cents worth, anyway.

    Your comment about community versus individual is a valid one. Protestantism is very individualistic, whereas Catholicism is institutional. I think both approaches have their pitfalls. For Catholicism, there is a belief that it alone has divinely sanctioned authority, and this is a sore point with Protestants. Many Protestants, on the other hand, take the sola scriptura doctrine as a substitute for institutional authority, and in my view that poses huge problems of its own. As a former Quaker, I can add that Quakers are also big on community, and their form of worship is built around the idea of communal mysticism, in which anyone and everyone can participate equally and contribute to the overall experience, and this extends to the use of non-hierarchical consensus as the basis of decision-making. Then again, Quakers think of themselves as neither Protestant nor Catholic.

    Anyway, those are just some random thoughts. Thanks again for sharing your views on this subject.

  3. I can understand where your friend is coming from, because there is a lot more than just adhereing to a set of beliefs and dogmas that make up a person's religious identity. Worship itself penetrates much deeper than our cognitive understanding of it. I would even argue you need to be immersed in that worship and tradition in order to then later understand the dogmas.

    Our Catholic style of worship lends itself to a sacramental way of looking at the world. We live in an "enchanted world" as Greeley writes. The world is alive with God. While God is the source of all goodness, Creation is sort-of good somehow, maybe because of God's panentheistic presence in it.

    Just like in a Bruce Springsteen song, something as ordinary as the slamming of a screen door can be a moment of profound grace and transformation. There has always been something absent in Protestant worship for me, as much as it has also awakened me to new things, as well. Debating what the hierarchy is doing or what this or that dogma says never gets at what to me is the fundamental differences. Catholic worships is as much about the atmosphere as the words spoken. I think Protestants, who are more oriented to a word sermon, maybe miss it because they are looking for the meaning somewhere else.

    I would argue with your notion of the Catholic Church as institutional. In some ways, I applaud the Catholic Church for not fading away into relativisim--seeing all religions as equal paths to the point where there is nothing special to claim for your own path anymore. I don't know what ecumenism is going to look like in the future, but I don't begrudge them to hold back a bit until it can be worked out more.

    The Cath Church's claim to exclusivity seems outreageous to the modern American mind, but you have to look a bit at history and the development of the tradition to understand where they're coming from. Is it really arrogant for the Church to think they are the heirs of the institution began by the apostles themselves? Historically, there is pretty good evidence for it... no reason to think that other churches can't be somehow legitimate as well. It might be good to question who is telling you about the Catholic Church's claims to exclusivity, because it may be that you have just found yourself some fundamentalist Catholics because the documents of Vatican II, for example, are quite open to ecumenism.

    The comparison I wanted to make is that while Protestants are more individualistic, Catholics are more communitarian--not insitutional (although they can be that, too). Much has been written on this topic, good stuff by Presbyterian writer Robert Bellah on this.