May I ask, in your return to Christianity, why did you go to Roman Catholicism instead of,say, Eastern Orthodoxy or pre-Roman Irish Christianity?
I’ve seemed to mirror your journey fairly closely, but I cannot be Catholic. I admire much about it, don’t misunderstand me, but I cannot embrace a Pope or intermediaries between my God and I. I am very close to Sophia as my Goddess figure, and Brede has been a great mentor to me, but I am very clearly Christian. I used to call myself a Christo-Pagan until I learned my ‘Pagan’ leanings were very clearly part of early Christianity.
First of all, thanks for your question and welcome to LiveJournal. My answer to your question is rather complex, with pragmatic and cultural reasons as well as spiritual reasons. I don’t really address Sophia or Brede in my answer, so let me say up front to Liadan: how wonderful it is to meet someone with a clear sense of the Divine Feminine informing their faith as a Christian. We’re not alone (although our numbers are rather small). I hope we get to know each other.
First, the pragmatic. We have a Catholic church with liberal clergy just a few miles from our home. It is a culturally and racially diverse community (at the Feast of Corpus Christi it was noted that ninety nationalities are represented in our parish), with wonderful priests who have a clear sense of the spirit of Vatican II, a relatively good music program (especially for a Catholic Church) and wheelchair accessibility (my stepdaughter is handicapped). So that all works well. In Atlanta, the Catholic Church has some wonderful resources for contemplatives, including a Jesuit Retreat House and a Trappist Monastery. Now granted, both the Jesuits and the Trappists tend to be very welcoming to non-Catholics, so joining the church was not a prerequisite to participating in their ministries. But I felt a desire to be part of their tribe. Finally, my wife and I cherish Sunday mornings as a time for sleeping in, relaxing, fixing a big pancake breakfast. The fact that American Catholic Churches typically offer a Saturday vigil mass has, on purely practical terms, been a big draw.
Now, as for cultural reasons. First I should say, in feeling the call to return to Christianity, there are only three churches I would ever seriously consider: Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican. Yes, I could feel at home with the theology of some liberal Protestant churches, or cherish the rich silence of Quakerism, or be intellectualy stimulated by the Unitarians. But at heart, I’m a ritualist, a sacramentalist, and mystical in my theological sensibilities. Culturally speaking, I didn’t consider Orthodoxy since my own heritage is western European; so I feel more of a cultural kinship with Catholicism and Anglicanism. My ancestors come from Scotland and England, not Russia or Greece. This is not meant to knock Orthodoxy or to dismiss its contributions to the Christian tradition (just this week I bought a book called The Spirituality of the Christian East by Tomás Spidlík). And truth be told, if at some point I feel that I cannot in good conscience remain a Catholic, I think I’ll head east before reverting to Protestantism.
As for Anglicanism, well I was a practicing Episcopalian for about ten years. I truly admire the courage with which the ECUSA and some other Anglican Churches are ordaining gay clergy and bishops, and I feel at home with the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. It would have been much simpler for me to remain an Episcopalian (in their eyes, I never really left the church, I had just become inactive!). I have a warm relationship with both clergy and parishioners at my old Episcopal Church, and when I go there to visit which I do from time to time, they always say “We’ll take you back whenever you’re ready.” But… there’s also some water under the bridge with me and Anglicanism. I’m a blue collar boy, and I never got over feeling uncomfortable with the tony Episcopalians. I know that’s my fault, not theirs, but it’s still a reality. As an Episcopalian I was always very much an Anglo-Catholic, and I could never quite shake the feeling that we were all Catholic wannabes. So at this point in my journey I figured I would just stop being a wannabe and go straight to the source. Finally, it’s important to note that much of my inspiration to return to Christian practice came out of Ireland, and out of meeting Catholics in Ireland and participating in their folk rituals and traditions. Choosing Catholicism over Angicanism was therefore parallel to deciding to purchase a home in Ireland rather than England (and yes, I could move to England in a heartbeat, but if I had to choose, I’d choose Ireland. So the same goes for my religious preference).
And now, for my spiritual reasons for becoming a Catholic. I’ll approach this angle by first addressing your question about why I didn’t just adopt “pre-Roman Irish Christianity.” Well, spiritually speaking, I think that’s precisely what I am attempting to do. But the last time I checked, there were no “pre-Roman Irish Churches” in the phone book. So I had to plug my spiritual quest in somewhere. Since pragmatically and culturally I feel at home in Catholicism, it seems to be the best place to plug in. And, spiritually, I have a clear sense that no matter where I go to church, part of my journey will be learning to remain faithful to my spiritual call regardless of what tensions I may feel with the exoteric structure of the church. In other words, I want mystical Christianity; I want a place where I can express my devotion to Mary and the Saints; I want a setting for where I can work out what it means to integrate “Celtic wisdom” with Christian practice. Every Christian Church will be an imperfect place to work out these issues. Even if I started my own splinter church, or joined an existing splinter church like the Celtic Catholic Church, I fear that it’s inevitable that sooner or later my church will let me down. So part of my journey is learning to be true to my inner vision, while also learning to be realistic in terms of how I deal with whatever community I’m a part of.
As someone returning to Christianity after a seven-year hiatus, I needed a new start. I knew that I could only survive in Christianity now if I looked for a spiritual director with whom I could be honest about my pagan work (I’m currently considering a Jesuit who knows my whole story). Since part of my reason for growing disillusioned with paganism was feeling alienated from its factionalism and cultural suspicion (“We’re Druids, so don’t talk about Greek gods to us!”), I wanted a church that reached across cultural and ethnic boundaries. Again and again, my spiritual needs seemed to be impelling me to Catholicism.
By now, many of my readers will feel a big huge “but!” forming on their lips. And yes, let’s go there:
“But, Carl… why join a church that is so hostile to women, let alone LBGs or gender/sexual minorities? Why join a church whose answer to clergy sex abuse is to initiate a witch hunt against its gay priests? Or that would rather let the clergy shortage continue unabated rather than begin ordaining women or non-celibates? Why join a church with such inflexible practices regarding divorce and remarriage, or that encourages hypocrisy with its inflexible teachings regarding abortion and birth control?”
We have a theme here. Most of the Catholic Church’s truly hot-button issues revolve around — ta da! — sex. And my response is truly simple. I am a Catholic in spite of the church’s mishandling of issues relating to sex and gender, not because of them. I join in solidarity with tens of thousands of faithful and committed Catholics who are working in hostile conditions to change the church’s dysfunctional and self-sabotaging policies (which also includes fighting Rome’s near-total control of the Bishop selection process and the lack of governing power among the laity). Because I love Christian mysticism and because I love so much of the sacramental and liturgical culture of Catholicism, it is my privilege to join the ranks of progressive Catholics who stay behind enemy lines and fight for what they believe is right. The Catholic church will be hostile to women or gays with or without me as a member. But as a married man, at least those guns aren’t pointed directly at me, which leaves me free to (hopefully) make a difference, energetically and maybe even politically, as a Catholic who supports progressive change. As I’ve said in this journal before, in becoming a Catholic, I knew ahead of time that I was becoming a dissident Catholic. Well, as long as I am faithful to my conscience and to where I believe God is calling me, so be it. And so what if the hierarchy doesn’t like it? All they can do is excommunicate me (which I doubt will happen, but if it does, I’ll either become Orthodox or Anglican).
In closing, let me address the question of the “Pope or intermediaries.” I think the intermediary question is really just a metaphor for the entire problem of how to balance personal spirituality with community involvement. As I said above, every community is flawed and will sooner or later fail its members in one way or another (this is not exclusive to Christianity, by the way). Catholicism is a huge organization with a massive history and culture, and so its problems are correspondingly vast. But its vastness is also an advantage, for it’s easier for someone like me to fly below the radar, and I have plenty of room to play in its multi-faceted spiritual nooks and crannies. Yes, one of its problems is that it has a high theology of the priesthood that suggests the clergy somehow come between the people and God. But even that is changing. Before Vatican II, the priest always stood between the altar and the laity. Now, when the priest celebrates mass, he stands behind the altar, facing it — and the people. So it’s just as true, liturgically speaking, to now say: “God comes between me and my priest!” How do I interpret this? Once again, no matter what the church may say about the Pope’s or the clergy’s privilege, I must remain true to my conscience and to where I believe God is leading me — and the church. That’s what truly matters.
Gee, I could go on and on, but this is way overlong already, so I’ll shut up now. I hope it’s been helpful, and I invite your comments.