“I don’t understand how you reconcile those two.”

Another person writes to me to ask how a nice progressive person like me could join the (gasp!) Catholic Church…

Dear Mr. McColman,
I read an article about how you were a liberal Christian and have joined the Catholic Church. I don’t understand how you reconcile those two. The Catholic Church is one of the most conservative churches in Christianity. They still refuse to allow women to become priests and their moral teachings are much closer to what Jerry Falwell taught than liberal Christianity.

My reply:

Dear Will,
You’re absolutely right about the current state of Catholicism — which is one reason why the Catholic Church needs members like you and me — people who will pray and work for the renewal of the church so that true justice may flow like a river within it. I’ve come to believe that there is no such thing as a “perfect” church or religious group and so each person must choose his or her community of faith based on a) where we believe we are called to be, and b) the yearning of our own heart. I was drawn to the Catholic faith because of my love for contemplative spirituality and monasticism. While, like you, I believe that Christianity is called to be non-sexist (and I would add, non-racist and non-homophobic), I decided I would “live with” the Catholic church’s ongoing sexism and homophobia, even though I personally disagree with it. Since becoming a Catholic, I’ve learned that there are many Catholics who feel like I do, which gives me hope that someday the church will change.
Many blessings,

Of course, the kicker is, I don’t understand how I reconcile an inclusive conscience with the Catholic faith either. I just know that this is where I’m called to be — even though many conservative Catholics would insist I have a defective conscience, and many progressives would insist that I’ve betrayed my conscience by becoming Catholic. Thankfully, since there’s no way I can please both my liberal non-Catholic friends and my conservative Catholic friends, I’ve pretty much given up trying to please any of them. All I know is that, in Christ, “we enjoy our freedom … and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:14, 17). All things held together in freedom: even a postpatriarchal conscience with a thirst for contemplative waters and a church with a grand mystical tradition and a deeply wounded/wounding current leadership.

Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Pentecost and Ecstasy
What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Dave O

    I have sympathy for one who’d want to be Catholic these days (as I do for anyone who tries with honesty and love to make it in organized religion of some other varieties too). I see the whole tradition as mostly corrupt–throughout history–but within it there were people who made their way to God with love and humility. They’re worthy of emulation, and they got holy and transparent by being Christians, Catholics, rather than in spite of that. One who sets himself on the path of emulating them can honestly want to be there with them “institutionally,” to benefit from all the great and subtle gifts of the Tradition.
    There are several different approaches the honest person can take toward organized religion these days, including Catholicism, that can be respected, and that includes “joining up,” though I also believe the honest person who joins up will necessarily be confronted with conflict and the need to come up against the institutions in unpleasant ways. And will find it necessary to bear witness against falsehood found there. They have a better voice that way, and can be a better force for change.
    Another respected option has to be to be outside the institution. If this can be done with humility and respect, I think it’s good. That’s more or less where I am. Simone Weil serves as a pretty good model for this position. Someone who, while remaining outside the church as a witness to all its sins, yet was in some ways a humbler daughter of it than a lot of real Catholics. She’s not a perfect model, but a pretty good one.
    A question must remain if you’re in the church: How bad does it have to get before I’m out? You see people teetering there a lot. Also: Is it worse now than it has been before? Will it recover? To my mind, Catholicism is getting worse than before. More constricted, more closed-minded, more authoritarian.
    I was saddened after reading a very good book a couple years back: THE LIFE YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN by Paul Elie (title, weirdly, based on Flannery O’Connor’s story..). A parallel biography of four influential mid-20th-century catholics: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. A very inspring book, and very well done. But the sadness came with realizing there’s no one like them in the Catholic Church any more. No one with that level of thoughtfulness, or especially that kind of influence, that level of engagement with the world on various levels. It feels like anyone of their stature is now doing it outside the church.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    The Life You Save May Be Your Own is a wonderful book, and the monastery where I work is mentioned numerous times in it. Flannery O’Connor lived not far from here, and actually bequeathed 1/3 of her peacock herd to the monastery when she died. I understand your sadness, but I think we should be slow to give up hope. My guess is that the Flannery O’Connors and the Thomas Mertons and the Dorothy Days of the future may not look anything like what we expect them to look like. We’ll just have to keep our eyes peeled. Meanwhile, I agree about your comment that sometimes the most faithful place to be is outside the church: that’s a big clue to how I reconcile my pagan past with my Catholic present (and my unknown future…).

  • Dave O

    Of course the next O’Connor or Merton will be surprising–just like they were unique in the face of anything that came before. I just suspect that, because of the backward, clenching down movement going on now in Catholicism, that they won’t likley be Catholic. There are certainly now Catholics as thoughtful, forthright, holy, etc. as the four subjects of Elie’s book, but among those “good” Catholics, the ones who are public figures can’t have the influence of a Merton or Dorothy Day. And that’s because the Church is closing off the larger culture, insulating itself against it instead of engaging it. People like Joan Chittister for example are wonderful, but not influential outside certain Catholic circles.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    I hear what you’re saying. And these are issues I think about a lot: my agent and I don’t even expect to shop my next book to Catholic publishers — we’re much more interested in ecumenical or interfaith publishers like Skylight Paths, New Seeds or Paraclete. I had such a bad experience being pigeonholed as a Pagan author, that the last thing I want now is to become trammelled by a reputation as a Catholic author. But that’s not entirely Catholicism’s fault, either. I think we’re moving into a time when many of the most creative spiritual minds (think Wilber and Tolle) resist any sort of ecclesial classification. As a writer who happens to love being Catholic, I know that who I am differs considerably from being a “Catholic writer.” Today the most influential Catholic authors are people like Scott Hahn and Mother Angelica – ’nuff said. As you rightly observe, the really creative juices seem to be flowing elsewhere. But still… I don’t want to lose hope that another John XXIII will come along — he, after all, was the pope at the time when all four the authors Paul Elie chronicles were at the height of their influence. I think it will be at least another twenty years. Right now Catholicism is held in a stranglehold by those who resent and fear what Vatican II almost accomplished. Not until that generation of resentment dies off will there be hope for more forward movement. Eventually it will come. Ultimately I believe the Holy Spirit trumps even the most centralized of human power bases!

  • http://dangerousangel.wordpress.com/ Ariel

    Just wanted to say how much I enjoy reading your blog and respect your thoughtful take on things. For a number of reasons, I’ve chosen to out of “membership” in any particular religious institution, but fully understand the beauty and inspiration that can be found within an established tradition.

    I cheer on anyone who can work for greater openness and understanding from within the system. It is a cross that not all of us can carry, or perhaps are simply not called to. Many blessings as you continue to chart your own course along that Path of the Heart where mystics of all varieties can meet and pray and sing together.

  • Leon

    I appreciate your approach, Carl.
    The burden on my heart has been for awhile to teach, and preach the Scriptural truth that, Look in the mirror, brother, you are the Church.
    I put this in a group blog recently (last night):
    “There are two kinds of churches:
    1) Original;
    2) Extra-crispy.

    Just kiddin’

    Seriously, Scripture states: “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, through all, and in you all.”- Eph 4:4-6.

    This is irrespective of denominational affiliation. This is irrespective of man and his traditions or his non-traditions, irrespective of his church councils or synods.

    In what is it respective? Do you believe on Jesus Christ as the Son of God (Rom 10:9)?
    Have you believed on Jesus unto eternal life (Jn 20.31)?

    Then, “of him are ye in Christ Jesus”- 1Cor 1:30a. Baptized into His body, you have become members of His Church, the Body of Christ (1Cor 12:12-14, 27).

    The Church is Christ His body, of His flesh, and of His bones (Eph 5:30-32).

    To those who so believe in Jesus, you are the Church.”

    The time will come, perhaps, when we will leave the exoteric organizations (at least in heart) in favor of the mystical Body of Christ we have been baptized into. For there we share a true oneness apart from liturgical methodologies, and the non-fundamental doctrines Christians usually fight over.
    Though I am not advocating some spiritual “Summer of Love” of ecclesiastical anarchy. For as the body has a natural governmental structure, so to does the Church, in spite of herself (1Cor 12:7-11,28-30; Eph 4:11-13; see also Didache xi). And I am not talking about doctoral degrees, or human commissions, necessarily. But the Holy Spirit defines a natural hierarchy (forgive the term), or spiritual governmental structure automatically when even 2 or 3 gather in His name (Mt 18:20): you’ll have Christ as the head, and then believers will follow suite based on their maturity in the Spirit, and, or giftings and callings.
    This is not a situation that is in the future, nor even utopia-like hopeful thinking, but is true now, as it was when Christ promised that the gates of hades would not prevail against her (Mt 16:18).

    Peace, and blessings.