Walk with me through some possibly ill-formed and definitely ill-informed thoughts about what it means to profess one’s faith. I had to do this when I was becoming Catholic–I think this took place during Confirmation? probably that’s wrong–and there was a set formula which I always misremember but which was probably actually, “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.”
What (on earth) did I mean? What should I have meant?
My impression is that a lot of non-Catholics are really turned off by this whole idea of the profession of faith, because it comes across to them as box-ticking. “I have read and agreed to the Terms of Service, can I please have the Body and Blood of Christ now?” Moreover, I think they often envision a suppression of conscience, a blank refusal to ask any more questions. I’m sure that the specific metaphors I use for my own conversion, e.g. surrender or “suspension of disbelief,” contribute to this negative impression. Or else they may imagine a kind of Jesuitical gamesmanship, “You must be this surrendered to ride this ride”; how much dissent can I get away with?
None of this is really how I was thinking–to the extent that I was thinking–I’m pretty sure. For me the profession of faith was about trust and about my desire to enter into an ongoing relationship with God in the Catholic Church, a relationship which I hoped and feared would change me. I was indicating a willingness: an attitude, a stance. I was affirming that I did trust the Church to teach even when I didn’t understand those teachings, and promising to be passionate in my submission and humble in my disagreement.
(I mean, I couldn’t’ve meant that I really had read and agreed to the TOS because, like, I never did the reading for RCIA. I’ve still only read about 10% of the catechism. But I’ve read that 10% a whole bunch of times!)
It’s possible to (think that you) have complete, heartfelt intellectual agreement with every inch of the Church’s teaching, and make your profession of faith with gusto, and still lack this essential attitude or stance of trust and surrender. I know, because I’m so awesome that I was simultaneously a querulous Poster Child for the Unconvinced and also an obnoxious, God-bothering convert. (Let’s never be undergraduates again.) I came across as owning my beliefs and my faith rather than always receiving them from Christ’s hands; I treated them as my possessions, which I really wanted to press upon you, out of the goodness of my shiny little heart. The person in this state of mind can “tick the box” of the profession of faith just fine, without ever genuinely submitting or accepting the Church as a mother.
As I said above, I think I was able to muster enough genuine surrender that my profession of faith wasn’t begrudging, hedging, spiritually or intellectually prideful, or rulebound. I think I did what I should have done, for freaking once: I entered into a relationship which I knew I was much too immature to understand, and I let that relationship change me. I let my doubts and disagreements be things I wrestled with and worked out within the Church.
What that attitude looks like will differ from person to person. Priests and sponsors may have to make tough judgment calls about whether they see obedience and humility in attitude (or desire for obedience and humility, which is probably more common), even when the content of a person’s beliefs is still being worked out. I at least would strongly suggest that if you’re not another person’s priest or sponsor, you don’t know if they’re ready to profess the faith. You don’t know where they’re coming from, how far they have come, or how much they’re trying to say a full-throated “yes” to Christ and the Church. We are all in an ongoing process of being conformed to Christ; baptism and confirmation come at some point in that process but figuring out when someone else is “close enough” is not, I think, my job.
Practicing Christianity–even when you’re real bad at it, and need lots of practice–changes you. Getting into the trench changes the direction of your life. This is a pretty intense story of how 12-Step spirituality gradually changed a woman’s life, even in areas where she initially didn’t want it to–but she wanted to be fully within the program, to submit herself to its guidance, and that attitude of openness and willingness took her a lot further than she’d wanted. I recognize both her willingness, and her kind of catawampus and slow-release attempts to live according to the authority she trusted, from my own confirmation.