Why Stay Catholic?

Gary Wills appeared on The Colbert Report last week, promoting his book, Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition. I agreed with everything he said, and it made me wonder, Why is he still Catholic?

In fact, I wonder that a lot. I met someone recently who said she wept when Ratzinger was elected pope — wept tears of sorrow. She now hopes the next pope will be more progressive. And all I wanted to say was, “You know, you can switch denominations.”

I get that there’s more to being Catholic than the doctrine and the hierarchy — for a lot of people there’s family and even ethnic ties involved. So I’m wondering if some of you readers can enlighten me: If you disagree with just about everything the Vatican does and says, why stay Catholic?

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  • I’m a Catholic who married a Lutheran and has since worshiped at protestant churches. My wife is mystified whenever I respond to the denomination question with Catholic. And I find protestants have difficulty understanding it in general. But the way I was raised in it, belonging was not about agreement, it was about community. And you can’t often move a community in a better direction by leaving it. The church changes glacially, but eventually you get even as big a change as agreeing with all of Martin Luther’s theses. And then there are those moments of inspiration, like the changes under John XXIII.

    What I disagree with Benedict on the most is his narrow doctrinally defined view of what it means to be catholic. He was the same as a cardinal, which is why I was so disappointed at his election. The idea of one church should be foundational. Even though I’m not expecting inspiration from the next pope, I can hope for it.

  • I listened to Doug’s interview with Chris Haw, and then I started reading his book. I’ve been told by many people over the last few years that my “the church is too corrupt” argument doesn’t work – not specifically the Catholic Church, but the Christian church in general. But, what made Chris’ argument interesting was that he basically said the extreme corruption of the Catholic Church is one of the main reasons he became a Catholic. I still don’t get this. But, I guess you could apply the logic of “it’s too corrupt” to almost anything. I’m still holding onto the uniqueness of the argument in relation to religion/spirituality because “going to church” is not the same as going to Wal-Mart, or a public school – at least for me. But. maybe for some people church is very much about “consumption” that the corruption doesn’t matter. I was never a very good church consumer – I had to participate, to contribute, and what I consistently saw was more negative than positive. So, I’m holding on to my argument, despite what Lillian Daniel is trying to say. 🙂

  • I grew up “half-Catholic” (one parent was Catholic, the other was not; I usually went to both churches every week). Because I spent so much of my life invested in it, I did feel some guilt when, as an adult, I chose another denomination. I think that can happen with any denomination, really. If you do not have many choices and that is all you know, you wouldn’t necessarily think to leave. While I don’t consider myself Catholic anymore (technically, I probably am since I was baptized and confirmed), when I have attended mass at times in the last few years, it has felt very peaceful to me. So in one way, I hold on to the Catholic part of my roots because it has helped to form me into who I am today. I didn’t have any bad experiences with it and so I can appreciate it. And, when I thought about it one day, I realized that while many people talk about “works” regarding the Catholic church, what I took away from it was *belief*, due to saying the Nicene Creed each week.

  • spinkham

    I hate to just drop a book as response, but it’s a really complicated answer.

    Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind should be required reading for, well, everyone IMHO. 😉

    Most relevant tidbit: For many people, “loyalty/betrayal”, “authority/subversion”, and “sanctity/degradation” are just as important moral considerations as “care/harm”, “liberty/oppression”, and “fairness/cheating” are. For some of those people, the Catholic Church is the defining center of many of their moral emotions, and they won’t be overridden easily by even clear failures in one or two of those moral categories, as the rest cohere and they are able to lawyer up reasons to explain the emotive, moral feelings that make them want to remain.

  • Because I genuinely believe in the sacraments. Their administers may be corrupt, I may disagree with aspects of the institution, I may long for certain things to change, but in my heart of hearts I believe in the Eucharist.

    I believe that the doctrines and theology aren’t so much the problem. It’s the way they’re taught, interpreted, and disseminated that’s the issue. I love my church enough to hope beyond hope that someday that will change, and I’d rather face persecution from both sides by staying and fighting than fleeing to another denomination.

    Transubstantiation, y’all.

    • Kassie… So do you “believe” that the sacraments can only be “performed” through a Catholic church? Or, do you think there is a spectrum of orthopraxy along which churches administer the sacraments? Do you have to “believe” in transubstantiation for it to be “effective”?

      • Different views of sacraments are one of the primary reasons that denominations exist. There is not doubt that nobody gives Eucharist like the Catholics. And nobody baptizes like the Mormons. And so on.

        It is probably more than a specific sacrament that keeps many Catholics Catholic. Sacrament is not the reason I have chosen my religion. But if sacrament were that important to a person, it certainly would dictate one’s choice of denomination.

  • Sven

    A buddy of mine is a former Catholic (currently non-religious). Basically he considers non-Catholic Christianity to be an even bigger joke than Catholicism, based on the idea that Protestant denominations exist merely for personal convenience and theological laziness. While this is a deeply flawed view of Protestant theology, it would not surprise me if this viewpoint was widespread among Roman Catholics. They’ve been taught since birth that the Roman Catholic Church is the one true Church, and other denominations are just as misguided as completely different religions altogether. Some (but certainly not all) Protestant denominations have more perspective, since they are often splinter groups of splinter groups of Christianity. Other Protestant groups (Lutherans come to mind) are every bit as fervent in their rejection of other Christian faiths.

  • One’s choice of religion is not a purely intellectual exercise, like choosing an insurance policy. Neither is it purely an exercise in taste or preferences, like choosing new drapes.

    One’s choice of religion is deeply tied to one’s culture, history, and lived experience. It does not surprise me that people identify as Catholics even when they are fed up with the church, any more than people identify as Americans even when they are fed up with the country.

  • The answer is probably more simple than we make it out to be: Loyalty.

    Broken systems in one denomination are usually mirrored in others, if not in one area, then in another.

    And the solution of starting an independent movement is simply out of the question for those who cling to roots stretching back to Christ.

    It is the height of arrogance to declare an entire institution a failure because there has been a period of failure in the history of that institution.

    Renewal and revolution do not have to be mutually exclusive.

  • This question was raised on yesterday’s “Up with Chris Hays” as well, and the answer given by a National Catholic Reporter writer was quite moving. In a nutshell, it’s about the eucharistic and liturgical theology of the church, not the hierarchy and it’s malformed sense of authority.

  • Alan K

    Whenever the writer Walker Percy was asked this question, his reply always was “What else is there?”

  • I am not Catholic, but when I was a kid, my grandparents were not a fan of the pastor at their church. They didn’t leave because they saw it as their church, not his church. (And, indeed, the pastor has been replaced with a much better one but my grandmother is still there.) My friends who are Catholic seem to feel this same way, that there are problems now but that the church overall is their church and that they believe in the organization as something bigger.

  • Kathy Schiffer

    Because it’s true, Tony. Because it’s true.

    In my youth, I did a lot of church hopping. Eventually, I took seriously this message from Christ: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” Go ahead, read the Early Church Fathers: From the earliest times, the church believed that the successors of Peter (the popes) were protected from error by the Holy Spirit when they taught on matters of faith and morals.

    The fact that individuals (even the pope and bishops) are sinners is no impediment to faith; remember, Christ said that he came to call sinners. But he also said that he would send the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, who would preserve them from error. I’ll take that promise over the human reasoning presented in the teaching of pastors whose denominations were first created in the sixteenth century.

    • Being “protected from error” seems like a strange description of how the official teaching of the Catholic Church has changed over time – and how the seemingly inerrant current pope could have been wrong about his “until death” commitment to the office.

    • “From the earliest times, the church believed that the successors of Peter (the popes) were protected from error by the Holy Spirit when they taught on matters of faith and morals.” No. It was not formal doctrine of the RC Church until the 19th century. And the first four centuries of “popes” were named after their death, and were not known as such during their lifetimes nor was anyone in the Church regarded as having the kind of authority popes came to be regarded as having during the early centuries of the church.

      And on the question of priests raised in the original interview, there are indeed priests in the Christian church. There is a “royal priesthood” noted in scripture, but it is the whole body of Christ, not a special class of people.

    • Andrew K.

      Go ahead, read the Early Church Fathers: From the earliest times, the church believed that the successors of Peter (the popes) were protected from error by the Holy Spirit when they taught on matters of faith and morals.

      I just LOVE Kathy’s condescending tone! And I dispute the interpretation. SOME of the church fathers identified the Pope as a defining figure of the Church, but it is not likely they understood the Pope as being under any such special protection of the Holy Spirit. Also, if it was so self-evident, then the Great Schism of 1054 could not have happened.

      I would encourage Kathy to read more than just the church fathers.

    • Sven

      Not only is there zero evidence that Peter led the Church of Rome at any point, but Paul’s Letter to the Romans seems to be evidence against it. In it, Paul names a number of good and influential Christians in Rome. Peter is conspicuously absent.

      • Andrew K.

        To say nothing of the Book of Acts having the church look to James for leadership during the first council.

      • Danielle E.

        Why then, did Paul go to Rome?

        • Sven2547

          Upon his arrest in Jerusalem, Paul exercised his right at a citizen of the Empire to “appeal to Caesar”. That meant sending him to Rome.

    • Adrenalin Tim

      he also said that he would send the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, who would preserve them from error

      It would sure be nice if that included “preserving” them from the error of becoming a multi-generational criminal conspiracy to facilitate, enable, and cover up the rape and torture of children.

      That’s rather an important factor to me in gauging whether a given organization is, in fact, the pillar and ground of all truth, the visual representation of Christ on earth.

  • Kathy Schiffer

    Rob, there is nothing which requires a pope to remain in office until death, although it is the norm in recent times. Besides Celestine V, who’s been in the news recently, there have been a number of popes who have left office. Benedict has broken with recent tradition (small “t”) bnut has ot broken any laws in the Church.

    And Church teaching has not changed over time. We may have deepened our understanding, popes have elaborated on a point, but there has never–that is, NEVER–been an instance when a pope has spoken infallibly and a later pontiff has said, “Oh, no, that was wrong….”

    By the way, bishops may sometimes speak privately, not in communion with the teaching Magisterium of the Church, and may make mistakes. So please don’t come back with examples of that, and try to apply them to contradict infallibility dogma.

    • I definitely don’t want to expend the energy to do a point-by-point against your claim that “Church teaching has not changed over time.” Only pretty conservative Catholics would make that claim, and everyone else would disagree. It just seems like a pretty weak defense of ones entire reason for being part of the Catholic Church (“it’s true”) – similar to those who say Christianity hinges upon the literal, historical resurrection of Jesus. I can understand many other defenses – tradition, community, liturgical experience, etc. – but not the claim of “Truth.”

      • Kathy Schiffer

        But isn’t Truth the singularly most important reason for faith? Consider baptism, for example: Some Protestant denominations hold to the view that one must undergo baptism to be saved; some, that it must be by immersion; others, by sprinkling is satisfactory. Some say no, baptism is just a sign. And all smile politely at one another, as though it has no consequence, when what they’re saying is that ONLY THEIR WAY WILL GET YOU INTO HEAVEN.

        The other reasons you cite are nice, but Truth is the one reason to embrace one faith over another.

        • Andrew K.

          Totally not true, Kathy. Not even close.

  • srocha

    I once thought to switching to Eastern Orthodoxy. But I this is where I was planted and this is where I’ll stay. I love the folly of it all.


  • Patrick S.

    When this type of discussion came up years ago, a very, very wise young man said to me “Whose sensibilities is the Church supposed to change to? The US in the 1990s? Canada’s? Italy in the 1980s? Latin America in the 1970s?” The point this young man was making was that the Church is a constant – and that is its strength.

    That made such a strong impression on me, I still remember it. Instead of us changing the Church, maybe we should show some humility and allow for the possibility that our current beliefs may be ephemeral.

    • I don’t think your premise that “the Church is a constant” implies that it isn’t, hasn’t or won’t continue to change. And, neither claim is necessarily opposed to the idea that “maybe we should show some humility.” We can – and should – critique the institution while remaining humble.

  • Pax

    There are a lot of anti-Catholic activists like Wills who remain nominally Catholic because the role of the dissident insider has more perceived credibility than an otherwise equivalent outsider.

    There are also a lot of people who are culturally Catholic, but it doesn’t have anything to do with their beliefs. They don’t become protestants because there isn’t anything appealing to them about protestantism either. If you only do church for the “community”, then why not stick to where your family is?

  • Do you remember Gerald Schlabach, the Mennonite social justice writer from the 90’s? (I think he may even be a Minnesotan.) His last book, in 2010, was called Unlearning Protestantism. I think his premise here speaks to why some hold onto to Catholocism despite their divergent ideas. I’m not converting, but there’s something appealing here just the same. Here’s the Amazon summary: Gerald Schlabach addresses the “Protestant dilemma” in ecclesiology: how to build lasting Christian community in a world of individualism and transience. Schlabach, a former Mennonite who is now Catholic, seeks NOT to encourage readers to abandon Protestant churches but to relearn some of the virtues that all Christian communities need to sustain their communal lives. He offers a vision for the right and faithful roles of authority, stability, and loyal dissent in Christian communal life. The book deals with issues that transcend denominations and will appeal to all readers, both Catholic and Protestant, interested in sustaining Christian tradition and community over time.

  • I may not be entitled to respond since I did leave the Catholic church for the Episcopal church, but I still identify as Anglo-Catholic and I still find love for the Catholic church despite the leadership and politics. My frequent answer has been, “it is the style of worship to which I am accustomed.”
    I relate to commenters who have said loyalty, roots, history, family, culture, upbringing and foundation. I first learned about God and faith in the Catholic church and I still find my God and my faith there. When at Mass, I know all the words and I know how to pray; the familiarity of the liturgy creates space for me to worship and be with God like no other liturgy I’ve experienced–even in the Episcopal and high Lutheran churches, which are so similar but just not the same.
    I did leave the Catholic church and have found God and my faith in other places, expressions, and styles, but I do not feel at home the way I feel at Mass. (It’s good for me, though, that I do not require feeling at home).
    In is recent article in the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne does a nice job of reminding me of what’s good about the Catholic church in spite of all the Church does that is ridiculously outside of and opposed to the Gospel.

    • Kathy Schiffer

      Ratchet, yes–God is in all of the churches, to the extent that He exists in all Truth, and those other denominations also contain truth.

      And within the Catholic Church are expressions with which you may love, and some with which you may not be comfortable: the charismatic community, for example, or folk masses, or the high-spirited worship in the Caribbean. These are not the essentials which determine WHAT is a Catholic church. Rather, the Catholic Church teaches that it was established by Jesus Christ, and that it is led by the vicar of Christ, the Pope, whose authority has been passed down by the laying on of hands, one individual to another,in an unbroken line from the time of Peter.

  • Bruce McCormack once said to me something like: “You can’t change your denomination like you change your clothes.” We are shaped and formed by these communities and traditions and can’t simply cast them off and pick something new and trendy; it’s not that simple. Our traditions become an engrained part of our identity–especially if we are raised in them. For a Catholic especially it isn’t simply picking a new denomination like it is in Protestantism, which is so fragmented and shattered, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal to jump over to a different church that has a worship style we like better, or a view on the atonement we are more comfortable with. When you are Catholic you are part of a long and enduring tradition and that is different from Protestant experience. Catholicism is broad in many ways–a great spectrum of thinkers within in and beliefs and interpretations, but there isn’t the drive to go start a new denomination if you don’t like what’s happening (maybe you start a new religious order…) You stay with it because it is the Church and is part of you, as you are part of it. The hope of course is that it will move in more progressive ways, but with a respect that such movements take time–a lot of time usually.

    • Kathy Schiffer

      And the fact that change comes gradually and with reflection is a good thing.

      I agree with you that many Catholics remain because of tradition, family upbringing, comfort level. But the IMPORTANT reason to remain is this: That Jesus Himself is truly present in the Sacraments, and comes to us in the Eucharist.

      • Andrew K.

        And Jesus does not only come to us through a Catholic Eucharist.

  • I consider myself a “Catholic-in-law.” I’m a lifelong Methodist but my mum’s extended family is Catholic and so I have some firsthand experience with the culture. And I think we Protestants tend to undervalue a key aspect of it: for a Catholic, the Church isn’t just a creed you sign on to, or a set of activities that you do together, but rather it’s a community in the truest sense of the world.

    My cousin, who also was quite upset when Ratzinger became pope, explained it to me by analogizing with a dysfunctional, even abusive, family. If your father beats you or your sister emotionally blackmails you your whole life, at some point you have to change the way you relate to them to protect yourself. But no matter how badly it gets they are still your family and you have to struggle with that relationship – if you ask someone who’s suffered familial abuse, you’ve probably heard that simply severing that relationship so it no longer affects you is the impossible dream. Now, my cousin wasn’t saying the church was as harmful to her as an abusive parent is to a child. But for many Catholics it’s part of who you are and must be dealt with rather than abandoned. That’s been my experience of the RCC, in any event.

    • badconscience

      You are right on that respect. other members of the church may despise
      another member but in the end they still end up worshiping the same true God, the same savior, Jesus Christ. for no anger or despise can change
      the fact that all of the catholic members are one brothers and sisters.

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  • Andrew K.

    I am re-posting this. Sorry.

    I have a paper to write, so this will work for me as a “warm-up.”

    I grew up Catholic, and I tried to maintain my Catholic identity through college. I eventually could not reconcile God with what I was learning, so I walked away from faith. I returned to Christ after my marriage. At first, I worshipped in Methodist, Episcopal, and UCC churches, but eventually found myself “pulled” back to being Catholic. I remained Catholic until 2005.

    Unlike Kathy Schiffer, I was not convinced of that the Roman Catholic Church was the “true church” or any such silliness. Instead, I saw the Catholic Church as formative for me, and I wanted to reconcile who I was with who I had become, in my new relationship in Christ.

    I have since left the Catholic Church permanently. I am still a Christian, and I regularly worship in a CC(DOC) church.

    I can speak to my reasons, but I can also speculate as to why Catholicism persists for some people beyond all reason, and in the face of scandal, stupidity, and institutional failure (Irish church, anyone?)

    The Catholic Church has a beautiful liturgy. I found that I missed it, and I enjoyed participating in it. At times, my wife and I worshipped together with an Episcopal Church just so I could get my “liturgical fix” and she could participate fully, receiving the Eucharist with me. I was most fully a Catholic at Mass.

    Roman Catholic churches are also very coherent communities. I have found Protestant churches with similar bonds, but it seems to me that Catholic communites are consistently communal. Go to any Catholic church, and you find an extended network of people who know the local church, and are known in the local church. This group seems to be a larger proportion of the local church in Catholic churches than in similar-sized Protestant churches. The community also acts differently. Catholic groups like to party. When Catholics gather, celebration seems to be a stronger motif than in similar gatherings of many Protestant communities. These observations are broad generalizations, but again, I speak to my own experience. I have found broader Protestant communities, including my seminary community, that like to celebrate, so I am not trying to limit celebration to Catholics.

    Because I was raised in the Catholic Church, I favored Catholic religious imagination over what seemed to be the dominant Protestant religious imagination. The work of David Tracy articulates this difference. Catholics tend to favor analogical imagination over dialectical imagination, or “God is like” over “God is other.” The sacramental theology shapes this imagination, even if the metaphysics are not fully embraced or even understood. Because of my “Catholic imagination,” I was more comfortable with other people who shared that imagination as they related to God. I find that Protestant communities that regularly celebrate Communion tend toward analogical imagination as well. It is one of the reasons I attend a church of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

    In relation to imagination, Catholics have a type of tribalism at work. In this thread, Kathy Schiffer demonstrates some of this when she uses the justification of the Catholic Church as the “true church” over against the “false churches.” Catholics, because of the community identity, the shared imagination, the sacramental practice, and the visible leadership, can strongly identify as Catholics, in distinction to other Christians. To have this kind of identity can be very attractive.

    Finally, Catholic local churches are the McDonalds of the Christian world. If I go from one city or state to another, and visit a Methodist church, or a United Church of Christ, or my own church community, the pattern of worship can be very different. This is not the case with Catholic churches, and to a lesser extent, Episcopal churches. You know what you are going to get, anywhere you go. Catholic religious practice reinforces the shared identity I mentioned by consistent practice.

    Anyway, these are some of my thoughts on the matter.

    • Thanks for this, Andrew. I can see the appeal of a “McDonalds” church. Many times, when I’ve traveled, I’ve longed to find Christians “like me” to worship with, and it has been hard.

      What I usually do is end up visiting a church that I am currently curious about, and participate in worship with them to the extent I am allowed as a visitor. Keeping the idea of “generous orthodoxy” in mind. I usually come away disagreeing with about 2/3 of the stuff I hear, but feeling refreshed and renewed in sharing in someone else’s understanding of God.

      More often than not, I walk away grateful that I was able to find this strange, local food, rather than just eating another Big Mac. And If I’m still hungry, I can always go back to my room and pray or read a little to fill up more. In the end, being forced to eat outside of McDonalds church may be a good thing!

      • Andrew K.

        Curtis: you are welcome.

        I do not wish to suggest, however, that a “McDonalds church” is an automatic negative. That is one element of what I am suggesting, but I am also pointing to a consistent style and practice, found throughout the country. Local differences do occur, but they are minor when compared with the overall consistency that is maintained.

        This consistency can be of enormous comfort. However, on the whole, I agree with you that taking on the challenge of local worship may be more enriching that going for the conformity of unified practice.

        • badconscience

          As pointed clearly, patterns of consistency in the catholic church is what most describes it. The catholic church does not bend to the rules or desires of man but rather stood straight for the words of good news and teachings of the one that truly leads it, Jesus Christ.

          the word of God is the same, stays the same and will stay same for God is the word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”