What Sucks About the Catholic Church

What Sucks About the Catholic Church December 1, 2014
Photo Credit: Janet Ramsden.
Photo Credit: Janet Ramsden.

Some days I don’t want to be a Catholic anymore. Some days I’m not even sure God exists.

So far in my conversion story I’ve painted what’s probably a pretty sunny picture of the Catholic Church. I don’t want to be a downer, but that’s far from the whole truth. In reality, there are days when I don’t want to be a Catholic anymore. When it falls apart on me and I have to begin, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to rebuild again. Certainly the majority of the last few months, since the beginning of RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) and my serious conversion to the Catholic Church, have been incredible. But there have been dark days; there have been times when I’ve thought, “This is it?”

In the vein of being totally vulnerable, and honest, here’s what sucks about the Catholic Church.

I grew up as a Christian in high school. As I’ve written before it was through a best friend of mine, a devout Christian, that I came to understand the message and mission of Jesus, and my part in it.

Immediately, I drove to the local Christian bookstore—The Treasure House—and bought a Bible. I knew this is what you needed to do as a Christian: to read your Bible. I bought a New King James translation, the XTreme Teen Bible, and began reading from page one.

I laugh now when I hear a conversion story like Jennifer Fulwiler, a former atheist, who did the same thing, I appreciate, more and more, the serious attention that the Catholic Church pays to adult (or teenage) converts with the RCIA program. But, I eventually did learn how to read my Bible, or at least where to begin and after slogging through Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy somebody told me I should’ve started at Matthew.

Even if explaining how to begin in the faith wasn’t taken too seriously in the tradition I first “grew up” in Bible study and understanding Scripture certainly was. We had rigorous adult Sunday school on Sunday morning. We had mid-week Bible studies and small groups. We had a youth group that wasn’t afraid to dig into Scripture. And amongst Christian friends the Bible wasn’t a taboo topic, rather we were all well-versed, and fluent in the Scriptures. We took it seriously and privately read our Bibles of our own free will, as teenagers.

In the evangelical traditions that I’ve been exposed to since, as an adult, the same thing applies. Protestants, especially evangelicals, know their Bibles well and take studying and understanding their faith seriously.

Catholics suck at this.

I knew Catholics sucked at this. Reading conversions stories from Protestants, especially evangelicals, who’ve become Catholics this is one of their chief laments. The average Catholic doesn’t know their Bible well, and this is detrimental.

I was shocked, for example, when I knew more about the Bible (in terms of origins, order of the books, etc.) than most of the teachers at the RCIA class in my parish. Disappointed is maybe a better word.

Of course it isn’t, I’ve found, that Catholics don’t know their faith very well. The Bible is a crucial part of the Catholic faith—readings from Scripture make up the bulk of a Catholic Mass on Sunday—but rigorous Bible study is far less prevalent in the Catholic Church than in the Protestant traditions I’ve known. And it’s a shame.

Catholics also suck at going to church.

My lovely wife, who has attended a few Masses with me, commented on the Catholic miracle of the multiplying coats. As soon as Mass is nearing its end it seems like suddenly everyone’s coat appears on their body, miraculously. As soon as the recessional hymn is played the majority of the churchgoers who were, minutes earlier, warming the pews, make a beeline for the exit doors and disappear faster than you can say, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

I heard a Catholic convert from Protestantism describe this as “drive-thru Catholicism.” It sucks.

Finally, Catholics suck at catechesis. Catechesis is a fancy Catholic word that means faith formation: understanding what you believe, and why you believe it and Catholics suck at this too. If you ask the average Catholic why they pray to the saints, why they venerate, not worship, Mary (and what the difference is), why there are so many statues in their churches, or what purgatory is all about many probably don’t know, or can’t explain. Like the lack of biblical fluency, like the rush out the door at the end of a Mass, this is a colossal failure of the Catholic Church.

The New Evangelization, a term coined by Pope John Paul II, is a movement intended to upset this balance in the Church.

Pope John Paul II imagined a Church that could explain itself well, in which its members were eager and enthusiastic about their church community, and that had a deep biblical fluency because the Bible, after all, is central to the Christian faith. The New Evangelization is a good idea and is embraced in many quarters of the Catholic Church. Many of the writers, speakers, and Protestant converts to the Catholic church have embraced the New Evangelization but it’s painfully slow catching on. Some parishes are doing an incredible job of becoming more Protestant in their rigorous teaching, but many are woefully behind.

As I’m becoming Catholic I’m realizing that there’s some stuff that the Church really sucks at. On balance, the Protestant circles I’ve been in were made up of people who knew their faiths inside and out, knew their Bible, and loved their church communities. Protestants I know take their faith seriously, live it out, and are eager to know it more and grow in it.

Ironically, while Protestants talk about “evangelization” as an outward-facing expression, the New Evangelization heralded by Pope John Paul II begins, rightly so, inside the Catholic Church. Brilliant move, really, and insightful.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? I see a Catholic Church that is, on one hand, beautiful and brilliant and, as far as I am learning on this journey, true. On the other hand, it’s a Church that’s awful at knowing and explaining itself and whose members are only too eager to get their jacket on and jet out the door. A perfectly preserved divine institution—populated by humans, of all things.

I’ve come to an ultimate conclusion though, and it’s one that many Protestant converts before me have come to as well. The Church is us. As a Protestant convert to Catholicism I bring certain gifts, talents, and insights. If there’s a need for better catechesis in my parish my role isn’t to lament the church’s failure, it’s to start a Bible study. If RCIA sometimes seems like a chore for those leading it then maybe I need to volunteer next year. If not enough laypeople are devoted to keeping the church open during Eucharistic Adoration than maybe I can help arrange a schedule. Do you see what I mean?

The default attitude for us Protestant converts needs to shift—my attitude needs to shift—from seeing what sucks about the Catholic Church to doing something about it. After all, when Jesus gave his most difficult teaching on the Eucharist—his very own blood and body given to His Church—He asked his closest disciples, “Are you going to leave, too?”

St. Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”

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  • Stephen Nesbit

    As a convert from the Assemblies of God organization, I can second all the issues brought up in this article.

  • I came across your blog through this post specifically from reddit this morning. I just wanted to let you know that I resonate a great deal with the frustrations that you have expressed regarding the Church, and had to come to grips with them myself as I was preparing to cross the Tiber. I’m going to think and pray about this before I respond anymore, but I really wanted to let you know that your post resonated with me.

  • I enjoyed this piece, you are right in so many ways. As a “revert,” not a convert, I have a possible answer…. Protestant churches are good at the “going to church” and catechesis parts because people are always joining — and leaving Protestant churches. They HAVE to be good at it or they won’t have members. Catholics, for good or ill (often ill) expect people to stay put whether they like it or not. In other words, the One True Church, where else are you going to go? The fact that this doesn’t work very well these days has not come to the notice of many people, who think it’s just their parish or their town or their diocese. And many of those who do understand it don’t know what to do about it. There are complicated reasons Catholics haven’t historically had Bible studies (except for certain lay movements), but the reason doesn’t really matter. You’re right, Catholics should have more Bible studies.

  • It gets better, and worse, as you grow in this wonderful family called the Catholic Church. Welcome home.

  • Loved this article, and agree with virtually everything. The line about “why they worship Mary” though will confuse a lot of readers, Catholic and Protestant. Quotations around the word worship would have helped indicate that you were speaking ironically.

    • Good advice. That stood out to me as well. Catholics do NOT worship Mary. We honor and venerate her as the Mother of God and our mother, too, Queen of the Kingdom and perfect disciple just to name a few important attributes!

  • Wonderful to hear you’re coming to the Church! I’m a convert from evangelicalism as well, and I’m totally with you, man:

    “An Open Letter to Evangelicals: We Need You”

    http://www.aleteia.org/en/religion/article/an-open-letter-to-evangelicals-we-need-you-5853437619077120

    “4 Things Catholics Do that Rightly Scandalize Non-Catholics”

    http://www.aleteia.org/en/religion/article/4-things-catholics-do-that-rightly-scandalize-non-catholics-5818252508790784

    “3 Things Catholics Need to Confidently Reclaim and Own Again”

    http://www.aleteia.org/en/religion/article/3-things-catholics-need-to-confidently-reclaim-and-own-again-5235764010942464

    • I am a cradle catholic…Married in the Methodist Church, attended many other churches in my life….BUT I feel at Home in the Catholic Church. Yes it has its faults but it has the correct idea on what is important…the Sacraments like Holy Communion make me really KNOW what is truth and what is pretend. I hope some day we can have more altar servers that are female….also that more Catholic Churches give out wine with communion. And more study on what Scripture really means….especially the book of Revelations with all the Number symbolism…

  • Kerry

    If God can still love His Church…then so can I and remember to “bloom where you are planted”! Spread the Faith where you find God has placed you.

  • One practical consideration here is that the Catholic Church is a very broad institution. There are 1.1 billion Catholics. All are in a parish, all have some sort of access to the Sacraments, all have a bishop, and he lives near them. This is not an elitist group.

    All of the 1.1 billion Catholics have an opportunity of some kind to deepen their faith, to join a lay group, third order, Rosary solidarity, bible study or third order of the Franciscans, Dominicans, etc. There are 10s of millions of lay Catholics who pray daily, know the bible fairly well, and bring Christian values to their work and neighborhood.

    Western culture is materialist and sex-soaked. There is plenty of work to be done. Grab an oar.

    • Well stated. Habbakuk comes to mind : What do you see?

      So important to keep our eyes on Christ and His Goodness, which is everywhere, while allowing Him to work in our working, recognizing that all we really are “doing” is responding to Him who loved us first.

    • Robert Alechnowicz

      Very well put!

  • midwestlady

    Understand exactly. I’m still Catholic after many years, and I won’t be leaving. It’s worth it, but it will take all the faith, humor and gumption you have in you. No point in being bashful about saying that. It’s true.

  • This year will mark 22 years since I entered the Church. Been here, done this. Embrace the cross; continue to say yes to Jesus in the loneliness. Maybe read the Carmelite saints. There’s great stuff up ahead, but you have to persevere.

  • Catholics dont worship Mary.

    Happy to see your conclusion about offering yourself to help build a better parish life community.

    Bottom line laser focus to me about Mass is this: receiving Jesus in the Most Holy Eucharist.

    Everything else outside of the Liturgy is “fluff”. Nice, but not required. Helpful, but not the essence.

    Holy Mass is more about the vertical relationship and with that focus, we can then, outside of Mass, go forth and help to promote the horizontal relationships by building a culture of Life for one another, both inside our parish and outside in the places we move about.

    Welcome to the Church and Godspeed to us all on our journey to Him!

    • Justin M.

      I dont think confession is just fluff. It’s required if you have a mortal sin for eternal salvation. But confession is liturgical, if that is what you were going for.

      • Absolutely essential – all the Sacraments are, Justin. I certainly didn’t mean to imply otherwise! 🙂

        Confession is probably my most favorite sacrament. I like to say, unlike prisoners sitting on death row, we are prisoners standing on Life row, waiting to be restored to the fullness of Life!!!

        Such a gift!

        • Somebody was talking about confession…If a person thinks of the grace you get when you go to confession also…You would go more often…Funny story…While at confession…saying the Act of Contrition…my mind went blank and I had to be prompted ….We sometimes say our prayers without registering what we are saying…that is what happened…

  • Alangkareng@yahoo.com

    I always give our RCIA candidates a reality check at they end so that when they meet other Catholics and they don’t believe or live what they have just been taught it won’t be a surprise. I love that you said that we must do something about the problem. That’s the truth. My husband and I are cradle catholics that had an awaking of sorts and were frustrated by others being asleep. We started scripture study, then Wednesday night adult faith formation and RCIA. My husband was then called to the diaconate so we start these things in each parish he is sent! Blessings on your journey!

  • M. Forrest

    You write, “The default attitude for us Protestant converts needs to shift—my attitude needs to shift—from seeing what sucks about the Catholic Church to doing something about it.”

    I came home to the Catholic Church about 20 years ago. A few months afterwards, I returned on occasion to my former Baptist Church because the reality of Catholicism did not seem to be measuring up to the theory. I was greatly disappointed by the lack of fervor, the lack of seriousness. I remember thinking, “If these people believe that is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ up there, then they have a funny way of showing it!”

    But one day when I was praying about all this, a phrase suddenly popped into my head (perhaps from my guardian angel?): Stop being a spiritual parasite.

    I had to think for a while about what this meant.

    Soon, I came to understand that I needed to stop viewing the faith as something handed to me and start viewing it as something for which I am also responsible. I had to stop focusing so heavily on “being fed” and start focusing on doing some feeding (of myself, my family and others). I had to stop moving, stop following the pastor who gave the “best sermons” or finding the best worship service. I had to finally choose a place to stay and grow deep roots. These are problems often found within Protestantism — and I was no different. I had to unlearn some bad habits.

    Ultimately, I came to the conclusion/realization that the problems within Protestantism were structural in nature and therefore irreparable. They didn’t not have the authority to lead God’s Church. The problems I saw within the Catholic Church (and to be fair – those problems were based on my LOCAL experience – the Catholic Church is different depending upon the region, country, etc.) were superficial, able to be addressed and fixed. And so, I recommitted to the Catholic Church and have never looked back.

    God bless you on your journey.

    • M. Forrest

      Correction: “They didn’t not have the authority to lead God’s Church” should have been “They didn’t have the authority to lead God’s Church”

    • I certainly agree. The experience is local. In the last 15 years, the new crop of Priests know how to catechize and do have great RCIA programs and spiritual boot camps as well as weekly Mens Bible Groups and Womens Bible Groups. But for those who do not attend, they may be of another generation that was not well catechized. Receiving Holy Communion is a personal thing. I cannot tell what state the person is in even tho they seem fleeing. I regret sheep are influenced by others.. We are not all i as holy as we want. Many take God for granted . We receive Jesus as much as we are open to Him and His mercy. We take His love and forgiveness as a given. Converts realize what we are missing often more than born Catholics. But there are very many active, reverent and even holy Catholics that are aware of their faith. They may not be able to quote chapter and verse, but they know the bible well enough to defend it. There are not enough though and as you encountered, we are off to a late start with teaching ourselves our own faith.

      • Good point Rose…I am a Charismatic Catholic now…and feel blessed because my growth in Catholicism…The Holy Spirit is really needed to reform our Catholic Church….and Pope Francis the Pope to make that Blessed reform..

  • Hi, thanks for your post! As a lifelong Catholic whose conversion to Jesus was most effectively sparked by a Lutheran girl I went to high school with, I also resonate deeply with what you are saying. I think maybe one difference between your experience with us and your experience before is this. Protestants tend to gather the like-minded. Catholics tend to gather everybody. (That whole dragnet thing.) So we have every possible degree of maturity and immaturity, liberal-conservative, old-school, new wave, poor, rich, ethnic, everything. It’s a cauldron of needs. We need you!

  • I feel like, on the contrary, many protestants I’ve talked to think they know the scriptures but they don’t have deep knowledge (such as having read commentaries in the catena aurea). Just shallow recognition of various characters in the old testament or miscellaneous facts. At least the Catholics I know, even those who don’t read the Bible regularly, know about deep theology embedded in the Gospels. They know this because of the homilies. So griping about “biblical knowledge” may be a protestant attitude hold-over. I exhort you to think of the scriptures in a more Catholic way…. Depth and emphasis on theology/new testament. Also, in defense of catechesis, honestly many protestant “theologies” are ad-hoc or simplistic. Catholic theology on the other hand requires quite a lot of study to make sense of (look at the summa theologica!). So again, this is a false comparison.

    • midwestlady

      I assure you that this is a Catholic myth. Protestant groups often don’t fit the very brittle stereotype we Catholics have of them. Not all protestant groups are alike; there is a huge diversity among them, and some of them are as orthodox in their biblical interpretations as any Catholic you ever met. Guess who translated the NRV-Catholic Edition? Look it up sometime.

      • midwestlady

        I assure you that this is a Catholic myth. Protestant groups often don’t fit the very brittle stereotype we Catholics have of them. Not all protestant groups are alike; there is a huge diversity among them, and some of them are as orthodox in their biblical interpretations as any Catholic you ever met. Guess who translated the RSV-Catholic Edition? Look it up sometime.

  • LPatter

    I think this comes from “living in your Father’s House.” I’m currently living in my parents’ house, with my small family, so the comparison struck me in a pointed way. Here’s what I mean:

    As a Protestant, you have to keep the “church” alive by your presence, your energy, your participation. You are making this thing “go” – you have set yourself apart from the strength of the pillars of the One True Church, and logistically, it’s all on you. (You plural, the various churches and communities.) Yes, I know there are organized branches, but the more organization there is, the more the communities start to look like your description of Catholics.

    As a Catholic, it’s so much easier to expect to be served. It’s incorrect, of course, but the zeal and energy (and don’t get me wrong, I know good will and earnest faith abounds in evangelical protestant circles) are often lacking because of the human condition – when we can ease off, we do. Also, with an institution so large, so established, so many Catholics don’t think themselves worthy/knowledgeable enough (or “close enough to the top” – again, gross misunderstanding of ecclesiology) to take a lead. Laziness and fear, over and over again. Taking for granted.

    UNTIL – The Holy Spirit CONVICTS us, or the Love of God breaks THROUGH to us, and we realize how ungrateful and lazy we’ve been. Then, we step up, and own it as best we can – struggle through and see the gift and know how precious it is.

    I like the conclusion – we all have to step up and set an example. St. Paul was often beating his head against the wall, but he pressed on. None of us is exempt. Thank you for your witness.

  • As a former member of a main-stream Protestant denomination, I concur.

  • joann

    “I thirst.” Not, “I suck!” I understand what you are seeing–‘so glad your post concluded with how you decided to use your God given gifts for the good of His kingdom. It’s not easy to see weakness in each other with the eyes of Christ, until we understand brokenness and the accompanying tears. You see with your heart, the heart of Jesus, what needs to be done…What I’m saying is that you seem to get it in your response to seeing what you see: Catholics (sinners, like me) who, really know the overwhelming love of Jesus, the life saving, devastatingly deep, Divine Mercy the Catholic Church offers, deeply understand Christ to say, to His church, “I thirst, ” not, “I suck.”

  • Every time I see comments about Catholics wearing coats during Mass or putting them on early at the end of Mass, I wonder, “Why are they watching what others are doing so closely?” I will be the first to admit that we Catholics have a lot to learn from our protestant brethren about many things! But when I’m at Mass I don’t notice who or what is around me because what is happening in front of me is too captivating! I wish my newly converted brothers and sisters would roll up their sleeves and show us the wonderful things you’ve learned, I would be most grateful! But personally, I’m glad those around me took the time to come to Mass and I let God worry about how they are worshiping and when they leave. My hunch is God’s love and patience will take care of all of us!

  • Theresa

    I’m a cradle Catholic who grew up knowing quite a bit of Scripture and catechesis, but I think it’s because my parents were both converts to Catholicism, and so they perhaps put more effort into educating us than the average Catholic does. Of course, as the years have gone by I’ve learned more and more about my faith — it’s a never-ending journey! — but I’ve been fortunate to have a pretty good foundation.

  • Patricia

    As a cradle Catholic I second, third and fourth your post!!! Too many Catholics are unevangelized and hence unchatechized (catechesis takes place after evangelization). If you have not read it I recommend reading “Forming Intentional Disciples” by Sherry Weddell.

  • Rose

    Although my parents were Catholic, both were converts from Orthodoxy. I have the joy of cherishing both eastern and western traditions (both lungs of the Church)in our home.

    We have so much to learn from one another and your conclusions Albert are a logical step each of us must consider to build up our brothers and sisters and ultimately, our beautiful Church.

  • Jenny Ramirez

    I came into the Catholic Church from a Christian non-denominational and Baptist upbringing. I understand your points. My advice would be to keep learning and try to live your new faith everyday with joy. My husband is a cradle Catholic, and since I’ve joined the Church, we have learned so much. Please don’t judge others. It’s not our job, the people ‘putting their coats on before Mass ends’ might need to pick up their elderly parents somewhere, or check on their kids. Please don’t give them bad looks. Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox. Thank you for sharing. God Bless, Let’s Be Saints!!

  • It’s interesting that I ended up here…I think it was a friend’s “like” or comment on Facebook, I think. I’m a cradle Catholic, and everything you’ve said is the Church I grew up in. I came into adulthood knowing squat. Your conclusions are also correct, and that’s the great thing about the New Evangelization. Both St. JPII and Benedict XVI call all of us first to our own conversion because unless we’re living our lives united to the heart of Christ, we are no good to the world. If God is Love, and Paul tells us that, without love, [we] are like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (yes, that’s a Catholic mentioning Scripture, but I had to go through a lot of study and get a Master’s to get that far 🙂 ). The Church needs each of us to experience that metanoia that will cause us to turn from sin precisely because we turn dramatically toward God. Easier said than done, right? You’re on the right track, and it sounds like you’re the kind of person we need in the New Evangelization, so “do not fear, neither be dismayed,” because we’re all in the same barque. 😉

  • I think Julieanne Loth got it exactly right. It’s not about coming to Mass exclusively to socialize. Its the “sending out”. We come to Mass to adore and worship God and fortify our souls with the sanctifying grace we receive in the Sacraments. This fortifying is what we need in order to go out and witness by our actions and if necessary, by our words.

    Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with forming Church clubs which will bring Catholics together to celebrate and learn Catholic Doctrine.

  • Michael Martin

    It seems your listing problems in the current American Catholic Church yet describing them as problems with the Catholic Church as a whole. Catholicism has generally never been all that compatible with materialistic/industrial cultures, but thrives in regions where material wealth is rightly considered a means rather than an end. There are plenty of places where the Church on the Rock is thriving in ways both visible and invisible (and we shouldn’t hastily conclude that the American Church isn’t thriving in realm of the invisible).

    • Michael Martin

      *”you’re”. Not “your”. And I meant “THE realm of the invisible.” I do my best proof reading after I push the submit button.

  • JoyInTheLord

    I am a cradle Catholic, and I read the Bible as a ‘textbook’, while in a Catholic high school, not as THE Bible. Now, as an adult, I am into serious Bible study with the help of Jeff Cavins (Bible Timeline). Yes, some of us are growing in the faith despite ourselves. I think the Holy Spirit is working mightily in His Church. Now I need to get some sleep.

  • You’re right Albert, we have not treated our Church right. It seems to have got this way after Vatican II. Our children know hardly anything about our faith, compared to what we learnt. I felt like you do, before I realized —

    1 – God has shown me the problem, try to fix it.

    2 – Satan always targets his greatest threat – our Church AND the Eucharist.

    3 – Jesus did say to ‘let the weeds grow’ together with the corn. They will be dealt with later.

    You, and other enlightened converts like you have been sent by God for a special task. The Church – and the WORLD depends on your success. Our prayers are with you.

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  • CJ

    Thanks for writing this. It at least provides an honest reflection. I needed to hear it because while I love the Church and am thrilled to have found her, I too struggle sometimes with the *idea* of the Church versus the *reality*.

    Many, many spiritual graces to be grateful for in Catholicism.

    But I would add that Catholic lack of social skills is a real detriment (ie – as you mention dashing out the door, I would add: general lack of concern for the welfare of others either in conversation or deed). Maybe we just need to introduce Catholic Charm School or something. Something to get people better mannered as well as better catechized.

    All to draw people to Christ!

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