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"AWAY WITH WORDS"
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24 May 2022
Why I Am A Catholic: A Brief Reflection
In The Beginning
A “friend” recently reminded me that we’ve been acquainted for a long time, but we’re so different in our thinking. “For example,” he chided, “why are you still a Catholic?”
Good question, so I offer a brief - but heartfelt - response (without great detail).
Human learning begins early in life, long before we think about consequences. When we’re children, we do what we’re told. We don’t ponder motivation or responsibility. We just accept what adults say, especially when they control our lives and season their admonitions with affection.
So it was that my entrée to Catholicism began with my dutiful parents. Their example was sturdy, their expectations stern, their attitudes consistently loving.
My next exposure to the Catholic universe (“Catholic” means “universal”) came in grammar school under the strict tutelage of The Good Nuns, those eagle-eyed, tough-as-nails women who made classroom “discipline” a lifestyle.
Later, in an all-boys high school, I endured the no-nonsense regimen of eagle-eyed, tough-as-nails priest-teachers. Their approach was a further dose of academic acuity and classroom rigor, reinforced with threats of detention, compounded by the shame of getting caught.
Those were early days of childhood piety and credal naivete, populated by dedicated adults who the molded receptive minds and willing hearts of impressionable Catholic youngsters.
What Came Next
Childhood’s lessons are not solid bases for adult commitment. Childhood fades; our critical senses kick in. We start thinking for ourselves, often contrarily. We flex our independence, challenge authority, push limits, make our own decisions (often bad ones) and, by our mistakes, learn that behavior has consequences. We pay for our immaturity.
As we age, we (hopefully) start to think clearly, to respect facts, to value logic, reason and legitimate authority. We discover that Christian fidelity is often difficult, not merely because of doctrinal complexities but - more to the point - because we humans are subject to the seductive allure of secularity’s carefree nihilism.
As Christians, we are tasked to exemplify truth in the midst of moral chaos; to rise above wayward vices and immature vagaries which flourish around us. Hopefully, we persevere, develop mature convictions, seek the moral life and struggle to make right choices based on beliefs we find credible and life-changing. But it’s still not easy being a faithful Christian or Catholic, especially in a rabidly secular culture which dismisses traditional spirituality and disparages, even punishes, religious expression.
The Need For Tradition
Everyone (not just Catholics) has responsibilities to God, self and other people. The First Law of Charity is “to love God and our neighbor as ourselves.” It’s fundamental to Christian life. But, by itself, this mandate is subject to fashionable distortion and abuse under the guise of righteous, falsified ideology.
That’s where the wisdom of Catholicism makes the difference for me. Slowly, Catholicism revealed to me what is really involved:
- A life commitment based on an intelligently thought-out Sacramental system of Christ-centered doctrines and specific beliefs;
- A behavioral path featuring the Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity;
- A path strengthened by the Moral Virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance as they apply to all of us;
- A commitment based on Scripture (the revealed word of God) and centuries of Tradition, i.e., principles and practices which bolster our relationship with our transcendent God;
- A way of life centered around the Eucharistic.
These truths (and more) comprise the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.
Faults In The System
Are there faults within the Catholic Church? Of course. Today, the Faith has been assaulted from within by abhorrent behavior of certain clergy and laity. Deeply offensive events have occurred, revealing the moral fallibility of those offending Catholics.
Critics cite these examples to discredit Catholicism. The fact is that Catholics exists on the human level as well as the Divine level. We exist in the grip of time, yet we are ever-poised on the edge of Eternity. And it is this human, fallible side of the Church which creates scandal and evil, and brings shame upon us.
Yes, Catholicism is a profoundly (sometimes aggravatingly) human community engaged in the universal struggle for fidelity and goodness.
Yes, the human condition does ofttimes create serious dilemmas for Catholics . . . on personal and institutional levels.
Yes, human weakness sometimes beclouds the Divine origin and purpose of Catholicism. At the same instant, we still strive mightily to preserve and pursue our Christian ideals in our daily lives.
Yes, failures occur in our struggle to achieve Goodness, but the weaknesses of our flailing humanity also attest to the necessity of Faith and Hope, which are renewed by God’s repeated invitation to conversion and by His promise to honor our repentance.
So, yes, Catholic life is ofttimes edgy and nettled, sometimes without consolation or clarity, occasionally burdened with the grace of ambiguity – but we are always enlightened and refreshed by Christ’s promise of His fidelity to each of us, and reminded that the Catholic Intellectual Tradition upholds us all.
The Task At Hand
The primary goal of the Catholic Church is to teach us how to properly and freely fulfill the Great Commandment to love God, ourselves and one another . . . by following our well-educated conscience, enlightened by Natural Law, Scripture and Tradition.
To this end, Catholics are taught to attune our attitudes and our behavior to a clear moral compass, and to integrate the various Virtues into our lives – Virtues which have been developed over centuries by a host of very wise persons.
Some skeptics demean our Catholic moral worldview as judgmental, as doctrinaire intransigence, as systematic dismissal of other viewpoints, as a claim to rampant infallibility, as spiritual enslavement, colonialism and white privilege, etc., etc. But no person of good will can possibly deny that human behavior has an inherent, historic propensity to error, distortion and other self-defeating tendencies.
Endless wars, our polarized culture and our own failings bear witness to the necessity of a consistent moral beacon which seeks universal Justice, Kindness and Care, and which is devoid of duplicity and selfishness.
Obviously, we need a spiritual and intellectual guide to help us figure out what the good life is all about.
That’s the whole point of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition: To explain to us (with the aid and inspiration of the Holy Spirit) what’s morally and historically best for us individually and collectively.
The Catholic Intellectual Tradition is definitely not about blind, inflexible fidelity. It is not a whirlwind of ideas or myths, not a home for the hostile and arrogant, not an oasis for haughty, cynical sycophants or self-serving populists who favor quickie-fads and chic trends.
Catholicism encourages intellectual inquiry, logical clarity and rational thought, inductive and deductive reasoning, use of our critical senses, fact-based inference, the need for precise distinctions, the art of nuance, respect for the proper use of language and meaning, history, science, custom, art and morality.
Catholicism asks believers 1) to think and speak truthfully, 2) to behave generously with self-restraint, 3) to accept responsibility before claiming rights, 4) always to be grateful for the gifts we receive, and 5) to regard the Divine Mystery of Creation and the Incarnate Christ as the foundations of our lives.
More Than Expected
Catholicism rests on Scripture and Revelation which recount historical events which reveal the Divine Mystery of Redemption at the core of our existence.
In fact, Catholicism explains that Mysteries are everywhere. Mystery is really a normal, ever-present reality in our daily lives, sometimes frustrating, sometimes frightening, pushing us into Hope, pulling us closer to our relationship with Christ, a relationship in which Trust in Him is essential, unavoidable, inescapable.
Critics who disparage Mystery also demean doctrines such as the Incarnation or the Eucharist as too far-fetched for belief. They speak as if the Universe (with billions of galaxies at incalculable distances) were not an astonishing Mystery of infinite proportion.
Bottom line: Catholicism offers Hope, mercy, transcendent meaning and a Loving Creator God, all of which counter the dreadful isolation and cynicism into which our angry culture is increasingly drawn by distressingly wayward energies.
The Church: A Personal Friend
For these (and many other) reasons, the Catholic Church remains the best guide I have found for making sense of my life, for seeing beyond churlish, abrasive encounters which chafe my ego and intrude upon my serenity, for forgiving others - and even myself.
The Church is my best source for making sense of life, for believing that God’s forgiveness and affection for me outshine my doubts, and for chasing tiresome shadows from my soul.
The Church makes sense to me, even when it does not make sense, even when some teachings seem hard, or its ministers let me down, or my “friends” fade. Even when my Hope is battered and contradictions abound and my sense of loss remains, and aging reminds me of my fallibility, still the Church abides.
Catholicism does not protect me from my own foibles or from the errancy of others, from loss and grieving, from wonder and loneliness. But Catholicism does make it clear to me that these events - along with the love I give and receive, and the joy of being alive - are exactly what life is all about, and why I have been given the gift of life . . . and the promise of life to come.
Sometimes, my avoidable missteps suggest to me that God does have a sense of humor. Who else could love us - even die for us - despite what we do to one another, and to the wonders of His Creation?
Some critics contend that the suffering of innocent persons “proves” that the Church’s doctrines and moral demands are specious myths. They say God ignores our prayers. If He exists, He is indifferent, at best.
These critics miss the point. Prayer is not a bargain or a bribe. Prayer is our personal way of linking up with God; of retaining stability and balance within ourselves; of avoiding the abyss of despond which awaits those who live in cynical denial.
How we respond to life (prayerfully or cynically) determines how we live and think, what sort of person we choose to be, what sort of soul (generous or wizened) we choose to cultivate.
Decades of experience have taught me that the most persuasive path to stability and insight, to Faith and Hope, to a share of wisdom, is the path of suffering, eventual loss and deprivation, and ambiguity which spawns our perseverance (as Mother Teresa prayerfully demonstrated). These experiences can (if we listen) dissolve our hubris, expose our fears, emphasize our need for humility and reveal to us the folly of faithlessness and the dreadful aftermath of indifference.
There is strength and truth in admitting that, without God, we really know nothing about the "why" or the "what" of our present, or our future, lives.
There are revelatory moments -- perhaps decades in the making -- when our need for Faith and our struggle for Hope finally make sense. At such moments, the gift of humility (i.e., admitting our frailty and need) paves the way for the realization that our gifts of true freedom and informed choice are inseparable from self-restraint and obedience to our Creator and His mandates.
Little by little, wisdom reveals the extent of our responsibilities to one another and why loving God means loving one another in attitude and behavior. This insight is vital to our relationship with God and our neighbor (who may be a total stranger or, as Solzhenitsyn discovered, another lonely soul, familiar with suffering). Kindness to others is a form of Godly Charity. Where Charity exists, there we find God.
Nevertheless, some people snort at an opportunity to be kind. Some demean the constant epiphanies which reveal God’s presence around us and within us. Some routinely resist Virtue and belittle Goodness, deny Love and Kindness to others, and concede their lives to excessive pride.
Catholicism calls us to lives of Faith and Hope and Goodness. Sometimes we respond. Sometimes we refuse to respond to simple, yet virtuous, opportunities when they arise. In time, the deprivation of Goodness becomes a sorrowful habit.
Ultimately, then, the question we all must ask comes down to what sort of person we choose - freely choose - to be. We control decisions about the sort of person we are right now, about the Virtues we will (or won’t) practice, about the person we eventually become.
The Catholic Intellectual Tradition reminds us that:
- we (even elders) need moral exemplars as well as intelligent teachers to help us mature in heart and mind, soul and spirit;
- we must stifle our arrogance and seek a life of Virtue;
- we must strive for the factors which guide our intellectual and spiritual path, Creation, Context, Continuity and Consequences;
- we are designed for loving relationships based on generous giving of ourselves, even when not asked;
- our most enduring relationship is (and will always be) with God Who accepts our apologies and forgives our offenses against His Loving Kindness.
Finally . . .
So, why am I Catholic? Let me sum up a few reasons:
- The Gift of Faith;
- The persuasive logic of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition;
- Catholicism’s salvific vision of life;
- The Catholic Sacramental system (i.e., the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the other five Sacraments);
- The Church’s vision of the Virtues and the spiritual life;
- Relationship to the Incarnational Christ;
- Church contributions to art, culture, education, history, etc.;
- Catholicism’s grasp of the mysteries of the Universe;
- A lifetime of gratitude for graces received and errors forgiven … to mention but a few of my reasons.
Through many decades, my path still unfolds - sometimes laboriously, sometimes with my foibles embarrassingly evident. But the “aha” moments still occur with regularity, and everyday revelations brighten my soul and still surprise my grateful heart.
Now, in my elderhood, Catholicism more-than-ever offers my soul an anchor which eases my doubts and calms my anxieties. No other philosophy of life makes more sense to me than Catholicism. I find nothing more convincing, nothing more in tune with my human condition, nothing more humane, yet realistically demanding of what I can still offer, than my Catholic Faith.
There is so much more to say, but - for starters - these are a few reasons which I shall share with my “friend” when, next time, he asks why I believe “all that Catholic stuff.”
And I shall ask him (in a kindly way, of course): “What, pray tell, do you believe in? What truths do you hold close to your heart?”
I hope all this makes sense to him – and, perhaps, to you, too?