Why Be Catholic?
by William J. O’Malley, S.J.
A high school senior once asked me, “Do you think there are serious flaws in the Catholic Church?” I answered without a flicker, “Of course! And I know more than you do.” “Then,” he asked, with a bit more acid than I’d have liked, “why don’t you leave? You’re a hypocrite.” I confess his acid infected my reply: “That’s moronic.” And he snapped back, “You calling me a moron?” I almost said, “Why not? You just called me a hypocrite.” Instead, I said, “I didn’t call you a moron; I called that idea moronic. I also see a great many flaws in the way our present government embodies the ideal of American democracy. But it’s not enough to make me pack up and emigrate to Fiji.”
If you have serious problems accepting the Roman Catholic Church, I would suggest—for your own sake—that you sit down and list them on a piece of paper, rather than letting them ramble around your mind, unfocused, vague and embittering. Really dredge them up. Then go back and cross out all those that are truly trivial: “A priest once bawled me out”; “I know some hypocritical churchgoers”; “How was Our Lady bodily lifted outside time and space where bodies don’t exist?” One consistent objection is, “All those rules!” but when pressed, the objector usually is hard put to specify what those rules are. Other than the ones that seem to overemphasize sexuality, what other specific rules do you find insupportable? Finally, go through the cut-down list and ask how many of the remaining objections result from idealistic expectations no humanly embodied institution could satisfy.
So much for the negative; now the positive: the reasons to accept the Church rather than reject it. The premise of this Update is there is no perfect Church—not when it is an ideal embodied by human beings who are, by definition, imperfect. As my friend Wally Kuhn says, “All the boats leak. The only question is, which leaks least.” In what follows we will explore why I think the Catholic Church is the least leaky boat. But first, why do we need religion at all?
Substitutes can’t replace religion
The volatile brew generated by the events of the 60’s left us all infected with skepticism. The assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, hostages, terrorism (to name only a few) made anyone who put trust in anything or anyone beyond family and a few tested friends look naive. Surely one would be a fool to put faith in any earthly institution. They are all riddled with self-serving, closed-minded bureaucrats, each with his or her blind need to dominate, who treat the rest of us like gullible sheep.
The Church fared no better. Priests, nuns, even bishops left their ministries; the official Church seemed at odds with many respected theologians. Today, surveys indicate 80 percent of churchgoing Catholics practice artificial birth control despite the inescapable realization that the official Church believes it immoral; bishops differ publicly with one another over condoms as a lesser evil than AIDS. The list is nearly endless. As even the most inexperienced investor knows, “When the management’s at odds with itself, invest somewhere else.”
Yet a lot of the people who drifted away from organized religion then are now drifting back. Why? Because the belief systems the disaffected chose to substitute for religion simply didn’t do the job. Casual sex, psychotherapy, getting to the top, primal scream, crusading for causes—they just didn’t work as religious substitutes. That’s because none of them, not even all of them together, have it within themselves to deliver for very long our basic need: the enduring conviction of personal worth.
Our hunger is God-sized
Human nature is the only one we know which is incomplete, offering us the potential to be more (or less) human. On the one hand, no lion can refuse to be leonine, but the daily papers offer irrefutable evidence humans can act far less than humanly. On the other hand, no lion goes into a village, gobbles a lamb, then stumbles away moaning, “Oh God! I did it again! I need counseling.” Humans do. At least good humans do. Bad humans don’t. What separates us from beasts is not body or brain—both of which they share. What differentiates us is the human soul.
Animals can know, but only humans have the potential (which needn’t be activated) to understand—ourselves, the world, the reasons for things—at least to some degree. An animal just goes along, ambling through life, a slave of its inner juices and programming. We have at least the capacity to ask, “Why? Why do people suffer? Why would a good God give freedom to a tribe of (highly evolved) apes inadequately prepared to use it wisely? Why must we die?” If there is no God, of course, there are no answers to those questions, and asking them is the height of absurdity, as useless as asking why the dice came up snake-eyes this particular time.
Yet what differentiates our species from every other is precisely that ability to understand. Why then are we the only ones cursed with a hunger for food that doesn’t exist? Why this God-sized hunger? If there is no God, if everything is just a random accident, including ourselves, then evolution took one blind, cruel step too far and came up with a species that knows its very existence is ultimately purposeless. The French writer Camus said that, in a godless universe, the two greatest curses are intelligence and hope. And one boy put it even more concretely: “Without God, life is an Easter egg hunt. And there are no Easter eggs.”
Believers—even halfhearted and occasional ones—say we have that hunger because there is, in fact, a God who not only has all the answers (however unfathomable to earth- and time-bound minds) but who also will fulfill our hungers. Yet many believers avoid heavy God questions till heaven takes on real meaning, that is, till heaven stares them in the face! Till then there are a lot of distractions.
Perhaps the reason many so-so believers find no need for organized religion is that they can satisfy those hungers (at least for a while) with junk food for the soul: TV sitcoms, the ball scores, the National Enquirer. Some distract the hunger for God with far worthier but ultimately still incomplete fare: art, music, literature. Unlike the mental bubble gum of most popular “art,” they move the heart; they enrich the soul. And yet there is still a hunger unsatisfied: to plug into the power that energizes it all. St. Augustine probably said it best: “Our hearts are restless till they rest in You.”
The solitary Christian is a contradiction
Many who genuinely acknowledge that inner need of the ultimate connection argue that one ought to be able just to go out into the woods or upon a mountain peak and commune with the enlivening presence of God. My first response to that is, “Fine! When was the last time you actually did it?” But another, less bristly response is: “Why either/or? Why not both?” In fact, worshiping God together is far more enlivened for those for whom weekly Mass is not their only contact with God in seven days. It’s as ludicrous to walk into a church “cold” and anticipate getting zapped as it is to expect the same dazzling effect on a first date.
The genuine hermits among us are few. We need one another. The worst punishment a human can endure—perhaps more painful than liberating death—is solitary confinement. What’s more, having other people worshiping with you (however apparently insulated) does give a feeling that you are not the only one. Even further, we have a need to feel (not just know) that we’re not alone, that we have a communally held notion of what it’s all about, what we are groping toward, what explosive effect on our solitary lives comes from our adoption, together, into the Trinity Family.
If Jesus embodies the will of God for us, then we have no right to stay huddled in the Upper Room. Just like his first disciples, we are sent, as a serving community, out into the highways and byways to find the indifferent, the dulled, the bored and invite them into that community which celebrates each week that we no longer dread death, no longer anguish over our guilt, no longer fear the world is all on our shoulders alone.
All the boats leak!
“All right. I’ll admit I need other people. But why be Catholic? Why not Lutheran or Methodist or Anglican?” No problem with that at all. If you’re really serious about it (unlike those people who propose praying in the woods but never do), there are books and encyclopedias aplenty. Just haul down a few volumes and read about each one. Test them out, like Goldilocks, to see which are too hard, which too soft, and which “just right.” Then maybe even attend a service or two; meet some churchgoers and talk to them.
Fair warning, however: Don’t expect any of the realities of the Churches to live up to the idealistic descriptions. Any student knows his or her real school is quite unlike the glowing description in the brochure. Ideals, like the North Star, are guides, not destinations. Any ideal—even the gospel—is going to have an embarrassing mess of loopholes and shoddy spots and “not quites” and downright scandals when embodied by human beings, with their own axes to grind, vested interests and blind spots. If you want better, best try another planet.
There are many embodiments of the Christian belief, but it seems inescapable that—no matter what its faults (and they are many)—the Roman Catholic Church does seem to be “the original.”
We need one hand on the tiller
One of the oldest metaphors for the Church is Peter’s fishing boat. Good insights into the Church are packed into that metaphor: We’re on a journey with a map, lots of stormy weather, people slipping overboard, survivors being pulled in, mutinies among the crew, getting off course, being attacked by pirates. And a boat needs a captain when everybody’s losing their head. He may not be the ideal captain—too lax, too strict, too single-minded (like Ahab in Moby Dick), but if everybody grabs for the tiller we’re all in trouble. Then again, for quite some time Peter wasn’t ideal either, yet what his crew managed has lasted 2,000 years.
Jesus intended the Church he founded, quite clearly, to reach out as far as possible, “to the ends of the earth,” and to embrace women and men of all shades of political attitude, race, language, social position, color. To unite that transcultural entity, as with any society, there has to be a single director, perhaps less inflexible than many popes have been, but more than a mere figurehead symbol like the Queen of England.
Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican traditions all are surely holy and trace their history ultimately back to the root Church. But Orthodox seem (at least to me) too nationally and geographically divided; Protestants, with almost uncountable separate groups, seem not a Church but many Churches. Except for a few, their ritual does not even claim to transform; only to “remind.” Anglicans seem to have a lot of compassion and flexibility, and yet their flexibility seems (to me) too diverse.
No matter what my difference from the opinions of various popes, the papacy is a force in my life. In the hurly-burly of materialism, exploitation, capitalistic and socialistic saber rattling, there is always a focal, powerful figure who comes forward to remind us what we are: human beings ennobled by Christ. The pope is, for me, a father. I don’t always agree with my father. But I need one.
And what about the prodigals?
I doubt anyone can “leave the Church,” any more than one can “leave” his or her family. When the prodigal son left home to seek his own way without his father’s interference, he may have left the house, but he didn’t stop being a member of that family. He may have been a remiss and ungrateful son; he may never have written or come for a visit on the holidays. But he never stopped being a son of that father or a part of that unique family. He could no more forswear this family than he could reject his DNA. As they said of James Joyce, “You can take the boy out of the Church, but you can’t take the Church out of the boy.” They may be “nonpracticing Catholics,” but they’re still Catholics.
A major problem arises for such people (as any priest knows too well) at those key moments in human life that are just too “big” for anyplace else but a Church. Birth, marriage, death—these are moments when God is no longer escapable, when this event has to be celebrated! At these times it’s not sufficient merely to go to a justice of the peace’s office or issue a birth or death certificate. The event’s got to be put into some far greater context. That’s when the prodigals head for home.
But I, at least, have some difficulty with those “flying visits home,” like the prodigal son returning not to apologize but to have his mother do the laundry, put the arm on his father for a bit of cash and wing right out again—not to be heard from again till he is in need. For many who ask for Baptism, marriage or Christian burial with Mass, there is every indication that this is a one-time thing. I find it difficult as a priest to induct children into a “club” in which their own parents take no significant interest. I find it difficult to offer a wedding Mass which is of itself only an excuse for dress-up and flowers and a thundering organ—and is less important to the couple than any of those surface inessentials.
If a man or woman has led his or her life in reasonable peace about his or her lack of overt religion, I find it a violation of the deceased’s conscience (and my own) to offer them Christian burial merely to ease their relatives’ consciences. At those times, I ask those requesting Mass to sit down and write out for me why they want a priest there—not me as an old friend, but any priest. It often has most salutary results. Most nonpracticing Catholics are not mean-spirited. They’re just too busy with what seem like far more important matters than their God-sized hunger.
If you give it an honest chance, the Mass—not just the externals but what we allow to transpire within our souls—can be a reminder that our innermost selves live not merely in our day-to-day involvements but also beyond time and space, right now! If we can just let go the pretenses and defenses, the messed-up priorities, we can begin to understand our true selves, members of the Body of Christ, animated by the divine Spirit.
The historian Paul Johnson wrote: “Man is imperfect with God. Without God, what is he?” Our Church is, undeniably, imperfect. But as Peter said when the Church was still a mustard seed: “Lord, to whom else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
William J. O’Malley, S.J., a priest, teaches theology and English at Fordham Preparatory School in Bronx, New York. He has written numerous books and articles over several decades. His two most recent books are Why Be Catholic? (Crossroad) and Clever Foxes and Lucky Klutzes (Tabor).