I have often been surprised in recent years by the number of friends and family who have told me that they don’t believe anymore a lot of what the Roman Catholic church teaches, nor do they feel an obligation to abide by many of the church’s moral dictates. The surprise is not that so many people find the church’s teaching unbelievable. The surprise is how many of these same people still consider themselves Catholics.
I have asked myself a hundred times how this is possible. How can someone reject fundamental doctrines, many of which are even supposed to be infallible, and still consider oneself a Catholic? The Catholic Church itself tries to convince us that “once a Catholic, always a Catholic. Catholics cannot become “non-Catholics.” They are lapsed Catholics, or perhaps even more accurately “fallen-away Catholics.”
But this doesn’t match up with my own sense of myself. Although I am still discovering ways in which my early socialization as a Catholic influences my thinking, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, I feel no desire to interact with the institution of Roman Catholicism today, and I would not describe myself to anyone else as “Catholic.”
In pondering this conundrum for myself, I have come to understand that doctrine is not as important to many people as I was taught. For many people it is as Harvey Cox put it, “if you feel you belong, then you belong.”
Why then, raised as I was as a Catholic with friends even today going back to my Catholic days, do I not feel as if I am a Catholic? It’s not that I don’t feel welcome. It’s that I absolutely do not want to belong to a Church that seems to me to be so rigid, so frightened, so sexually neurotic, so authoritarian. But above all, I feel no sense of identification with an institution that itself cuts people off. Even if one agreed (which I don’t) that gays and the divorced or those who have an abortion are by definition sinners, how can a church that argues that we are all sinners — all of us — cut some sinners off from communion with those who presumably consider themselves saved?
It’s almost as if there were a group of Catholics getting ready to stone the woman caught in adultery. And then when Jesus said that he who was not guilty of any sin should throw the first stone, the entire Catholic congregation started throwing.
This seems to me to deny the single valid core message of Christianity: that we are all one. We are all in this together. Two thousand years ago, St. Paul told the Galatians that “here is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul did not say that here we are the saved rather than sinners. He did not say we are Catholics rather than ex-Catholics or non-Catholics. I think today he would probably say that here we are neither Catholic or Protestant, Black or White, Muslim or Christians, Buddhists or Communists. We are all of these things. Because the essential command of Christianity is to love our fellow human beings. All human beings.
This does strip Christianity of any claim to being the one and only true religion. Many other religions also are based on a fundamental respect for all humankind, even for all of life. Yes, of course, we belong to our own communities, our own cultures. We belong to different ethnic groups, different nations, different sexes, with different talents, interests, skills, and opinions. But that is potentially a great strength for humanity, not a weakness. We have incalculable benefit to gain from embracing our differences.
So if I’m going to feel a kinship with a community, it has got to be one that respects our differences. It must be a community that recognizes that we are all of us incomplete in different ways and that we all need each other. Above all, it is a community that doesn’t cut off anybody who might disagree with the high command.
Am I, I wonder, a minority?