Several weeks ago, I received a comment asking several questions on this blog post of June 19, 2007 “The night I left the convent.” The questioner asked if I was still a Catholic, if I believed in God, and if I’d felt a “desire to serve Jesus” when I’d entered the convent.
The questions might sound simple, but the answers aren’t. “Am I still a Catholic?” doesn’t have a black & white Yes or No answer. It depends on what being “Catholic” means.
I do not think the essence of being a Catholic or a Christian – by any definition Catholic or Protestant – lies in doctrine. It is a tragic mistake to think our salvation is based on what we believe and has led to centuries of religious slaughter. The fundamental Christian message is one of love. Nothing can replace it. And love can make up for all – all – the other deficits which might afflict us.
And so no, I am not still a Catholic by the demands of those who insist that I agree with the decrees of the Catholic hierarchy. I do not believe in the doctrines most traditional Catholics would accept as essential to Catholic belief. I have no doubt that by most standards I would be excommunicated. I would not even try to partake in communion.
In fact, I do not believe in what most believers mean when they use the term “God.” By definition, I cannot see how “God” can possibly be as human as most people conceive this concept. But more profoundly, I emphatically reject the concept of an all-powerful, all-loving creator who is prepared to send his creatures to an everlasting hell fire should they step over the mark and not manage to get to a priest for official forgiveness before death overcomes him. I was taught that even so much as eating a single bite of meat on Friday was a mortal sin, an act so evil that it would dam me for eternity if I didn’t get to confession and receive forgiveness. I won’t go on further at how hideous I experience this God to be. Yes, we live in mystery. We do not understand our universe in any ultimate sense. But I do not give “God” as my answer to those ultimate questions.
Yet there are other ways in which I am still a Catholic. The version of Catholicism I was given taught that all humankind are brothers. We are called on to love all of our fellow mankind, and to care for all living things. For me, the core of Christianity is “the greatest of these”. That, as St. Paul said, is love.
That really does mean, though, that we cannot divide the world into “us” and “them.” The important distinctions are neither Jew or gentile, male or female, Black or White, Muslim, Buddhist or Christian, believer or non-believer, the saved or the unredeemed, the right and the wrong.
We are all incomplete. We all need each other. We all need both to love and to be loved. And none of us are 100% right.
There are other ways as well in which I am still culturally a Catholic. I still like right answers, a preference which to some extent was reinforced by being socialized as a member of what I was told was the “one and only true church.” I was quite good when I was young at explaining and defending those “right answers.” I have found this tendency in general has often been useful in solving practical problems. But an attitude like that can interfere with creativity, and I have often failed to distinguish between rigid rules and principles. It was only in my later years that I have come to fully understand that rules are valuable suggestions that may be useful in achieving ones goals. But disobeying a rule or even a law isn’t the same thing as committing a sin.
I have never felt any particular passion to “serve Jesus.” Most of my life I have found great pleasure in helping others. I loved teaching, for instance, with a passion. And there was a time when I thought I was wise enough to construct a world that would eliminate injustice and unfairness and suffering. I wasn’t, and I am hugely grateful I was never given the power to demonstrate my ignorance.
So am I still a Catholic?
Depends on what that means.
Now I have to stop or I will end up moving this post to trash in sheer embarrassment.