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My dialogue with a friend about the basis of belief.
My dialogue with a friend about the purpose of the Church.

Why I am still a Catholic


This is a question that many people have often asked themselves. It is in fact the title of a book written within the last few years by a group of "liberal catholics". It tends to arise when a person perceives themselves to be somehow on the periphery of the institutional Church. It is a question that certainly troubles me, and has done so for almost as long as I have been a Catholic. The root of the problem for me is not - as for many others - the Church's novel teaching on marriagee, sex and sexuality, but what I perceive to be a derogation from Apostolic Tradition and Rationality towards a defensive irrational conservatism on the one side and an aggressive intemperate liberalism on the other.

I discuss the wider questions of "Is God?"; "What is the basis of Christian belief?"; and "What is the point of the Church?" elsewhere.

The example of Athanasius

I think that the question is itself mis-posed. When Athanasius was opposed to the overwhelming majority of his fellow bishops, I doubt that it ever occurred to him that his opponents were "The Church" and that he should separate himself from that communion. Equally, I don't think that he saw himself and those that agreed with him as being "The Church". If he had done, he'd have simply walked away from the debate and set up his own organization. I think that he saw the vast body of the laity, most of whom must have been terribly confused by the goings-on, as The Church: and that it was his business to fight to protect them from being led astray by false shepherds.

The prophetic role of the laity

I do not compare myself to Athanasius in any way, except that every member of Christ's faithful has an obligation to proclaim and defend the Apostolic Tradition. This is first entered into at Baptism and is what the anointing at Confirmation is all about. The "priesthood common to all believers" carries this obligation and duty. The laity should not just passively listen and accept whatever the hierarchy say. They have a crucial role in preserving and passing on the Apostolic Tradition. When the Patriarch Nestorius publicly rejected calling Mary the "God-bearer" (Theotokos) he was booed out of his church by the congregation.

Understandably, but wrongly, the hierarchy are not very enthusiastic about the laity exercising this role. The Bishops like to think that they always know best, though manifestly they often have not done so in the past: and that the role of the laity is just to do and believe as they are told. This is to entirely forget the prophetic charism that always operates within the church, orthogonally to Her hierarchical constitution.

What I am trying to say is that I think that I have some kind of obligation to defend the Gospel and to oppose error within the Church, as well as I can, even if that error is rooted at the highest levels. It is not good enough to just give up, walk away and form myself some comfortable spiritual hermitage. This isn't true just of myself, or of some sub-set of the laity, but of all the laity: though most would either deny it or claim to be incompetent to fulfil it.

Inside or Outside?

An obvious question remains, namely wouldn't it be more effective to oppose such error from outside the institutional framework, where one could act and speak freely, rather than from within, where one is in effect cowed into silence? There are two points here. First it isn't obvious that anyone would listen to me if I "left the Church". I would be dismissed as a disaffected extremist. Second, it would essentially compromise my objective: as it is central to my belief that Christ founded a Visible Community of Faith, and that, at least legally and formally, this Apostolic Fellowship is continued into the present as the (Eastern-) Orthodox and (Western-) Catholic Church.

Another obvious question is, why not simply look to where one could do the most good, and leave the difficulties of the Catholic Church to Almighty God? I suppose that I don't have any problem with this, as long as it doesn't entail me reneging on my membership of the Catholic Church. I have tried to play a useful role in the Latin Mass Society, Quest and the LGCM, but been given short shrift each time.

The pedophile priest scandal

More recently, the scandal of the sexual abuse of children by priests has caused many Catholics to cease practising. They feel that they cannot associate themselves with an organization that manifestly put preserving its secular reputation above the interests of traumatized children. I quite understand how such people feel. I have no wish to be associated with or offer any support whatever to such an organization.

However, there is a mistake here. The organization guilty of this abomination is the set of fallible human beings that presently constitute the Catholic Hierarchy: Pope Benedict XVI; Cardinals Law and Murphy O'Conner and the rest of the sorry lot. It is not the Catholic Church - the Body of Christ - that is guilty of the outrage. The hierrarchy is not identical with the Church. Not even the Platonic Form of the Ideal Hierarchy is equivalent to the Church, still less the set of sinners that currently pastor Christ's Faithful! To leave the Church because of the wickedness of the present leadership is inappropriate.

The Church is not a human institution

If the Church was just a sort of human club or "voluntary association", then this would be a sensible response. After all, such a society has as its life and norms whatever activity and policy is decided by its executive committee: that is all. Even if, like the Latin Mass Society, it has a constitution that supposedly limits the power of the leadership, the leadership is generally able to ignore or "re-interpret" this so long as the membership do not notice, do not care or acquiesce. In the end, if one doesn't approve of the policies adopted by the leadership then one either protests and is expelled or resigns one's membership.

However, the Church is no such thing. While from a sociological perspective She is just such a "voluntary association", from a theological perspective She is much more. Those who exercise leadership have no ability to redefine Her objectives or purpose and are all directly answerable to a higher authority: God. The pope is the "Servant of the Servants of God" and, in a sense, answerable to the laity whose interests he has the primary duty to uphold and advance. If the hierarchy of the Church fail in their mission of demonstrating and defending the Apostolic Tradition of God's Kingdom of Love and Justice then it is they that have failed: not that Tradition, not the Gospel, not the Church.

The importance of not allowing evil to triumph

To separate oneself from the Church when the hierarchy fail is to loose faith in the power of God to preserve and reform His Church. It is to allow evil to triumph, even if the Powers of Hell could prevail against the Kingdom of God's Friends!

This scandal is only one of many

As a final word on the topic, I must point out that the "pedophile priest cover-up" is only one scandal among many at the present time. The hierarchy is also guilty of:

What is to be gained from membership of the Church?

All that I've said up to now is in terms of obligations that I feel rest upon me. "Think not of what the Church can do for you, but of what you can do for the Church." Is there anything to be said on the other side? As far as the contemporary church, very little, I'm afraid. Its fellowship should provide encouragement, consolation and support. It does not. Its teaching should provide clear rational guidance, and Apostolic doctrinal and spiritual formation. It does not. Its worship should be devout, dignified, beautiful, inspiring and moving. It is not. Thank God there are exceptions if you look for them and don't just acquiesce in the mediocre norm. There are a few good priests who maintain a degree of integrity, orthodoxy and dignity in their ministry. Not all the laity are ignorant, servile, or rebellious.

Of course, there are the Sacraments. I remember the utter anguish that I went through when for a time I thought that I would have no choice but to "excommunicate myself". Though going to Mass has often been no more than a chore, the idea of being denied or denying myself Holy Communion is horrendous. The idea of not being able to make use of Sacramental Confession hardly less so.

Moreover there is the Catholicism of the Past. This is a vast resource of teaching and spirituality. It includes all the Oecumenical Councils and the creeds they authored; Sacred Scripture; the writings of the Fathers of the Early Church and the insightful wisdom of many holy men and women. Obviously, this is there for anyone to make use of, but if one does so with any integrity it is impossible to avoid the central message that this body contains: that formal membership of the Visible Church is not an optional extra but the essential foundation of the Christian Life, because this Visible Church is the most legitimate continuation of the community of Jesus' friends into the present day.

Strangely, I think that there is another effect at work too. Whenever people "split off" from the Visible Church (even for the very best of reasons, and even if they don't do so "thoroughly"), then they tend to drift further and further off in some direction or other which is somehow congenial to them. For example, now that "The Priestly Society of Pius Xth" has to some degree left Catholic Unity, its preaching is, in my very limited experience, becoming Jansenist in tone: possibly because they are all "rigourists" at heart and because a large number are French, excuse my Francophobia! Even though the body of the Church is in a terrible mess, the very fact that it encompasses a (somewhat legitimate) spectrum of opinion and style tends to keep those that actively associate themselves with it from going too far off the rails.

I accept that these reasons are not enough to recommend membership of the Roman Jurisdiction to a seeker of truth in good faith. I should be able to point to clear objective evidence in favour of the proposition that - on the whole - such membership produces manifest fruit; so that the matter could be decided exactly as Our Blessed Lord insists it should: "By their fruits you shall know them". In the past, a Catholic apologist would have said something along the following lines:

The True Church must be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostollic. The Roman Church is all of these.
She is One throughout the World: though admiting of variation and diversity. She has a clear governance and a manifest consensus of faith.

She is Holy: boasting many notable saints, with a huge variety of character and spiritualities. Moreover, She insists in Her preaching on conversion of life and an aspiration to holiness. She offers a clear remedy for the slavery of sin and the oppression of guilt in Her practice of the sacrament of penance.

She is Catholic: being open to all and active in all nations and lands, with the exception of those few places where She is outlawed (eg Saudi Arabia and many other Arab countries, The Peoples Republic of China, North Korea). She is respectful of secular diversity and adopts as Her own whatever goodness and wisdom She finds in the cultures that she encounters.

She is Apostollic: having valid Orders; a profound respect for the Scriptures and the teaching of the early Fathers and an absolute concern to defend, interpret and proclaim the Apostollic Tradition.

Nowadays, these claims are all compromised:
While She is One throughout the World: She is riven by disputes and rebellions of various kinds. Her very worship is a cause for dissension, not fellowship. Some of Her most typical and distinct teaching is ignored or directly denied by both laity and clergy. The only answer to this wholesale breakdown of Catholic Order forthcoming from The Vatican is a continual insistance on uncritical obedience.

While She maintains the means of Holiness and sometimes proclaims the universal vocation to sanctity, John Paul II was more keen on declaring people to be saints than on admonishing them to become such! While I do not think that Hell-fire sermons are much good for anything; the shere complacency, casual self-satisfaction and presumptiousness evident in contemporary catholic life is frightening. The practice of regular confession has become at best a distant memory for the overwhelming majority of catholics. Similarly, even the slightest attempt at an asceticism (eg "Fish on Fridays") is the exception rather than the norm. The best that most Catholics aspire to is giving a little cash to CAFOD, occasionally.
Of course, there are still good and kind Catholics. I have met a few of them, but there are very many good and kind folk out there who are not Catholics! I see no contemporary evidence of any correlation between being a Roman Christian and being compassionate, forgiving, hospitable, wise and kind. I sincerely wish that I did, but I don't!
I do not know what kind of a person I would be if I were not a follower of Jesus, however I have every reason to believe that my membership of the Roman Church has had a bad effect on my character. My experience of Methodism as a context for spiritual growth was entirely positive: though limiting. My experience of contemporary Catholicism has been almost entirely negative.

She is still open to all (except "practicing homosexuals") and present throughout the world; though She is dying a not so lingering death in Western Europe, which used to be Her heartland.

She still has valid Orders, though the new rite of Episcopal Consecration is profoundly suspect. She maintains a formal respect for the Scriptures and the teaching of the early Fathers; however the Vatican increasingly chooses to spin and nuance the Apostollic Tradition in ways that it is difficult for any thinking (wo)man to accept.

My personal conviction

For myself, I refuse to let a set of ignorant, short-sighted, weak priests steal my Church from me and then tell me to "clear off!" If, as is my experience, they cannot preach a sensible and orthodox sermon on the Trinity: the core doctrine of the Christian Faith, then why should I pay any attention to them when they pontificate about peripheral matters?

Why should you become a Catholic?

As for you, why should you be a Catholic?
Because the Church needs people just like you. "Take up your cross and follow me."

Because of the Sacraments. "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, there is no life within you."

Because you need an anchor to stop you drifting away from Gospel Waters into the Reefs of Error.
"What you bind on Earth is bound in Heaven."

Because it will give you peace of heart. "The Truth will set you free."

Because it will give you the right context for your continued intellectual and spiritual exploration of God, Yourself and the World. "The Spirit will lead you into all truth."

Because, deep down, you suspect that you should. "In my Father's House there are many mansions."

To enter the Church is to find yourself at home at last. But it is not to have arrived in a definitive sense, for the home is a tent, and the tribe is a pilgrim people en route for the promised land of the Kingdom of God's Friends, which is even now at hand but has yet to be realized.

The testimony of a female friend

"Being both gay and Catholic in my corner of the Diocese of North Carolina is not the most ideal situation. The gay-friendly parishes are embarrassingly casual, to the point that one wonders whether Mass has truly been said.  There is one parish in the diocese where the pastor has an indult to celebrate the Tridentine Mass every Sunday, and it is a parish thoroughly devoted to the present and most recent Pontiffs and all their pontifications. I can't exactly call myself traditionalist in that sense, as it is something I've yet to experience. What I have experienced most of my life in the Church, and continue to experience, is the kind of Mass so lacking in devotion and a sense of holy awe that I escaped to the Episcopal (Anglican) communion for a while, where at least the liturgy was somewhat more inspiring. But, of course, I came to accept that the Eucharist was watered down in that barely meaningful, protestant way. I had no choice, I felt, but to return to the banal liturgies where at least our Lord was truly present in the Sacred Mysteries.
It was and remains a very difficult choice to return to the Roman Catholic Church. I believe the Vatican's pronouncements on the nature of who I am have exacted a devastating spiritual toll on me.  It is all I can do some Sundays to get out of bed and to the church where I will find it a struggle to lift my heart to the Almighty, because the liturgy almost fights me every step of the way. I will go in fear of hearing something hurtful proclaimed from the pulpit, which I will suffer in silence because I remain in the closet, in deference to my career (in educational administration) and potential custody issues regarding my children.
Why do I stay? Because I know that Christ waits for me there, and He must be my All. There is no misguided teaching that should prevent me from receiving Him, no matter how much pain it might cause me. I shouldn't have to suffer at the hands of Christ's shepherds, but untold numbers of saints through the ages in fact have. Who am I to complain? In the end, all these things shall pass away. And ultimately, I am living for eternity."

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