Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Catholic by any other name…

Bill Keller, soon to be retired managing editor of The New York Times, recently outed himself as a “collapsed Catholic.” Writing readers Keller said that being a “collapsed Catholic” was even further removed from being a “lapsed Catholic” because, he said, “you never really extricate yourself from your upbringing.”

Keller’s note related to his review of “Absolute Monarchy—A History of the Papacy” in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Perhaps it was meant as a disclaimer to say he had no bias for or against the church or to cite his years of Catholic education as qualifications for opining on popes.

Keller’s remark bears on how we define Catholics and Catholicism. For sure the times are a-changin.’ Whereas once we spoke of a “good Catholic” as a “daily communicant,” today a “good Catholic” is a “church-going Catholic.” People who seldom go to Mass at all amount to cultural Catholics, whose spiritual identity is Catholicism but who have given up on sacramental practice. Such a position once bore a stigma in society, now less so, though the Church still requires attendance at weekly Mass for its members.

Many cultural Catholics have a fondness for their roots. A young woman I met on an elevator a few years ago typified such people. When she discovered I am a nun she gushed “I used to be Catholic.” She had no idea of the emotional pain she evoked as I encountered one more member of America’s second largest religious body, the former Catholics.

Her identification with Catholicism suggests something about its sticking power. The Irish playwright Brendan Behan knew it, despite constantly railing against the church. Friends advised him to stop complaining, join another church and be happy. Behan thought the idea absurd and replied (this is the cleaned-up version), “Look, I’m a lapsed Catholic, not a (expletive) eejit,” an eejit being the Irish term for idiot.

Part of this hold stems from how the Church defines those who leave or gradually fall off. The Church doesn’t refer to them by the name of whatever religion they choose subsequently, say Lutheran or Episcopalian. It doesn’t even refer to those who declare non-belief as atheists or agnostics. Instead, the church calls them as “former Catholics,” “lapsed Catholics” or “ex-Catholics.”

The hold may lie in the definition of the adjective “catholic,” which means all-embracing and wide-ranging. The Catholic Church doesn’t totally give up anyone. Even if you’re excommunicated, it expects you to attend Mass each week, though not to participate in the sacraments. James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake defined the Catholic Church as “here comes everybody,” giving a blunt, yet poetic expression to a Church with room for all.

One also suspects this hold comes from something more. Is it based in the image of Mother Church, emphasis on “mother,” who loves her children and doesn’t give up on them even when they don’t deserve it or don’t merit the affection, except for the accident of birth or in the Church, of baptism?

Is it the lifelong impact of prayers and other rituals, such as guardian angels to protect you, the Blessed Virgin to care for you, the rosary to guide your prayer, the Eucharist to sustain you, the soaring cathedrals to amaze you? Is it rooted in emotion laden events such as First Communion Day celebrations of purity and innocence or the deep comfort in a funeral Mass imbued with the conviction that we’ll meet again in heaven? Is it a wish to connect to a parent’s or grandparent’s Catholicism that provided a moral compass in facing life’s many challenges?

Is it grace? Is it this inexplicable gift of God’s presence, recognized not enough to stop us daily in our tracks, but sensed on occasion to make us pause at God’s creation, the gift of human life, the message in Louie Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”?

Whatever it is, this Catholicism, this grace, is real, and because of it Bill Keller and others, be they lapsed, collapsed, befuddled or bemused, are part of it. They are family, even if they no longer come by for dinner.


thatcatdavid said...

Let them be known as being in the same imperfect communion as Protestants. Too many are taking the title Catholic and legitimizing their attacks on the Church through this brazen claim, when in truth they are really relgio-political insurgents. Governor Cuomo, Governor Patt Quinn and Maureen Dowd of the NY Times are such people. What's more there are too many liberals in the Church as Pastors and priest. My own Pastor refuse to recite the word 'men' in the Nicene Creed as in 'For us MEN and our salvation..." It is because he is too carnal not that the authors of the creed were male chavanists. There has to be a statement from the Bishops that one is not Catholic as a heridatry rite. Everyone is intiated into the faith. You are not Catholic in other words simply because your parents were.

Michael Francis James Lee said...

Sister: Another "Grand Slam" article! Thanks for getting this out there for people to see.

God Bless!

Anonymous said...

There is so much I can say on this subject. First, I am a Catholic and have been since a baby. I go to church sporadically now. Not because I have ANY issues with the Church or her teachings. It has to do with the Catholic Churches in the US. I have been to so many churches over the years. I used to think only Prostetants shopped for the right church but Catholics have to do that as well. It used to be you could go into any Catholic Church and the Mass was the same no matter what. But these days the parish priests like to put their own spin on Catholicism. They add their own touches to Mass. They seem to think they have "options" on how Mass is said these days. It disgusts me and I hate going to Church. I actually get depressed thinking about going to church on Sunday because I never know what's going to happen or what the priest is going to say that may not follow the GIRM. I hope and I pray that this will eventually be addressed here in the US but it's gone on for so long now that it's just too common. This is just my observation as a practicing Catholic.

Alfred G."Jerry"Laverty said...

I think of myself as a devout Catholic,I watch EWTN Daily Mass every day,take time out for Prayer at 3Pm,say my morning and evening prayers,4Pm Mass on saturday,ST.Andrew the Apostle mission church,annual Men's Retreat,Holy Family Retreat Center,West Hartford,CT. I Know GOD is watching over me and looking after me from his Spiritual Realm! Everythings allright,God Bless!

Ruth Ann Pilney said...

"They are family, even if they no longer come by for dinner." I love that way of looking at it, Sister Mary Ann. We miss them, though, don't we?

Denise Bossert said...


The NYT led to a Facebook conversation I've been having with my son-in-law (and a friend of his) - both former Catholics. They do not simply feel justified in leaving the Church. They want Mother Church gone, designated a criminal institute (their words). And you described what my heart is feeling.

This one "had no idea of the emotional pain she evoked as I encountered one more member of America’s second largest religious body, the former Catholics."

ppfuchs- Peter P. Fuchs said...

I would like to know how the Catholic Bishops support the EWTN News Show "The World Over", which seems to have an attitude quite opposite towards former Catholics than the one you are espousing on this friendly sounding blog. You are quoting novelists and referencing Sunday dinners, but the official version broadcast from the JOhn Paul II Center by Raymond Arroyo regularly trades in falsehoods about people who disagree with the Catholic Church. In fact, the Catholic League's mouthpiece Bill Donahue is regularly to be heard there engaging in what can only be described as hate speech against any kind of Catholic, and certainly former ones, who disagree with whatever orthodoxy he is highlighting that day. So, the lovely burbles here seem a bit studied and forced. And not at all kind ultimately to people who have real concerns about the faith community they were raised in.

Unknown said...

You can’t argue with anyone who left the Catholic church because the priests and bishops didn’t practice the Catholic religion. Facts:
Thousands of priests raped children.
Bishops moved them, concealed it, and lied about it.
The priests, bishops and the congregation denigrates or ignores the victims.
God would be horrified at what his church leaders did in His name.
This Catholic church doesn’t practice the religion. That’s why they left. Now tell me where I’m wrong.