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.