The other day, a childhood friend contacted me through Facebook. She had been raised Catholic but now does not believe in God. She knows that I am a convert to Catholicism who writes on religious subjects and wanted to know what drew me to Catholicism and how I could remain Catholic. She wasn’t arguing against belief in God; she was simply curious how I could affiliate with a religion that, for many people, does not seem to value women and that many are leaving.
The question about how I could remain Catholic was what really grabbed my attention most. What could I say? While I was thinking about it, I suddenly remembered that I had answered that question earlier this year, in an essay I wrote for the Catholic Channel atPatheos.com, during its blogger symposium on the topic, Why I Am NOT Leaving the Catholic Church. After reading through that essay, I sent my friend the link to it. Here is the essay, slightly edited and revised for publication here.
Will I remain Catholic?
When Patheos’s Catholic bloggers held a blogging symposium on Why I Am NOT Leaving the Catholic Church, I decided to throw my two cents into the discussion. Before I answer the question of whether or not I will remain Catholic, I would first like to look at a few reasons I find insufficient—in themselves, at least—for staying in the Church.
Catholicism is true. Yes, well, so is gravity. And, yet, every year, knowing gravity is true, men insist on attempting to defy it. Sometimes, they succeed. Other times, they fail. The truth of gravity is not, in itself, sufficient to convince some people to act prudently in its regard.
The same is true of Catholicism, I’m afraid. I believe, completely, that the Catholic Church has the fullness of truth, revealed by God for our salvation. And yet, over the past decade or so, I have watched countless Catholics (including many converts who came into the Church because they believed in the truth of Catholicism as fervently as I do) walk away from the Church—not because they are no longer able to believe, but because, for some reason, it seems that they no longer want to believe or care about believing. Sometimes they turn to other churches, sometimes to other religions. Sometimes they simply drop into apathy. But each and every one of them once wholeheartedly embraced the truth of Catholicism.
I suspect one reason is because truth alone, stripped of all else, is a brutal taskmaster. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his homilybefore the opening of the papal conclave in 2005, put it another way: “Love without truth would be blind; truth without love would be like ‘a clanging cymbal'” (1 Cor 13:1).
I cannot be arrogant enough to suppose that truth alone will keep me in the Church when I have seen that it is not enough to hold the hearts and minds of better men and women than me.
The Church provides Christ in the sacraments. I often hear Catholics remark that they remain in the Church for Christ in the Eucharist. “No one is going to deny me the Real Presence of Christ!” they say.
And yet many find ways to have the sacraments without the Church. Many radical traditionalists, unwilling or unable to accept the development of doctrine and practice in the Church over the past half-century, have clustered around likeminded priests and rogue bishops to receive valid (if illicit) sacraments, along with interpretations of Catholicism that they prefer. Many radical progressives, unwilling or unable to accept the authority of the Church over the past half-century, have gone forth and done likewise.
Lest those who consider themselves orthodox suppose they are immune from this temptation, allow me to share that I have watchedrumors unfold this past year that there are Catholic clergy and laity, still fully in union with the Holy See, who explored “important countermeasures . . . in preparation for [this past] October’s Synod on the Family,” in preparation for the possibility of pastoral directives from the Vatican that they intend to resist. I have even seen individual priests, in posts to social media, murmuring about how they intend to avoid any directives they might receive from a bishop or religious superior to offer the sacraments in accordance with authoritative pastoral directives with which they happen to disagree.
Basically, if you want the sacraments badly enough, you can figure out a way to get them without having to trouble yourself with staying loyal to the Church entrusted by Christ to be their custodian.
What other Catholics do won’t affect me. Many orthodox Catholics delude themselves into thinking that the scandals wrought by bad bishops, predatory priests, and lackadaisical laity will have no effect on their own spiritual lives. There are two problems with this.
First of all, if those scandals don’t affect you, then that is a problem in itself. If you refuse to feel outrage when clergy commit grave evils, or shrug when laity don’t live out their Faith, then you are showing signs of a calloused spirit. Either that or you are refusing to recognize and name evil for what it is.
Secondly, I don’t think it possible to assume that you are that special of a snowflake. I’m afraid that the evils others do will catch up with you eventually.
When the priest abuse scandal of 2002 first broke, a Catholic convert I was acquainted with steadfastly refused to recognize the magnitude of the problem. He constantly chastised others for expressing their outrage at the bishops who had allowed grave evils to occur and who had shielded the predators. A few years later, long after everyone else had been able to lick their wounds and move on, the reality of the horrors caught up with him, and he apparently could not handle it. Because he had also managed to alienate most of his social circle, he did not have many fellow Catholics left from whom to receive emotional support. He ended up leaving the Church; last I heard from him, he has become a strident anti-Catholic chastising Catholics for the scandal of abusive clergy.
The question . . . again
So, then, given this, will I remain Catholic?
God only knows.
I mean that quite literally. God only knows.
I have fallen away from practice of my Catholic Faith before. I tell that story in this blog post, but here is the nutshell:
I was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church in 1996. A couple of years later, I lapsed. I didn’t reject the Church, but I stopped going for about eighteen months. At the time, it was my non-Catholic parents who urged me to start attending church again. They didn't particularly care for the Catholic Church, but they appreciated the change for the better that they had seen faith give me. In retrospect, I consider this lapse a grace, because it has acted as something of an inoculation against a more spectacular fall—one I readily admit could well have occurred after the explosion of the clergy abuse scandal in the U.S. in 2002.
I have also struggled with temptations against faith:
Political ideals I took for granted to be correct I discovered were not always in line with the teaching of the Church. Prominent Catholic clergy and other teachers of the faith I respected and admired either suffered spectacular falls of their own or jumped the rails of Catholic orthodoxy to greater or lesser degrees. Even the ordinary obligations of being a Catholic (e.g., going to the sacraments, times of fast and abstinence) occasionally can challenge natural concupiscence. As our Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, once said: "The ways of the Lord are not comfortable, but we were not created for comfort, but for greatness, for good." Benedict’s brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, made the same point more colorfully: "It can't be all peace, joy, and pancakes."
I have even struggled with temptations to apostatize. I don’t intend to give you details of that, since I consider the matter personal, but I share the fact of those temptations because they exist and they need to be acknowledged as existing. No good comes from refusing to admit one’s own limitations. And no good comes from denying that these kind of temptations can afflict anyone—no matter where they are in the spiritual journey or how frequently they practice their Faith.
Temptations are not sinful in themselves; they are to be expected inthe struggle of faith and can be used as stepping stones to closer union with God. Denial, on the other hand, gives the temptations power and eventually can make them impossible to overcome.
And again . . .
Then how will I remain Catholic?
By the grace of God alone.
For some reason that I may learn only in the next life, God wants me to be Catholic. He has given me the grace to become Catholic, he has given me the grace to remain Catholic even in the midst of struggle, I pray he will continue to give me the grace to remain Catholic.
I do not think the grace to remain Catholic will be given in one lump-sum payment, as one might choose to receive winnings from a Powerball jackpot. Rather, I get just enough grace for today. Just enough grace to send the devil packing this time. Just enough grace to get past a new doubt or an old temptation. Not because I deserve that grace, not because I am better than anyone else who has not received that grace, but simply because God loves me and, for some unfathomable reason, wants me to be Catholic.
I can cooperate with that grace. I can maximize the potential that I will continue to remain in that grace. Learning my faith more deeply, receiving the sacraments regularly, praying for those whose actions harm the mystical body of Christ—those are all good ways to cooperate with the grace to remain in the Church. But, in themselves, they are but tattered rags. Only grace gives them the power to transform me into a faithful Catholic.
Which is why, at every Mass, during the consecration of the Eucharist, I pray for the grace of final perseverance.
By Michelle Arnold