Because I Like It
|By: James McCarthy; ©2000|
|Why are Catholics Catholics? As they will tell you themselves, most were born into the religion. Why do they remain Catholic? They say it’s because they like it. That’s what Jim McCarthy found when he interviewed Catholic leaving Mass. Read about it in this article.|
Because I Like It
Modern Catholics have become increasingly vocal in their displeasure with the Church’s teaching on issues that affect their everyday lives such as birth control and the ordination of women. But with respect to doctrines that they consider to be of a more theological nature—revelation, the sacraments, the Mass, and even salvation—Catholics are generally content to let the Church teach what it deems fit. Few are interested in the study of doctrine or could even explain terms such as the sacred deposit of faith, Tradition, and the Magisterium.
Recently Rob Marshall, a co-worker of mine, and I interviewed Catholics leaving Mass at Saint Joseph Catholic Cathedral in San Jose, California. We asked them about the origin of their religious beliefs. The first question was: Where do Catholic beliefs come from?
Richard, a man of about 50, answered, “From the Scriptures. I’m sure that there are some theological interpretations that are in there too,” he said, “but I would say primarily from Scripture.”
Tony agreed. “Bible. They’re all in the Bible.”
Pat, a middle-aged woman, shook her head when we asked whether she knew what the source of Catholic teaching was. “I wouldn’t know how to answer that,” she answered.
Beatrice was equally in the dark. “I really don’t know. I suppose from Jesus’ teaching. I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I’ve never thought about that.”
Mary Ann, a woman of about 40, was better informed about origins of Catholic doctrine. “From Jesus Christ and His apostles” Mary Ann told us. “We know them through the Bible and through the teachings of the Church.”
When we asked her if she was familiar with Magisterium, she not only gave an accurate definition, but provided a brief account of how the Church says it was formed.
“When Jesus was on earth,” Mary Ann began, “He made Peter the rock. From there we have various popes who have come down from him. And we have cardinals, bishops, and priests, down the line. And that is sort of the Magisterium of the Church. Sort of the government hierarchy that watches over, that are the shepherds of our Church. From them we learn what Jesus taught. They clarify it for us.”
Other Catholics were unable to identify the Magisterium.
“The Magisterium?” said one man. “Unfamiliar with that.”
“I have no idea,” answered a Catholic woman.
“Don’t know,” said Joanne, a teacher in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (R.C.I.A), the Catholic Church’s program for adult converts.
“I’ve never heard of it,” echoed Vera when we asked her what the Magisterium was. “No idea,” said Pat.
Most were just as unfamiliar with Tradition.
“I may have heard of that,” answered one man in a typical response. “But I can’t give you a definition.”
All the Catholics with whom we spoke knew about papal infallibility, but when we asked them if they personally believed that the pope was immune to error, the responses were divided.
“No,” said Rita. “He’s a man. He has his own points of view.”
“Nobody’s perfect,” said Tony.
“I think that he can make an error,” a Catholic woman told us. “But I would really like to believe he is infallible. I know that as a human, though, he can make a mistake.”
Other Catholics were confident that the pope could not teach error. Mary Ann was among them. I asked her what she would do if she read something in the Bible that seemed to be saying one thing, but the Church was telling her to do the opposite.
“I don’t think that happens,” Mary Ann replied.
“Hypothetically then?” I asked. “Would you follow what you thought the Bible was saying or what the Church told you to do?”
“I don’t think that could happen,” she answered, refusing even to consider the possibility. Richard was willing to consider the possibility, but told us that he would side with the Church.
“I would stick with the Church,” he said, “because of the theological knowledge that the Church has. I would accept their judgment over my own.”
Not all were willing to trust the Church to that extent.
“I would have to go by my own conscience,” one Catholic told us.
“I would be wondering who is telling the truth,” said another. “I don’t know, maybe the Bible.”
Most Catholics have never critically examined the doctrines of Roman Catholicism. They didn’t join the Church because they found its doctrines to be true, but, as they will tell you themselves, they are Catholic because they were born Catholic. The reason that they remain in the Church is because that is where they feel most comfortable. That’s what the people we interviewed outside Saint Joseph Cathedral told us.
When we asked Vera why she was a Catholic, she answered, “I want to be. I was born a Catholic, and I want to be one.”
Beatrice said the same: “Because I want to be. I grew up in a Catholic family. When I was young, I did whatever my parents did. Now that I am an old person, I enjoy being a Catholic. I never thought of changing my faith. I like being Catholic. I feel comfortable being a Catholic.”
Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest of the archdiocese of Chicago and professor of sociology at the University of Arizona, says that his research has shown that the primary reason that Catholics remain Catholic is very simple: “they like being Catholic.” Greeley believes that “as an institution the Catholic Church is in terrible condition” and American Catholics are angry “at the insensitivity and the incompetence of their leaders.” Nevertheless, those born Catholic for the most part remain Catholic because overall they like it.
What is it that people like about being Catholic? A booklet titled Why I Am Catholic: 21 People Give Their Own Answers  indicates that there are many reasons.
All but two of the 21 contributors to the booklet had been born Catholic. A common theme among their reasons for remaining in the Church was that Catholicism was part of their personal identity.
“I grew up Catholic in a household in which being Catholic simply was part of being,” wrote Ron, one of the contributors. “It was a legacy, the same as my name, genetic code, and language.”
Like many Catholics, Ron thinks of his Catholicism as a matter of his personal destiny.
“God wanted me to be Catholic,” Ron wrote, “and that was that.”
Kay, a registrar at a Midwestern university, saw her Catholicism in a similar way.
“My Catholic faith seems as essential a part of me as my heart,” Kay explained. “Somewhere, somehow, being raised Catholic made me want to remain Catholic, even during those college days when I rebelled against most other establishments.”
Others said they were Catholics because in the Church they found the moral framework that they needed for life. It was a place for their children to form proper values and to learn about God. They liked the emphasis in the Church on loving one’s neighbor, right living, and social justice. Others spoke of the beauty, inspiration, and peace that the Church brought to their lives.
“Celebrating communion every week is important to me,” wrote Ann. “It centers me and gives me the strength I need to accept the grace of God and live up to my values in my daily life.”
Several also mentioned that they liked the diversity they find within the Catholic Church. They approved of Rome’s willingness to accommodate everything from the traditional, to the contemplative, to hand-clapping Pentecostalism. They saw the Church as having a healthy mix of different kinds of people, all of whom were welcome. Related to this, others spoke of the sense of community that they found in the Church.
“I needed to be part of a real community,” explained one woman.
“Without doubt, the reason I remain Catholic is because of the internal support I have been given during my struggles with life,” wrote a Catholic teacher named Chuck.
Most of the contributors mentioned God in their explanation of why they were Catholic. Ten said that the Church was a place to learn about God, experience His presence, and find strength to live right and to cope with life’s trials. Five said that they felt that God had led them to be Catholic. A few also mentioned God in passing in remarks, such as: “God works in strange ways.”
The primary reasons the 21 contributors gave for why they were Catholic, however, had little to do with the religious beliefs and practices that distinguish the Roman Catholic Church from other churches. No one said that he was a Catholic because he was convinced that the Roman Catholic Church was the church instituted by Christ, or because Roman Catholicism was true, or because it taught what the Scriptures taught. Five of the 21 didn’t even refer to God when explaining why they were Catholics. Only five of the contributors mentioned the Lord Jesus, and only one of these, a teacher named Richard, with any emphasis. He was the only Catholic who spoke of Christ’s saving death on the cross or His resurrection. The only other reference close to this was a man who said that Christmas and Easter were meaningful to him because of Jesus.
All of this goes to show that doctrine is not important to most Catholics. They didn’t join the Church because of doctrine and they don’t stay in the Church because of doctrine. Indeed, many of the reasons the contributors gave for why they were Catholic would have been just as valid for explaining why they belonged to a social club or an ethnic heritage association.
It also explains why many Catholics are unaffected by criticism from non-Catholics that the doctrines of Roman Catholicism are unbiblical. Lacking both interest and knowledge, such Catholics simply shrug off doctrinal challenges to their faith.
What Patricia, a born-again Christian who had left the Catholic Church, experienced when she tried to witness to her Catholic parents illustrates this point. For months she had tried unsuccessfully to help her Catholic parents realize that there was a difference between Roman Catholicism and biblical Christianity. They refused, however, to discuss the matter or even look at the Scriptures with her.
Realizing that she wasn’t getting anywhere, one day Patricia decided to try a different approach. Her hope was that if she could at least get her parents talking about their religion, she might be able to move the conversation toward the gospel. With that in mind, she struck up a conversation with her father.
“Dad, what’s your opinion of Vatican II?” Patricia began.
“I didn’t know that there was another Vatican,” her father answered, thinking that Vatican II must be the designation of a new headquarters for the Roman Catholic Church.
It was then that Patricia realized how little doctrine had to do with her father’s loyalty to the Catholic Church. He didn’t even have enough interest in the teachings of his Church to be aware of the most important Catholic event of the century, the Second Vatican Council. He wasn’t a Catholic out of doctrinal conviction. His Catholicism was just “an old shoe that fit well,” as Patricia came to describe it.
The same is true of most Catholics. They are Catholic because they were born Catholic. They remain Catholic because they “like it.” Unconcerned about doctrine, they pass through life without ever having seriously questioned the veracity of the institution to which they have entrusted their eternal souls.
Adapted from Conversations with Catholics by James G. McCarthy (Harvest House Publishers: Eugene, 1997)
- Andrew M. Greeley, The Catholic Myth (New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1990), p. 3.
- Ibid., p. 4.
- Ibid., p. 6
- George R. Szews, Editor, Why I Am Catholic (Chicago: ACTA Publications, 1996).
- Ibid., p. 39.
- Ibid., p. 24.
- Ibid., p. 26.
- Ibid., pp. 8-9.
- Ibid., p. 44.
- Ibid., p. 12.