Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Why Are There Catholics?

Funny how my 4/19/05 post on the pope ("Benedict XVI") was all of two and a half lines long, but received quite a bit of commentary. I'd like to consider Lon's in particular. He wrote, in part:

Why do so many people cling to Catholicism when they don't really try to live by its rules, don't really believe its dogma, can see clearly the power/violence/arrogance it's been guilty of forever? Why not get rid of it from your life? If it no longer serves you, give it up...the [C]atholic church doesn't want intelligent, autonomous thinkers.
(For more comments, see the 4/19/05 Feedback).

First, I'd say Catholicism is a more of a culture than a religion, with a very deeply entrenched set of mores and beliefs. As I wrote in my 3/23/05 post ("Latinos Leave the Catholic Church), guilt and obligation are the bedrock of Catholicism. Behavior patterns of guilt and fear set in place by my parents continue to function powerfully for me, even though it's been decades since I took any god stuff seriously, and I don't think there's any way to completely purge myself of that. It's extremely hard to overcome the early and concrete belief that Catholicism is "The Way," and many Catholics feel devoted to the religion that nurtured our ancestors and parents. It's an extremely rich, mystical and sensual tradition. The experience of the Catholic mass captures all five of the physical senses (even smell and taste) plus the imagination. It feeds our innate sense that there is a mystery to life that we will never understand. It reminds us of our small role in the world even while it comforts us with the presence of a Divine Father Being who will provide all we need if we only follow His every word.

And there's the problem: we want to be good Catholics, but we also live in the real world. Most practicing American Catholics (and let's keep in mind that Catholicism is done differently in other parts of the world) function in a nest of personal contradictions and compromises. Unwilling to adapt our daily lives to an ancient belief system, we've been forced to become "cafeteria Catholics," that is, we take what works for us and leave the rest. And there are parts of this nuanced spiritual tradition that work for us. In its purest, unadulterated form Catholicism, like all religions, is just another journey towards oneness with the Spirit that is a part of all things. The difficulties come up in human daily practice. I think most American Catholics would agree with me as I say that to be Catholic is to be conflicted and questioning. If the Catholic church were more reasonable and contemporary and less asshole-y, I'm sure the Catholic church would not face the problem of membership loss that it currently struggles with in the United States.

Lon also commented that he left his Baptist beliefs when they no longer served him, but I'd say Catholicism must still be serving plenty of "intelligent, autonomous thinkers" or they wouldn't still be there. I believe Catholics actually find lots of room for debate and compromise among their brethren because if they didn't, the American Catholic pews would be empty by now. American Catholics aren't clinging to the belief that we have the "one true church," continuously victimized by a sinister governing body. American Catholics cherish the traditions of their families and the celebration of the mystery of life, "while they live in joyous hope" that one day the papacy will pull its head out of its Holy Ass.

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