Elizabeth Scalia has challenged every Catholic with some sort of internet access to write a brief piece explaining why he or she stays Catholic, instead of leaving, in the wake of a recent Pew report that suggests Catholics continue to leave the Church in steady droves. So sure, I’ll bite and freewrite from the gut, no revisions, as I’m under the gun on too many projects.
I suppose the short answer is: Because I just got here.
I was reconciled with the Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. “Reconciled with” more than “received into.” Quick version: I was baptized Catholic but raised Lutheran from about six years old, for reasons which need not detain us now. I had an intense conversion experience as a young teen involving a fairly dramatic healing. I kept going to my Lutheran parish but started hanging out in baptist and Assemblies of God youth groups. Halfway through college I returned to the tradition of the magisterial Reformation (Luther, Calvin), finding there a theology and spirituality more substantive than what was on offer elsewhere.
In college I also had a good Catholic friend who planted seeds, as it were, that finally sprouted several years ago. He made sure none of us were under any illusions regarding what the Catholic Church did and didn’t teach. My Protestant friends and I were the most well catechized Protestants on the planet.
Fast forward: I get married in 1997, a year out of college. I go to Princeton for my M.Div. and Duke for my Ph.D. in New Testament. I take a job at a wonderful evangelical school. And finally having a real job, my wife and I get serious about starting a family. And so after about ten years of marriage, we finally get around to asking what marriage is for on a deep level.
And we run square into Catholic teaching on marriage, sex, and family, particularly JPII’s reflections on human love (what’s popularly known as the “Theology of the Body”) in its authentic, strong version, as JPII actually taught it. We decide on Scriptural, historical, and philosophical grounds the Catholic Church is right on these matters.
Once you decide contraception is evil, and also decide that that conviction really matters, there’s only a few places to go. Either you wind up Catholic, or you join some fundamentalist sect.
Other factors too: As a new professor in an evangelical context teaching precious young souls for whom Christ died, I found the theological dissonance among my colleagues and me unbearable. Students would ask me their deepest intellectual and personal questions (I’m getting married, should we use contraception? I think I’m gay, what do I do? I have an opportunity with ROTC to learn to slit throats–is that OK? I’m pregnant, do I baptize my baby? I’ve never been baptized, do I take communion at the all-school service? etc.) and I could give them good answers, but no answers that were ultimately authoritative, with their truth grounded in anything other than my own wits. I could give a good answer, but my colleague next to me could give another and my colleague on the other side a third. In spite of our common commitment to Scriptural authority, almost everything seemed up for grabs. With Newman, I decided that authoritative interpretation required an authoritative interpreter.
And then kids came. Our first was born in 2008, our second on the way and would be born late summer 2010. How do we raise them?
More reasons: The beauty of the Mass, especially in the extraordinary form, the deep sacramentality of Catholic prayer, eucharistic adoration, the cultural resistance the Church is able to offer to the latest deleterious fads and fashions, the Church’s commitment to beauty, goodness, truth, to reason and nature, to God and the human race.
We got to a point where everything other option seemed derivative, flat, sepia-toned, in comparison, in spite of the faith and goodness often found elsewhere. (New flash: Baptized Protestants and evangelicals are Christians.) With Walker Percy, we found ourselves saying, “What else is there?” So we plunged, believing that the Catholic Church was “the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time.”
I think most Catholics who leave the Catholic Church never really believe that claim, deep down. For many, religion is a consumer affair, and when they tire of or get offended by the Catholic brand, they switch or quit. Others (thinking of my friend Rod Dreher) did believe that claim deeply but have horrifying experiences and existential crises. A few believe it deeply but come to believe otherwise deeply for whatever reason.
But for us, that’s the claim we believe. And so when we run into headaches, when something in the Catholic world horrifies or annoys us, local or far afield, we’re not shocked. The Church on earth is composed of fallen humans clergy and lay whose fallenness and finitude remains even after baptism.
Knowing history helps: I just completed Sigrid Undset’s biography of St. Catherine of Siena. Whatever is happening today in the twenty-first century, we don’t have a papacy in Avignon, we don’t have multiple claimants to the throne of Peter, we don’t have cardinals leading armies and crushing cities.
I often think of Chesteron’s Five Deaths of the Faith in The Everlasting Man. I often wonder if he were around today if he’d speak of the last few decades as the Sixth Death of the Faith, given the precipitous drop in mass attendance and vocations as well as the fundamental infidelity surveys betray. Then there’s the situation in the Rheinland…ach. But we figure if the Church survived the prior five, she’ll survive anything: Five times “the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died.”
Some of us do better, some worse, but the Church remains. Our job in spite of whatever nonsense and sin and silliness we encounter is to endure in joy, to pray and to love, in Jesus, in the Catholic Faith. Our attitude is that of Frank Sheed:
We are not baptized into the hierarchy; do not receive the Cardinals sacramentally; will not spend an eternity in the beatific vision of the pope. Christ is the point. I, myself, admire the present pope (John Paul II), but even if I criticized him as harshly as some do, even if his successor proved to be as bad as some of those who have gone before, even if I find the church, as I have to live with it, a pain in the neck, I should still say that nothing a pope (or a priest) could do or say would make me wish to leave the church, although I might well wish that they would leave.