Monday, May 30, 2011

Are they Catholics?

Since my reception into the Catholic Church nearly 20 years ago, I have had several encounters with Catholic converts whose beliefs or practices have caused me to ask myself: "If this person is Catholic, what is it that makes a person Catholic?" The question may seem merely academic, but the circumstances that have provoked it are quite concrete. The following cases are all based on fact, although names and details have been changed to preserve anonymity. They are, if you will, not "fiction" but "faction" -- based on fact:

Don and Rita

Don and Rita were received into the Church five years ago in an affluent suburban parish, St. Norbert's. Neither had been a practicing Christian of any kind, although there was some nominal Protestant affiliation in their childhood homes. Both in their sixties, Don is in his fourth marriage, and Rita in her second, both with adult children from earlier marriages living in other parts of the country.

Don describes the "Catholic part" of his life journey as beginning with an experience he had of God's presence one afternoon when, inexplicably, he wandered into St. Norbert's for the first time and found himself kneeling and praying in the back of the church. "Whoo, boy!" he says, laughing and shaking his head. "Wow! I've never felt anything like that in my life!"

He and his wife were received into the Church at St. Norbert's the following Easter. I asked whether they went through the RCIA class there. "No," said Don, "we're not really what you would call 'joiners', so the priest met with us a few times and that's all it took."

Further conversation revealed that neither of them appeared to be schooled in the most rudimentary facts of Church teaching. Neither ever goes to confession. Rita never goes to church. Don usually goes on Sundays, but neither has any acquaintance with the notion of "holy days of obligation" as applying to Sundays and other special days throughout the year. Any notion of Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday or Good Friday serving as important spiritual markers in their calendar is completely missing. Neither seems to have any existential appreciation of the notion of sin, let alone mortal sin. When I asked whether they had received the Sacrament of Confession, they seemed perplexed. They had met with the priest individually, they said, who asked them if they had any sins they would like to confess, but neither could think of anything. The priest had raised no questions about their irregular marital status.


Joe, a recovering alcoholic, was received into the Church 14 years ago after finding himself at an AA meeting at St. Mary's Catholic Church, a large urban parish. Raised a Pentecostal, Joe dropped out of church as a youngster after his parents divorced. He speaks fondly of his memories of church services as a youngster where people really "got into praising God" with their "hearts and voices."

When asked why he became a Catholic, Joe says without hesitation, "No other church did for me what the Catholic Church has done." When asked to explain, he replies that it got him on the path of "healing" from his alcoholism.

The chief difficulty Joe has encountered after becoming a Catholic is finding Catholics who seem to have "any understanding of Scripture" or familiarity with "how to really worship the Lord." When asked what he means, Joe explains that most Catholics don't seem to really "know Jesus," they just stand or sit in the pews "looking bored and uninvolved." They don't display the "joy of salvation," he says.

For all his appreciation of St. Mary's, Joe now attends a charismatic Catholic Church where he feels he can "really worship." They have drums, electric guitars, and the priest walks the aisles greeting everyone. "He looks right into my eyes when he greets me, you know, really making me feel personally welcome, like more than just a number."

Joe thanks God for his discovery of charismatic Catholics. They provide an environment in which he feels free to raise his arms during Mass and shout "Amen!" and speak in tongues. On the other hand, Catholic prayers such as the Rosary or Angelus or Act of Faith form no part of Joe's awareness, any more than such ideas as "apostolic tradition," "Church authority," "intercession of the saints," "indulgences," or "Purgatory." When asked about these sorts of things, or Catholic practices like making visits to the Blessed Sacrament in the church, or praying to saints, or whether he had a patron saint, he replied that he considered such notions "clutter" and "distractions." With a smile, he said he prefers to go "straight to Jesus." He considers it his mission in life to teach Catholics how to worship.


Helen was received into the Church 25 years ago in a small Southern town after converting from a Missouri-Synod Lutheran background. After finishing her doctorate in literary criticism a decade later, she began her teaching career at a large Midwestern university. She says she has had trouble finding a Catholic parish where she feels completely comfortable, because "the preaching and music is generally so bad." But she currently attends Immaculate Conception, a large suburban parish near the university where she teaches.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Helen six years ago when our family was en route from North Carolina to Iowa on a family trip. We stopped on Sunday and went to Mass with her and out to dinner afterwards. The parish was clearly affluent. What struck me, however, was how very like a Protestant church it looked. There were virtually no visible signs or symbols of Catholicism -- no holy water fonts, no crucifix (the processional "crucifix" looked like the Greek letter Tau), no tabernacle, no kneelers. There was an artificial waterfall outside a large plate-glass window at the very front of the church. Nobody genuflected. Everyone cheerfully greeted one another, shaking hands across pews. The congregation was ethnically diverse -- about a quarter each African-American, Asian, Anglo and Hispanic. The music was robust, polished and professional -- a mix of Hispanic and Gospel, with robed choir members swaying in unison to synthesizer, saxophone, and other brass winds accompaniment. The bishop was present that Sunday, although I cannot remember the occasion. But what made it Catholic? I couldn't tell.

Over lunch, I asked Helen whether she didn't miss the beautiful liturgy and music of her Missouri-Synod background -- "You know, the old red book," I said. She said she did, at times, but she now preferred the music at Immaculate Conception for its "progressive, contemporary feel," as well as its polished professionalism. The one thing that seemed to leave her dissatisfied, she said, was the preaching. "The form is generally good," she said, "engaging and well-organized." The problem was that it was "doctrinally weak." She would have preferred more "Biblical exposition" with specific "applications" to the parishioners' lives. That's where "the rubber meets the road," she said, in their "existential situation."

A couple of years ago, after sending Helen some emails expressing my enthusiasm for the "Tridentine" Mass we discovered after moving to Detroit, I managed to provoke her into attending one for herself. The results were disappointing for both of us. She said that the whole panoply of pomp, processions, vestments, incense, and Latin left her cold. Not only was the whole thing "utterly unintelligible," but, she said, it struck her as "elitist" and "smacked of pride." The important thing in a church service, in her opinion, at least, was "to understand what's being said." She asked: "Where's the Gospel if it can't be understood?" She quoted St. Paul, "I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a [foreign] tongue" (I Corinthians 14:19). "Correct me if I'm wrong," said Helen, "but I can't help wondering whether Pope Benedict's decision to grant greater liberty to the old Latin Mass isn't a step backward, really. What's important is to make the Gospel accessible, to transmit it in a medium that's transparent, that communicates to people where they are today, not to obscure it by wrapping it up in unintelligible archaic forms."


Tim Ferguson said...

It would be, perhaps, facile to make the statement that all of us are at different stages of our journey of faith (though I loathe how overused that imagery is), but I do think the point that you're getting to is spot on.

A combination of poor catechesis, the absence of liturgical and ecclesiastical discipline, and the erosion of the markers of our Catholic cultural identity has led to large numbers of Catholics with little or no Catholic sensibility.

There is a parochialism to the Church in many areas - with Catholics identifying themselves more with their particular parish than with the larger Body of Christ. "I go to the parish with the contemporary choir," "I go to the parish with the Latin Mass." While diversity, per se, is not a bad thing, there is often little that diverse groups of Catholics can point to and say, "We have this in common."

Strengthening catechesis is important, to be sure, but it is only a part of the picture. I laud the recent decision of the Bishops of England and Wales to restore the practice of Friday abstinence - and wish our Bishops would do the same. That cultural demarcation is clear, unifying, and meaningful. Restoring the Holy Days to their proper place in Catholic life would be another step. Identifying places of pilgrimmage and public processions would be others.

A restoration of ecclesiastical and liturgical discipline is a third piece of the puzzle. Bishops are reluctant to discipline wayward clergy or parishes that practice liturgical experimentation for a number of reasons. They must be aware that the tactic of non-confrontation has not been at all effective, and start manfully and publicly addressing these situations. Enforcing the norms of liturgical law, rigorously examining religious education and RCIA programs, reintroducing the formerly-common examination of priests every year or every five years, and clipping the wings of those who fail the exams.

Franciscan said...

CCC 1277: Baptism is birth into the new life in Christ. In accordance with the Lord's will, it is necessary for salvation, as is the Church herself, which we enter by Baptism.

CCC 308 Although Confirmation is sometimes called the "sacrament of Christian maturity," we must not confuse adult faith with the adult age of natural growth, nor forget that the baptismal grace is a grace of free, unmerited election and does not need "ratification" to become effective. St. Thomas reminds us of this:

"Age of body does not determine age of soul. Even in childhood man can attain spiritual maturity: as the book of Wisdom says: "For old age is not honored for length of time, or measured by number of years. "Many children, through the strength of the Holy Spirit they have received, have bravely fought for Christ even to the shedding of their blood."

Was their Baptism valid? Was their Confirmation valid?

If yes, then the answer is, "yes, they're Catholics."

Are they well-formed Catholics? Are they in full communion with Holy Mother Church? Apparently, no and no.

Ruth said...

Funny my journey into Catholicism was looking for the Tridentine Mass although I wouldn't have been able to put that name to it in 1978. To me so many of the Catholic liturgies I have attended over the past 33 years seem more Protestant than Catholic. Why is that?

Anonymous said...

An Episcopalian professor recently attended the first Mass of a Catholic seminarian who formerly had been his student at his university. The professor observed that the Mass seemed closer to a "Baptist" service than anything resembling his own Episcopalian liturgy.

The same professor has a son majoring in church history at the same university. He is thoroughly conversant with details of the liturgical year, the Book of Common Prayer, the Latin Breviary, etc. The son's college room mate is a lapsed Catholic as indifferent as he is ignorant of these sorts of questions of church tradition. The professor likes to make a point of asking: "So which is the more Catholic, my Episcopalian son or his lapsed Catholic room mate?"

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Pertinacious Papist said...


Thanks for the good words. I also appreciate your view of the restoration of the Friday abstinence in England and Wales.

In a similar vein, Ed Peters recently suggested to me an interesting rationale for lengthening the fast before Mass from one to at least three hours. The problem with the one-hour fast, he says, is that it's so short that it essentially forces a public declaration of conscience to abstain from Communion. As a result, we probably have all sorts of Catholics receiving Communion in a state of mortal sin, because they're embarrassed about abstaining.

If the fast were lengthened by only two more hours, says Peters, it would probably go a long way towards resolving some of this untidiness by offering non-Communicants an 'out': "Oh, he probably just forgot the time and took his breakfast too late."

The only exception Peters offers is for weekday Masses, for which he proposes retaining the 1-hour fast, for obvious reasons.

George said...

"What's important is to make the Gospel accessible ..."

I worry about this word "accessible." I don't deny it may have legitimate meanings. But I worry that far too often it means something like "dumbing down" the faith, translating it into some philistine medium that denatures it. It has the scent about it of Madison Avenue advertising consultants. But the faith doesn't strike me as something that is essentially marketable by such means. If anything, it was "marketed" by martyrdom and sacrifice and holding fast to the apostolic traditions.

George said...

The person named "Helen" complained about the Latin language making the liturgy inaccessible.

In an adjacent post on Martin Mosebach, there was this succinct response to precisely that question, raised by Die Welt:

Die Welt: How can the Roman liturgy in the “usus antiquior“ be offered today “to all the faithful“ if only a fraction of the faithful understand Latin?

Martin Mosebach: At all times only a few Catholics have been able to follow the Latin Mass word for word. Europe looks back on well over a thousand years of glorious Catholic culture without the people being able to understand Latin. They understand something more important: that in the rite the Parousia – the mystic presence – of the Lord takes place. Without this understanding, a person has understood nothing of the Mass, even if he thinks he understands every word. Moreover, for a long time there have been wonderful bilingual missals with which we can pray the mass with the priest. But it is indeed correct: the Old Rite requires a certain effort, a readiness to learn.

Hmyer said...

"As a result, we probably have all sorts of Catholics receiving Communion in a state of mortal sin, because they're embarrassed about abstaining"

I kind of doubt it. Communion typically occurs at 45 minutes into the mass. Unless folks are eating in their cars on the way to church, nearly everyone has fasted the required one hour

Pertinacious Papist said...


You misunderstand Dr. Ed Peter's meaning (or mine in relating his opinion).

Peters isn't suggesting that the chief problem with the 1 hour fast is that people receive Communion too soon after having consumed food. Rather, it's that people receive Communion in a state of mortal sin for other quite common and often embarrassing reasons because they would be embarrassed to give public evidence of their transgressions by refraining from receiving.

Peters therefore suggests that lengthening the fasting period to at least three hours would give individuals in that condition the "cover" they need to refrain from receiving, because people would have more innocuous reasons for abstaining from Communion, like having inadvertently broken the three-hour fast.

Anonymous said...

Good post, although I think you are missing a few characters ...

Tom, describing himself as among the "John Paul II' generation, attends a middle-sized Catholic parish in the city, which reverently celebrates a Novus Ordo Mass -- with decent music and even Latin and chant on occasion (none of the Marty Haugen tripe!). He serves as a lector, his wife heads the RCC (this one actually using the Catechism as a curriculum). While Tom has attended the Tridentine Mass at the invitation of some more traditionally-minded friends, his personal preference and "comfort level" remains with the Novus Ordo, and likewise feels a commitment to supporting his local parish community.

Question: Is Tom Catholic?

Bill ... was received into a contemporary Catholic parish and schooled with the bare minimum of catechesis. Rejecting what he perceived as the lukewarmness of his fellow parishioners, he now takes refuge in the Tridentine Mass and nurtures himself on a perpetual diet of TAN publishing. Lately his literary diet has extended well past what you might call "traditionally Catholic" literature to indulge in the fringe right -- he now questions the very legitimacy and identity of the post-Vatican II Church and willfully entertains sedevacantism, denouncing John Paul II and his successor as anti-popes and minions of the Jewish-Masonic conspiracy for global domination.

Question: Is Bill Catholic?

Granted I don't depict the character as well, but you and I both have encountered folks of this nature. And, just as Kierkegaard castigated Luther for elevating himself to the position of a Pope, I've seen a number of anti-conciliar Catholics argue themselves right out of communion with Rome. Just to point out that, while your own characters are found on one spectrum (that of the uncatechized and not-very-well-schooled), the danger remains of losing one's Catholic identity on the other end of the spectrum as well.

I'm actually witnessing this happen to somebody in Catholic blogland right now -- "more Catholic than the Pope" -- and it's disappointing.

Pertinacious Papist said...


I think there's an additional difference between my examples and those you offer besides the difference of being at opposite ends of the "spectrum," as you suggest. There's a difference of familiarity vs. oblivion with respect to the content of Catholic history and tradition. This doesn't justify errors (such as sedevacantism) at the extreme "right," as you put it. But it does show the need for a couple of further distinctions. Let's try "formal" and "material" criteria:

The formal criteria of what counts as Catholic is easy enough to specify, of course, as "Franciscan" demonstrates in his comment. The material criteria, which are not necessarily correlated with the formal (e.g., baptized infants are Catholics even if they don't actually know anything), are much more difficult to specify. Avery Cardinal Dulles once pointed out that a Catholic convert from Evangelicalism could conceivably be a Catholic in good standing without embracing any of the Marian devotions, like the Rosary, as long as he didn't reject the Church's Marian teachings. But there's only so far that line can be pushed before serious questions begin to arise. In other words, how uncatechized and uninvolved in Catholic traditions can a person be and still be meaningfully called Catholic.

A sedevacantist by definition does not fulfill a key formal condition of being a Catholic, even though his material practice, knowledge and familiarity with Catholic tradition may be "more Catholic than the Pope," as you put it. An uncatechized Catholic without the least knowledge or commitment to understanding Catholic traditions and practices, let alone allowing them to make any demands on his life, may meet the formal conditions of being Catholic, while being materially unable to offer a minimally credible definition of what it even means to be Catholic.