Monday, March 12, 2012

Why I am Catholic: An Open Letter in Response to the Freedom from Religion Foundation

Last week, the Freedom from Religion Foundation purchased a full-page advertisement in the New York Times simply called “It’s Time to Consider Quitting the Catholic Church.”  The advertisement contained an ‘open letter to ‘liberal’ and ‘nominal’ Catholics’ (the full text of the letter is here), and in this letter the co-presidents of the foundation make the case that liberal Catholics are enablers of an “antidemocratic Old Boys Club” that consistently discriminates against women, and whose ideas are irrational throwbacks to the Dark Ages.  The authors write:

“Join those of us who put humanity above dogma.  As Thomas Paine observed: ‘My own mind is my own church.’  We invite you to free yourself from incense-fogged ritual, from ideas uttered long ago by ignorant men, from blind obedience to an illusory religious authority….  Please.  Exit en Mass.”

The impetus for this advertisement, and for the anger against the Catholic church that clearly lies behind it, is the current controversy here in the United States regarding the Health and Human Resources’ mandate regarding contraception coverage and the reaction of the U.S. bishops to this mandate. 

I do not intend in this space to write about this controversy.  Nor, frankly, do I have the time or energy to address every facet of the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s ‘open letter’.
Instead, I want to write about why I am Catholic to give sympathizers of the letter’s sentiments some comprehension about why someone like myself would be Catholic.  Simply put,  I am Catholic because of what the church understands itself to be ideally.  

The Catholic Church is not, nor does it pretend to be, perfect.  As was declared by the Second Vatican Council, the Church is “at once holy and always in need of purification” (Lumen Gentium 8).  The Freedom from Religion Foundation rightly points to some of the church’s imperfections when it refers in the ‘open letter’ to the abuse of children by priests and to the role that the church has played, and continues to play, in the oppression of women and minorities.  These are, to my mind, abhorrent realities that are difficult to deny, nor should we as Catholics want to deny them.

Moreover, throughout her history, the Roman Catholic Church has historically struggled with those who have wanted to define the church in a juridical manner.  When this occurs, law and authority tend to trump an understanding of the Church centered around the Eucharist.  And this juridical definition of the church usually is coupled with the idea that ‘catholicity’ means ‘uniformity’.

I do not believe that a juridical definition of the church is all bad.  I believe that the hierarchy of the church, with the pope at the head, play the central role in preserving and defining matters of faith and morals.  But I do not believe (nor, frankly, does the church itself believe) in a slavish obedience akin to ecclesiolatry.  There is within the church room for divergent opinion and expression.  As Pope Pius XII wrote: “The church is a living body, and it would lack an element of its life if the free expression of opinion was lacking.”

But this juridical definition of the church has always proven incomplete, and the church has continually returned to an understanding of itself rooted in the Eucharist.  The basic parameters of the church’s self-understanding can, I think, be described in the following way. 
For a variety of reasons too complicated to delve into here, we believe that God exists as a Trinity, and this understanding of God as three and yet one is extremely important.  There is no easy explanation of the Trinity, but the best I can do is simply to say that Christians have, through revelation and experience, come to an understanding that God exists as community, that God exists, most significantly, as an eternal embrace of selfless love where each person of the Trinity gives the totality of themselves to one another in a dance of love so profound, so complete, so giving, so unifying, that threeness comes to equal oneness.  This is what it means to believe, as 1 John 4.8 reads, that “God is love.”  Love – self-giving, totally gratuitous, all-consuming love – is at the very heart of God’s essence.  This Trinitarian love, this notion that God exists eternally and completely as love, is at the heart of the beauty that is essential to the Christian faith.  It is the idea that God is love that makes sense of why the created order ever came into existence.  It is the idea that God is love that explains the gift of God’s very self to us in the Incarnation, when God became human.  And Jesus Christ’s example of selfless love, love that led him to the cross, reveals to us that God is love, that God exists as love.

Not only does Jesus Christ reveal God to be love, but he reveals to us the degree to which all of humanity is loved.  We are created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore have the stamp of the divine marked within our very existences.  By virtue of our humanness, therefore, we all have what the church calls an inherent dignity and surpassing worth, and the Incarnation reveals to us the infinite value of humanity in God’s eyes.

The church, the community we believe was established by Christ to be the nascent kingdom of God on earth, is itself to be a community of selfless love that exists in imitation of the love that is God.  And we are created and sustained as such a community of selfless love in and through baptism and the Eucharist.  For it is in baptism that we receive God’s very own Spirit who lovingly and selflessly descends upon each of us and lifts us up to become part of the dance of love that is the life of God.  Through the gift of God’s very self to us in baptism, we are drawn into communion and intimacy with God.  Through God’s Spirit, God ceases to be merely our creator.  God now becomes, through the Spirit, our Father.  Through the Spirit of Christ, Jesus becomes more than our Lord and Saviour.  He becomes our brother and our friend. 

And in the Eucharist, the selfless love of God is made manifest as God continually gives the gift of himself in the bread and the wine.  Pope Benedict XVI outlines the implications of the Eucharist as follows in Sacramentum Caritatis:

"The union with Christ brought about by the Eucharist also brings a newness to our social relations: this sacramental ‘mysticism’ is social in character. Indeed, union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own.  The relationship between the eucharistic mystery and social commitment must be made explicit…In the memorial of his sacrifice, the Lord strengthens our fraternal communion and, in a particular way, urges those in conflict to hasten their reconciliation by opening themselves to dialogue and a commitment to justice."

Overwhelmed by the love of God truly experienced in and through the Eucharist, we must and can love God and others in return.  We become united to God and to one another, and learn to view others with the love God has for all.  And in imitating the selfless love of God in the church, the church comes to manifest God to all.

It is this Eucharistic definition of the church, the idea that the Eucharist makes the church, that has been articulated over and over again through the church’s history.  And it is this definition that draws me into the church and compels me.

Yes, the church has always and continues to fall short of this ideal.  But does this fact mean that I must abandon this ideal?  Does the church’s continued imperfection mean that I should just give up?  No, it most certainly does not.  For I cannot help but be absolutely attracted to the beauty of what the church is called to be by Christ himself each time Christ gives of himself in the Eucharist. 

Those who have not experienced this beauty and the beauty of the selfless love that is God cannot be expected to understand.  And, frankly, the church frequently does a very good job of masking this beauty.  But once it has become known, it cannot be abandoned.  It can only compel.

So...this is why I am Catholic and why I think the authors of the Freedom from Religion Foundation advertisement totally and completely misconstrue the Church so drastically and totally misunderstand what it is that compels people to be and to remain Catholic.

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