Why I Remain a Catholic

Elizabeth Scalia called for submissions among the blogosphere on the question of why people stay Catholic.  I figured I would chime in, despite the fact that I am perhaps not the sort of person she had in mind to answer the question.

The single sentence answer to the question for me is that I remain a Catholic because of its visceral catholicity.  James Joyce once famously defined Catholicism as "here comes everybody," and that remains for me the most salient definition of Catholicism.  To be "catholic," to be universal, is to include the wide variety of people and places that make up the human family, with all of their attendant particularities, baggage, opinions, and nuances.

There is a danger of turning catholicity exclusively into an abstract, intellectual construct--a statement about the scope of the intellectual reach of the faith.  That's an important part of the definition of catholicity, but I don't think it is a substitute for actual, visceral catholicity--the presence of people who are actually different, with actually different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences incorporated into a single entity.  And it is here, in the visceral catholicity, that the Roman Catholic Church is unparalleled.  Only the Anglican communion comes close.

This visceral catholicity is important, I think, for two reasons.  First, it forces us to reckon with the tension between unity and difference.  Our natural tendency is to go to our respective corners, to seek the familiar comfort of those that are just like ourselves.  With all due respect to our Protestant brothers and sisters, most Protestant congregations in the U.S. are deeply homogeneous--same background, same culture, same world view.  It is easy to think that everyone is just like me, and more importantly that God is just like me--worried about the things I am worried about, looking at the world the same way I do.

Because of the enormous diversity of Catholicism, it is really hard to conclude that everyone that matters has the same suburban U.S. middle class view of the world that suburban U.S. middle class folks do (though, I will say, for a significant segment of U.S. Catholics, it's not for lack of trying), because the Other is sitting right next to you at Mass every Sunday.  Once you see that, you begin to see that difference is not something to be stamped out, but something to be celebrated.  I don't have to come from the same place and eat the same foods and look at the world in the same way in order to be together in this building, worshiping God.

Along the same lines, and maybe more importantly, this visceral catholicity is de-centering, in a good way.  This faith that I am a part of is not just about me and my needs and my concerns.  I am not the center of the universe, and that's a good lesson for everyone to take on board.  God is not simply the God of suburban Americans, but he is also the God of the favelas of Brazil and the cities of Africa.  God becomes bigger, and my relative place in God's world becomes smaller--"He must increase, I must decrease" as St. John said.

Two examples come to mind.
My grandmother's home parish when she was growing up was St. Nicholas of Tolentine in the Bronx, New York.  When she was a child, it was a parish consisting almost entirely of Irish and Italians, most only a generation or so removed from immigration.  Today, the front page of the parish website is in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese.  In a sense, that's a change from when my grandmother was going there, but in another sense it is not.  After all, it is a Catholic parish ministering to recent immigrants and their children--just as it was in 1920s.  The faces have changed, but the core reality of what the parish is has not.  That lesson is not unique to St. Nicholas--there are thousands of parishes just like that--but it is one that you have a hard time finding outside of the Catholic faith.

Or, a personal example.  When I lived in San Francisco, I attended St. Dominic's, a grand old church in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of the city.  One year, I was a Eucharistic Minister during the Holy Thursday Mass, and I was stationed in the back of the very large church.  About half-way through, I was struck by the faces of the people coming up to receive communion.  There were people literally from the four corners of the Earth--St. Dominic's has a significant Chinese and Vietnamese population, a large Hispanic population, and a growing African population.  After a while, it seemed to me that the faces started blending or morphing into one another--if you have ever seen the music video for Michael Jackson's Black or White, it was kind of like that.  We are different, but we are also the same; those two realities are complementary, not in conflict.

In truth, there are many occasions where I don't think the Catholic Church lives up to its own visceral catholicity.  We try very hard to retreat into our own corners and our own egocentric ways of looking at the world and looking at God, sometimes with the blessing of those in authority.  While the Catholic Church does a good job with some kinds of diversity (like ethnic and certain kinds of cultural diversity I mentioned above), it does a poor job with other kinds of diversity (like gender or sexuality or viewpoint).

Nevertheless, the visceral catholicity is there, and it is real.  When I think about leaving Catholicism (and I certainly do), I worry that I will find myself cut off from this catholicity, and trapped in a narcissistic form of Christianity where everything just happens to reflect my situation and my perspective and my preferences.  Something very real and very important would be lost if that happens.  And that, ultimately, is why I remain.

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