“Something had given him leave to live in the present.” ~ Walker Percy
A friend of mine sent me an email with this subject line: “A challenge for your blogging….” She included Elizabeth Scalia’s invitation to Catholics everywhere in the internet cosmos to write about “Why Do YOU Remain a Catholic”—an invitation itself prompted by the recent Pew Research report on the statistical collapse of the American Church.
That report, with its grim portrayal of the Church’s retention record, already prompted me to write a bit about Catholic parenting and keeping our kids connected to the Faith. However, I’ll take Scalia’s proposition (and my friend’s email) as an excuse to add some additional, more personal thoughts.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
So, why do I remain a Catholic? For me, the question might as well be, “Why do you keep breathing?” I can’t imagine not being a Catholic—there’s no alternative. Catholicism informs everything I think and say and do, and so the very concept of giving it up is unfathomable.
Curiously, this is not the case with regards to Christianity in general. I grew up in an Evangelical tradition, my beloved siblings and their families remain so, and I have great respect for my Protestant friends and colleagues. In fact, I not only admire their strong faith and piety, but I also strive to emulate their example. However, for me, Christianity is Catholicism—there’s no going back. Samuel Johnson (himself an Anglican) put it this way:
A man who is converted from Protestantism to Popery, may be sincere: he parts with nothing: he is only superadding to what he already had. But a convert from Popery to Protestantism, gives up so much of what he had held as sacred as anything that he retains: there is so much laceration of mind in such a conversion, that it can hardly be sincere and lasting.
That’s one of the quirky little secrets of Catholicism: It’s not just another denomination. It really does claim to be the true Church, and hence, the truth. Period. “The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic,’” wrote G.K. Chesterton, “is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.” The funny thing is that conviction regarding the Church’s truth claims is not always the main motivating factor for conversion. For some converts, it might’ve been an attraction to liturgy; for others, it might’ve been marriage to a Catholic—there are myriad reasons to “pope,” all of them good enough. God will use whatever means he can to get us attached to his family, and then he’ll bring us along, sanctifying us one way or another, sometimes despite our objections and resistance. He’s sneaky that way.
However, at some point along the sainthood trail, the outlandish truth of Catholicism becomes virtually undeniable. It sounds crazy, I know, but at some point, we start to take it for granted that Catholicism simply comports with the way things are (truth) and, consequently, it’s the only reliable means of bringing about the way things ought to be (beatitude). Orthodoxy, orthopraxy; what is affirmed and what is aspired to—however it’s parsed, it’s a bulwark that stands between the faithful and the temptations of suicidal oblivion. It keeps us tethered to earth and directs our eyes to heaven. Above all, it gives us reason to hope: that our past may be redeemed, that our future might be glorious, and that our present….
Ah, the present. It’s so thick, so fraught with edges and endings, uncertainties and contingencies, yet the Faith takes it all into account. For Catholics, the present is ever “an adventure,” writes Dom Hubert van Zeller, and “there are discoveries to be made round every corner”—tumult and opportunity, crisis and resolution, sin and salvation around every corner! When you believe that babies and bread can be God, then adventure permeates all reality. It’s a perspective we tend to lose sight of as we age, but the Church trumpets it perpetually and makes it happen. Creation is a sacrament, people are Jesus, and everything points to God—there’s no escape, but why would we want to escape?
That’s the question at the heart of Gandalf’s first encounter with Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Bilbo is relaxing and showing off with his pipe smoke. “Very pretty!” said Gandalf. “But I have no time to blow smoke-rings this morning. I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.” He’s perplexed: Why is it so difficult? Sure, there’s danger and death and no guarantees, but, c’mon, it’s an adventure! How can we say no?
Every time we Catholics go to Mass, every time we receive the sacraments or pray, we’re invited to an adventure and we take the risk of becoming saints—incredible. Will we agree? Will we go? What will happen?!
That’s a drama worth sticking around for.
Editor’s note: A longer version of this column first appeared June 7, 2015 on the author’s blog One Thousand Words A Week and is reprinted with permission.