The following column was published in The Observer on Tuesday, April 16, 2013.
I almost gave up Catholicism twice while at Notre Dame. For two weeks during freshman year, a class I was taking had convinced me that the existence of God was incompatible with rational belief. During the middle of my college career, a traumatic personal experience left me angry, lonely and wanting to give up any faith. Reflecting on those experiences, I am sometimes surprised I am still here, will be graduating in a few weeks and am still Catholic.
I came to Notre Dame in 2009 seeking a Catholic liberal arts education. I wanted to pursue the various facets of human knowledge and understand how they connected with each other. I wanted to see how this knowledge as a whole connected to the teachings of the Church. After seriously pursuing this connection for four years, I now see that I was naïve to assume it would be easy to find.
The Church’s teachings often seem terribly unbelievable. A friend once told me about when he explained the Church’s teaching on transubstantiation to his roommate. The roommate, a Catholic his whole life, responded, “Why didn’t someone tell me that? I can’t believe it.” At that moment, he gave up Catholicism.
I think I’m too stubborn to give up on Catholicism so easily. At the same time, I can’t belong to a religion that is contrary to the truth of reason. If the Church has even one teaching that is so contrary, that teaching may be grounds for me to seek truth in another religion. I don’t want a religion that has some truths. I want the fullness of truth.
My faith is an intellectual struggle. Some people decide the Church’s teachings don’t coincide with how they feel, so they adopt personal spirituality rather than institutional teaching. I couldn’t do this. I know if I decided to be “spiritual, not religious,” my spirituality would consist of self-worship and accommodation. I need standards external to myself so I don’t create a God in the image of my desires. Instead of giving up, I struggle to understand the Church’s teachings. In a freshman science class, I was taught to assume atoms exist, even though I had never seen them. If I can have faith in science, I can have faith in religion. I believe and then seek to understand.
It’s harder to believe in Catholicism when its members don’t understand you, when you feel like they don’t love you, when they hurt you. A priest once said (to one of my friends) that my sins and struggles were dangerous to those around me. He told my friends they should distance themselves from me. Perhaps he was right, but I know he was wrong to never reach out to me, to never ask if I was okay in the midst of all of this, to never offer me support. I was left alone. I walked around campus at night, fearing that the world was crumbling around me. I considered transferring schools. I considered changing religions.
My faith was saved by many things outside of my control. I met a priest who made sure I knew that I was loved by God and by him. I found friends who showed me love in a Church for struggling sinners. I learned that the Church is bigger than its hypocritical members, even myself. I learned suffering can facilitate growth and love is real.
I recently showed a prospective student around Notre Dame’s campus. She asked me what it was like to be Catholic here, the kind of Catholic who believes in and cares about the Church’s teachings, who tries to cultivate a life of prayer, who seeks to root every act in the sacramental life. I told her it was difficult.
Yet, here I am. I am a student graduating from the University of Notre Dame who believes in the Church’s teachings. I struggle every day to live up to these teachings. Most days I fail, but I take faith in the saints who assure me Catholicism is a religion for the sinful and the struggling. To give up is the greatest failure. I’m sticking with the intellectual and the practical struggling. I’m staying Catholic.
Christopher Damian is a senior studying philosophy. He can be contacted at email@example.com
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
Thanks for this thought-provoking piece. I must admit that I was a bit shocked by your friend’s roommate who’d never heard of transubstantiation. Maybe one way to better ensure that Catholics don’t abandon their faith after their youth is to make sure that they are properly and thoroughly taught it (and the reasons behind it) before they are thrust out into the larger world.
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If I could say one thing to my younger self who found the same challenges in remaining Catholic in my first year at Marquette University and later UW Madison, I would say that in the fullness of time the Church reveals its truth to us. Those who have gone before us experienced a faith that took decades to live and understand. It goes without saying that a 22 yr old hasnt begun to live yet and in most universities today, even Catholic ones, is living in an intellectual bubble which is resistant to anything that is outside of it and its narrow mindedness.
I put the problem for young Catholics on poor Christian formation. As a post Vatican II baby boomer you can imagine the idiocy (in retrospect) we were subjected to. It has come to a point at least in my generation that it was almost expected that most young people fall away from the Church and then a certain percentage always come back, particularly when they start experiencing family life. I came to realize the falling away came about from the poor preparation we received in our youth. Most catholic teens have no defense for what is to come.