The following column was published in The Observer on Thursday, October 30, 2014.
I recently gave a lecture in which I tried to take a clever stab at the idea that one indeed can be a Catholic who disagrees with the Church’s teachings. I said something to the effect that I had realized, in my own life, that I couldn’t be “spiritual, but not religious.” I knew my spirituality would consist primarily of self-worship and accommodation, creating a God in my own image. I still think this is a clever argument, but one of the problems with being clever is that someone might ask you to explain what you mean. That’s what happened.
I tried to give a long roundabout explanation. It was so roundabout that I’m not even sure anyone was following it (I’m sure I wasn’t). Like most times I open my mouth, I got a lesson in humility. You might think you’re humble just because you submit to the teachings of the Catholic Church in their entirety, but then you’re reminded of your ignorance when you fall flat on your face trying to defend them.
It turns out that simply affirming Church teaching doesn’t actually make you more virtuous. I remember once sitting next to a friend of mine at Mass. During the homily, whenever my friend liked something the priest said, he would make an audible “hmm.” This annoyed the hell out of me. I’m more of an everyone-be-quiet-while-the-priest-is-talking kind of guy. It would have been ironic if the priest had been preaching on patience.
Nonetheless, I kept sitting next to my friend at Mass when I saw him. I figured our friendship could overcome his annoying habit. And it did. At some point, as we became better friends, I started to like it. As I came to appreciate him more as a person, I started to appreciate his unique characteristics, even the ones that didn’t originally jive with my personality. Somehow, I started to enjoy that ridiculous “hmm,” because hearing that sound meant I was with my friend. I suspect we’d all get to this point with many of our friends if we didn’t just get up and leave to sit in a different pew every time they bothered us.
And I suspect this is also why I submit to all of the Church’s teachings, even the ones I might be inclined to disagree with. Our relationships change us, but only if we stick with them. A friendship is truest when it becomes unconditional. No one wants a friendship grounded in constant agreement; everyone wants a friendship grounded in love.
I don’t submit to the Church because I agree with Her; I submit because I trust Her and because I love Her – even if imperfectly. G. K. Chesterton once said: “As St. Francis did not love humanity but men, so he did not love Christianity but Christ. … To this great mystic his religion was not a thing like a theory but a thing like a love-affair.”
If a man’s religion is to be like a “love-affair,” he’ll likely find himself in a world full of weird family traditions that somehow become a part of his life. He’ll likely find himself connected to an assortment of in-laws that will somehow define him for the rest of his life: the pretentious Ivy League cousin, the uncle who went to jail, the great aunt who always pinches your face when she see’s you even though you’re a grown man and an everyone-should-just-keep-their-hands-to-themselves kind of guy.
If my religion is to be a love-affair, this is what I’m stuck with. I’ve got the command that I should love my neighbor. I’ve got teachings on life and marriage and sex and economics. I’ve got a charismatic Argentinian Father. I’ve got pews and pews of saints and sinners. I’ve got the crucifixion, the Inquisition and the clergy abuse scandal. I’ve got the good, the bad and the grace-filled ugly.
It’s my love-affair. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.