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Why stay Catholic?

Why stay Catholic if you disagree with Church teaching?

Opposing parties tend to make the same arguments. So we shouldn’t be surprised when a liberal progressive Episcopalian says the same thing as a traditionalist Catholic. When responding to gay Catholics who struggle with the way that Catholic leaders treat them, both say: “Leave.”

Certainly, this advice seems to come from different sources. The traditionalists (presumably) believe that “traditional” rhetoric about homosexuality is too important to tolerate gay people who push against it. The progressivist position here (again, presumably) is that gay people are too good to tolerate “unwelcoming” environments.

Consider Teachings

I think the issue can be clearer if we focus on just the question of a church’s particular teachings. Let’s say, hypothetically, that I am a gay Catholic who believes that God blesses same-sex unions and calls gay people to same-sex marriages. At the same time, I am in a Church whose Catechism categorically condemns same-sex marriage and calls homosexual relations “intrinsically disordered.” What am I to do?

My traditionalist and progressivist friends might present me with the same solution: “Find another church.” Traditionalists might say that, given my views, I’m not really Catholic. Progressivists might say that, given its views, the Catholic Church isn’t really Christian. How do we evaluate the ecclesiology of either side?

I’ll start with those traditionalist Catholics. Their claim is easier to dispute, because it’s unsupported by Catholic theology. One becomes and remains Catholic by virtue of one’s baptism. It is not your belief or your action which makes you Catholic, but the grace given totally gratuitously by God in the sacrament of baptism. Even the “non-practicing” Catholic or the “fallen away” Catholic who has totally rejected the Church is, according to Catholic theology, still Catholic. Even persons who are excommunicated are technically still Catholic. Even the baptized who somehow made it into the fires of hell are still Catholic. Catholics who say otherwise actually disagree with the Church. And, oddly, their disagreement may come from a similar source as the beliefs of those progressivist friends on our initial question.

Before analyzing the beliefs of those progressivist friends, I should start by saying that much of this is presumption. I can speak to the views and motivations of the traditionalist Catholic because I’ve been one (which may also be why I tend to be more critical of traditionalists). And though traditionalists would probably paint me as a liberal-progressive, I think my liberal-progressive friends might raise an eyebrow at my adoption of that label. So I won’t adopt it. Rather, I’ll say that my explanations of the progressivist position represent one reading of progressivist friends.

The presumed view of those progressivist friends is this: If your church teachings and leadership harm gay people, then they’re not really Christian teachings or Christian leaders, and you should leave your church and go to another. I don’t want to say that they have a shallow ecclesiology. But I’d be willing to surmise that this view allows depth in some ways but not others. It imbues catechesis and institutional authority with definitive identity to the exclusion of so many other things which make a church Church.

The Meaning of “Church”

I always find it odd when Catholic parishes call themselves “Catholic Community” instead of “Catholic Church” (as in, “St. Joseph Catholic Community” or “St. Mary’s Catholic Community”). I understand why they would do this. Catholic parishes are often terrible at cultivating deep communities, understood as wide webs of relationships built on mutual care, concern, and interest. But by changing the name from “Church” to “Community” in order to foster such webs, I think we misdiagnose the problem. The problem isn’t simply a lack of “community.” It’s a lack of “church.”

Ratzinger considers this problem in his book, “The Meaning of Christian Kinship.” He draws on the German theologian Heinz Shurmann who argues that parishes should be small enough so that all the members know each other. (For similar reasons, some Orthodox parishes only have one Sunday liturgy, so that the entire community worships together every week.) Ratzinger also points out that the Greek word ekklesia does not simply mean “church” in the sense of a global institution with a universal identity. It can just as fully be translated as “religious assembly” or “local community.” (“Where two or three are gathered in my name…”).

Ratzinger says that these three translations of ekklesia–church, religious assembly, and local community–are “three levels of meaning” of the Greek word. He writes, “They are connected in the following way: the one Church always exists concretely in the concrete local community.” The local community is just as fully Church as is the universal institution. Church is both big and small, local and universal.

Ratzinger helps to show that what it means to be “church” is not as simple as we might want to believe. Those of us invested in national and global politics, social media presences, and the sort of objectivizing empiricism characteristic of nineteenth century scientism want a church which is characterized primarily by a clear, concise, all-encompassing global identity. This desire manifests itself in the tendency to equate Catholicism with articulated teachings, with the pope or other leaders, or with an ossified “tradition.” Oddly enough, by universalizing this identity, we also reduce it. We believe that the Church is all of the “big” things, to the exclusion of all of the “little” things. (And, oddly enough, the list of “big” things always happens to coincide with the things which we personally consider important). We thus can’t understand why, when faced with an issue over a “big” thing, like a teaching they consider toxic, people would choose to stay in the Church.

The problem with both those traditionalists and progressivists is that they seem to severely limit what it means to be Church. They say that if you disagree with Church teaching, you should just leave; that if your leaders are bad, you should just leave. In doing so, they saturate certain statements and leaders with such power in ecclesiology as to suggest equivalence. They seem to suggest that the identity of a particular Christian Church is most notably its administrative leaders and its articulated teachings. They forget all of the other things which also make church Church: people, ritual, traditions, history, ministries, literary traditions, our shared background, nice things Church people have done for me in my personal life, this particular parish, an education, my chosenness by God, the person of Jesus Christ, the movement of the Holy Spirit. (Those traditionalists forget what makes me Catholic: my baptism.)

For the progressivists and the traditionalists the choice to leave is simple, because the judgment of a Church’s (or a Christian’s) validity is simple. You look at your self-appointed list. You decide the list of things that makes a church Church and discard the rest.

I chose a different path. As someone who wanted to embrace the Church in Her totality, I couldn’t just ignore hard teachings or bad leadership. But there’s so much more to what makes my church Church. So I stayed.


Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

2 comments on “Why stay Catholic?

  1. paularuddy

    Dear Chris: Two questions: 1) Is Catholic baptism anything more than a decision made publicly to live within the Catholic tradition of Christianity? In the case of infant baptism, the parents make the decision first and the individual ratifies that decision as a free adult. Granted it is difficult to change traditions since they are so efficacious in forming the person, but is it contrary to the freedom of the Spirit’s action within a person?
    2) Given the relative conditioning of theological constructions, can the Catholic tradition insist that any particular teaching is absolutely true for all time? Isn’t it likely that the teaching on same gender sexual relations will gradually and completely give way to science and the faith experience of Catholics, gay and straight. From my straight pov, the experience is of the goodness of loving same-sex couples and also the crippling effect of both rejecting and suffering rejection. Within the Catholic tradition, even now, there is widespread abandonment of the teaching. Can we even say that “the Church teaches” in the catechism of 1983? Not the same river. Thanks for your processing! Paula

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  2. Paula Ruddy

    To be a little more coherent, another question: Isn’t “sanctifying grace” the immanent connection of the transcendent creator with creatures, humans being the self-reflective and God-conscious creatures? I’m thinking it is what enables them to choose a religious tradition as a support for expanding the God-consciousness in the process of living. I think I learned this from the Christian tradition. But it is a working hypothesis. Onward.

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