I’ve said in this space on many occasions that the faith I had as a Roman Catholic was highly intellectualized. This is not the fault of the Catholic Church, but it has to do with my own approach to the faith. Though I regret having come at it that way, I can’t regret the fact that I really did believe what the Catholic Church teaches, which included the duty to suspend one’s own skepticism before the authoritative teachings of the Church. I don’t apologize for that, or regret that, because that is what Catholics are supposed to do.I think that's the case with many converts. I read myself into the Church so to speak. To be sure there were many Catholics around where I grew up, but if their personal example was all I had to go on I might never have converted. American Catholics are, by and large, nearly indistinguishable from their Protestant or secular neighbors for good and for ill.
I recognize, though, that relatively few Catholics live with this kind of relationship to their Church. I confess that it always made me feel like something of an alien within the Church. I believed what the Church taught, and though I failed, as we all do, to live by it consistently, I went to confession when I fell short, and really did work to correct my behavior, and to allow my faith in the Church’s authority shape my thinking. That so very many people I would be with in church didn’t do this was alienating to me. To put a fine point on it, it’s not that I was bothered by being in Church with sinners; after all, I was and remain a sinner. What bothered me was that so few people — including, I must say, pastors — seemed to take the Church’s role as a teacher seriously. It was hard to be part of a community in which some core beliefs of the religion were considered more or less beside the point.This is also something most converts experience. Conversion stories are all love stories. When you fall in love or when you devote yourself to a cause, you want to tell the whole world about it. Jesus Christ himself told us that the world would always hate us or be indifferent to us at best. But it's especially disappointing when you encounter an attitude of indifference in your coreligionists. One of the many beautiful aspects of the Catholic religion (or frustrating aspects if you're not Catholic) is the consistency of it all. Once you accept the basic theoretical framework, everything rapidly falls into place. The Church has reasons for doing everything she does. Why do so few of us take any time to learn those reasons, to internalize them, and make them part of us?
And yet, there is something dessicated and unreal about someone like me, whose head was filled with theology and logic, looking at someone who was raised in the Catholic faith, and whose families have been Catholic since forever, and seeing them as somehow less Catholic than I because they dissent from Church teaching openly. Catholicism, like Orthodoxy, is not a religion of the head alone, but a religion of the heart, and a religion of what you do: liturgy, sacraments, etc. It is the people at prayer. Mind you, if the liturgy and the sacraments and all of it doesn’t lead to an authentic change of heart — a change that is proven by a change in behavior — then it’s in vain. Still, I have no doubt that there are Catholics who are far less orthodox than I was as a Catholic, but who have delighted God more because however flawed their understanding was, they lived lives marked by sacrificial, Christ-like love of the sort that I, with my purer orthodoxy, did not have.The poor abuela kneeling in the back of the Church praying her rosary with much weeping and wailing is a better Catholic than I am. If you were to say that she's a better Catholic precisely because of her ignorance of the finer points of theology I wouldn't buy that and I don't think she would either. You can't love who or what you don't know. Those who love Christ and love his Church want to know him and know the Church. Not everyone is intellectually capable or has the aptitude to be a theologian. But those who do have a responsibility to use the gifts which God gave them. Religion is both a matter of the head and the heart. St. John Vianney was a simple man but I daresay he was far more orthodox in his doctrine and pure in his love for God than any of us poor sinners. St. Thomas Aquinas is the greatest intellectual saint of the Church, but even he went on to his eternal reward believing his work fell infinitely short of the Truth.
I found Evangelical Protestantism deeply dissatisfying because of its emphasis on the subjective. How could I know I was right with God? Just a warm and fuzzy feeling of being close to Jesus? One reason why I found Catholicism compelling was its emphasis on the objective. I may feel nothing but Jesus is in the tabernacle. I sin but I know what I must do to make amends. The hierarchy is composed of sinners but the deposit of faith does not hinge on the personal holiness of those whose duty it is to teach it, though one should hope and pray that they are personally holy. It was an enormous load off my mind to know that being in a state of grace didn't depend on however I happened to be feeling that day.
I'm not saying Rod does this, but I quickly grow irritated with those who imply that there must be a radical disconnect between doctrinal orthodoxy and charity. One of the great papal saints, Pope Pius V, once served as a Grand Inquisitor. St. Thomas More went to the headsman's block rather than compromise on a single point of doctrine, the pope's headship of the Church. I think that if you know orthodox belief to the best of one's abilities and that belief changes your behavior in some way, God's Church has room for all types, even dried up old intellectuals like me.