May 1, 2012

Am I or am I not?

I've been reading a variety of articles on the Vatican's rebuke of U.S. nuns.  Naturally, I've been drawn to articles like this one that tend to reinforce what I already believe.  But then I went and did something risky:  I read some articles by people who think the Vatican is entirely justified and that the sisters are committing acts of apostasy.

This makes me uncomfortable.

I have long struggled with whether I am a "real" Catholic or not (as I discuss in small measure here and here).  My struggle is theological and cultural and personal and painful.  I have studied and read and prayed and prayed some more, and I find myself, still, wondering how I can remain a Catholic and how I can be anything else.

I'm not sure I believe a lot of things that are supposed to make me a Catholic.  I don't believe in the absolute authority of the all-male hierarchy.  I don't believe that Jesus thought he was making Peter the first Pope.  I don't know whether the elements of bread and wine are changed in their substance when the priest says the consecration, and I don't know that it really matters.

These are big problems for a lot of people, many of them bishops. 

It's not that I don't want to believe.  I have tried, repeatedly, to be a "good," orthodox Catholic.  And I have repeatedly failed to reconcile my heart and my life experience with the rules of that game.

So, for a while, I tried being a Protestant.  I felt like I couldn't, with integrity, call myself a Catholic any longer.  Here's why:  When I first started studying the Bible and Christian theology seriously fourteen or so years ago, I discovered some things that I had never learned in catechism class or at my Catholic college.  The one that struck me most deeply was the notion that I didn't have to earn my way into heaven.  Now, I don't mean to say that that is what the Catholic church officially teaches.  Let's be clear about that.  But there are many teachings of the church that can -- and do -- lead people to that sort of conclusion.

I already knew that I did not believe that missing mass (a mortal sin) would exclude a person from eternal salvation.  But I didn't know the first thing about the theology of "salvation by grace through faith."  At last, I felt like I was hearing the gospel, real "good news."

Still, I had plenty of trouble swallowing some of the Protestant theology with which I began to be acquainted.  I don't believe that God excludes people from his love for failing to believe or say the right things any more than I believe he excludes people for not being Catholics.

The problem is, I've gotten to know this Jesus that Catholics claim created the hierarchical Roman church, and that some Protestants claim said all there is to say between the pages of a book.

I keep worshipping as a Catholic (after spending seven years worshipping as a Lutheran) in part because it's what I know, where I come from and where my family has come from.  I keep worshipping as a Catholic because I can't seem to do otherwise.  I keep worshipping as a Catholic because catholic means universal, and there are signs, signs that I have seen since I was a kid, that the Catholic church can be a big tent, incorporating any and all comers who want to say YES to Jesus' call to receive and give sacrificial love for the glory of God the Father.

I'm not a Catholic by a strict definition of orthodox belief and submission to the authority of the Magisterium.  I'm not.  Neither am I a Lutheran, if being a Lutheran means, even in part, that I have to accept the idea that humans can do no good in their natural state.  That just doesn't jibe with my life experience.

What I am is a deeply flawed, desperately clinging, hopeful disciple of a first century laborer-rabbi-prophet-messiah who died an ignominious death on a Roman cross.  I might be wrong about a lot of things, but I'm not wrong to follow him.

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