5 Reasons I hate the term “Practicing Catholic”

The term Practicing Catholic merits little explanation. It is common. What deserves more critical attention is perhaps it’s origin.

There are Catholics that do not practice their faith, and still staunchly identify as Catholics. There are those who identify, and do not practice, nor believe any of the tenets of the faith, and are still unflinchingly, and irrationally, attached to an identifying label. I’m Catholic but [insert phrase here] I don’t go to Church, I don’t care about what the Church teaches, I don’t care much for the Pope, or my bishop, or the parish priest… the list goes on.

So, in an effort to make it clear that a self-identified Catholic actually attends Church, receives the Sacraments regularly, believes in Church teaching, tries to live it out in their daily life, and hopefully tries to maintain a close relationship with Jesus Christ, they identify themselves as a Practicing Catholic. Perhaps the amount of Catholics who do not actually live their faith or attend Mass has become so normative and rampant, that one feels it so significant to actually use the term. Also in the case of why I brought this up, sometimes people would prefer that Catholic Institutions be staffed exclusively by “Practicing Catholics.” (Although, I suspect that there are some that would wish to purge the world of anyone who isn’t a “practicing Catholic” but that’s another story).

I must admit, I don’t care much for the term.

Obviously, as a priest, it would be incredibly redundant for me to even describe myself as a “practicing Catholic,” that would begin to imply that you could be a priest who is not a “practicing Catholic.” I won’t even begin to imagine what that would entail.

I was impressed, on the flip-side, but by an alternative catchphrase. The high school that I work at never uses the term practicing Catholic in it’s faculty handbook, but it does say that faculty members must be involved in their parish communities. The omission of the term Catholic is not to suggest a watering down of Catholic identity, but merely to acknowledge that a minority of faculty members are not Catholic, and are still to be involved. Involved Catholics.

The majority, however, are very involved Catholics. Knowing the religion faculty, I am not worried about Catholic identity. In fact, I have found myself in numerous situations where faculty members nonchallantly mention something about their Catholic parish. They mention it, not to show off, not to prove they are “practicing Catholics,” They just talk about life, and life happens at their parish. A number of our faculty members lector or cantor at Mass, teach confirmation, give bible classes, and have a variety of connections in their parish.

I think that the term is incredibly outdated. A practicing Catholic made sense before the Second Vatican Council, and perhaps only made sense almost immediately preceding it. You attend Mass when required, you drop money in the collection plate, you say your prayers, you eat fish on fridays, and fast when required, etc. I really believe that this falls short of what the Scriptures, the Church Fathers, the Saints, the Second Vatican Council, and our current and recent Popes have called us to. It falls so incredibly short.

In brief, I can sum it up as follows.

  1. Labeling oneself a practicing Catholic does not seem to put the Person, Life & Mission of Jesus Christ at the forefront. It is not obvious that one has a living faith in, and relationship with Jesus Christ, recognizing him as the Son of God, and the Savior of humankind. It might be obvious from this term that one attends to the typical Catholic things: Mass, Rosaries, Baptisms, Weddings, Candles, etc.
  2. A “Practicing Catholic” can only be measured or verified by externals: Do they attend Mass? It cannot be verified by internal disposition or attitude, but only upon externals. Someone can easily succeed at making Mass weekly, but not open their heart to the grace of the Scriptures and Sacraments. There is really no way of confirming one’s purity of heart without immediately sounding pompous and conceited.
  3. Labeling oneself a practicing Catholic may not necessarily mean that one lives their faith in a healthy way. It is possible to create a solipsistic Catholic world, in which one does indeed attend Mass regularly, practice the faith, says prayers, believes Church teaching wholeheartedly. They can, at the same time, not have another family member who is Catholic, not have a faith-centered friendship with other Catholics, attend a Church without interacting with anyone, go Church-shopping for an extended period of time, have no familiarity with a particular priest as their Pastor, live their faith on Catholic blog message boards. A lot of people have been quite adept at living out the Teachings of the Church, while completely missing Jesus own ministry of proclaiming the Kingdom, and mercifully attending to the needy. It is really easy to imagine one to be in communion of Church, but not actually being in Communion with any particular Catholic Parish Community. That is problematic.
  4. Labeling oneself a practicing Catholic may or may not indicate that one is actively engaged in any actual outreach, Evangelization, or corporeal Works of Mercy. It is used only to emphasize one’s proximity to the Sacraments or Catholicism, with NO implication that they live out their faith after Sunday. This term falls dramatically short. In fact, Practicing Catholic might as well be the same as Mediocre Catholic: one who accomplishes the bare minimum. Although the bare minimum might be reception of the sacraments and acceptance of Church Teaching, and may be better off that many others. It is still a bare minimum, qualifying one as mediocre.
  5. Labeling oneself a practicing Catholic is 100% conditioned by our time and place. It depends entirely on there being individuals who identify themselves as Catholic who don’t even attend Mass or believe in what the Church teaches. At the rate that “nones” are the fastest growing religious group (those who have no religious affiliation), it is already clear that more people are hesitant to identify as Catholics when they do not practice. In a generation, this term will already be useless. It is entirely conditioned on there being an alleged group of non-practicing Catholics.

Really, if someone says that they are Catholic, shouldn’t it imply that they are practicing?

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2 thoughts on “5 Reasons I hate the term “Practicing Catholic”

  1. The only time I use the phrase “practicing Catholic” is when I reference the canard “I’m a practicing Catholic…and I’m going to KEEP practicing until I get it right!” — it’s an old joke, but it’s also a truism in our fallen humanity.

    I prefer the similar-sounding, but really quite different (in that it has an actual meaning) term that we use in the Knights of Columbus, “practical Catholic”: [from the http://www.kofc.org ‘Prospective Member Q&A FAQ] “A practical Catholic accepts the teaching authority of the Catholic Church on matters of faith and morals, aspires to live in accord with the precepts of the Catholic Church, and is in good standing in the Catholic Church.”

    That sentence SOUNDS simple but has a lot to unpack within it — albeit things to unpack that a Catholic can locate either on his own and by speaking to a priest if he has questions, thanks to the ‘keywords’ that are in the definition. Even so, the language regarding acceptance, aspiration, and standing reflects that none of us are perfect in our faith journeys; especially given that it’s written for men who are helping other men along, there will be rough patches and difficulties in communicating the depths of one’s relationship with God, but it’s about a practical understanding (as you get at in describing Augustine’s long road and our own) of working toward Heaven in this secular world via the Church and the aid of our fellow Catholics (like mountain climbers taking turns grabbing each other’s hand on the ascent)…

  2. I am with you! I also loathe “devout Catholic” or “staunch Catholic.” I don’t even know what that means! That rankles me almost as much as someone who was an altar server as a child (usually “altar boy”) and therefore claims to be an expert on Catholicism despite not even going to Mass anymore.

    I generally avoid adjectives for Catholicism, but when I have to, I say that I “live out” my Catholicism. I can point to specific things I do that express what I believe as a Catholic.

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