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?

Love, Hatred, Charity, Lies, Agape, Eros, and Philos

The following is a talk that I gave to define Caritas, one of the principle values of Augustinian schools.  With the help of Augustine and Eminem.

I can’t tell you what it really is I can only tell you what it feels like and right now it’s a steel knife in my windpipe I can’t breathe but I still fight while I can fight as long as the wrong feels right it’s like I’m in flight High off of love, drunk from my hate, It’s like I’m huffing pain and I love it the more I suffer, I suffocate and right before I’m about to drown, she resuscitates me she EXPLICIT hates me and I love it.

One of the most popular, morbid, and overplayed songs I hear on the radio is Eminem and Rihanna’s song “I Love the Way You Lie.”  It is both Hypnotic and Repulsive at the same time, and that is the strange disgusting “beauty” of the whole song.  Although, I am not a fan of Eminem (not due to his vulgarity, more due to his childish whining and complaining about all the suffering he goes through), This song strikes me.  I think the real reason that it is so popular is that people can relate to it, and that is the scary thing.  Broken Hearts, and the hatred and pain and wrath that ensues after break ups, and like dogs that return to their vomit, so do broken hearted people seem to return foolishly to the person they love to hate.

At the same time a lot of people my age are already completely cynical and pessimistic when it comes to love.  I think, on average my peers actually think that Love is overrated; Love is a farce; Love is not even a real thing; Love and pain are the same; Love and hate are the same thing.  There are no definitions of Love that seem to mean anything to my cynical and disappointed generation.  So I cannot even speak on love without acknowledging this brokenness.

And so I stumbled upon another quote that bore resemblance to a quote:

Meanwhile my sins were multiplied.  She with whom I had lived so long was torn from my side as a hindrance to my forthcoming marriage.  My heart which she held her very dear was broken and wounded and shed blood.  She went back to Africa, swearing that she would never know another man, and left with me the natural son I had had of her.  But I in my unhappiness could not, for all my manhood, imitate her resolve.  I was unable to bear the delay of two years which must pass before I was to get the girl I had asked for in marriage.  In fact it was not really marriage that I wanted.  I was simply a slave to lust.  So I took another woman, not of course as a wife; and thus my soul’s disease was nourished and kept alive as vigorously as ever, indeed worse then ever, that it might reach the realm of matrimony in the company of its ancient habit.  Nor was the wound healed that had been made by the cutting off of my former mistress.  For there was first burning and bitter grief; and after that it festered, and as the pain grew duller it only grew more hopeless.

To the surprise of most people, that was from St. Augustine’s Confessions.  He, like Eminem, seems to have no difficulty expressing the difficulties that come with Love.  Yet he does not end there:

Praise be to You, glory to You, O Fountain of mercies.  I became more wretched and You more close to me.  Your right hand was ready to pluck me from the mire and wash me clean, though I knew it not.

Augustine’s faith was, of course fortified by God’s grace, as well as a strong hope and faith, particularly when he reflected on that.  Eminem, unfortunately has no claim on those things.  Yet, for this experience.  I find Augustine one of the most credible witnesses of Love out of everyone out there.  He spends a lot of time talking about it, and he was well informed, obviously.

In fact, one of his most beautiful prayers follows as such:

Late have I loved You, O Beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved You! For behold You were within me, and I outside; and I sought You outside and in my unloveliness fell upon those lovely things that You have made.  You were with me and I was not with You.  I was kept from You by those things, yet had they not been in You, they would not have been at all.  You called and cried to me and broke open my deafness: and You sent forth Your beams and shone upon me and chased away my blindness: You breathed fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and now pant for You; I tasted You, and now hunger and thirst for You: You touched me and I have burned for Your peace.

Our English language fails to capture some of the intricacies of love.  Those very important distinctions are important, and Augustine would have understood many of those.  Most of those distinctions, I believe, lead to several confusions over love, that result in very morbid and painful songs like Eminem’s, as well as the morbid and painful experiences that have resulted in a cynical and pessimistic generation.

For instance we often say “I love pizza,” and “I love you mom,” and hopefully, for the sake of our mothers, we do not mean the same thing.  Or “I love my dog,” and “I love my boyfriend/girlfriend.”  Hopefully we mean something different, or you might get dumped.  No wonder so many people like Eminem are pessimistic and confused, we throw it around like it’s a dirty old tennis ball.  If we could see it for the pearl it really is, we might be more cautious.

The three terms that are often used are actually common Greek terms, the kinds that Augustine would have been familiar with, and were frequently employed by the Church Fathers to discuss love.  The three terms were Eros, Philos, and Agape.

Eros refers specifically to the feelings of captivation and desire directed to someone.  Love at first sight usually refers to this.  Sometimes at the worst level, it is infatuation, refusing to see the whole person.   It can hide behind so many masks and be contaminated with lust, that no wonder people get confused.  At its best, it’s the bond between spouses.  Even Augustine, in my quote earlier, prays to God in an erotic and sensuous way, and that is not uncommon among the Saints.

Philos refers to the family love.  We just care about our family and friends, and long to tell about our days to them.  We think of them when they are away, and look forward to meeting with them again.  We want their text messages and Facebook comments.

Agape refers to perfect selfless love.  The sublime example of this would be Christ on the Cross.  I heard a story recently about a father who died to save his son from drowning.  Agape love is that love that puts the other first, and many spouses have learned that in order to have a happy marriage they need to bring some Agape, and not just focus on the Eros.

For us, we can consider all of these things, as they were certainly relevant in all of Augustine’s writings.  Augustine, in his catechism,  would then move on to define love in the four stages of humanity in relation to God.  In the beginning we are savages without law, then we become fearful servants under the law.  The spirit then moves us to act out of a purified Charity.  We are concerned with our neighbors and strangers, not for our own benefit, and we serve God without timidity.  The Final stage, is the perfect peace of love in heaven.  For Augustine, we cannot even begin to love without the spirit of God leading us.

At some point, we begin to learn that charity is not pity.  We don’t give out of pity, because we are good and better, and this other person is needy.  We learn to see that this person, and I are the same.  And we ask, why it is that I have so much, and they have little.  We feel scandalized by our abundance, or simply moved to equalize that imbalance, without looking down at the other, but eye to eye.  This kind of purified Charity, moved by the Spirit, that sees God in every other person, this is the kind of Charity we need to learn how to have.