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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10 Tips on Discerning Religious Life

Saint Augustine Monastery, Austin Hall Arcade, San Diego, CA. Where I dwell and stroll to Morning Prayer & Mass each morning.

I have met several Vocation Wrecks, who can never manage to get close to deciding what to do with what God has given.

Sometimes they are given really lousy vocation advice. To deal with vocation wrecks, to comfort people, to dispense scrupulous young people from the misery of discernment, they give them bad advice. Worst is that God gives you a desire. This is an attempt to comfort people who want to be married, assuming that they think marriage is evil or something. I have met more people who cannot make a decision because they desire two mutually exclusive vocations. Second awful vocation advice is telling people that they will find peace. More on that below. I could actually go on about the lousy vocation advice that people who grew up in sheltered ethnic (Irish / Italian / German) parishes tell young people who have become spiritually obese on pop culture and consumerism.

I have found myself repeating many of these to many people. Sometimes I not even giving advice to discerners, but explaining the process to people who have a lot of misconceptions. I believe that most of those misconceptions are shared by people who may be called, but never looked into it. So I gathered these into ten points.

  1. If you begin to feel strangely drawn, begin to have a desire, you should look into it. If you begin to find yourself defensive, opposed, or repulsed by it, it probably requires you to look again. I used to think “They Wouldn’t Let Me Rap.” I met a Sister who used to think Nuns were ugly. If you have no emotional reaction besides a little gratitude or cheer, kindly move on.
  2. Do not Passively Discern in your head or your imagination. Do not think that by “praying about it” to yourself is actually discernment. If you have felt drawn or repulsed by it, become an Active Disciple, and then see how you feel about it.
  3. Sometimes a desire for Consecrated Life is simply a call to Radical Discipleship. Spend more time reading the Scriptures, especially the Gospel. Have a Master/Disciple relationship with Christ. Pray daily. Befriend the Saints. Participate in service to the Church or the community. Go to Eucharistic Adoration. Deepen and grow your commitment to Christ, & the church. See a Spiritual Director.
  4. Sometimes it is a good idea to defer discernment. If you are younger than a Junior in college, if you just broke up, or got rejected by a potential special someone, if someone close to you has died, if you have moved to a new city or state, or if you are changing jobs, it is a good idea to at least let 8 months pass before any serious committed discernment. I am not saying don’t discern, it is difficult to decide. Also, a yearning that persists through this is valid.
  5. A conflicted desire for both Married Life & Consecrated Life deserves a critical look. If marriage appears more comfortable, or includes more perks, you need to be honest, both come with their own Crosses. Many people NEVER have a desire for Consecrated Life. The fact that you do means you should look.
  6. You WILL NOT find immediate Peace, instead you find trepidation. All the Prophets & the Saints felt incredible turmoil. They found no Peace until they gave themselves over to a calling. Being afraid of a Vocation to Religious Life requires that you face it, not run from it. If may feel comfortable to turn away from it. If you feel drawn, but afraid, running won’t give you peace, it will only give you comfort. What is the worst thing that can happen, you find God’s plan for you in Religious Life and you discover immeasurable Love & Joy in Christ
  7. Talk to a Religious. Visit a Religious House, a Convent, or Seminary. Spend a portion of your day with a Sister or a Priest. Attend Mass several days a week. Do a weekly Holy Hour. Deepen your commitment to discipleship. Attempt to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Try the single life for a few months. This is Active Discernment.
  8. You don’t join a religious order for yourself, you join for Christ, His Church, and that community. You don’t pick a habit or patron saint or location that suits your fancy. Eventually all the superficiality and sweetness will wear out, and you will realize that you are stuck with a group of quite unremarkable human beings. This is not a sign to leave or not, but you have to look deeper in yourself and the community you want to join.
  9. Invariably, the moment you decide to actively discern or apply the boy or girl of your dreams WILL magically appear. GOD DOES NOT OR NEED a few bored lonely people with nothing better to do. God wants you to make a choice. Entering religious life does not make everyone else completely unattractive.
  10. Do not wait for 100% certainty to join. No Religious Order expects that. It is easier to leave a Religious Order within a couple years than a Marriage. Do not wait to attain 100% holiness or practice perfect chastity for every millisecond of every day. Marriage IS NOT the magic cure for lust, people have lustful thoughts after being married, and can even fall in love with other people who they are not married to. The point is growing up and moving past your emotions, comforts of 100% certainty or comprehensive preparedness.

Single is the Default Christian Vocation & Not Marriage (or Consecrated Life)

prayer-1Finding THE ONE is the topic of much discussion, the center of rotation of many personal reflections, conversations, art, music & film. The default story anywhere we look is a love story between a man and woman.

At the core of who we are, we have an existential need to receive and give affection. We also need to give of ourselves, and receive it from significant people. The Less people, the more intense the feelings might be. At the basic level of human appetite we crave affection & sex. Being single or being in Consecrated Life does not mean that one is asexual.

This past weekend, I attended the National Catholic Singles Conference in San Diego, only to hear Confessions, and it got me thinking about developing this idea. I am writing specifically for the purpose so that people can think critically about what they take for granted: Married Life is the Default or Normal Way for Christians to live their life, while Consecrate Life is exceptional, and Single People are only given a negative or neutral value in God’s plan. This is not advice for singles, neither is it a detail about the actual single vocation (or the variety of single vocations of Consecrated Life in the Church). I want to write that Married Life is not the Default Christian Life, neither is Consecrated Life exceptional, that everyone is called either permanently or temporarily to a Single Vocation.

Married Life or Consecrated Life

Many people figure that the major vocational decision is between getting married to another human or to God. Many of them see Married Life as the Default. There is the command in the Bible since Genesis. Among devout Catholics there is talk of protecting the family. There is a lot of Talk of Theology of the Body, Relationships, Dating, Chastity, in regard to complimentarily, coupling, and the ultimate goal of marriage.

Marriage is characterized as being in crisis. Divorce is rampant. Young men refuse to take on the responsibilities of fatherhood. There might be a whole lot wanting in the Western World’s pop culture perceptions of marriage, love & commitment.

Often the term Vocation Crisis refers exclusively to the rapidly diminishing numbers in Consecrated life. Others will apply the term Vocation Crisis to the state of marriage. Even lay Catholics who are deeply convicted of their personal vocation to have been married and have children, are deeply troubled to talk about this. It is such that people accuse me of being “TOO YOUNG TO BE A PRIEST.”

However, Religious are not seen as single. Consecrated Life is described as a marriage to God. Religious and Consecrated MUST be in an exclusive & all-consuming relationship. Even more explicitly people insist on this EVERYONE MUST BE MARRIED theory when they understand that priests are married to the Church.

Consecrated Life is really a kind of Marriage. There is NOTHING in God’s plan that ISN’T MARRIAGE Therefore, Single people have just not found the person that they are looking for.

Single People don’t get a break

Catholic gatherings, particularly young adult gatherings focus on socializing and connecting people. There are plenty of people who go expecting to find THE ONE. There are events that are planned, hoping that people will find THE ONE.

Conversely, they overlook countless members of society who have never been married. In many parts of the world, some people never marry to care for their parents. Throughout history, there have always been people who have lived lives of service because of their social status, and never married. People not marrying did not magically start happening the instant that the West abandoned God or whatever. It is presupposed by devout Catholics that every single adult that forgoes marriage for a career is a self-satisfied sociopath. It is never even hinted at that even young egotistical career-aholics might actually have a lifelong call to being single. Even in the secular career world, nowhere is someone considered admirable for being single. Our American Culture, influenced by Protestantism that abandoned Religious Life, MANDATED MARRIAGE FOR EVERYONE, and so we are copying Protestantism in the Church.

Single people are said to be a negation. Negatively they are too egotistical to enter into a self-sacrificing married relationship, or positively just haven’t found the right person. Most good Catholics who even accept the theory of a Single Vocation look at Single People as on the way to marriage, and want to fix them with someone. We wouldn’t dare think of insulting someone by suggesting that they will find their vocation in loneliness and negation.

The primary relationship in one’s life.

Because people look at Vocation only in the big picture, and only in terms of a long term relationship, (because Consecrated Life is only a kind of marriage) people overlook their vocation in the moment. God calls. Vocation means calling, God calls in a variety of ways. God calls us to discipleship FIRST.

The primary relationship for the disciple is a mentor relationship. In order for there to be a successful mentor relationship there MUST NOT BE ANY ROMANTIC INCLINATION. Perhaps the most important relationship one can have in their life is a mentor relationship. For the Christian Jesus Christ is the primary Master / Mentor. Perhaps one can find a secondary Master / Mentor in a Saint like Augustine, Ignatius, Theresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, or Mother Theresa. On a human level we actually need a mentor or two. The Church mandates that we have godparents and Confirmation Sponsors (but we are often pressured to select people who have no actual experience of Christian Discipleship, the Spiritual Life, or even practicing their Catholicism).

A lot of people imagine that the “secret” to chaste celibacy lies in supernatural power directly transmitted by God. There is certainly a need for grace. Others think that the secret is in natural balance, healthy relationships with self & others, regular exercise & days off. I have been surprised at how difficult chaste celibacy is without mentors & particularly a Spiritual Director.

The mentor, who is not parent, would have to be in a completely celibate non-romantic relationship. They would also have the advantage of grace and wisdom, in that the young person is not, and never in a position to pay them back. The mentoring relationship is clearly more valuable to the youth, and not to the mentor. However, sometimes the mentor does not need all the answers, for their presence is often enough to bring a sort of peace to the panicked frantic youth who is unsure that their life will work out for them.

Pop Culture

If one were to look at the trend in popular movies before 1980 and after 2000 you could characterize it as such. Movies before 1980 were primarily interested in romantic relationships, whereas many movies after 2000 were significantly more interested in the mentor relationship. (exceptions might be Back to the Future and Star Wars)

Take Batman as an example. If one were to look at Batman before Christopher Nolan’s adaptation you could characterize it as such. Batman is a fully self-sufficient man. Although he has the help of Robin, or Commissioner Gordon, Batman could do quite well without them. Were you to look at Batman Begins, the primary relationship seems to be Bruce Wayne’s and Ra’s al Gul, or conversely Batman and Alfred. Ra’s al Gul even has a positive effect on Bruce Wayne, but it is Alfred who is indispensible. In fact Alfred is more indispensible then that one girl, what’s her name?

Be it Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, Hunger Games, films that have become extensive cultural phenomenon’s, I believe, because they have brought out the significance of the mentor relationship. Instead of focusing on self-actualization through romance, they have focused on self-actualization through wisdom.

The opportunity of the Postmodern West

While serious and intelligent Catholics are stuck lamenting the cultural insignificance of the Father, Film has given positive images of how alternatives can work. The parents are always absent or irrelevant, and somehow the character manages to grow into an integrated capable person with the help of the mentor.

It truly is a tragedy that Fathers are failures or irrelevant in the West, it would be a misunderstanding to presume that every person who has had a destructive relationship with their father ends up destroyed hopelessly.

Even if we lived in a world were prolonged adolescence wasn’t as normative as mature responsible manhood or fatherhood… Even if, our world really consisted of a majority of men who were admirable and not cowardly, and many young people cite their father’s as their primary mentors, and even pop culture acknowledged this phenomenon, none of that could diminish the need for an additional significant mentor, or several.

Grandparents, godparents, aunts & uncles, older siblings, and other mentors would still be just as relevant. They would still serve in bringing an individual to their fullest self. Besides all this CRISIS talk is overestimated today, because here was have a clear opportunity.

Even married people who are mentored are mentored as individuals

Because the mentor relationship necessitates complete celibacy, as well as non-reciprocity in that the young person is not in a state to repay their mentor, it happens to the person as a single person.

People who are married or in religious life might cite the need for mentors in those states of life. I believe that there are many problems in married life because of a lack of mentors in earlier life. Many people enter marriage not as self-actualized individuals, and feel the need to separate in order to become actualized. Some people never learn to develop trust, something that can only be developed among people in completely celibate disinterested relationships like a mentor relationship. And perhaps couples have emotionally intense relationships where there is a desperate mutual need, these feelings do not get to the depths of the person, a type of relating that is often carried out by people who have had relationships with elders. Finally, many people falsely imagine that married life will grant a surrogate father or mother, or, in other words, another appropriate mentor.

It is not to suggest that somehow when one has found their vocation, or have gotten married, that they are eliminated from being mentors. The Mentor Relationship happens to and among individual persons. If a married person mentors it is as an individual and not as a couple. The young son needs his father to impart wisdom, and would personally benefit in the same way were his widowed grandfather or single uncle were to impart wisdom. In order to become a mature individual, there is virtually nothing that makes the person in married life or consecrated life elite. In order to impart wisdom one must have had, as a single person, had wisdom imparted to them, and had experience.

On the other hand, even when a couple turns to another couple for marriage, it may be the rare exception. However, the mentoring that happens here is often from the man to the man, and from the woman to the woman. It is often still between individuals navigating the same issue. Were this mentoring always to happen with all individuals present, From couple to couple, it would probably not be nearly as effective. Yet all this marks out the one exception where mentoring happens as a single person. However, if one has had some decent mentoring prior to marriage, will have so much more to give as a mature individual.

Someone who has, as fully as possible, worked at integrated and growing into a responsible individual can then almost go anywhere. They are likewise as effective as a biological father or spiritual father. A single person is a ripe for being mentored, and it is as a single person that one mentors.

It is always and only as a single person that one makes a choice on what vocation they will enter. It is as a single person, as a Christian Disciple, that one can commit their life to Christ, properly discern, pray, and be mentored before committing to a vocation. Even if most people are not called to some kind of Single Vocation, or Consecrated Singlehood, there is nobody who is not called to a Single Vocation of Christian Discipleship & Discernment. Married life is not for everyone. There is no Christian who cannot be single.