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Practicing Catholics without the faith

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 28, 2020

When I was in graduate school, during one of those long late-night conversations, I asked what I thought was a rhetorical question: “If someone doesn’t believe what the Catholic Church teaches, why would he keep going to a Catholic church?”

One of my fellow students immediately shot back: “Because he’s a Catholic!”

In a sense he was right. A Catholic who has become estranged from the faith is especially welcome to return. The Church is waiting with open arms, like the exultant father of the Prodigal Son.

More than that: Anyone who has been baptized into the Church remains a member of the Christian family. The character of Baptism is imprinted on his soul. He might drift away and become a lapsed Catholic. He might became a Mafia hit-man or a slave trader, and then he’d be a bad Catholic. But he’d still be a Catholic— and welcome, just like the Prodigal Son, to return.

But the Prodigal Son wanted to return, wanted to change, wanted to atone for his past transgressions. So in an important sense my question remains unanswered. Why would someone want to worship in a Catholic church, if he did not believe what the Church teaches?

To say “because he’s a Catholic” begs the question. Sure, his experience of life in the Catholic Church might have shaped his character, along with his ethnic and family background and his education and the neighborhood where he was raised. He can tell stories about the nuns in parochial school until he is old and gray. But why would he want to go to Mass on Sunday? Why would he want to be a practicing Catholic, unless he’s a believing Catholic?

Let’s stipulate that there are purely social reasons for an occasional visit to the parish church: to please Grandma, or to attend a friend’s wedding, or to curry favor with Catholic voters. But let’s also agree that these are not reasons that will prompt a normal adult to get out of bed regularly on Sunday mornings. Nor are they entirely respectable reasons for making a pretense about a matter that others take so seriously.

Because when you attend Mass, you’re asked to join in professing the faith. Unless you stand in a corner looking down at your shoes, you’re expected to say “I believe” and continue with a string of statements that an honest non-believer cannot accept. Why would anyone do that? There may be a logical and respectable answer to my question, but— years after that discussion in the dorm— I still can’t think of one.

The Catholic Church asks non-Catholics to refrain from receiving Communion because they are actually not in the full communion of the faithful: because they do not believe what we believe, especially about the Eucharist. Should the same logic apply to people who identify themselves as Catholics, but do not accept the Church’s teaching that the Lord Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist? According to multiple surveys, a substantial proportion of the people filling the pews in a typical Catholic parish church— perhaps a majority— fall into that category.

What does it mean to be a practicing Catholic? To attend Mass regularly. To frequent the other sacraments. To pray. All that, surely. But to be a functioning Catholic— a faithful, believing Catholic— implies more. It implies embracing the faith, accepting the teaching of the Church, throwing oneself into the life of the Church as the Prodigal Son threw himself into the arms of his welcoming father. To profess the faith is to think with the mind of the Church: sentire cum ecclesia.

If you are a Catholic and I am a Catholic, then we should know a great deal about each other. You know not only what I will be doing next Sunday morning (every morning, as a matter of fact), but also what I think on a number of different subjects, some of them highly controversial.

Now apply that test to some prominent people who are routinely identified as Catholics. Do Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden think the way I think? Does Rev. James Martin? If our views on key moral issues are contradictory— and believe me, they are— then how is it that we profess the same faith?

Years ago, a friend who is a priest explained why he had run into difficulties with the archbishop in a different diocese. “If he’s a Catholic, I’m not,” my friend said. “And if I’m a Catholic, he’s not.” He declined to concelebrate Mass with the prelate in question, explaining to me that “we’re not in communion.”

Archbishop Vigano has prompted headlines and protests by speaking about a “parallel church,” a powerful cadre within the ecclesiastical world that does not accept the Church’s perennial doctrine. His public statements may be impolitic. But if they were simply wrong, it should be easy to explain how he and Bishop Schneider and Cardinal Cupich and Archbishop Paglia and Father Martin and Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi and I all fit together in one happy family of faith.

In the early days of the Church, theologians battled furiously over nuances of doctrine. Some may have been too quick to pronounce an anathema or to deny communion to their rivals. But the ferocity of their debates showed how deeply they cared about faith, how highly they prized orthodox teaching. They refused to be satisfied until it was clearly established: who was a believing Catholic and who was not.

They cared. Do we?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 30, 2020 11:23 PM ET USA

    Here is a parallel question that I find even more disturbing than yours: If someone doesn’t believe what the Catholic Church teaches, why would he keep teaching about that faith in secondary and especially higher education? Notice that I did not say "teaching that faith." I said teaching _about_ that faith. In my experience, there is more teaching _about_ the faith in Catholic institutions than there is teaching _of_ the faith. The Catholic educational system could not be more broken.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jul. 30, 2020 12:21 AM ET USA

    Early theologians battled for the Truth because they cared for the salvation of souls.

  • Posted by: Pointmaster1386 - Jul. 30, 2020 12:13 AM ET USA

    The thing is when the Church was younger it had stamina to progress despite being struck in the heal by the serpent. Today the venom seems more potent and demands radical unity coming from the Bishops to help one another nourish, once they realize they can do this. The Immaculate Heart of Mary will Triumph

  • Posted by: doughlousek7433 - Jul. 29, 2020 1:34 PM ET USA

    The basic problem is that they have not received a solid teaching of their faith. I taught 6th grade CCD;to cover the OT. First, I had to build my own lesson plan to incorporte the Mass, Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, the 10 Commandments and the end times. Why? My students knew next to nothing about these important faith teachings. The OT lesson book was terrible. The 10 Commandments had half a page! Until we have solid teachings, untaught "Catholics will keep attending because they know they should!

  • Posted by: Montserrat - Jul. 29, 2020 10:21 AM ET USA

    The reality is that the Catholic Church is in schism, whether or not it has been officially proclaimed. As things worsen, the false church will probably maintain control of the property, buildings, and assets while the true Church faithful will be a small minority of traditional and orthodox Catholics surviving in modern day catacombs. A full restoration will come, as our Blessed Mother promised, but not before more trials and suffering. We must pray and have full confidence in God's love.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Jul. 28, 2020 6:38 PM ET USA

    I've been reading Newman's Grammar of Assent and am quite certain that "the way I think" is going to vary, and perhaps a lot, from Catholic to Catholic. So we can all say the Nicene Creed and even believe in our heart what we are saying, but actually have a variety of understandings of those "assents."