The Making of a Lukewarm Catholic

Last week in the comments to “Catholics Acting Catholic”, Anna asks:

How? How does the modern church read the same scriptures as me and MISS that Christ is Lord, He is The Only Way, The. End. ???

The Church is made up not of partisan chunks, but of individuals.  Anna and I agreed it was unwise to speculate on what might make any one person lean this way or that in their approach to the faith.  But I don’t need to speculate about myself.  Before I was a pope-loving, catechism-slinging revert, I was agnostic.  And before that?  I was one of those other Catholics.  The catechism-optional, find-your-own-path types.

(Which is how I found my own path out of the Church — and later, following the same method, found my way back in.)

So, to answer Anna’s question . . .  What was it that made me, in 1991, a Georgetown kinda Catholic?  (At heart, if not in wallet.)  Thinking through it, my response is very simple: It was the religion I’d been taught my whole life.

My parents were both Catholic, but we barely went to church when I was little.  After I received my first holy communion at age 7, we quit attending Mass or CCD.  It was one of those parishes where they didn’t do confession until later, so I spent the next decade receiving communion, but never going to confession, or even knowing anything about that sacrament, except what I saw in movies.

Every year at Easter, my mom would say, “And we’re going to start going back to Mass every Sunday from now on,” and every year we wouldn’t.  But she didn’t give up.  In 1988 we moved from metro DC to a small Bible-belt town, and my mom argued it was social necessity for us to turn out a church every Sunday.   She was 50% southerner by birth, which gave her some authority as an expert on these matters, and plus you could count the baptist churches and know she was right.  We went to Mass.

It was kinda fun, after I got over my snotty teenage attitude.  Being Catholic in a baptist-methodist town was countercultural. In your face. Also I loved the God part.

We didn’t do anything crazy though, like praying at home, or reading the Scriptures, nothing Bible-Thumper like that.  We read the same newspapers — Wall Street Journal, the local paper, the diocesan paper.  We watched the same TV shows — heavy on the MTV during the day, sitcoms at night.  My sisters and I read good wholesome magazines for teen girls, like YM and Elle.  I thought the USCCB’s movie reviews were awfully uptight — I just ignored them.  If someone suggested maybe certain music wasn’t so edifying, I would have scoffed.  Paranoid types.  Throwbacks.  Idiots.

Our parish did offer Catholic sex ed, and we attended, but we also did secular sex ed — both at school and via everything we read and watched and listened to.  My parents no doubt wished they could instill a few Catholic moral values in that department, but they had no notion that it was possible — not even, perhaps, entirely convinced it was necessary.  One evening our Catholic youth leader did a presentation about Catholic teaching on sex.  Birth control wasn’t a topic — neither for nor against.  I raised my hand and asked her this: What if two people had promised to marry each other, and they were faithful and they really were going to get married and stay faithful — would it matter if they had sex before hand?

She was literally stumped.  Unable to say it was wrong.  Unable.

After all, she’d been raised in the same religion as me — the religion of the popular media and public schools and rosy planned parenthood commercials.  This was the faith of our nation.  Our religion was Modern American, flavored Catholic.


Why be a Catholic-favored American?  Well, for one thing it’s a beautiful faith.  The liturgy, the art — we had a gorgeous parish church, wonderful musicians.  There’s the sense of history.  There’s the McDonald’s factor, too — when you travel, you always have a place to fit in.   And just as I’d proudly say I was part-Irish or part-German, it was a pleasure to have a Catholic identity.  I expect I would have made just as fervent a modern American progressive-Muslim or progressive-Jew.  It’s a heritage.  You love your heritage the way you love your grandma, even if she does sometimes let slip a racist remark, and you know your better, but you never say anything because she’s your grandma.

And here’s the other thing, and this is the truth about many good Americans, whether pagan-flavor or Catholic-flavor or gay-flavor or you name it:  Nice people.  Kind people.  People who do good things for others.  People who try their best to be the best person they can be.  Faithful catechism-reading Catholics don’t have the corner on the Niceness market.   Nice is universal.

So why stick around a Church that I thought was wrong?  Well in the long run I didn’t, but my departure had more to do with being out of town on the weekends and falling in with non-religious friends than it did with an active dissent from the Church.   So what kept me claiming the name of Catholic for many years, until I finally gave up on the Christian thing altogether?

  • There’s God.  Humans are spiritual.  We don’t walk away from God easily.
  • There really wasn’t any conflict.

Oh, sure, you sometimes maybe heard or read some Catholic thing that you disagreed with.  But when find-your-own-path religion is the voice of the entire wider culture, and a prominent voice within the Church?  You go with it.

And that’s it.  I left for college (State U, no money for Georgetown) an exuberant, rosary-praying, sometimes-Bible-reading Catholic teen, but one who had no serious Christian discipleship, no serious training in the faith, and not a single voice pointing to a faith that was something other than American Mainstream Culture with incense and candles attached.   State U did the rest of the work  to finish off that remnant of a faith.

And interestingly, it was  the hardcore, this-is-not-mere-culture,  Do You Accept Jesus as Your Lord and Savior evangelicals who both cemented my final separation with Christianity . . . and brought me back into the fold. Whence a baptist deacon unwittingly plopped me down at Mass on a Wednesday morning in 1999.  And with a little help from  Jack T. Chick, I stayed.  And started doing what the Catechism said.

8 thoughts on “The Making of a Lukewarm Catholic

  1. There’s a lot of life-with-God that is ready and waiting, if you ask for it. I don’t know many people who read the Bible and pray every day that don’t have an active, living faith. There are a few, of course.

    Oddly, my time in college was probably some of the best years of faith for me. I happened to fall into a faith-based club that spent most weekends doing church activities.

    But yeah, my childhood was much the same, although a different denomination. We prayed at meals, or rather, my father said the same thing at every dinner (and never breakfast or lunch, or at a restaurant) that years later we didn’t even recognize what he was saying anymore.

    Sadly, there’s a strong message around me now of a more post-modern religion. Christ is only alive through our works. (what?!) The cultural experience of the Old Testament was so different, it’s really useless for us. (not really.) Oh, and using the Bible to berate someone is wrong, so we really can’t tell anyone they’re wrong, ever. So, really, we don’t need the Bible at all. We can figure it out for ourselves. And finally, *sings* All we need is love!

    And, in turn, as I read and pray and listen to the Spirit, they’re so, so wrong. They have to be ignoring well, gee- the bulk of the scriptures altogether and centuries of Christian history- to come to those conclusions.

    So it’s more those people that just absolutely exasperate me right now. This movement that I’m watching develop is full of heresy and bad scholarship.

    1. “There’s a lot of life-with-God that is ready and waiting, if you ask for it.” Yes. Absolutely.

      I’m seeing a little bit of the post-evangelical thing happening here, but probably not as much as you are in your corner of the world. On a much happier note, there’s also the other side, a strong movement around here to reclaim the Anglican church for seriousness of faith — small group under the supervision of one of the African Anglican bishops.

      1. It does seem to be polarizing, anyway. My spiritual director (although she’s not so fancy as that) says that she’s glad to see things getting more heated, because it will separate the wheat from the chaff. I want to be wheat.

        I want to look at what you just posted, but it will have to wait for tomorrow.

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