Ten More Reasons to be Catholic

Being Catholic for me is far more than a matter of religion. I am what they sometimes call a “revert,” which puts me in the rare position of being both a cradle Catholic and a kind of convert. Catholicism for me has all the familiarity of family, but it is not simply a reflex. Being Catholic is something I really had to think about and choose.

Earlier this week, Sam Guzman of The Catholic Gentleman wrote a list of “10 Reasons to Become Catholic.” He notes, via Chesterton, that there are many thousands of reasons he could list, but they all boil down to the truth of the faith. I believe that too. I have written before about my reasons for returning to the Church, the main one being a strong sense of God’s directive to me personally to do so. Guzman wrote about why people should become Catholic, but that got me thinking about why I remain Catholic.

After all, this is not a great moment for Catholic triumphalism. Scandals abound. The abuse crisis and its cover-up is a shocking display of evil, especially if what Guzman says is true that “The greatest obstacle to the advance of evil in the world is the Catholic Church.” Wrap in alongside that the financial scandals just starting to emerge, the crisis of pastoral care created by the priest shortage, and the banality of the liturgy in many places and it is easy to see why many people find the modern Catholic Church more lamentable than hopeful.

Yet here I remain. And it is not simply that I am resigned to it or see it as the best of bad options. I’m jazzed about being Catholic. I think this is the absolute best thing I could be. I’m not trying to bash anyone else by saying that, but for me, there is no place I would rather call home.

So here are ten reasons why it is a joy for me to be Catholic. I have not copied any of Guzman’s, all of which would be on my list too. I am sure I could come up with ten more if I tried. Where truth lives, joy abounds.

A Mystical Faith

In the Catholic faith, we don’t just learn about God. We experience Him. We meet Him in the Sacraments and in the reading of Scripture. We encounter Him in prayer. He is not abstract. He is not distant, off on a cloud somewhere. He is an ever-present part of life. The Catholic faith is filled with tools to help us to know Him. From the Ignatian spiritual exercises or the Carmelite way of perfection to Eastern traditions of iconography and the Jesus Prayer, Catholicism is mystical from top to bottom. And the Church shows us through that mysticism that it is possible to have deep spiritual experiences without sacrificing reason and rationality in the process.

A Healing Faith

We are all carrying wounds around with us, wounds of loneliness, wounds of pride or despair, wounds of sin. The mission of the Catholic Church is the salvation of souls.  That means that the Catholic Church exists to offer us healing for our wounds, a healing that is deep and that ultimately saves us from death itself. Sometimes Christians envision salvation in purely juridical terms – I’m either good or bad, and if I’m bad then I have to go before a judge to pay a penalty, unless someone else intervenes. That kind of understanding has its place within the tradition and can be useful in some ways, but it is not the primary lens through which salvation is meant to be viewed. We are not dying from sin because we have offended an angry God. We are dying from sin because sin is a sickness, a poison that infects us and reaches out into every corner of our lives, regardless of the choices we have made. Indeed, it is that wound that causes us to want to make bad choices in the first place.

But in and through the Church, we receive the medicine that we need. Through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), through the preaching of the Gospel, through prayer and fasting, through spiritual direction, and in so many other ways, the Lord Jesus Christ works through His Church to heal us and restore us to wholeness.

Catholicism is Weird

Earlier this year, I got to bless a room full of kids with a piece of bone from St. Thomas Aquinas. That’s weird, right? I mean, totally. And what could be better than that?

The weirdness of Catholicism is part of the joy of it. We sing in funny tones. We tell stories about great saints who have done things like levitating or reading people’s minds. We get together to worship what looks to the naked eye like a piece of bread, only we insist it has become something much more. From the perspective of the world, so much of what Catholicism does is super weird and in some cases even super offensive. But in an age in which we trumpet the idea of being non-conformist and yet participate in an endless cycle of boring consumerist trends, Catholicism is one of the few ways in which we can truly escape from the mediocrity.

The contemporary Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft wrote, “In an age that has thrown off all tradition, the only rebellion possible is orthodoxy.” The more we embrace the Catholic faith in all of its strangeness, the more we find ourselves breaking free from the worst that the world has to offer.

The Mother of God

Some Christians worry that Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary somehow obscures the place of Jesus, but my experience has been just the opposite. The more my devotion to Mary has increased, the closer to Jesus I have become. How could it be otherwise? She is His mother, after all, and so all that she says and does points us back to Him. In John 2:1-12, Jesus performs His first miracle by changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana. Mary is at the heart of this scene, urging Him along, and more importantly urging others to follow His lead, saying, “Do whatever He tells you.” She understands her Son. When I get to know the family and friends of others, it often leads me to have a new appreciation for them. The same is true here. Mary is the one who models for us how to be a disciple.

Mary is also the source of Christ’s humanity, her flesh becoming His. In that sense, we honor her as the arc, the bridge, the means by which God chose to unite Himself with us. In that respect, to fail to venerate her is to fail to fully understand just what He has done for us.

The Church Loves Women

The veneration of Mary also reminds us that the Catholic faith celebrates women. This sometimes surprises people since the common misperception is that the Church does just the opposite. Yet the teaching of the Church is not only that women ought to be treated as equal to men, but that they need to be loved, cherished, and honored for their unique gifts. Pope St. John Paul II’s 1995 Letter to Women is a grand example of that. In it, the pope thanks women for the gifts of being daughters and sisters, wives and mothers, and he advocates for things like “equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights,” as well as an end to “sexualized violence.”

The “Me Too” movement has highlighted how women are routinely regarded as mere objects for the satisfaction of men in our society. Women’s stories are not heard. Their humanity is reduced to whatever garners the attention of men. The Catholic faith does the opposite, acknowledging the humanity of women at the deepest level, that women like men are made in the image and likeness of God, that they contribute uniquely to the good of society, and that they deserve love and respect. The message of the Church is not just about women, but it is also for women and from women. Some of the greatest doctors of the Church have been women like St. Catherine of Sienna and St. Therese of Lisieux. In other words, women are not simply something the Church talks about. Women are the Church. Indeed, the Church herself is traditionally referred to as “she” and as our “mother” because she unites us to Jesus as His Bride. “The future is female,” says a popular feminist slogan. To which we might add, “So is the Catholic Church!”

The Church Loves Children

Despite the horrors we have seen perpetrated by some leaders in the Church in recent years, historically the Catholic Church has always taught that the family is sacred and children are great gifts from God. This can be seen in many ways, from the Church’s relentless defense of children in the womb and migrant children, and the Church’s efforts to end human trafficking, to the World Meeting of Families, World Youth Day, and the development of Catholic schools, hospitals, orphanages, and other institutions designed specifically to care for children throughout their childhood years. As a father of two children with a severe form of autism, it is particularly gratifying to know that the Church loves my kids and believes they are as worthy of love and respect as any other human being.

Building a Better World

The Catholic social justice tradition is unparalleled in its advocacy for human rights. The entire concept of “human rights” has its origin in the teaching of the Church about the inherent dignity of every human person. My own walk back to the Church was greatly influenced by figures like Dorothy Day, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and St. Oscar Romero who fought for the poor and the disenfranchised. The Catholic Church has long advocated for the rights of workers, an end to abortion, an end to capital punishment, the eradication of nuclear arms, and the moral imperative for all of us to work towards healing the planet from pollution and the effects of global warming.

You Can Party With Us

The Catholic poet Hilaire Belloc wrote, “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine / There’s always laughter and good red wine. / At least I’ve always found it so, / Benedicamus Domino!” Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati is famously pictured standing at the top of a mountain smoking a pipe. Is the point that Catholics like to smoke and drink? Well, some of them do. But the point is actually much bigger and better than that. The Catholic faith isn’t afraid of pleasure. In fact, Catholicism deeply celebrates all the good things that give pleasure in this world, such as good wine, good food, gregarious laughter, and so forth. All of these need to be enjoyed within reason. Obviously, there are ways in which pleasure seeking, when it becomes an end in itself, is a destructive force. But taken in moderation, with the understanding that all good pleasures we experience in this world are merely foretastes of the pleasure of knowing God in the next, the Catholic Church acknowledges that pleasure is a good thing and a healthy thing to want in our lives.

Sex is Good

Some people might hear that the Church approves of pleasure and object that this cannot be since the Church does not approve of sex. Those people would be frightfully misinformed! The Church teaches clearly and consistently that sex is good. I have written before about the way in which our world today is unable to acknowledge the greatness of sex. The Church teaches that sex belongs in the context of marriage not because sex is bad but precisely because sex is so good. It reaches its fullest, most beautiful potential within a covenant of grace in which two people who have been bonded to each other for life can afford to be vulnerable and honest with each other, giving the whole of themselves to each other. Pleasure, then, is one of the great goods of sex, not isolated on its own but in conjunction with the entire self-giving that sex involves. As Pope Francis put it to a group of young people in 2015, “It is right to try for a genuine love that knows to give life, that does not search to use the other for its own pleasure. A love that makes sacred the life of the other person: ‘I respect you, I do not want to use you.’”

Knowing Jesus

All of the previous reasons culminate in this one: Being Catholic is to know Jesus. The heart of the Catholic faith is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the good news of what He has done for us and His continued reign over His Church through the work of the Holy Spirit. In the Eucharist, we receive Jesus directly, in body and spirit. In the Church’s teaching, we hear the voice of Jesus speaking to our hearts. In the living of the Catholic faith, we constantly see Jesus at work in the world. We hear Him crying out to us in the suffering of the poor and the sick. We know His joy and His saving grace in the love of parents and children, husbands and wives, and friends for one another. There is nowhere in my life that I have found greater intimacy with Christ than in the Catholic Church.

Sex is great

Everyone is interested in sex. That, to me, seems reasonable. Sex is interesting. But is it great?

I do not mean by that the now common usage of the word great – something that we really like – but the older sense of the word great: something that is larger than life, something that far surpasses the ordinary, something that is truly amazing and breathtaking, worth treating with a certain reverence and awe.

Throughout most of human history, this is how sex was understood, around the world, in various cultures and religions. Ancient pagans invented fertility cults that included ritualized sexual acts. Their approach was not what we might call virtuous today, but it was nevertheless predicated on an understanding that sex is powerful and that it somehow connects us with the divine.

The Bible elevates sex as well by elevating the whole institution of marriage. We see in the Scriptures not only a regulating of sex within marriage but an understanding that in the sexual act is an image of the relationship between God and humanity. The metaphor most often used in Scripture to describe God’s relationship with us is that of marriage. An entire book of the Bible—the Song of Solomon—is an exploration both of sexual love between a husband and a wife as well as the relationship between God and His covenant people. Ephesians 5 speaks plainly of the “mystery” of how Jesus relates to the Church as His “bride.” And of course, there’s this from the book of Revelation:

Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:7-9)

The culmination of the whole of human history will be the union of Christ and His Church in marriage. This is not a sexless claim. Sex itself is the seal of the covenant. This is why, repeatedly in the Old Testament, the image of sexual infidelity is used as a metaphor for the infidelity of the people to God. Sex is seen as the ultimate act of joining. “Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her?” says Paul, “for, as it is written, ‘the two will become one flesh’” (1 Corinthians 6:16, quoting Genesis 2).

There are certainly examples of Christian leaders and teachers throughout history who have said unfortunate things about sex and the body, but they are outweighed by both the Biblical witness and the far clearer tradition of depicting sex as something sacred and worth preserving as such. One of my favorite icons is that of St. Anna and St. Joachim, the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Our Lady was conceived in the usual way, through the marriage bed of her parents. The icon–shown above–depicts the two saints embracing in front of a bed. Herein we find the fulfillment of the doctrine of the immaculate conception, that no original sin was passed on to Mary in her conception, no hint of sin tied to the sexual union between her parents. What could be more of an endorsement of the greatness of sex than that?

Yet today, as our culture increases its march into a belligerent secularity, sex is not seen as great. It is still interesting to people, to be sure, as any beer commercial proves. Our culture is obsessed with sex and with the strange and ill defined concept of “sexual freedom.” But sex is not great anymore. It does not inspire awe, let alone reverence. It is ordinary, recreational, blasé. We treat it as if it is as casual as a handshake, something we should engage in “safely,” by which we mean through contraception, protecting ourselves from one of the main purposes of sex while keeping at arm’s length its power to unite us as one with each other and with God.

That this is so can be seen most clearly in the western cultural assumption that sex is a precursor to marriage. For thousands of years, across cultures, sex was understood to be the seal of marriage, the great beacon at its center that made marriage different from every other relationship. Of course, there has always been sex outside of marriage, viewed with varying degrees of stigma and shame, but the sex of the marriage bed was the apex of the marital relationship, the place where it went from simply human to divine.

Now, however, there is such a strong expectation that sex will happen before marriage that the very notion of “waiting” is ridiculed as a retrograde barbarism, when it is even addressed at all. The average sitcom today during prime television viewing hours has unmarried characters engaging in casual sex without even a nod towards some kind of discernment on their part over whether or not this is a good idea. That would not have been true even as recently as thirty years ago.

Marriage itself is still treated with a certain degree of awe, but it is at another level than sex. It is not uncommon for someone considering marriage to say, “The sex is great, but I don’t know if I’m ready for that level of commitment.” The very words of the second clause disprove the first, at least on a grammatical level. Sex that does not have a commitment of the binding together of two as one flesh is not great at all, even if it is pleasurable to the senses. In the modern west, sex is impotent.

The secular orthodoxy that says that sex must be fun and free of constraint is a major part of what keeps people today out of the Church. When people come to investigate the Christian faith, questions about sex are usually at the top of their list. The wise priest or pastor knows though that such questions cannot be quickly answered. The answers that the Christian tradition offers are not going to make sense to most people who have been brought up to think of sex more as a marker of identity and personal choice than as a sign of the love and faithfulness of God.

We have to learn what it means to be human beings again. Only then will we be able really to understand why sex is great. Like so much else of value that is being tossed into the fire in our age, the greatness of sex must be protected and preserved in the Church if nowhere else. We must become the custodians of the holiness of sex until the day finally comes when the world, exhausted by its ever-fruitless search for greater sexual freedom and expression, will once again wonder just what it was that made us think sex was so darned interesting in the first place.

The joy of creating

croppedRecently, my old college buddy Tom spent the weekend helping me to build an outdoor playset for my children. At least, that’s how he would describe it. It would be more accurate to say that I helped him. Tom is much more mechanically inclined than I am. I find it challenging to get the lids off of bottles. But Tom was able to look at a picture and description of the playset we wanted and take measurements and execute a plan. On Saturday morning, there was nothing in my backyard. By Sunday afternoon, there was a full size swing set, fort, slide, and rock wall with two very happy little boys climbing all over it.

It is joyous to create something like that. It is hard work, to be sure, yet there is an experience of the divine in it. God is the Creator. He is the maker of heaven and earth. We are made in His image. We share that same creative spark, that same yearning to make things.

I have never been good at making things with my hands, but I have always been good at making things out of words: Poems, songs, essays, stories, and sermons. I feel the same deep sense of satisfaction in that exercise that many people feel in making things out of stone, steel, and wood. You begin with nothing but a blank page and the spark of an idea. You connect one word to another, forming patterns of sound, rhyme, and thought. And when you are finished, if you are lucky, you have created something beautiful and unique that fills the space that was once empty. If that is the case, you can look at your work with satisfaction and without the least sense of arrogance or conceit say, “It is finished and it is good.”

Of course, I don’t always say that. Sometimes I look at what I’ve written and say, “It is crap.” Then I start over. Creation is a much more fraught process for human beings than it is for God. But in those rare moments when I get it right, I feel deeply gratified because something of God’s own creative life has worked through me to bring something new and wonderful into being.

When I write something, it feels as if it is flowing directly out of my soul, but that is not entirely true. In fact what I am doing is rearranging what was there before. I did not invent the words that I use. They are the raw materials that I build with, much like the large pile of lumber that we acquired in order to put together that playset. Even in the creative act that most resembles God’s own work, the act of begetting and bearing children, the action is not purely ours. The raw material of sperm and egg and chromosomes is developed into something gloriously, wonderfully new, yet it is only possible because those things were gifted to us.

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God creates out of nothing. When I think about that – I mean really think about it – I have to catch my breath. It is inconceivable to me, as someone who creates, not to have to use any building blocks. It was inconceivable to many in the ancient world as well, such as Plato and Aristotle. Yet that is the audacious claim that is revealed in Holy Scripture. God created out of nothing. There was nothing at all, no building blocks, no starting point. And then God said, “Let there be light.” And there was.

All of our raw supplies are God given. The wood for the playset came from trees, which came from other trees, which came from earlier plant life, which came from cells, which if you follow the chain back far enough came directly from the creative act of the Lord speaking a word. The words for writing evolve from languages that find their way back inexorably to that same first word. The biological building blocks of reproduction are handed down to us – traditioned to us – by the One who made all biology, the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. What a grand and unexpected joy! When we create, we partner with God. And when our creative work is done and something beautiful appears where before there was nothing, God says, “It is finished and it is good.”

God’s Self Portrait

Villers_Young_Woman_Drawing

The French painter Marie-Denise Villers painted her most famous work, Young Woman Drawing, in 1801. It is a masterpiece and it is now widely believed that the painting is a self portrait. Every detail is powerfully communicative, from the way the light touches the folds of her dress and the strands of her hair to the posture with which she sits to draw her subject, presumably looking into a mirror. Though I was born more than two centuries after Villers and I know virtually nothing about her, just looking at this image makes me feel like I am in relationship with her.

Of course, this is part of the idea behind iconography. It is one of the reasons why so many icons portray Christ or the saints staring out at us. Icons are meant to be windows into the figures they depict. By seeing a saint’s image on an icon, we have a focus for calling out to that saint and offering our devotion. But neither Jesus nor the saints painted their own icons. What makes a self portrait so compelling to me is the idea that this is the artist’s own best expression of herself or himself. By painting herself, Villers has left behind a small piece of herself by which we can come to know her far more intimately than if the painting had been done by anyone else.

Over the past year, I have been reading and studying Saint Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Based on 129 Wednesday audience talks that the pope gave between 1979 and 1984, it is breath taking in its scope. The Church has not yet really begun to plumb its depths, and I have personally only scratched the surface of the surface, but if I were to try and sum up the central animating principle of this work, I would say that the human body is designed to speak to us the Gospel. This is part of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. From Genesis through Revelation, the Scripture reveals to us over and over again that our bodies are God’s self portrait.

Central to this observation is the notion of sexual complementarity. This can be confusing, particularly since what John Paul means by sexual complementarity is different from how most Evangelicals use that term. What John Paul means is that our maleness and femaleness are not arbitrary. In the very ordering of our bodies as men and women, we see the attributes of God displayed. As men and women relate to each other, particularly in the Sacrament of marriage and in the bond of sexual union, there is expressed there a mystical unveiling of God’s own self. The love, fidelity, and fruitfulness of marriage, expressed through our bodies, is an icon of the love, fidelity, and generativity of God.

I find this to be such a beautiful idea, not just because it gives me an insight into the nature of God, but because of how blessedly affirming it is of bodies. To think of my body and the bodies of other people as holy icons is to re-imagine what the body is all about. Despite my imperfections, my extra pounds, my creeping gray, my body is a self portrait of God. And that is also true for other people, regardless of their size and shape, age, or the color of their skin.

Moreover, it means that I have something to learn from the bodies of women that is far greater than what the culture tells me women’s bodies are all about. The prevalent wisdom of western culture, written large on just about any blank surface, is that our bodies exist only for personal pleasure, and that women’s bodies in particular are made solely for the use and enjoyment of men. The Theology of the Body turns that deeply sinful notion upside down. It says that our bodies are holy and meant to point far beyond themselves to the very source of holiness. As I learn what it means to be a man, understanding the masculine nature of my body, I gain some insight into God. But just as importantly, as I learn to see femininity for what it really is, realizing the true blessedness of what God has expressed in the bodies of women that is different from what He has expressed in the bodies of men, I come to a fuller, richer picture of who God is and how He is at work in the world.

Of course, there is always the danger that the sign gets confused for the thing it signifies. As much as I love Marie-Denise Villers’ self portrait, I realize that it is not actually her. It is only a sign of the truth of who she is. If she were in the room with me, it would be ludicrous for me to ignore her in favor of the portrait. Likewise, the body is a sign of the reality of God, but God is in Himself much more than what He has expressed through His creation. The right way to appreciate the body is to see it the same way we see an icon, not as the thing that it depicts but as a doorway that can lead us into greater relationship.

All of this makes me wish I could paint. Alas, I cannot. But I am grateful for the gift of art in this world that points to the existence of God’s great majesty, just as I am grateful for God’s own artistry that draws each of us into the mystery of His love.