About a year ago, I read a blog post titled “How the Catholic Church Made Me a Progressive” that has helped me shape my narrative. The entire post is worth a read, but here are some parts that I definitely identified with:
I grew up in an evangelical bubble. When I left this bubble to attend college, I found my beliefs challenged. When my evangelical beliefs began slipping through my fingers, I grasped for something to hold onto. I found that in Catholicism. When I first converted I was extremely conservative in addition to being very fervent and devout. I read the early church fathers and the catechism, Catholic apologetic books and the lives of the saints. Of course, this didn’t last. All this is to preface the fact that a young woman I knew during the period I spent as a Catholic recently sent me a message. She had noticed something I posted affirming gay rights on facebook and wanted to know when I went from being socially conservative to socially liberal. As introspective as I tend to be, I had never asked myself that particular question. And so I thought about it. And you know what I realized? It was my time as a Catholic to did that to me.
[…] Just as I found the ritual of the Catholic Church appealing after the bare-bones evangelicalism of my youth and teen years, even so I soon found the Catholic Church’s focus on social justice enticing after the the-soul-is-all-that-matters evangelicalism of that same period. It was like water poured on parched ground.
[…] In addition, as a Catholic I began to widen my circle. For one thing, I began to see Catholics in Latin America, Africa, and around the globe as part of my family. There was something amazing about feeling that sort of oneness and belonging. Sure, as an evangelical I had seen myself as part of “the body of Christ,” but the evangelicalism I had belonged to was fraught with doctrinal splits. There was something amazing about knowing that I could go to a Catholic church in the next town, the next state, or even across the globe, and still hear the same mass and read the same catechism. I felt part of one great united body of humanity in a way I hadn’t as an evangelical.
[…] Catholicism allowed me to turn away from myself and away from the idea that I had a monopoly on truth, meaning, and beauty, and to fully embrace others in a way I never truly had as an evangelical. Catholicism gave me a passion for bettering people’s lives in the here and now and led me to set aside my focus on life after death. Catholicism gave me a passion for social justice, for the environment, and for progressive political goals like universal healthcare and an improved social safety net. Catholicism introduced me to the beauty of a society of interdependent individuals.
[…] The thing is, once Catholic teachings had inspired me to widen my circle and embrace humanity, once they loosened the “saved” and “damned” boxes I had sorted the world into, I couldn’t well limit my circle and shut my arms to my gay friends and colleagues. Once I had opened my arms and my heart, I could not close them. It was Catholicism, with its emphasis on social justice and ecumenism, that served as the catalyst for my transition from social conservative to a social progressive. And when the full results of that transition manifested themselves in me, I no longer felt that I had a home in the Catholic Church.
It’s amazing that two people in two very different contexts had such a similar experience. I’ve been Catholic for about 7 1/2 years, after a few years of studying and being drawn to the Catholic Church. Despite growing up in a Pentecostal-leaning (not full-blown Pentecostal…trust me…) Evangelical environment, I’ve always been a thinker and a questioner. The emotionalism and anti-intellectualism prominent in Evangelicalism always made me uncomfortable. On the one hand, I did have an emotional reliance on Christianity, but I saw that the Bible didn’t have all the answers and there were a number of problems that a “personal relationship with Jesus” couldn’t solve.
This is where Catholicism was so attractive for me. Catholicism has a very rich intellectual heritage. Catholicism was responsible for great thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas, the university system, and even the big bang theory. Add this with the most credible claim (with Orthodoxy and Anglicanism) to a link with the Early Church, and I found a Christian tradition where I didn’t have to check my brain at the door. I’m not going to get into this in this post, but Catholicism’s amazing contributions to art, architecture, and music also appealed to my aesthetics.
Additionally, the very idea of Catholic – which means universal – was very appealing to me. Catholicism offered something bigger (and even bigger when I discovered Eastern Christianity) than myself. Evangelicalism was all about me – my personal relationship, my (or some individual pastor who I decide speaks for me) interpretation of scripture, etc., not to mention that Evangelicalism is so emotionally charged. Catholicism offered a religion (or so I thought) that applied to all peoples of all historical and cultural contexts. And, its religion is Incarnational – it doesn’t reject the material in the way that Evangelicalism does. The material can represent God and can even be God (in the case of the Eucharist). I still find all of this beautiful.
However (and I have Catholicism to thank for this, ultimately), through this realization that there is something bigger than me and that blind faith and emotionalism can’t replace reason, I came to see the many incoherencies in Catholicism (and thus Christianity as a whole). I’m not going to delve into them in this post. But, one thing that stood out to me is that while Catholicism claims to be a universal religion, its theology doesn’t translate universally. It uses very Euro-centric language, which is why Liberation Theology has flourished in South American countries, and why Catholicism has failed to take root in Africa and Asia. Catholicism’s over-reliance on natural law theory has put it at odds with LGBTQ people, reproductive biology, and other aspects of science. I’ve summarized some other incoherencies in two earlier posts (here and here) that I hope to elaborate on later.
All of this to say that Catholicism was my transition away from faith. It showed me the beauty of humanity and the material without having to give up Christianity. And, if Christianity ends up not being true, then I still have that beauty.