Why Do You Need to be a Catholic?

A friend of mine who has an enormous discomfort/distrust of organized religion said to me recently (I can’t remember the exact words, but these are close), “I can see that you are drenched in God. But why do you need to be Catholic?”

It is a good question, one that has been addressed by many faithful persons. (Garry Wills wrote an entire book called, Why I am a Catholic.) And the reality is that I don’t find it easy to give a comprehensible answer to that question to someone like my friend (who understands God, but isn’t all that comfortable with organized religion).

When I came back to God after my years as a Buddhist (during which time I disclaimed any belief in God), I came back to Catholicism. At the time it wasn’t God and then Catholicism, it was both at the same time. I don’t think I thought about the latter as much as I thought about the former, but it was there nonetheless.

I suspect part is simply a return to my roots. I was raised Catholic. I gave up Catholicism and God at the same time, and so it seemed natural to return there. And there are times when I think that maybe there really is something to the idea of the indelible mark of Baptism. I was baptized into this faith and there is simply no way to really completely separate myself from it. They got me at birth, so (like it or not at times) here I am.

But surely there is more than that? Surely something that makes me call myself a Catholic apart from the “accident” (in quotes because in truth I don’t really believe anything is accident) that I was born to Catholic parents who hauled me off to be baptized within months of my birth and raised me in the Catholic faith.

The truth is that (most of the time, at least) I know there is more than that that keeps me calling myself a Catholic (which I do despite the difficulty I have with certain teachings of the Church). There is something that has to do with the enormous reality of God becoming human, dying and rising. And there is something that has to do with the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. The transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ means, literally, that the entire world can be transformed into the fullness of Christ. (Michael Himes speaks eloquently on this in his chapter on the Eucharist in The Mystery of Faith.) For me, that is a reality worth hanging on to. And, as I explained in a previous post, it also has something to do with the meaning and power drawn from being part of an apostolic succession that stretches back to the time of Jesus, which keeps us united as one Body in Christ.

Does any of this mean I “need” to be a Catholic? Maybe not. And there are times when I struggle mightily with statments that come out of Rome or from the US Bishops Conference. Times when I’m not even sure I can answer satisfactorily to myself what it means to say I’m a Catholic, let alone whether I “need” to be Catholic, let alone provide a satisfactory answer of any of this to my friend with his mistrust of organized religion. From time to time this troubles me and I wrestle with the question. But other times, I look at God and let God look at me and I know I can just let the questions be.