There have been any number of books written by Catholic writers on the theme of “Why I Am [or Stay] Catholic.” The books are one reflection of the frequency with which non-Catholics put that question to Catholics and with which Catholics ask the question of themselves or of other Catholics. They are also one reflection of the struggle many Catholics have trying to answer for themselves why they stay Catholic despite their own struggles with certain aspects of Catholicism and the departure from the faith of many of their friend and family.
As anyone who knows me or who regularly reads this blog knows, I’ve had my share of struggles with the question of what it means to call oneself Catholic. Difficulty accepting certain teachings of the Church, anger at bishops’ handling of clergy child abuse (and other issues), and so on, all contribute to the question rising at various times. It came up for me again the other day, as I sat having coffee with a friend who observed, “You know, I’m not sure I’m Catholic anymore.”
Part of my own wrestling with that question has prompted me to ask a number of friends of mine – priests and lay people – some variant of the question of what it is that they see as what defines one as Catholic or what they think the core of Catholicism is.
As I’ve reflected on the issue, it seems to me the best answer has to do with incarnation. To call Catholicism an “incarnational faith,” means more than that God became human, as central and as important as the Incarnation of Jesus is to Catholicism. As Tom Groome put it in a recent book review published in America magazine, central to Catholicism is that “it encourages people to enflesh their faith, to realize it in their lives, far beyond the purely confessional…Catholic Christian faith must get done ‘on earth as it is in heaven.'” Our faith has to make a difference in how we live our lives, not motivated by heaven or hell, but as a response to the love of God who so loved us that God became human.
Groome goes on in his book review to talk about what he calls the “other side of the incarnational coin,” that is, sacramentality. Indeed, sacramentality is frequently the answer I get from people when I ask what they view as the central element of Catholicism.
By sacramentality, I (and they) mean more than the seven capital “S” Sacraments recognized by Catholicism. Rather, I mean the recognition that there is no aspect of creation that is not permeated with God’s presence. Our recognition of the special presence of Jesus on bread and wine consecrated on the altar does not negate the reality that God is present everywhere. If we believe that, it has to affect everything – how we see and who we are in the world.
In his book review, Groome suggests that these “twin principles” of incarnation and sacramentality “are what make Catholicism most worthwhile, why anyone can well stay, regardless of disappointments and complaints and the scandals that beset the church.”