Catholics have become increasingly vocal in their displeasure with the
Churchís teaching on issues that affect their everyday lives such as
birth control and the ordination of women. But with respect to doctrines
that they consider to be of a more theological natureórevelation, the
sacraments, the Mass, and even salvationóCatholics are generally content
to let the Church teach what it deems fit. Few are interested in the study
of doctrine or could even explain terms such as the sacred deposit of
faith, Tradition, and the Magisterium.
Recently Rob Marshall, a co-worker of mine, and I
interviewed Catholics leaving Mass at Saint Joseph Catholic Cathedral in
San Jose, California. We asked them about the origin of their religious
beliefs. The first question was: Where do Catholic beliefs come from?
Richard, a man of about 50, answered, "From the
Scriptures. Iím sure that there are some theological interpretations
that are in there too," he said, "but I would say primarily from
Tony agreed. "Bible. Theyíre all in the
Pat, a middle-aged woman, shook her head when we asked
whether she knew what the source of Catholic teaching was. "I
wouldnít know how to answer that," she answered.
Beatrice was equally in the dark. "I really donít
know. I suppose from Jesusí teaching. I donít know. To tell you the
truth, Iíve never thought about that."
Mary Ann, a woman of about 40, was better informed about
origins of Catholic doctrine.
"From Jesus Christ and His apostles" Mary Ann
told us. "We know them through the Bible and through the teachings of
When we asked her if she was familiar with Magisterium,
she not only gave an accurate definition, but provided a brief account of
how the Church says it was formed.
"When Jesus was on earth," Mary Ann began,
"He made Peter the rock. From there we have various popes who have
come down from him. And we have cardinals, bishops, and priests, down the
line. And that is sort of the Magisterium of the Church. Sort of the
government hierarchy that watches over, that are the shepherds of our
Church. From them we learn what Jesus taught. They clarify it for
Other Catholics were unable to identify the Magisterium.
"The Magisterium?" said one man.
"Unfamiliar with that."
"I have no idea," answered a Catholic woman.
"Donít know," said Joanne, a teacher in the
Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (R.C.I.A), the Catholic Churchís
program for adult converts.
"Iíve never heard of it," echoed Vera when
we asked her what the Magisterium was.
"No idea," said Pat.
Most were just as unfamiliar with Tradition.
"I may have heard of that," answered one man
in a typical response. "But I canít give you a definition."
All the Catholics with whom we spoke knew about papal
infallibility, but when we asked them if they personally believed that the
pope was immune to error, the responses were divided.
"No," said Rita. "Heís a man. He has
his own points of view."
"Nobodyís perfect," said Tony.
"I think that he can make an error," a
Catholic woman told us. "But I would really like to believe he is
infallible. I know that as a human, though, he can make a mistake."
Other Catholics were confident that the pope could not
teach error. Mary Ann was among them. I asked her what she would do if she
read something in the Bible that seemed to be saying one thing, but the
Church was telling her to do the opposite.
"I donít think that happens," Mary Ann
"Hypothetically then?" I asked. "Would
you follow what you thought the Bible was saying or what the Church told
you to do?"
"I donít think that could happen," she
answered, refusing even to consider the possibility.
Richard was willing to consider the possibility, but
told us that he would side with the Church.
"I would stick with the Church," he said,
"because of the theological knowledge that the Church has. I would
accept their judgment over my own."
Not all were willing to trust the Church to that extent.
"I would have to go by my own conscience," one
Catholic told us.
"I would be wondering who is telling the
truth," said another. "I donít know, maybe the Bible."
Because I Like It
Most Catholics have never critically examined the
doctrines of Roman Catholicism. They didnít join the Church because they
found its doctrines to be true, but, as they will tell you themselves,
they are Catholic because they were born Catholic. The reason that they
remain in the Church is because that is where they feel most comfortable.
Thatís what the people we interviewed outside Saint Joseph Cathedral
When we asked Vera why she was a Catholic, she answered,
"I want to be. I was born a Catholic, and I want to be one."
Beatrice said the same: "Because I want to be. I
grew up in a Catholic family. When I was young, I did whatever my parents
did. Now that I am an old person, I enjoy being a Catholic. I never
thought of changing my faith. I like being Catholic. I feel comfortable
being a Catholic."
Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest of the archdiocese of
Chicago and professor of sociology at the University of Arizona, says that
his research has shown that the primary reason that Catholics remain
Catholic is very simple: "they like being Catholic."1 Greeley
believes that "as an institution the Catholic Church is in terrible
condition"2 and American Catholics are angry "at the
insensitivity and the incompetence of their leaders."3 Nevertheless,
those born Catholic for the most part remain Catholic because overall they
What is it that people like about being Catholic? A
booklet titled Why I Am Catholic: 21 People Give Their Own Answers 4
indicates that there are many reasons.
All but two of the 21 contributors to the booklet had
been born Catholic. A common theme among their reasons for remaining in
the Church was that Catholicism was part of their personal identity.
"I grew up Catholic in a household in which being
Catholic simply was part of being," wrote Ron, one of the
contributors. "It was a legacy, the same as my name, genetic code,
Like many Catholics, Ron thinks of his Catholicism as a
matter of his personal destiny.
"God wanted me to be Catholic," Ron wrote,
"and that was that."5
Kay, a registrar at a Midwestern university, saw her
Catholicism in a similar way.
"My Catholic faith seems as essential a part of me
as my heart," Kay explained. "Somewhere, somehow, being raised
Catholic made me want to remain Catholic, even during those college days
when I rebelled against most other establishments."6
Others said they were Catholics because in the Church
they found the moral framework that they needed for life. It was a place
for their children to form proper values and to learn about God. They
liked the emphasis in the Church on loving oneís neighbor, right living,
and social justice. Others spoke of the beauty, inspiration, and peace
that the Church brought to their lives.
"Celebrating communion every week is important to
me," wrote Ann. "It centers me and gives me the strength I need
to accept the grace of God and live up to my values in my daily
Several also mentioned that they liked the diversity
they find within the Catholic Church. They approved of Romeís
willingness to accommodate everything from the traditional, to the
contemplative, to hand-clapping Pentecostalism. They saw the Church as
having a healthy mix of different kinds of people, all of whom were
welcome. Related to this, others spoke of the sense of community that they
found in the Church.
"I needed to be part of a real community,"8
explained one woman.
"Without doubt, the reason I remain Catholic is
because of the internal support I have been given during my struggles with
life,"9 wrote a Catholic teacher named Chuck.
Most of the contributors mentioned God in their
explanation of why they were Catholic. Ten said that the Church was a
place to learn about God, experience His presence, and find strength to
live right and to cope with lifeís trials. Five said that they felt that
God had led them to be Catholic. A few also mentioned God in passing in
remarks, such as: "God works in strange ways."10
The primary reasons the 21 contributors gave for why
they were Catholic, however, had little to do with the religious beliefs
and practices that distinguish the Roman Catholic Church from other
churches. No one said that he was a Catholic because he was convinced that
the Roman Catholic Church was the church instituted by Christ, or because
Roman Catholicism was true, or because it taught what the Scriptures
taught. Five of the 21 didnít even refer to God when explaining why they
were Catholics. Only five of the contributors mentioned the Lord Jesus,
and only one of these, a teacher named Richard, with any emphasis. He was
the only Catholic who spoke of Christís saving death on the cross or His
resurrection. The only other reference close to this was a man who said
that Christmas and Easter were meaningful to him because of Jesus.
All of this goes to show that doctrine is not important
to most Catholics. They didnít join the Church because of doctrine and
they donít stay in the Church because of doctrine. Indeed, many of the
reasons the contributors gave for why they were Catholic would have been
just as valid for explaining why they belonged to a social club or an
ethnic heritage association.
It also explains why many Catholics are unaffected by
criticism from non-Catholics that the doctrines of Roman Catholicism are
unbiblical. Lacking both interest and knowledge, such Catholics simply
shrug off doctrinal challenges to their faith.
What Patricia, a born-again Christian who had left the
Catholic Church, experienced when she tried to witness to her Catholic
parents illustrates this point. For months she had tried unsuccessfully to
help her Catholic parents realize that there was a difference between
Roman Catholicism and biblical Christianity. They refused, however, to
discuss the matter or even look at the Scriptures with her.
Realizing that she wasnít getting anywhere, one day
Patricia decided to try a different approach. Her hope was that if she
could at least get her parents talking about their religion, she might be
able to move the conversation toward the gospel. With that in mind, she
struck up a conversation with her father.
"Dad, whatís your opinion of Vatican II?"
"I didnít know that there was another
Vatican," her father answered, thinking that Vatican II must be the
designation of a new headquarters for the Roman Catholic Church.
It was then that Patricia realized how little doctrine
had to do with her fatherís loyalty to the Catholic Church. He didnít
even have enough interest in the teachings of his Church to be aware of
the most important Catholic event of the century, the Second Vatican
Council. He wasnít a Catholic out of doctrinal conviction. His
Catholicism was just "an old shoe that fit well," as Patricia
came to describe it.
The same is true of most Catholics. They are Catholic
because they were born Catholic. They remain Catholic because they
"like it." Unconcerned about doctrine, they pass through life
without ever having seriously questioned the veracity of the institution
to which they have entrusted their eternal souls.
Adapted from Conversations with Catholics by
James G. McCarthy (Harvest House Publishers: Eugene, 1997)
1. Andrew M. Greeley, The Catholic Myth (New
York: Charles Schribnerís Sons, 1990), p. 3.
2. Ibid., p. 4.
3. Ibid., p. 6
4. George R. Szews, Editor, Why I Am Catholic
(Chicago: ACTA Publications, 1996).
5. Ibid., p. 39.
6. Ibid., p. 24.
7. Ibid., p. 26.
8. Ibid., pp. 8-9.
9. Ibid., p. 44.
10. Ibid., p. 12.
Mr. Mike Gendron
Mr. Greg Durel
Carlos Tomas Knott