Why do I stay in the church? I suspect one reason is the need to belong. Leaving the Catholic Church would feel like leaving family. I grew up in a community so Catholic that a student of mine once expressed astonishment upon learning that most Americans are not Catholic. From grade school to grad school, I have graduated from only Catholic institutions. It is in the marrow of my bones to be Catholic, and I cannot stop being this any more than I can stop being German-American. As someone said, “It’s as difficult to stop being Catholic as it is to stop being black.”
The long and majestic tradition of Catholicism happens to be the religion I was born into. It surrounded me when the allure of the divine started tugging at me and when I started my journey of companionship with an invisible partner, and it still feeds my spirituality. Despite my anger at its male-only God-talk, its damaging positions on issues of sexuality, and its institutional tyranny, I need my church, respect it, and have warm feelings for it.
My church is the church of the mystics Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich. It is the Church of Mother Teresa and countless others who spent themselves in service to the reign of God (usually translated “Kingdom”). It is the church of martyrs such as Oscar Romero, killed in San Salvador in 1980 for criticizing his government’s human rights record. It is the church to which Joan of Arc in the 15th century and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in the 20th remained loyal, even when it persecuted them. It is a church that carries out the work of goodness despite the Vatican’s obtuse efforts to impose outdated precepts. It is a church with men and women who protest injustice or militarism and get arrested for it. It is a church that cares passionately about social justice and puts its money where its mouth is.
The Catholic Church conserves some of the most elevated spiritual art produced by humanity. The beauty of Catholic cathedrals like Notre Dame in Paris inspires people to elevated thoughts. I learned from the great mythologist Joseph Campbell that many churches and cathedrals are called Notre Dame (Our Lady)—France alone has 18. They exhibit the human need to image divinity as feminine.
What I love most about Christian churches is their steadfast gaze on ultimate concerns, a refreshing break from the relentless materialism promoted in our culture. Most church people seem to be aware that the way to dispel the dreary dailiness of life is not to consume more things but to be committed to the inner reign of God. At its best, religion opens our eyes to inward things, acting as a mediator between the sacred, unfathomable Mystery and our everyday, external lives.
Jeanette Clancy, from “Beyond Parochial Faith: A Catholic Confesses”