I Can See Myself Being Catholic

A few months ago I went to a really interesting young adult event hosted by the Diocese I work in where a former atheist talked about his conversion story from atheism to Catholicism. Not only was the speaker delightfully British (!) he was wonderfully engaging, humble and it was really helpful to get the perspective of someone not raised with any religion in the home.

I was very happy I attended for a number of reasons, but most notably because he said something that stuck with me about how he did not have a definitive moment of conversion. His story wasn’t Pauline with a dramatic conversion where everything changed, which I think is along the lines of what most people imagine when they hear the word conversion. Instead, he mentioned being a university student and a philosophy major and through becoming friends with Dominican friars (something I could relate to from my time in Virginia!) he could “see himself becoming Catholic.” Beyond doctrine and orthodoxy he was drawn in by fellowship, ordinary dinner conversation and prayerful peace and joy exuded by the friars themselves. Before he was drawn into a religion and a deeper relationship with God he was drawn into a group of Catholic friends united in their love for God and neighbor and the common destination of Heaven.

The speaker couldn’t point to one specific instance of conversion, rather it was a series of little moments over time that softened his heart and disposed it toward religion. He essentially went from “religion is for the ignorant” to “maybe it’s not so bad there might be something to Christianity” to “I could see myself becoming Catholic” until finally “I believe God is calling me and I want to become Catholic.”

As I was thinking of this I spoke to a dear friend of mine who is also in the Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) program. He was raised Catholic but had fallen out of practice and never received the final Sacrament of Initiation (Confirmation). He said something similar to my former atheist speaker where when talking about his motivations to the group he mentioned first his relationship with myself and my family. Not that we did anything special and walk around with a light from heaven brushing our shoulders, we simply live our faith intentionally and from that extremely ordinary witness my friend could “see himself becoming Catholic” and is now in the process of doing just that.

It’s powerful testimony and useful to anyone involved in the New Evangelization to see how the Church that attracted the two new members I mentioned in this article saw not a mere institution but a living body of Christ.

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The Problem of Guilt

This post is the promised and I’m sure impatiently awaited sequel to Spiders Don’t Eat Steak.

If you recall that particular post laid out a series of questions which I promised to address the following week:

If you’ve managed to agree with me thus far you might find yourself thinking okay so pornography might be rooted in pleasure which isn’t part of the natural order per say but which is part of the universal human experience and shouldn’t we have the right to seek pleasure at our pleasure?  Does it really do any harm to eat peanut butter m&ms and/or view pornography? Are you really so Catholic that you regard eating peanut m&ms as a sin on par with pornography, as in one that could send you to HELL? Wouldn’t you really be better off “freeing” yourself from your oppressive religion which seeks to do nothing but ruin your pleasure and leave you wracked with guilt?”

I think the best way to answer these questions is to address them one at a time because each of them highlight a peculiar problem millennials and moral relativists alike have with Christian morality, namely the “problem” of guilt.

What is the problem of guilt? It is the idea that the author of “the Stigma of Pornography” tried and failed to make as he argued that porn is natural and should not be considered a sin or disgrace. It is the notion that if we removed religion or the idea of sin then there would be no more guilt and we would have greater freedom to do as we pleased. In other words, you won’t have guilt if the law says there is nothing you are guilty of.

We can examine this idea in greater depth as I answer the questions posed above, below.

1) Shouldn’t we have the right to seek pleasure at our pleasure?

Seeking pleasure is a slippery slope because there are two different types of pleasures that tug at the human soul. The simplest way to differentiate between them is that there are pleasures that lead us closer to God (ancient pagan philosophies also deal with these as the “higher” pleasures) things like friendship, the pursuit of wisdom etc. Conversely, there are pleasures that lead us away from God usually marked by a degree of self-indulgence or excess. The second group is where the things that usually cause guilt can be found, sexual sins like pornography and masturbation, eating or drinking to the point of gluttony, or the sin of pride (when knowledge leads not to wisdom but to ego).

The idea that we have the right to seek our pleasure at our pleasure is difficult to argue against because regardless of where you stand in considering some of the pleasures I mentioned above as sinful, society always presents them as harmless. To go back to pornography as an example, viewing porn is always portrayed in society at large as an innocent/natural/harmless thing. No one dies in the process, no one even has to know you did it, it’s just an innocent personal pleasure. Anyone with a shred of intellect ought to be able to come to this conclusion by himself, the only thing standing in his way might be some outdated moral code. Therefore if it is considered a sin in your religion the only thing stopping you is not your own logic, feeling, or desire but only an antiquated desire not to sin. If you gave up the religion and gave up the moral code you wouldn’t violate any personal conscience of yourself or your peers and therefore it would be a sin no more.

This is the argument for moral relativism where you (not God) become the one who decides what is and isn’t a sin.

The only problem with this argument is not that it lacks logic, but that it is a destructive and dangerous temptation to abuse your free will and choice. The reason it is dangerous is because unlike animals bound to their nature who are not free to choose or be tempted and can therefore do no good or evil,  you do have free will. You will make choices in your life and those choices will have consequences. This is not an attempt to fear monger or make you view all your actions in fear and trembling under a microscope, it is a mere reality of being alive. That is why the Church attempts to foster morality and conscience in the first place. Free will is often directed by the conscience which brings us to the next question.

2)  a. Does it really do any harm to eat peanut butter m&ms and/or view pornography?

b. Are you really so Catholic that you regard eating peanut m&ms as a sin on par with pornography, as in one that could send you to HELL?

Guilt, increasingly unpopular in a largely relativistic society like ours dedicated to the pursuit of wealth and pleasure, is triggered by a violation of conscience. I’ve always believed conscience is something that everyone has to a degree, but which also has to be formed through nurturing instruction. To illustrate the point better, St. Francis felt called to live in total poverty and it was so engrained in his spirituality that to him living in a mansion would feel like a great sin, one that his conscience would convict him for. Living in a mansion is not a sin expressly prohibited in the Bible and there are those who would not consider it a sin at all, but the Bible does warn repeatedly against having a strong attachment to worldly riches. This is an example of an area where your conscience would literally be your guide.

While some may devalue the importance of developing a conscience, seeing it as a hindrance to their own “fun” and freedom I would point again to the overly simplistic view of nature found in modern times. If my nature is all good then maybe I could argue that I could be trusted to go my own way and set my own rules, but this is pride and pride is deadly to the soul because it blinds to faults. It is the nature of humanity to love what is good and despise what is bad, on a moral or purely agnostic and materialistic scale, and this pride where I insist on loving what is good in me while turning a blind eye to what is bad in me is a deceptive and ultimately very sad way to live because it will keep me from truly experiencing the unconditional love and eternal mercy of God, who is able to love me in the depths of my weakness in a way humans cannot, all because I would not humble myself for long enough to admit I need that.

As to whether it does harm to eat peanut butter m&m’s in healthy moderation it wouldn’t and my conscience does not convict me as being in danger of gluttony when I do. The guilt I feel when I eat a peanut butter m&ms comes not from my knowledge of good and evil but my knowledge of nutrition where I know that eating peanut butter M&Ms is bad for me but do it anyway and feel bad for choosing the lesser good. The rationalization of the bad choice was the reason I made the connection to viewing pornography because rationalization of bad behavior is universal. So no I don’t believe I would go to hell for eating a peanut butter M&M, sorry to break the dominant Christian stereotype, because it breaks no moral law or commandment in the instance I described, and also when it comes to getting into heaven I am going to rely not on my own merits but on the mercy of God (but that’s literally a separate article.)

4) Wouldn’t you really be better off “freeing” yourself from your oppressive religion which seeks to do nothing but ruin your pleasure and leave you wracked with guilt?

Many people view morality with an incomplete knowledge of its purpose. They denounce it as a set of hard rules that places unfair and/or unnecessary limits on a person (hence the “oppression”). I blame part of this incomplete picture on the fact that most people live only for the world without any thought to an afterlife and see heaven as something everyone sort of gets (if anything even happens at all after we die) and fail to see that the laws handed down through Christian moral code are not a mere checklist but the path to learning how to give and receive love through a new life in Christ (who is the fulfillment of the law).

I admit that as I’ve grown in my relationship with God things that did not use to bother me (like talking bad about someone when they get on my nerves) bother me now because the closer I’ve come to love itself the more I realize how often I sin against perfect love. Sort of like St. Francis in the poverty example, when it comes to God’s commandment to love my neighbor my conscience is really influenced by mercy and convicts me when I have not been merciful in a way that yours might not.

The world might tell me I’m fine, tell me I should not feel guilty over things so small. But “Catholic guilt” is different because it is not at all akin to the condemnation of the world where my self-worth and reputation are on the line. God already knows me perfectly and loves me not in spite of my sin and shortcomings but in them and through them. It is the experience of this perfect love which is true charity that deepens my knowledge of love and keeps me living by God’s commandments, not as something I have to do to “earn” or “deserve” God’s love but which my whole soul and intellect tell me I ought to do because the deepest desire of my being is both to be loved and to love others. I would argue the mysterious nature of love is that there is always a lover and a beloved, you can’t only be one of those things. Being loved makes me want to share this love and loving is satisfying in its own way that is hard to explain but which also takes strength, a strength that would be impossible to attain without being first loved by God.

More to the point pursuing your own pleasure, the temptation to be your own God with your own rules, will keep you from attaining that very desire, which I believe is in every human heart, to live a life of giving and receiving love. Many people purport that the idea of pleasure is harmless so long as no harm is done to others. But this ultimately ignores the harm you do to yourself when you seek to satiate your desire for eternal things with things that are temporal, when your reason becomes tainted by selfishness (the antithesis of love), and when you discover the paradox that while seeking to become your own master your desires have instead mastered you.

Many a person I have spoken to tells me they feel they are “not good enough” to be religious or that they don’t like feeling judged/guilty all the time, and often that it gets in the way of some component of their lifestyle that they are not ready to give up. But the solution to guilt is not to seek to eliminate your conscience or to be comforted by the approval of others which is the lie of relativism. You cannot repent if you believe you have done nothing worthy of repentance, and to truly repent is to experience the mercy of God, not to hate and judge yourself. However, I do sympathize with the attitude because the temptation when one feels guilty or judged is often to despair of ever being able to be the person you want to be, one that is worthy of love, and this I understand completely. Yet this is the temptation that should not be appeased but fought with everything you have. This is the ultimate lie that moral relativism seeks to bandage with another lie, but sadly two lies do not make a truth.

The truth I believe, the truth of the love behind Christian gospel and the ten commandments, is that God loves you as you are. And while there is temptation to justify yourself know that you don’t have to because God already knows you and I believe that His heart is so loving that if you sincerely asked Him to forgive you and to give you the love and the strength to be a little bit better than you were the day before He would do so without hesitation. It is this humility that is the path to love the kind of love that satisfies and the kind of love I would wish for every human being and every soul.

And that is why relativism and the cult of guilt-free living drive me crazy because they invite you to find happiness, love, and fulfillment on your own terms and outside of God and this simply can’t be done. It tempts you to pick up your pride in “liberation” and walk away from the humility that opens the door to a life of giving and receiving love, and I would implore you to avoid the tragedy of where that path leads because it is never too late to turn around and come back. Heaven is your true home and perfect love is your true inheritance not because you deserve it but because God is love and this is His faithful promise to His children. It is your eternal destiny that no sin and no one can take away from you unless you yourself reject it. So practice receiving and giving love here in time that you may receive and give love forever. This is my fervent prayer for you.

 

I’m Not Sure I Want to Be Catholic

Don’t worry, I’m still as sure as ever that I want to be Catholic but I’m sad to say that it was not always so. I think there comes a time in the life of every religious person where they question whether or not they want to continue practicing their religion and this article is written for the person who finds himself or herself on that lonely boat.

I was complaining to my mother recently about the sort of things published by the various Catholic media groups I follow across various social media. In particular, I read a list of “8 things you should be doing daily as a Catholic” because I was curious what they were and if I was doing them. Unfortunately, the entire list can be summarized in 4 words “pray and be nice” with a recommendation that we do this on social media too.

Ugh. I hate lists like that and I was annoyed that I took the time to even read it.

You should pray and be nice as a Catholic. But I absolutely detest things that (whether intentionally or unintentionally) treat Catholicism as the whipped cream on the overpriced coffee of life. Before you judge me for being as stupid as my simple metaphor suggests, hear me out. So much of what I read encourages a light and “fluffy” Catholicism, one that is unobtrusive and undemanding, something to simply add on to your day. In other words, to treat Catholicism (or whatever your religion happens to be if you have one) as a nice addition, just a little sweet something extra,  to top off your own life and your own affairs. Blogs that remind us to throw in a prayer as we go about our daily business, to try and be nice if it’s not too inconvenient, and to post a peaceful psalm with a picture of a mountain or field on our Facebook page. The end. 

Granted not all the resources out there are like that, but I confess there seems to me to be a wave of Catholicism (especially on social media) that is so determined to maintain a broad appeal in the name of bringing people through the doors of the Church it’s as if they downplay the full force of the truth we believe for fear it would alienate a potential new members. Pinterest can post a quote telling me to “love all people” written in cursive over a sunflower, but I have always liked Catholicism which gives me the image of a crucifix to demonstrate exactly how God desires me to “love all people” in the same selfless and sacrificial way He loves me.

It is not that any of things suggested by the author of the blog I read were a bad means of discovering God in one’s daily life, it is when such external things are valued and emphasized over and at the expense of the interior life of the soul that I get crabby and complain to my mother. I do believe that faith without works is dead but to put the works before the faith is as silly as it is futile because to do that is to miss the essence of love.

There is something about the mysterious nature of love that makes the impossible seem possible, that makes us want to be better versions of who we are already. I do try to “pray and be nice” but not so that I can check it off my “acceptable Catholic living” to-do list. I pray because not only do I love God, I like God, and many a bad day has been made better by sharing it with God. In fact, much of my crabbiness turns to laughter in the presence of God because I have the faith that God loves me even in my crabbiness and even in the midst of my many failed attempts to be patient because He always understands and provides me with many more fresh moments in which to try again. (And again, and again, and again…I’ve been working on patience for quite some time now.)

Believing in God is one thing, but maintaining a relationship with God, especially in the modern world of the prevalent new atheism, can be a daunting task which no man or woman should be expected to go through alone. And when you are in the depths of doubt, when God feels so very far away, and you feel completely lost and alone and unworthy of the love that you nonetheless desire from the bottom of your soul, you don’t need some sunflower and some crappy cursive offering you some cliched and shallow inspiration that you probably already know and have doubtless heard before, you need the cross.

And when you water down the message of the cross to “pray and be nice” with a big old smiley face you either affirm the message to those who already believe it or pander to those who don’t yet believe in the hopes that they might, but you risk losing the most important demographic to any religion; the one Jesus Himself served during His life and died to save: the sinner. The sinner who struggles, the sinner who questions, the sinner who is tempted by the paths of the world that seem so much easier and so much more gratifying (in the short term), the sinner who falls away and isn’t sure how to come back.

And when I who know myself to be a sinner was stuck on the precipice of doubt and dangling precariously over complete despair, it wasn’t the sunshine-y garbage of the world that brought me back. It was instead was a firm conviction of the ever faithful and merciful love of God which I saw laid out on the cross.  A love that transcends all human understanding because it is the love that loves not for a reason but without a reason, a love that is perpetuated not by the merits of the beloved (you) but by the promise of the God Who loves and is incapable of breaking His own word. But in beginning to grasp after a love that was so far above me I found it, to my surprise, not only to be close at hand but ready and willing to enter into my soul once more if I was simply willing to grant Him my permission. So I did. And it is that beginning point of my “yes” to God which laid the groundwork for the construction of a soul that housed not one, but two. And it is to this development that I controversially attribute every good thing I have ever done because it is the motivation behind my every prayer and the inspiration for every attempt to be “nice” or, to use the term I prefer, holy.

And to those of you who find yourselves struggling, promise me you will be not afraid. Because even if you don’t feel it and can’t even bring yourself to believe it God is with you. He loves you so much He could never leave you, and He will make everything all right in its time. There is only one thing we as humans must never do, we must not quit. We must not stop our prayers or our pursuit of a relationship with God, and we must begin to do those things if we have never done them if we ever hope to find what we are truly seeking. And while I can’t answer how each of you specifically are meant to encounter the love of God, I can at least start by letting you know that I’m praying for you, I love you, and that I’m confident in you even if you are not.

Mother Angelica, one of my favorite spiritual guides, is often quoted as saying “we are all called to be Saints, don’t miss the opportunity.” And the darkness of doubt or even the temptation to despair is not a failure or a sign of weakness that you should hide away for fear that others might discover it, it is instead an opportunity to become little and depend on the merciful love of God to raise you back up again and transform you into the person you were always meant to be. Because while we may fail time and time again the love of God never fails or falters, and His mercy endures forever.