As church attendance declines and religious affiliation becomes less socially acceptable, the label “Catholic” is often tantamount to stigma. There are a plethora of assumptions, often faulty, attached to that. While apologists might attempt to clarification, other realities are often obscured by the assumption. And there are underlying constructs that make it very possible to be very Catholic even in the 21st century Western world.
Often believed to hypocritically assume the higher moral ground, Catholicism actually assumes the brokenness and weakness of individuals, the flawed nature of persons and the inconsistent nature of human choices, the tension between ideals and the reality of behavior. That was present from the outset, recorded in Gospel stories and in the traditions of the Church. Peter, for instance, is both the rock on whom the church is built and the Satan that Jesus urges to get behind him. Enacting human hopes is complicated; choosing to do the right thing takes both wisdom and courage in many instances. Catholicism welcomes the diversity in human nature and in persons.
The sacraments represent the chance to make amends for human flaws, and there is always the possibility to attempt to do it better. It provides constant reminders that there are options, choices, and ways to improve along with the reality of consequences for the unacceptable behaviors. It urges the acceptance and practice of personal responsibility and consciousness of the collective good. Personal reflection and prayer are key tools for all that. The church invites individuals to personal scrutiny, to re-evaluating and assessing behavior and choices. There are patterns of prayer for that embedded in the liturgy of the Mass, in the Divine Office, even in recitation of the rosary. And personal practice around that is welcome as well. The point is that progress, growth, is not attainable without levels of awareness. Catholicism provides those tools for those who would be seeking them.
Going through hard times is a reality for all human beings. The Church provides help there, too, for those who are seeking it. That varies a great deal in local groups and communities, but it is not clergy-based. It is a keen recognition that there is something greater than self, and participating in a Mass, visiting a church, stopping to say the Hail Mary links persons to that greater group of believers. There are a wide variety of options, even the practice of the deep silence that invariably connects the rhythms of earth to the very act of breathing.
And, too, there is the Eucharist. It is not a charade or a performance; instead, it is linking to a chain that has existed for over two thousand years, a chain of human beings seeking to be better, trusting in connections among generations and philosophy.
There is no doubt that through the years there have been serious and even criminal activities by Catholics and by the institutional church. But there is equally no doubt that the practice of Catholicism is so much more than the actions of some members of the Church.
Catholicsm provides intellectual challenge and emotional comfort, a ritual that can engage and moments that can challenge. It seeks, on the most idealistic of levels, the betterment of others and the improvement of self. It deals with, on the most realistic of levels, the aberrations and brokenness of human beings.
Catholicism embodies and enshrines the struggles of human existence, offers the stories of those who came before, and opens up the chance to begin each day anew. It is the reminder that none of us have all the answers, and all of us have some of the challenges of human existence. In other words, Catholicism is not so much about membership and rules as it is about process and Journey, failure and promise.
Catholicism in personal practice makes it possible to be very Catholic in the 21st century. It is simple on that personal level, an independent act of personal empowerment. It is not about what the clergy thinks or says; it is about minding what matters in what each one of us says and does. It is living the recognition of our uniqueness and brokenness and embracing the human journey. In a world of hurt and stigma, where blame and labels and lashing out are standard forms of behavior, where derision and mockery empower the rejection of traditional structures, investigating what Catholicism offers and means may actually be worth the time.