Why I Remain Catholic

Elizabeth Scalia, aka The Anchoress, has invited Catholic bloggers to answer the question “Why do YOU Remain a Catholic?”

This is a most excellent question and one that, in the present age, all Catholics should stop and ask themselves. In the wake of abuse scandals, against a world that sees us as backwards and bigoted, and facing daunting challenges in evangelization, all the faithful should have a ready answer for why they remain when remaining seems, in the eyes of the world, so foolish.

I have many and varied answers for why I remain Catholic: because of the beauty of the liturgy; because the Church, despite all the flaws of her members, remains a force for good in the world; because I was raised Catholic and finding a new spiritual home sounds like way too much work. But the most foundational reason is that because the teachings and worldview presented by the Church constitute the most consistent and coherent set of propositions I’ve encountered — coherent in that it matches my own experience and observations about the nature of reality, and consistent in that it is systematic and non-contradictory. (Indeed, the systematic nature of the faith was one of the things that contributed to my spiritual awakening in college and beyond.)

What’s more, this worldview helps me to see beyond my own myopic vision and to overcome my own self-interested biases. This is part of what is meant when we describe the Church as a hospital for sinners — it strips away our excuses and denials and distorted passions, allowing the root of the problem to be diagnosed, treated, and cured by the Master Physician.

Of course, all of this would be as nothing if it weren’t for faith, since it is faith that allows us to see the coherence and consistency of Catholicism. Our faith is not scientific; it does not rest on demonstrable proofs or repeatable experiments. I agree with Chesterton that “original sin… is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”

And that is the paradox: faith doesn’t make sense from this side. It’s only by crossing over — by taking the proverbial “leap of faith” — that we get the proper perspective and can begin to retrain ourselves to see the world, ourselves, and God as they really are.

And that’s why I remain Catholic: I have crossed the chasm and become, to paraphrase the Apostle, a fool for Christ, even as I follow him imperfectly in starts, reversals, and blind reaching. Yet it is in the striving to achieve holiness that the world takes on meaning and hope is made manifest — not due to our own efforts, but because in the reaching we find God, in his infinite mercy, reaching out to us.

Where else could I remain?

Book Review: Catholicism

It is very difficult for me to review a book like Fr. Robert Barron’s Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith. Years in the making and heralded by a healthy dose of promotion across the Catholic corner of the internet, it can be hard to separate the hype from the thing itself. I also have the nagging feeling that I’m not Fr. Barron’s primary audience for this work. I say that less as someone who works full-time for the Church, and more as someone who prefers systematic theology to philosophy. (Fr. Barron’s masters degree is in philosophy and he is an unabashed admirer of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose life and writings are frequently cited in the book.)

With those provisos, what can you expect from Catholicism?

In the introduction Fr. Barron promises to take us on “a guided exploration of the Catholic world… I want to function as a mystagogue, conducting you ever deeper into the mystery of the Incarnation in the hopes that you might be transformed by its power.” He intends a celebration of the faith, rather than an academic overview, and he keeps his word.

Fr. Barron covers the major topics of the faith in ten chapters that mirror the ten episodes of his DVD series. These include the person of Jesus Christ, his teachings, the Church, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Eucharist, the saints, and prayer, among others.  Each chapter includes highlights from the Church’s historical and theological heritage, from Bl. Theresa of Calcutta to St. Augustine, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris to Bl. Pope John Paul II.  The book also boasts an impressive amount of photography and artwork, much of it from Europe’s great cathedrals and basilicas.

As anyone who has seen his YouTube videos knows, Fr. Barron has a gift for explaining the faith in simple, understandable terms, and this gift is on full display in Catholicism. Even notoriously complex issues such as theodicy (the problem of evil) are dealt with in clear terms, with non-Christian alternatives laid out in contrast with the person of Christ:

For the Christian faith, the only adequate “resolution” of this dilemma is the one effected by God himself on the cross of Jesus Christ. On that cross, the darkness of the human condition met the fullness of the divine love and found itself transfigured into life. On that cross, God went to the limits of godforsakenness and made even death itself a place of hope. God, in his love, becomes the answer to the problem of evil.

One thing you should not  expect is a systematic walk through the Church’s teachings. This is actually one of the little things that bugged me about the book: it’s incomplete treatment of certain subjects. For instance, in the chapter on prayer, Fr. Barron spends most of his time on Thomas Merton, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila — important figures, to be sure, and ones who have much to teach on prayer! But Fr. Barron then offers a few pages on petitionary prayer before wrapping up the chapter — neglecting the other four forms of prayer laid out in the Catechism.  Similarly, his chapter on the “last things” includes very good reflections on heaven, purgatory, and hell — but no mention of judgement, the traditional first “last thing.” Again, Fr. Barron’s approach isn’t wrong or even unhelpful. But for someone acquainted with the Catechism  and the traditions of the Church, the omissions are curious.

Another troubling aspect of the book is it’s solid Euro-centrism. Almost no attention is paid to Catholicism as it is lived in the global south, either in the stories Fr. Barron tells or in the artwork used throughout the book. At a time when Christianity is seeing unprecedented growth in Africa and South America, this makes Catholicism  look rooted in the Church’s past, rather than its future.

But those are minor quibbles about an otherwise impressive accomplishment. Fr. Barron has crafted what may prove to be the defining introductory text to the faith for the coming decades; I predict that Catholicism  will be added to many personal and parish libraries and will become a classic text for inquirers and RCIA candidates. Anyone interested in learning more about the Catholic faith could hardly do better than picking up this book.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer program.

5 Books for the New Year

Last year I offered five books I had read in the previous year that I recommended for the new year. If doing this two years in a row makes it a blog tradition — well , so be it!

Here are five books that come with my highest recommendation:

  • Doers of the Word: Putting Your Faith Into Practice, by Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan (2009) — In this wonderful little book Archbishop Dolan offers short reflections on Christ, the Church year, the saints, the Church, the Blessed Virgin, and other topics. His short, pithy stories are a great example of his ability to explain the faith clearly and concisely — an ability also reflected in his excellent blog.
  • The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter, by Jason Kersten (2010) — OK, this isn’t a Catholic book per se, but it is a fascinating (and true!) tale of a young man from a broken home who finds joy in becoming a craftsman of a dying art: counterfeiting money. In perfectly replicating the new $100 bill he reunites with his estranged father, with terrible consequences for both.
  • Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, by Matthew B. Crawford (2009) — Crawford offers a profound treatise on how the “useful arts” — work that requires real skill and practice to master — combines the best of both manual and intellectual engagement. This book has made   me want to learn some real manual skills, starting with some basic woodworking.
  • Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer, by Thomas Dubay, SM (2006) — This “required reading” for our Totus Tuus team last summer has helped me deepen my prayer life and better appreciate the deep wisdom of the Church’s spiritual traditions.
  • Mariette in Ecstasy, by Ron Hansen (1992) — This book was recommended to me by a friend and colleague after he saw A Canticle for Leibowitz on last year’s list. Hansen’s portrayal of the disruption of a religious community’s orderly life by a young novice prone to trances and visions is haunting, gripping, and strangely moving.

Five Reading Picks for the New Year

There has been much written in the past few years about the œdeath of the book.  Certainly with the advent of the Kindle and new ways of conveying writing online we are changing the way we read. But I think it’s premature to write the book’s obituary yet. Instead I think we’ll see a shift in the way books are published “ away from large publishing houses to smaller niches publishers. In addition, print-on-demand solutions will allow anyone to publish a book quickly and cheaply.

To ensure that the book has a few more years of life, I’d like to recommend the following books that I read in the past year:

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter J. Miller, Jr. (1960) “ This Hugo award-winning novel traces 1200 years in the life of a monastic order following a devastating nuclear war. The monks seek to preserve scientific and cultural knowledge against a world that has descended into barbarism.
  • Five Loaves and Two Fish, by Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan (1997) “ Cardinal Van Thuan spent 13 years incarcerated by the Communist government of Vietnam before being exiled in 1991. This book is a series of reflections he prepared for the 1997 World Youth Day. It is a simple, profound and moving reflection on suffering and hope.
  • The Clown of God, by Tomie dePaola (1978) “ dePaola retells and lavishly illustrates the story of a poor beggar boy who finds joy and fame in his juggling “ and surprising blessings as well. Sure to delight old and young alike.
  • Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn (2006) “ This science fiction story follows a 14th century German priest as he seeks to communicate with “ and minister to “ a group of aliens who have crashed in the woods outside his tiny village. The priest must ask: œCan an extraterrestrial be a Christian?  and, œWhere is God when tragedy strikes? 
  • From Slave to Priest: A Biography of the Reverend Augustine Tolton, by Sister Caroline Hemesath (reprinted 2006) “ Sr. Hemesath presents the life of Fr. Tolton, the first African-American priest in the United States, in a series of fictionalized vignettes (a sort of œspeculative biography ) from his youth in Quincy to his ministry and untimely death in Chicago.