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
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 Bible."
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 the
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 us."
Other Catholics were unable to
identify the Magisterium.
"The Magisterium?" said one
man. "Unfamiliar with that."
"I have no idea," answered a
"Donít know," said Joanne,
a teacher in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults
(R.C.I.A), the Catholic Churchís program for adult
"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
"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
"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 replied.
"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
Richard was willing to consider the
possibility, but told us that he would side with the
"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 told us.
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 like
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, and language."
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
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
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 life."7
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
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
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
"Dad, whatís your opinion of
Vatican II?" Patricia began.
"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
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
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),
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.