Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Once upon a time, I was talking with a friend, a fellow convert who (as is common with us) was wondering why on earth Catholics who don't believe much of what the Church teaches stay. He was greatly puzzled about the tendency of many life-long Catholics to remain quite proudly Catholic despite the fact that much of what the Church insists we must believe is something they flatly reject in favor or whatever the latest Oprahism is on the tube. Equally puzzling, both during this pontificate and the last one, is the common tendency of many Catholics--usually cradle Catholics--to say all sorts of rubbish about the teaching of the Pope (he's "reactionary" doncha know), yet to go on treating him as a beloved figure. For many converts, it's a weird and disorienting experience.
I think, after a lot of pondering, that much of the disconnect comes from the fact that converts tend to take very seriously the experience of the Faith in its dimension as a Body of Doctrine. When you become a Catholic as an adult, you are required to give full and honest assent, before God Almighty Himself, to the proposition: "I believe all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims is revealed by God." Evangelical converts, in particular, feel the weight of that proposition and, as a general rule, make very sure they can say it in good conscience before they are received into the Church. If you cannot say it in good conscience then (we strongly believe) to claim to be Catholic is to lie to God.
There is no parallel moment of crisis for cradle Catholics. Instead, the principle experience of the Church for cradle Catholics is as Family. Oh sure, there are those little rituals we do now and then, when we are asked if we realio-trulio believe the Creed and so forth. But that's just one of those things the family does--like flag salutes. The main thing, however, is that we are family. And in a family, you disagree with the Old Man, but you'd never dream of saying you weren't family anymore.
It seems to me that both of these experiences of Church are true to a degree. Those who experience the Church as Body of Doctrine have their strong and weak points. On the one hand, they take very seriously what the Church actually teaches and are willing to learn from the Church and when she makes us uncomfortable. On the other hand, there can sometimes be a troubling zeal to purge the Church of the Doctrinally Impure. Similarly, “Church as Family” folk will often go to the mat to make room for the catholicity of the Church. On the down side, they often do not have a clue what the Church teaches because "Catholic" is more like an ethnicity for them than a revelation from God that is meant change our lives.
And revelation is the key here, for both parties. Ultimately the Catholic faith is about a living relationship with God the Father, through our Lord Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit and the sacrament of the Church which is both Mother and Teacher. Too often we want to avoid that uncomfortable encounter by replacing God with mere doctrine or familial feeling. All creatures which take the place of God are idols. But ordered toward the praise of God and the glory of his saints, all creatures—including right doctrine and the familial feeling—are sacraments by which God gives his life to us and to the world.