The Makings of a Bad Catholic

“Am I a bad Catholic?”

That question was put to me by more than a few people last week—some in earnest, some as almost a dare—after I mentioned that the 85 percent of Catholic women who think they can both use contraception and still be good Catholics are wrong.

Mind you, in the post I didn’t call anyone a “bad” Catholic. I just said habitually doing things the Church considers objectively and gravely sinful doesn’t exactly qualify one for “good Catholic” status. (Which was the researchers’ terminology, not mine.)

In the comments, however, I did call one person a bad Catholic: Me.

I did that because hardly a day goes by that I don’t do or think something that I wish I hadn’t done or thought. I’m almost always falling short of  being the woman God asks me to be.

But here’s the thing: I’m aware of that. I know what the Church teaches. I believe what the Church teaches. And when I fail to live what I believe, I feel rotten about it. I then tell God I’m sorry and, if the offense was a major one, get myself post haste to Confession.

A friend later took issue with me labeling myself a “bad Catholic” since I do go to Confession. He’s probably right. Maybe there’s a better label. The point, however, is this: I sin. And I know it.

In that, I’m not alone. See Romans 7:19: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

That confession of St. Paul’s reminds us that Catholics have been falling short of the mark since about 33 AD. We’re human. Falling short of the mark is what we do. But, also since 33 A.D., we’ve recognized that.

There have always been Catholics not living in accord with Church teaching. There have always been Catholics who cheated, who stole, who killed, who aborted their children, mistreated the poor, abandoned their spouses, skipped out on Sunday Mass, slept with someone before they were married, and, were just all around nasty folk. They knew the Church didn’t sanction any of those things. They knew they were sinning. Yet, for whatever reason, they sinned anyhow.

Until recently, however, you’d be hard-pressed to find any of those people calling themselves “good Catholics.” In fact, they would have freely admitted to being just the opposite.

But not today. Thanks in large part to the dissenting priests and theologians who dominated the academy and the Catholic seminary system in the latter half of the twentieth century, vast swaths of the baptized think they can disregard Church teachings on life, love, the sacraments, or concern for the poor, and still be “good” or “faithful” Catholics. They don’t think sin is sin anymore. They think, as the culture and plenty of priests, sisters, and teachers trying out for the millstone swim club have told them, that it’s all just a matter of personal choice. It’s about what’s right for them. Not about what’s just plain old right.

Many, if not most, of the people who think that way are doing the best they can with what they’ve been given. But that doesn’t change the fact that if they’re contracepting or having sex before marriage or skipping Sunday Mass for less than serious reasons, they’re not living their lives in accord with Church teaching. They’re on the wrong side of the bright lines the Church draws for us. And that is not a good place for anyone to be. The bright lines aren’t arbitrary. They’re there to show us the way to God. They’re there to help us live the lives he calls us to live and be the people he made us to be.

That’s why it doesn’t serve to pussy foot around and pretend sin isn’t sin just because someone might take offense. We’re called to be gentle and loving when we proclaim the truth, but we’re still called to proclaim the truth. Things a lot more important than feelings—bodies, families, souls—get hurt when we don’t.

All that being said, the task that lies before Catholics today is so much bigger than saying, “Contraception is a mortal sin.”  Who cares if the Church thinks contraception is a mortal sin if they don’t know what sin is? Who cares what the Church says about anything if they don’t know what the Church is? Above all, who cares what the Church is if they don’t know who Christ is?

He’s what it all comes down to. For love of Christ, we listen to the Church. For love of Christ, we avoid sin. For love of Christ, we do the heart-breakingly hard things life requires us to do.

Likewise, because of his love for us, a love poured out in the sacraments, we’re able to do those heart-breakingly hard things. Without one love we don’t want to obey. Without the other Love, we can’t obey.

Which I guess is why the whole, “Am I a bad Catholic” question struck me as odd. Because that’s not how people who are in fact, good Catholics (in the “We know what the Church teaches, try not to violate those teachings, and go to Confession when we do” kind of way) think.

Personally, I don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I want to be a good Catholic today.” I’m not thinking about being a good Catholic or a bad one. I’m thinking about Jesus, about how beautiful, reasonable, merciful, just, powerful, gentle and loving he is. About what he’s asking of me and calling me to. About how much I want to please him and become a bit more worthy of the blessings he’s bestowed on me.

I’m not trying to be “good.” I’m trying to be faithful. And I’m begging him for the grace to do that, whatever the cost.

Again, I’m not saying I’m the poster child for holy Catholic womanhood. I’ve had enough angry, irritable moments of late to put me right out of contention for that title.

What I am saying, for those doing the asking, is that you’re going about this all wrong. The question you should be asking isn’t, “Am I a bad Catholic?” It’s, “Whom do I love, and what am I willing to do for Love?”

The rest just kind of follows.

It's there for a reason: Because we're all "bad" Catholics sometimes.

Emily Stimpson is a Contributing Editor to “Our Sunday Visitor” and the author of “The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years,” where she dishes on the Church’s teachings about women, marriage, sex, work, beauty, suffering, and more.



  • Michi

    I have never been so painfully aware until recently (last 4 years…) of how I must be able to articulate my Catholic faith AND express my faith with an authentic congruous life! So, thanks for the blog because you kept it real and humanized the struggle of living a holy and authentic life!

  • lelnet

    “I’m not saying I’m the poster child for holy Catholic womanhood.”

    Good. ‘Cause that job’s already taken.

    In the whole history of humanity, from creation to the second coming, there are only two people entirely free from sin. You’re not one of them. Neither am I. Neither was, say, Peter…whose self and successors God trusted to be the chief shepherds of His disciples through all time.

    Surely He would like for us to refrain from all sin. In that, I’m inclined to concur. But the major difference is that He, being all-knowing, gets that such an outcome is unrealistic. And so, in a demonstration of the kind of magnanimity that we humans seldom even _pretend_ to emulate anymore, forgives us whenever we come to Him and ask Him to.

    It amazes me that, presented with a deal that transparently sweet (not to mention a deal that so thoroughly and disproportionately favored our own sinful selves), so many have decided that instead of shouting for joy at our amazing good fortune, they ought to either whine and carp about how embarrassing it is to have to apologize for anything ever, or (even worse) pretend like bad is actually good.

  • Romple

    Well, written thank you for the post!

  • Richj

    Emily – Why is that people are judging you when they “do not pussy foot” around in telling you that your position is not really a “Good” Catholic position. You do have the adoring throng which loves the poetry of your posts, that makes it OK to be hateful – as long as you “love” Jesus (A theological Impossibility if you truly understand what loving Jesus both means, and requires) You really need to go back and reread the first part of your post, which has a lot of good ideas in it, including St. Paul’s quote. But soon after, you go back to the determined person to label those not following you as BAD CATHOLICS. It may not be Pussy Footing, but neither is it Christian to say that you and your friends are better at Catholicism than others. Since you do not know the minds and hearts of others, you are really speaking of judging others based on YOUR criteria, not God’s and not even the Church’s standards. When you get up tomorrow morning with Jesus on your mind, think for a moment how he would love the Catholic who offends you (not him) through their ideas and actions. Then remember how he loves you even when you have the need to put down those who don’t follow Catholic Teachings like you do. Think of his mercy on them and you that puts you in the same pew, praising a God of Love, growing more to be like him every day. Each of you unworthy of his love, yet each a heir because of his love. Then let that love seep into your writings, so like the prince of Peace who did not crush the bruised reed, did not pussy foot, but healed, and loved, and died for all of us who betray and deny him daily. And the even greater love that is shown when he rose from the dead and sent his spirit to us, not the be a perfect practicing Catholic, but to be PERFECTED in the church of our fellow sinners. Whether we like it or not, you and me have to love each other as Christ would. Loving correcting, and loving listening to God speaking even through our enemies. Do not waste your God blessed talents being mean and rude, but encouraging those who hear you to live lives enriched by Christ Jesus. No one really cares (or should care) if you are a good or bad Catholic, all we should care about is how we can see God in your life, his love in your heart, and his call in your words. Blessing and peace as the Lord gives them in abundance even when we haven’t earned them. Pax et Bonum.

    • Shawn

      I don’t think you actually read what Emily wrote, because she was neither mean or rude, and she definitely didn’t write anything hateful.

  • Maureen

    Wow, JenB, excellent post!!! I do know that the whole abuse thing involved a very small percentage of priests. However, my issue and the part that breaks my heart, is the attitude of the church hierarchy in hiding it and to this day, not cooperating with law enforcement and release documents. We should all be down on our knees to ask forgiveness from the poor victims. My daughter in law uses this issue as an argument against raising my beautiful grandchildren in the Catholic Church. My son almost had her convinced when the abuse scandal broke and now she definitely will not. That said, since our church on earth is comprised of humans and we are, and have been imperfect from the beginning…eg…Judas, St Peter in his denials…I will keep my faith. I compare it to the United States. I may not agree or like the government at this point, but I am not leaving. I will stay and try my best to make it better. God Bless!

    • Shawn

      Not cooperating with law enforcement? Plenty of church officials have been convicted, most recently the Bishop of Kansas City. Even more claims of child abuse have been proven false. It is just untrue and media spin to say that say the Church isn’t cooperating with law enforcement.

  • Theo

    Hey Mara! Look everybody it’s Mara!



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