“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.
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.