Lot’s of former Catholics-turned-Evangelicals are greatly surprised to hear my husband and I became Catholic — for one very understandable reason — their experiences in the Catholic Church did not mirror our own. I can tell, in some cases, that the reaction is based on confusion. They know us and our general confession of faith, and they know of their experience with Catholicism; in their minds the two don’t match up. One thing has become clear to me, as this same scenario has replayed itself over numerous times (both with non-practicing Catholics and Catholics who left the church for other Christian churches) — we did not have the same experience.
So the question arises, if we did not have the same experience, then which one of us encountered real Catholicism — that is, the expression of authentic Church teaching?
A recent experience I had while in the hospital after delivering our third son may serve as a good analogy. There was a little hair dryer installed on the wall of my hospital room bathroom. When I went to dry my hair, I found that there was just one setting when you turned on the dryer, and it was blowing cold air. I only used it for a few minutes, opting to leave my hair partially still wet, rather than continue to blow cold air on my head. I thought to myself, How stupid that a hospital would install hair dryers that blow cold air!
As it happened, I was back in the hospital with my baby two weeks later, because he had to be re-admitted for a 5-day cycle of IV antibiotics. We were able to get our own room with bathroom again. After using the shower, I stared at the little hair dryer on the wall. I thought, Do I want to dry my hair with cold air again? Maybe just a little. I turned it on, and to my surprise, the air was hot! It suddenly occurred to me that the first hair dryer was obviously broken, and this one was not. I felt pretty silly. I wondered why I would assume that the hospital would install hair dryers that blow cold air, rather than conclude that the first hairdryer was simply broken. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that the original dyer was not designed to blow cold air. I assumed, without questioning the nurse or checking another dryer, that the large manufacturer of items like this for hospitals all over the country intended for the hair dryers to blow cold air.
I’m sure you are thinking, Well, yes, it is kind of ridiculous that you made that assumption. (Keep in mind that I was experiencing postpartum lack of sleep and stress of a newborn in the NICU.) Why is this a helpful analogy for different experiences of Catholicism? Because, many (not all) non-practicing Catholics that I have encountered have responded to the Church in a similar way, based on their singular past religious experiences. Perhaps they grew up within a dying parish: where the language of the homilies was not Christ-centric, with a curmudgeon priest who lost his zeal for the priesthood (if he ever had it) long ago, with joyless fellow parishioners who lacked the warmth of Christ’s love. Or perhaps they had a particularly horrific experience, being close to a scandal of abuse within a church or school setting. Maybe the perpetrator was never disciplined and reported, seemingly protected by a bishop and others in leadership who cared more about hiding a scandal than protecting and aiding the victim.
There are numerous reasons that Catholics leave parishes — they range from trivial to serious. However, important questions that individuals must ask of their singular experiences are these: Is this the intended design of the Church? Is this experience representative of Catholic teaching and true Catholicism; or is this parish, this expression and experience of Catholicism, broken? To be honest, I have a hunch that many non-practicing Catholics have left the Church as a result of their experiences in it, without asking these questions. Why do I think that? Because they don’t know actual Catholic teaching. They haven’t sought it out. They have never read their Catechism outside of the brief exposure in CCD classes as a child. They have constructed an (inaccurate) opinion of the entire Catholic Church, based solely on their individual experiences, concluding: I can’t believe the Church teaches or supports _________.
Well, the answer (in a lot of cases) is, it doesn’t.
This doesn’t just happen in regard to Catholicism. Many people — in a variety of Christian backgrounds reject Christ or His church, based on faulty assumed generalizations of their own personal experiences. I know people who left dead Catholic parishes and started attending nondenominational churches because they never saw Jesus there. They had a real encounter with Christ for the first time elsewhere. I know former Evangelicals who grew up in Christian families, but they no longer attend church or really have the same convictions they previously held about the Christian faith. Both reactions are based on a rejection of an “experience” rather than a rejection of Orthodox faith or Catholicism. Some reject the experience they had with church or their parents’ faith, without considering whether their experience was constitutive of Orthodoxy in the first place. They were rejecting their perception of the faith, rather than the truth of the faith; and our perceptions can be false. For that reason, we should be critical about many of our initial perceptions. We should take the time to investigate our world outside of the immediate parameters of our singular experiences.
When my husband and I converted to Catholicism, I held no illusions regarding the marred image of the Church due to various scandals or inconsistent teaching and practice in some parishes. I was fully aware of the damage that had been done to the practice of the Catholic faith in many dioceses in previous decades (or centuries) — which faithful Catholic priests and lay men and women are working hard to reverse at present in many thriving American dioceses. (Ross Douthat, in Bad Religion, does a detailed job tracing the events and tendencies of the American religious horizon that led to the “beige Catholicism” of the 60s and 70s.)¹ But I was used to the same in my Protestant background. The same problems occur in all denominations of Christianity. All denominations have experienced scandal. My family’s experience in most churches or denominations that we were a part of (a lot during my childhood) involved one theological or practical stumbling block or another.
In fact, my husband and I were not looking for another church that gave us a “good experience.” We wanted to investigate the claims of the Catholic faith and find the truth. Was this the Church Christ established with Peter, against which “the gates of Hell will not prevail”?² When it came to my theological questions about problematic Protestant teachings and traditions, did the Catholic Church have better answers? I wasn’t searching for a fulfilling singular experience on Sunday morning; I was in search of a faith tradition that was true and timeless — one that was much bigger than my own experience within it.
What about you? Maybe you left the Catholic faith for another church, or altogether. Why did you leave? Maybe you grew up within another Christian denomination, but are no longer practicing — why? Did you leave because your church experience disappointed you or even damaged you somehow? Did you leave because your parents’ expression of faith or belief alienated you from Christianity? If so, can you say that you have asked the kinds of questions that take you away from your own singular experience and plunge you deep into an investigation of a greater truth?
I started my own investigation a few years ago, and it’s certainly ongoing. But my journey for truth led me to the doors of the Catholic Church, down the aisle of church history attended by the saints of the ages, to the altar of the blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist; and here I am home.
¹ Douthat, Ross. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. New York: Free Press, 2012.
² Matthew 16:18