How to Stay Catholic

April 30, 2014 | 20 comments

In the year since Pope Francis's election, I have watched with mounting concern as conservative Catholics have become increasingly agitated over the Pope's simpler papal style, his seeming lack of concern for precision in speaking and writing, the contrast between him and the Pope Emeritus, and his critique of ideologies that they hold dear. In response, I have written a number of blog posts that were intended, in part, to reassure, challenge, and exhort conservative Catholics to be not afraid.

And yet still the alarm bells are ringing. In one case, a friend is anxiously waiting for the expected episcopal Synod on the Family this October, wondering if he can remain Catholic if there are changes in the Church's eucharistic discipline for divorced and remarried Catholics. Someone else I know has been toying with Radical Traditionalism for years, but has recently become more and more outspoken about his involvement with the Society of St. Pius X. Others are not yet at the point of publicly questioning their faith or openly dissenting from it, but are constantly seeking to reassure themselves and others that the Pope is not as "bad" as the media is supposedly painting him.

In tracking this trend, I noticed that there were a number of common bonds that are shared by those who are fearful about where the Pope is taking the Church. For example, most are not only religiously conservative but also politically conservative. Many are plugged into the Internet, scanning Church web sites on a regular basis for any clues that might help them decipher the papal tea leaves. And, not incidentally, more than a few are converts.

Last year, in response to news that the Italian journalist Magdi Allam, a convert who was baptized by Benedict XVI, had defected from the Church, I wrote a blog post titled The Rise and Fall of a Catholic Convert. In that post, I observed:

I firmly believe that, sooner or later, each and every convert to the Catholic faith—whether that person chose to become Catholic as an adult or was brought into the faith as a baby by his parents—is going to have to face the scandal that the Church is not what he believed it to be when he signed up. The test will be whether he will persevere because he knows it to be the Church Christ founded, or whether he will fall away because he decides it is merely a human institution that has disappointed him.

(Nota bene: I included myself in the number of those who will be challenged at some point in their lives by the scandal of the Church, and told the story of my own brief lapse from the practice of the faith.)

Setting aside all the reasons why converts might reconsider their commitment to the Church, some sympathetic and others not so much, for the purpose of this blog post I want to focus on suggestions for how to remain Catholic when you feel like you are losing your faith.

Be teachable. Learning the Catholic faith is a lifelong process. St. Isidore of Seville, one of the last Latin Fathers of the Church, once remarked that the man who said he had read all of the writings of St. Augustine is a liar. He was making an observation on St. Augustine's prodigious literary output, but he was quite literally correct since lost manuscripts of St. Augustine continue to pop up out of obscurity from time to time.

This same dictum can also be applied to the Catholic faith: The man who says he knows all there is to know about the Catholic faith is a liar. Remember Christ's parable of the householder, who continually brings out of the treasure room both the new and the old (Matt. 13:52). Seek to remain interiorly open to accepting the teaching authority of the Pope and the bishops in union with him, even when you do not understand why they propose solutions that seem to make no sense to you. Keep reminding yourself that it is more likely that you should fail to understand than that Christ should fail to guide and protect his Church.

Be steadfast. Never give anyone, not even the Pope, power over your spiritual peace. Copy out the following quote from lay Catholic apologist Frank Sheed and paste it to your bathroom mirror, where you can recite it every morning and every evening:

We are not baptized into the hierarchy; do not receive the cardinals sacramentally; will not spend an eternity in the beatific vision of the pope. Christ is the point. I, myself, admire the present pope, but even if I criticized him as harshly as some do, even if his successor proved to be as bad as some of those who have gone before, even if I find the Church, as I have to live with it, a pain in the neck, I should still say that nothing that a pope (or a priest) could do or say would make me wish to leave the Church, although I might well wish that they would leave.

Unplug. One of the downsides to the cyber age is that it is difficult to escape being more informed than you want to be. But those who are struggling with their faith need to escape the deluge of stories on the Internet that are rattling their spiritual peace. As British convert and apologist Msgr. Ronald Knox once noted, "On the barque of Peter, those with queasy stomachs should keep clear of the engine room."

If you have a blog, shut it down. The need to keep putting up new content will have you seeking out news stories you should be avoiding. If you have a Facebook page, either disable it or arrange your settings to block news you do not need to know. While it may sound harsh to say so, any cyber acquaintance who does not respect an announcement that you are taking a break from discussing Church news ought to be avoided, even if it means that you must unfriend that person.

Receive Communion. The good news is that conservative Catholics usually do not have to be told to go to confession. The bad news is that those same Catholics sometimes will refrain unnecessarily from receiving Communion. While the intention to avoid profaning the Eucharist when feeling "out of communion" with the Church is a noble one, it is also misguided. In an age when lay Catholics had to be ordered by law of the Church to receive Communion at least once per year, St. Therese of Lisieux pleaded:

Our Lord does not come down from heaven every day to lie in a golden ciborium. He comes to find another heaven which is infinitely dearer to him—the heaven of our souls, created in his image, the living temples of the adorable Trinity.

Receiving sacramental Communion is necessary for maintaining spiritual communion with Christ and his Church. Unless you are absolutely certain you have committed a mortal sin, I strongly urge you to receive Communion every single time you go to Mass. If you have committed a mortal sin, go to confession and then receive Communion. But never allow your own feelings of alienation or unworth to prevent you from receiving the Eucharist. While your intention may be good, the result of what you are doing is a deeper estrangement of yourself from Christ and his Church.

In this take a page from our Catholic brethren to your left. If you ask liberal Catholics what keeps them in the Church, why they refuse to leave even when it might seem to you they should do so in order to maintain integrity, the reason they unfailingly give for staying is the Eucharist. While the argument can be made that there are cases in which someone who disagrees with Church teaching should not present himself for Communion, the instinct to stay close to the Eucharist is itself a laudable instinct and one that would be well worth cultivating.

Always return. In the final book of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling, Harry's friend Ron Weasley is bequeathed a Deluminator by Albus Dumbledore. The device was mainly used to extinguish lights, enabling the user to accomplish necessary tasks under cover of darkness. But Ron discovered another use for the Deluminator. When he was separated from Harry and their friend Hermione, the Deluminator acted as a signal device that enabled him to return to his friends.

After rejoining Harry and Hermione, Ron says of Dumbledore's gift, "He knew what he was doing when he gave me the Deluminator, didn't he? He—well—he must've known I'd run out on you." Harry corrects Ron, "No. He must've known you'd always want to come back."

No matter how often you stumble, or how many times you run, you can always return to the Church—and sometimes by the very means by which the light of faith was extinguished in the first place. You might hear of something a pope said or did that touches your heart; a friend may share good news about Christ and his Church instead of bad news; you may find a televised Mass while channel-surfing and be filled with yearning by the sight of the Eucharist held high.

In The Queer Feet, G. K. Chesterton's amateur detective Father Brown describes the power of grace upon a wandering soul. Keep it in mind whenever you begin to become discouraged in your faith, and know that wherever you go, God's grace will surely follow:

"Yes," [Father Brown] said, "I caught [the repentant thief], with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread."

Michelle Arnold is a staff apologist at Catholic Answers.

Comments by Members

#1  Clinton Ufford - Sweet Home, Oregon

A bad combo of religion and politics - causal for bad habits. It's sad to see "splits" in the Church because of traditionalism and progressivism. I've only been in full Communion for a little over a year and in my own parish I find various "age group's" clashing because of the way they 'think" things should be handled. It's just sad to see arrogance where unity should prevail. I think the New Evangelization should be more openly explained, taught and focused on in all parishes in an attempt to explain to all age groups what we should be focusing on. ---- Lets all get our Catholic on!

April 30, 2014 at 8:17 am PST
#2  Harry Ehmann - Bedford, Texas

I believe some of the angst is due to the secular media's warped reporting on all things Catholic. It spins faster than a binary star. I'm waiting for their pronouncement that the Holy Father has abolished sin altogether.

April 30, 2014 at 8:48 am PST
#3  Clinton Ufford - Sweet Home, Oregon

LOL, I agree Harry.

April 30, 2014 at 9:00 am PST
#4  Todd Shaffer - Taylorsville, Utah

Very well written article Michelle and very important things to remember. Thank you.

April 30, 2014 at 9:03 am PST
#5  Craig Power - Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

While I agree with the general premise of the article, I have to say that 'Unplugging' sends the wrong message entirely. To unplug is to bury ones head in the sand to problems and challenges; which couldn't be further from what the our faith tells us to do. Did St Aquinas not tell us to be ready to respond to challenges to our faith? Not to hide from our accusers but meet them?

Instead, read the articles, but of the mindset that the world does not want you to be Catholic. Being Catholic means living for a deeper purpose than materialism - businesses would love nothing more than for our morality to disappear from the world so they could peddle whatever they like, wherever they like, whenever they like, to make that the point of our existence. An hour at Mass is an hour you aren't making advertising revenue for Time Warner by watching their media, or buying products at Wal-Mart. Being Anti-Catholic is in and of itself a business - look at the loudmouthed Atheists on the lecture circuit (and wonder how much money they make to be that loud), ask yourself how much viewer revenue is made whenever a new church scandal appears. Of course they will show and tell you anything to get you to stop believing, and they will be convincing - they spend billions on trying to get you to stop being what you are. If we hide our heads, they win.

When you hear of a scandal, follow it up. There was a scandal that hurt many, many people - it's unfortunate, but true. It can be disheartening to hear that hundreds of people have been abused, if not thousands. Instead of hiding from this, a simple search will tell you that this is the vast, vast, vast minority of priests, under 2% accused, many less actually found guilty and convicted. Compare that with the rate of any other public profession (I.E.: teachers), and you will find that it is vastly UNDER what someone would expect from a standard population distribution. In some countries (UK), the rate of students who claim inappropriate contact from a teacher is as high as 1/5. Seek the truth as an intellectual and you'll always find it is on the right side, then do your part to spread it.

Lastly, never forget the numbers. Christianity is the largest group on the planet, and Catholicism the largest within it. We are the majority. No matter how hard secular society pushes us, we can push back infinitely harder.

April 30, 2014 at 9:22 am PST
#6  Craig Power - Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

I should point out that although I specifically mention one scandal, it applies to all scandals. We should never feel the need to hide.

April 30, 2014 at 9:24 am PST
#7  Anthony Mammoliti - Brooklyn, New York

What everyone is so "afraid" of is now we have a Pope who is not caught up in legalism but is living the gospel message by his actions and words. He is showing the way to the gospel of Jesus by showing us how to be a disciple, not why be a disciple. Remember our Lord chastised the Pharisees who got all caught up on the pomp and circumstance and pretentious piety, and the need to be seen wearing fancy liturgical vestments. Conservative Catholics must realize the church is a living sacrament, that is guided by the Holy Spirit as the times dictate. The truth is Jesus Christ, that never changes, the sacraments never change , but to love and show mercy and compassion are far more important than if the bells are rung, or do we receive the Eucharist on our younger kneeling or in our hand. Love, mercy and compassion must be first and foremost in your heart or you will miss the gospel message of Jesus.

April 30, 2014 at 10:24 am PST
#8  Michelle Arnold - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Craig, choosing to stop following news is not the same thing as burying one's head in the sand. What it does is to turn down the "noise" in your life, especially when the vibrations from that noise are shaking your faith. Sometimes Christians need to step back from the world. That is why Jesus invited his disciples to pull back from the crowds following them, to "rest awhile." That is why consecrated religious retreat from the world entirely, the better to more fully devote their lives to Christ.

And, frankly, it is rather naive to assume that lay Catholics can "follow up" on every story in the media that paints the Church or one of the Church's representatives in a negative light. Most people simply don't have contacts in the Church who are "in the know" and do not have access to the context in which to place scandals that are disturbing them. For most people, it is easier and less stressful to unplug than it is to become an armchair detective.

April 30, 2014 at 10:31 am PST
#9  JOE OFFER - APPLEGATE, California

Michelle, I think your essay was terrific. It spelled out very clearly what's important about being Catholic, and it's not about being liberal or conservative. I think the single most important thing you said, is that Catholics need to receive communion every time they go to Mass. If we Catholics stay close to the Eucharist and to each other, everything else will fall into place.
God bless you, God bless our Pope, and God bless us all.
-Joe Offer-

April 30, 2014 at 1:51 pm PST
#10  Peter Laffin - Boulder, Colorado


You took the words right out of my mouth. Perfect. Thank you for responding to the article.

April 30, 2014 at 4:33 pm PST
#11  Christine Hurdle - Seattle, Washington

Surely the Pope and the Vatican are aware of this state of panic among a small portion of conservative Catholics. Why is it that we don't see signs of reassurance or efforts to reach out and reduce the anxiety? Am I just missing them? I myself am not convinced the Pope is up to any mischief in terms of changing Church teaching, but I can't deny that the situation is unsettling and ambiguous even to the fair-minded. I suspect in the end a lot of people are panicking unnecessarily and another group seems to be getting very overexcited unnecessarily. It's hard on the nerves for us all!

April 30, 2014 at 6:29 pm PST
#12  Michael Murphy - San Carlos, California

I, for one, am overjoyed at what this Pope has had to say. I'm amazed that so many of those who used to shake their head at me when I questioned what Pope Benedict was saying are now doing the exact same thing. It makes me chuckle.

However, having had my moment of satisfaction, I must say that Michelle's article was outstanding. It would have spoken to me and touche me during the past two pontificates, and it should speak to anyone who struggles now with Pope Francis.

April 30, 2014 at 9:43 pm PST
#13  Peter Laffin - Boulder, Colorado

"Inequality is the root of social evil."
-Pope Francis, a couple days ago on twitter.

This is why so many conservative Catholics have trouble with him--he's a socialist and proud of it. The conservative Catholics conflate their politics with their religion, and can't stomach (or try in ridiculous, Stephen Colbert fashion to deny) his economic politics (even though they square perfectly with the Gospel.) He has made several other UNMISTAKABLE comments on this topic.

Now, the conservatives must decide as liberals have had to for years: Am I more obedient and devoted to my brand of American politics than I am to my holy father?

May 1, 2014 at 10:04 am PST
#14  Peter Laffin - Boulder, Colorado


As to that last sentence you wrote, I think that's the point! It's been wonderfully unnerving.

May 1, 2014 at 10:06 am PST
#15  Usulor Kenneth - Lagos, Lagos

Fine article!!!
This is the kind of article that ought to be frequently presented here. The wind of temptation that is capable of rooting out our faith (not the Catholic Church because it is infallible but our personal assent to divine revelation) and plunging us into the infernal hands of the devil and his cohorts is blowing not just in the world but also inside the Church. This brings to mind the warning of the Holy Ghost, "Except thou hold thyself dilligently in the fear of the Lord, thy house will quickly be overthrown" ( Ecclus. 27:4 ). Let every Catholic know that what our Lord promised us is dogmatic immunity from error or wrong teaching and not immunity from personal sins on the part of each believer. We are on the battle field, a testing ground. And rightly has the Church called us Church Millitant. God allows that wind ( sins, misdeeds etc ) to blow even within the Church in order to test and purify our faith in him.
Now to you my brethren who think "decamping" is the best option when hit by grave scandal from within, why not say what St. Peter said while others were decamping when the Eucharist was first proposed by our Lord ( John 6:67 ). I am convinced that there is no other better way to follow. Bear in mind what 2nd Vatican Council teaches that to those who know that the Catholic Church is the true Church but refuse to suscribe to it or abide in it, to them there is no salvation. I know how hard it used to be but let us endure.

May 2, 2014 at 4:36 am PST
#16  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

Usulor, amen brother! I believe in the promise of Christ and will not ever be distracted by all the minor scuffles and scandals. Did everyone not learn anything from St. Peter? He was put to the test more than any of us ever will be, yet he persevered. Satan desires to sift us all like wheat, and we to shall pray for one another to make one another stronger in their faith!

May 2, 2014 at 8:54 pm PST
#17  kevin mcgavin - taylors, South Carolina

trust the holy spirit. pope francis is helping the church to change the way we do business.

jesus, son of david, have mercy on me a sinner.

pray, pray, pray as the lord would have it

May 3, 2014 at 7:55 am PST
#18  JM Ralph - Sterrett, Alabama

The truth is that Pope Francis is to the left of most of the people who read Catholic Answers. But, that doesn’t make him any less the Vicar of Christ and the Successor of Saint Peter. We owe him the upmost respect, even if we disagree with some of the things he says or decisions he makes. Our Lord never promised St. Peter would be perfect. He was not. He made mistakes and required rebuking by St. Paul. We must pray for the Holy Father daily.

The Church in America has lost its Catholic identity. For two generations following Vatican II, the Church did not teach the Catholic faith and there is mass confusion among Catholics. Progressives took control of the Church and tried to change things. This is not to blame on Vatican II, but on the times. It was a time of rebellion of authority.

I think many conservative Catholics have taken heart in the fact that the last two Popes fit their beliefs very nicely. They could look at the Church as they saw it and at least point to Rome when looking over what seemed like a wasteland in the American Church. Now they are disheartened because they have lost that feeling with Pope Francis. It doesn’t help that those on the left of the Church are out cheering.

This article is spot on. Ultimately, we must trust in Our Lord. I am so impressed with the next generation of Priests that are coming into the Church. I believe many feel called to save the Church, and I think they will. Not every Pope has been a truly great Pope, just look back over two thousand years. I do not mean this to say that Pope Francis will not be a great Pope. I just mean this to say if you do not agree with his style or what he says, it does not mean that the Gates of Hell will prevail against the Church. Time will tell what the fruits of Pope Francis’s reign will be. History happens but takes years to discern its meaning. Around the mid-1970s many in America probably thought all hope was lost for the Catholic faith as our Churches were destroyed but look at how far we have come! Our Lord is triumphant. We must trust in Him and pray for the Holy Father.

May 3, 2014 at 9:57 am PST
#19  Mari Lu - Los Angeles, California

I love this pope. His message is about mercy. He doesn't like pomp and circumstance but wanted to humble himself the way Christ said we should. I mean, he chose to live in a hotel instead of the papal residence. He's trying to get into the essence of what being a shepherd is all about--getting close to the sheep. Then he can let them open up about the church. I think I can see what he's trying to do.

May 13, 2014 at 7:03 pm PST
#20  Kevin Saito - Honolulu, Hawaii

From what I understand, Pope Francis is more pastoral in his outlook and actions. There's a reason why, after Pope Benedict, a very learned and deeply theological person, the College of Cardinals elected Pope Francis, who seems more hands on and unconcerned with organizational/administration issues.

We don't have to know the reason but we Catholics should circle the wagons around him whatever personal gripe we may have with him. Satan attacks the clergy more than any other group of people (strike the shepherd, scatter the flock) and not supporting the Pope is just helping the evil one.

The Church is all of us not just the Vatican, the dioceses or the parish. Pray for unity of purpose and strength to continue to do God's work.

June 19, 2014 at 5:45 pm PST

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