The Long Way Home

Can Losing Your Faith Be a Step in the Right Direction?


Karl Keating is founder and president of Catholic Answers. He developed This Rock from the original Catholic Answers newsletter and for several years served as the magazine’s editor. His books include Catholicism and Fundamentalism and What Catholics Really Believe. He appears regularly on Catholic Answers Live radio program. This article first appeared in the May–June 2001 issue.

Some people get themselves home by deliberately getting themselves lost. They end up in the Church by taking the most roundabout routes imaginable. It is one thing for us to acknowledge that we may not know where a particular path will lead; it may seem to bypass the Church but might really be headed for a back door. But it is something else when the path chosen seems unmistakably wrong, as when someone leaves the Church after having been a member for his whole life. Since salvation comes only through the Church, even for those who innocently are outside her structure, how can abandoning the Church be a step in the right direction? And yet, for some people, it turns out that it is.

I have been engaged in apologetics for more than 20 years. Long ago I stopped counting Catholics who left the Church for a long sojourn in a Protestant denomination or even in the land of the unchurched and who then came back. They returned for any of a hundred different reasons, and they returned as stronger Catholics than they had been before their detour. Did God foresee that, if they had remained lukewarm or dissentient Catholics, they would have failed to achieve salvation? Maybe, but this can be only conjecture on our part. We cannot know what might have happened to them if they had not made a foray outside the Church.

We might speculate that, had they never left, one day they would have awakened with a heightened interest in their faith. Perhaps it would have been the example of someone they ran across at Mass, or perhaps they would have read the life of a saint and been moved deep in their hearts, or perhaps illness would have focused them on eternal things as they never had been focused before. Why would it have to take abandonment of the faith to bring them around to the faith?

I have no answer to that. All I can say is that this seems to have been the case with those many people we call "reverts." It is one thing to find oneself compelled to take a longer route than necessary or desired—flying, say, from San Diego to Chicago not directly but by way of Phoenix or Denver. One can imagine going roundabout that much, heading for the goal but making only zigzag progress toward it. But why would God so arrange it that someone would leave San Diego for Chicago by heading west instead of east? Why do so many people spend so much time as spiritual Wrong-Way Corrigans?

Despite God’s Wishes

While acknowledging that God may ordain such a tortuous journey for some, I always have worked on the premise that people who leave the Church do so despite God’s wishes, not in furtherance of them. In most cases leaving is a disastrous mistake, the long-term result being perpetual estrangement from the Church. I would venture to say that most Catholics who abandon Rome die outside its walls. So here I have been, for 20 years counseling people never to leave the Church, trying to convey to those tempted to do so the rudiments of the faith and the advantages of dying as a Catholic. Never once have I told someone who was wavering to throw in the towel and go down the street to Good Book Baptist or to No Book Unitarian.

But maybe that has been shortsighted. Maybe there are cases in which people should not be discouraged from dis-enrolling. Maybe some people should be encouraged to leave the Church. It may be the only way they will have a chance to end up as real Catholics.

Before I go any further I should make it clear that, while I have not advised anyone who has sought my counsel to leave the Church, I often have thought that certain people, with whom I have had no direct contact, would be better off if they dropped the pretense of being Catholic—and that the Church would be better off without them, too. I have in mind such people as Frances Kissling, proprietress of Catholics for a Free Choice, whose only interest in the Church takes the form of a cudgel. And Garry Wills, in whose newest book, Papal Sin, more Catholic doctrines are rejected than affirmed. Such people would improve their lot if they left the Church, at least in that they no longer would be guilty of false advertising, and their leaving would help the Church as a whole in that fewer naive Catholics would think that the positions espoused by such renegades are acceptable.

As for Kissling and Wills and their likes, of course I hope they would repent and reform and return to the Church, after a suitable journey outside. Their souls are no less valuable than the soul of the most pious old woman fingering her beads in the dark recesses of the nave. But, for the duration, I do wish the dissidents would engage in a little short-term apostasy. It might be better all around.

So there is the divide: While I would not mind seeing a few dozen prominent anti-Catholic Catholics opt out, my recommendation for the hoi polloi always has been to stick it out. But I admit I may have been insufficiently nuanced in wondering who should go and who should stay. Maybe there are lesser-knowns or unknowns who also should be encouraged to leave, for their own good and ours.

"No go"

A good example: the Richardson family of Natick, Massachusetts. In fact, the Richardsons already have left. You may remember them, for they were in the news last February. Doug and Janice Richardson have a five-year-old named Jennifer, and Jennifer suffers from celiac disease. Her body is unable to deal properly with gluten, and gluten is found in wheat. That means Jennifer is unable to receive the host at Mass.

Her parents asked the Boston Archdiocese to substitute a rice wafer so Jennifer could receive Communion. (The news accounts I have read have not explained why a five-year-old, who almost certainly is under the age of reason, is a candidate for Communion.) The archdiocese replied, properly, that such a substitution would not be possible because a rice wafer cannot be consecrated. Proper matter for the host is wheat flour mixed with water. No other grain may be used as a substitute.

The archdiocese noted that Jennifer could receive the precious blood from the chalice. No go, said her parents, since the chalice will contain a small amount of the host, the priest having broken off a portion from his large host and dropped it into the chalice. Well, then, said the Archdiocese, a small amount of wine could be set aside in a separate cup and consecrated just for Jennifer. Still no go, said her parents. That would make her stand out from the crowd. In a huff, the Richardsons left the Catholic Church and now worship at a Methodist church, where rice wafers are used in the communion rite.

Apparently the Richardsons threatened to abandon the Church before the "negotiations" were concluded. In a letter Bernard Cardinal Law urged them to "stay active members of the Church." They chose not to. Disappointment at their leaving should be tempered with the realization that they likely were not Catholics in any meaningful sense anyway. Their very act of going suggests that Doug and Janice Richardson were "in" the Church out of habit, not out of conviction. Certainly they have harbored some deep misunderstandings about the faith.

The Whole Christ

I recall that the former pastor of my parish once ran out of hosts during a Sunday Mass. To accommodate the tail-end communicants, he broke the last few hosts in half. Knowing the confusions that some Catholics labor under, at the end of Mass he noted that if one receives only half a host, he receives the whole Christ. Christ is equally present in every particle of the host, no matter how small, and in every drop of the precious blood, as long as these retain the appearances of bread and wine. One does not receive more of him by swallowing a larger host or drinking more deeply from the chalice. What is more, one receives the whole Christ under either species. While the Church encourages Communion under both kinds because of the heightened sign value, the communicant who receives both the host and the precious blood receives no greater amount of grace than if he had received under one species.

That brings us back to Jennifer Richardson. There was no necessity that she—or anyone else—receive the host. She would have received the whole Christ had she drunk from the chalice (or from a separate cup). This is basic Catholic doctrine, and no doubt the archdiocese repeatedly explained it to the Richardson family. Nothing in the news reports suggests the Richardsons were left in the dark about Catholic teaching on the Eucharist.

But Jennifer’s parents, according to one report, "said they were dissatisfied with a church that insists on rigid rules." Writing to their pastor, they said, "On many occasions we have heard your teachings to value diversity and differences. However, after our conversation several days ago, we do not believe that our family’s differences have been adequately met."

"Diversity" Trumps All

In recent years the mantra of "diversity" seems to have trumped everything else, including logic. We are expected to value things simply because they differ from what we already value, but we forget that not all differences are created equal. There are differences between an honest man and a liar, but we respect honesty and reject dishonesty. There are differences between the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein and those of Eminem. Only someone with deficient musical and literary taste would value the latter as he values the former. But the Richardson squabble really has nothing to do with differences or diversity per se. It has to do with existential reality.

The simple fact is that a rice wafer cannot be consecrated. Only a wheat wafer can be transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. If one refuses to accept this raw theological fact, not much can be done. It is as though a man were to shake a clenched fist at God for not allowing him to bear children. Men and women differ; they are "diverse" biologically. Women can bear children, and men cannot. There is no unfairness in the arrangement—just as there is no unfairness in that only men can be validly ordained. One of these ineradicable truths is physical, the other spiritual, but they are equally true and equally ineradicable.

So it is with the Eucharist. Our Lord might have selected some other foods to become his body and blood. He might have chosen string beans and milk, but he did not. He chose wheat bread and wine, and a believing Catholic must accept that as the end of the matter (no pun intended). Just as it is futile to hope that men may bear children or that women may be ordained, so it is futile to expect that something other than wheat bread and wine may be transubstantiated in the Mass. It will not happen because it cannot happen.

Reasons for Rules

Some people seem constitutionally incapable of understanding this. The editors of the National Catholic Reporter, in an editorial mocked up to look like a handwritten letter to Jennifer Richardson, wrote, "Our ancestors in the faith, the early Christians we so admire, changed a lot of the rules of their original faith to make room for other people. They pretty much did away with long lists of rules about what people could and could not eat."

This is fatuous. Worse, it is embarrassing, though no doubt the editors felt no embarrassment. They might have done well had they picked up a book on fending for oneself in the wild. Such books commonly explain which wild plants are edible and which are not. We all have eaten mushrooms purchased at the supermarket, and we all have heard of people who, while camping, have dug up mushrooms, eaten them, and poisoned themselves. When it comes to mushrooms, there are "longs lists of rules about what people could and could not eat." There is a reason for such rules: Some mushrooms are healthful, and others are deadly. Some are real food, and others are not.

It is somewhat the same with the Eucharist. Just as not all mushrooms will make a palatable meal, so not all grains will make a consecrated host. Only some mushrooms "work" in the kitchen. Only one grain—wheat—"works" in the Mass. The "rules" merely acknowledge the reality; they do not determine it.

Gabe Huck, a liturgist from Chicago, misses the point entirely. He thinks rice wafers should be substituted for wheat wafers, at least in the Orient, because "wheat is not their food. Rice is their food." Ditto, one might argue, for grape wine versus rice wine: Instead of burgundy or chardonnay, use sake. Gary Macy, who teaches theology at the University of San Diego, a nominally Catholic school, gives a similar argument. He thinks the use of wheat bread and wine is merely a tradition, and traditions can be changed—or, at least, exceptions can be made: "All kinds of things have been dispensed with in the history of the Church."

What about Exceptions?

Not really. When has the Church "dispensed" us from belief in the Resurrection? When has the Church taught that exceptions might be made for thieves who find it inconvenient to cease and desist? There never have been exceptions on doctrinal or moral matters, even though the Church has recognized that it never has had the power to force people to live up to the Christian code. The Church even went so far, five centuries ago, as to let a whole country, England, be lost to the faith when the pope would not consent to Henry VIII’s proposed adulterous union.

Exceptions concern matters of discipline, not doctrines or morals. Those with bad knees are dispensed by canon law from kneeling during the consecration. The ill are dispensed from their Sunday Mass obligation. The elderly (and the young) are dispensed from fasting. But no Catholic can be dispensed from believing in the Real Presence or acknowledging the matter needed for a valid Eucharist.

Such arguments seemed to make little impression on the Richardsons. To them the issue was one of "diversity," of respect for "differences." They wanted their daughter to receive Communion the way other children receive Communion. The desire is understandable and even laudable, but desires need to be set against reality. The Richardsons decided that form is more important than substance. They were willing to give up the substance of the Eucharist, which is the actual body and blood of Christ, for the outward form of reception. Jennifer now can approach the minister at her Methodist church and receive the Lord’s Supper as other children do, with the almost invisible distinction that her wafer will be made of rice instead of wheat. Her medical disability will be disguised, both from the congregation and from herself.

A Mouthful of Rice

But all she will receive is a mouthful of rice. No matter how ardent her desire to receive Christ sacramentally may become, no matter how hard she longs for sacramental union with him, that union will not be found in her Methodist church. If she ever enters that church when no one else is around, she will be physically alone. There will not be Another present in a tabernacle. The lone Catholic in a Catholic church is never truly alone, but the lone Protestant in a Protestant church is as physically alone as when he walks a silent street late at night. No amount of wishing or sincere conviction will make it otherwise.

The Richardson family has already faded from the news. Gabe Huck and Gary Macy wait for the next telephone call from liberal Catholic reporters. People will forget the whole episode, and Jennifer will grow up to be, perhaps, a devout Methodist. She is too young now to appreciate what is happening, and she likely will have only vague memories of all these things by the time she reaches adulthood.

Greener Pastures Beckon

Perhaps she and her parents will have aged not just physically but spiritually by then. Perhaps they will come to sense that being alone in a Methodist church means being alone, and then they might realize that "it is not good for man to be alone" (Gn 1:18). They might start looking for theologically greener pastures and might find themselves, however unexpectedly, making their way—perhaps fitfully and even unhappily—back toward the Catholic Church. Until recently they were nominal Catholics, but their departure has shown that their Catholicism had no roots.

Had they remained in the Church, floating on the surface as it were, they might have failed to persevere. After all, we know that not all Catholics will be saved. It might be the case—again, this cannot rise above the level of mere conjecture—that the Richardsons will be better off, long term, for having left the faith, because maybe their road home is destined to be circuitous. It might even be better for others that they have left. Not just for those in their former parish, people who might hold the same notions as the Richardsons and who now have received a wake-up call, but for strangers who have heard about their rejection of the Church and who might see the Richardsons as foreshadowing their own trajectory. The sacrifice of Jennifer on the altar of diversity might result, inexplicably, in the salvation of many. At least we can pray so.


Karl Keating is founder and president of Catholic Answers, the country’s largest apologetics and evangelization organization. He is the author of five books, including Catholicism and Fundamentalism and What Catholics Really Believe.

This article appeared in Volume 20 Number 5.