The Shifting Identity Of American Catholics

Often enough, when we post something about the Pope, or Catholicism in general, the comments tend to split down the center, with Catholic commenters and non-Catholic commenters challenging each other on what the religion means.

I have a hard time with these articles, mostly because I was raised in an Irish Catholic household, by a mother who still attends church every Sunday morning and who sent us through the standard Catholic upbringing; CCD classes, confirmations, Lenten rituals, and a common usage of the phrase, "Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph," in times of annoyance or frustration. I was also a choir leader for about 5 years and can bust out a tune from the Glory & Praise songbook at any given time.


President Obama's commencement speech today at Notre Dame is thrusting the Catholic church into the spotlight once again, as conservative Catholics are currently standing outside of the school, protesting his speech, as he is pro-choice, and they are not. Catholics like my mother, however, see these protests and say, well, "Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph. For Gawd's sake. Cripes Almighty."

For people who weren't brought up Catholic, it's a bit hard to explain how one can identify as Catholic but not actually believe in the things the church has taken on, politically. I stopped attending church with my mother shortly after high school, as I felt disconnected from the church's views on homosexuality and abortion, and felt like a big old liar sitting in a pew, saying prayers, and acting as if I belonged there. And then, in true Irish Catholic form, I felt guilty about not feeling guilty about not going to church anymore. You can leave the church, but you can't leave the ol' Catholic guilt!

Recently I had to go to the hospital for a procedure. The admissions people asked me for my religion, in case anything happened to me during my stay. I hesitated. "Catholic?" I said, "Yes, Catholic." The truth is, I don't really care for organized religion at all, but Catholicism, I suppose, is more of a cultural connection at this point than a religious one, if that makes any sense. I am not a fan of the Vatican, I am often angered and repulsed by the Church's administrative side and their political views, and I do not tithe to the Catholic church for those very reasons, but I knew if something had happened to me in that hospital, God forbid, my mother would have wanted a priest there.

I've asked my mother how she feels about gay marriage (she supports it) and how she feels about abortion (she thinks women should have a choice). But when I try to explain to her that these views are the polar opposite of the church that she's been attending for 50+ years, she just says, "There is a lot of good there, too. Nobody ever talks about the good."


My mother represents the shifting identity of the American Catholic that David Gibson touches upon in his piece, "Who Is A Real Catholic?": "American Catholics — and there are upwards of 65 million of us — are going their own way on many matters of faith and especially on issues ranging from priestly celibacy to political candidates, and there seems to be little the bishops can do about it. If there is a true swing vote in the U.S. electorate today, it is the Catholic bloc," Gibson writes, "That willingness of American Catholics to break ranks with such long-held tenets is evident in surveys on a number of issues, including church teachings regarding celibacy and birth control."

So what does this mean for Catholicism? Perhaps it means that, as in every religion, there are extremists and moderates, there are those who are conflicted on certain aspects of a religion that they've been raised in, and that the as the identity of the Church changes, perhaps those in it will change the way they label themselves as well. My mother will always be a Catholic, practicing. I will always be her Catholic daughter, lapsed. Both of us, I think, have the right to question the religion we were raised in. Cripes almighty, forever and ever, amen.


Obama, And Protests, At Notre Dame [NYTimes]
Who Is A Real Catholic? [WashingtonPost]

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