A question of faith – struggling with being a Catholic academic

With a deep breath and a prayer, I wade into a topic I have avoided writing about (or even talking about).  Although I’ve posted more than 100 blogs on Changing the Story over the past few years, I’ve rarely shared any thoughts on spirituality and never on religion.

So, why would anyone in their right mind want to write about something as controversial as their own particular form of religion – especially one as unpopular among academics as the Roman Catholic Church?

Why speak out now?

I’ve struggled with my own Catholic identity for more than 50 years, but over the past 15 years or so, I’ve felt “called” to a closer affiliation with the church of my youth.  This confuses me, as intellectually there is not much that is particularly attractive about the history, culture, or dogma of the Roman Catholic Church.  But I can’t seem to let it go – I’ve tried.  Writing about my doubts, struggles and faith, helps me clarify (for myself at least) what seems to be true.  So this is a bit of a selfish endeavor.  Hopefully, some readers will relate.

pope-francis-holding-sheep-shouldersBut really, it’s this new Pope!  Like many others I am attracted to his message, confused by his behavior (very “unpopelike”), and excited about the possibility of (someday) belonging to a church that no longer causes me embarrassment.

I just can’t stay silent any longer!

“Silence is the voice of complicity” – I’m told (and believe).  So when I am visiting with friends and colleagues who make bashing the Catholic Church a “sporting event” (all in good fun) I do get kind of squirmy.  In fact, at times I feel a knife in my heart – it hurts.  Truthfully, I’ve rarely heard anything negative said about the Church that I haven’t said myself.  And rarely do I hear anything that isn’t true – the Church has earned the bashing.

So why bother?

So why bother trying to understand, forgive, and participate in an institution that has done so much harm?   I remember walking to church as a kid with my dad and my younger brother, and feeling safe.  Like many, I rejected this Church as I grew older, but the church experience of my youth was one in which I was much loved.  I felt safe and protected.  We’ve come to learn that this wasn’t true for all young boys in the 1950’s – but it was my experience.

Today, in church services, discussion groups, conversation with other “seekers” in the church of my youth and now the church of my choice, I feel like I belong to something “bigger than myself.”  I’m not alone in my faith – or my doubt – or my pain.  I need to be part of a community as I try to make sense out of life – and suffering – and death.  And if I’m honest, I need to acknowledge that my faith has informed my teaching for years –  yet I’ve remained quiet – reluctant to say out loud that I am a practicing Roman Catholic.

Coming out of the closet

It isn’t “cool” to acknowledge that you are a “good Catholic” in academia (or anywhere else) these days.  It is much more acceptable to criticize the Catholic Church.  Isn’t it funny, that it seems acceptable to quote Buddhist texts while teaching college students?  I’ve certainly done so myself.  Hindu, Taoist, and other eastern religions are “wicked cool” today in American universities. And even other Christian denominations are less taboo than Catholicism.  I wonder why being Catholic is so “uncool?”

Why have I (and other Christians) been so reluctant to quote the Gospels to make a point about sustainable living?   There is a lot of “good material” there!  For example…..

FROM: John 21:17…. “The third time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’   Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’  He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, Feed my sheep.’

Pretty clear message here…..  if we love the divine, we need to feed those who are hungry.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time speaking and writing about our human obligation to make sure good and healthy food is accessible to all humans – feed my sheep.  But I’ve never used this memorable quote in my teaching or writing –  or even conversations with friends.

Pope Francis speaks out

Pope Francis is never reluctant to quote the Gospels.   That’s his job!  He offered his support for the “One Human Family, Food For All” campaign in a video message released on the eve of the global launch.  He named world hunger a scandal!

With about one billion people still suffering from hunger today, “we cannot look the other way and pretend this does not exist”, he said in the message.  There is enough food in the world to feed everyone, he said, but only “if there is the will” to respect the “God-given rights of everyone to have access to adequate food”.

I believe that access to good and healthy food is a “God-given right.”  So why am I so reluctant to expose my own Catholic identify by quoting someone I admire (like Pope Francis  – or Jesus of Nazareth  – or Francis of Assisi) in my teaching and writing?

I have been hesitant to talk about my growing faith and commitment to my Church community.  Its easy to “trash” the Roman Catholic Church and most people nod in agreement, but if you say something like “participating in the Catholic Mass is an important part of my week” – well, that is weird – at least among most of the people I know.

 “Cor ad cor loquitur”

So this post is a chance for me to confess my lack of faith and to share my fear of sharing something that is so important to me.  I’m strengthened by the many past experiences I’ve had trying to practice Cardinal John Henry Newman’s motto “cor ad cor loquitur.”  That is…. heart speaks to heart.” 

Newman isn’t “embarrassing,” as he was instrumental in founding University College, Dublin, the largest university in Ireland today.  And he wrote a classic text on university leadership titled “The Idea of a University” which I admire.  Quoting Newman is safe!

But writing about my personal relationship with the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t feel safe.  Nevertheless…. I feel called to do so.  So with a deep breath and a prayer, this blog is my first attempt to speak from my heart to yours about being a Catholic academic.  If you have “ears to hear”….. well, please pray for me.

===========================================================

NOTE: I have had a 62-year “on-again/off-again” relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.  Pope Francis has given me hope that the Church can “be saved” and given me the courage to share a few thoughts about my Church.  A recent blog for example, dealt with how the Church has tried to silence a voice of change from within, the American Nuns, and how they have responded with intelligence and grace.  Another recent blog examined the Pope’s claim that global capitalism is an economy that kills.

And please do share your own thoughts “from the heart” in the comments box below.

Peace…….

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7 thoughts on “A question of faith – struggling with being a Catholic academic”

  1. John writes, “speak from the heart”. Okay let me try. After reading John’s blog a number of thoughts come to mind but not in any coherent way, so please allow me to use bullets:
    • I’m John’s younger brother – the one that walked to church with him in the 1950s.
    • I too gave up the church for pretty much the same reasons he did.
    • And I’m one of those people that gravitates to meditating with the Buddhist (or at least trying too). Unlike John I have not gone back.
    • We all travel are own road and I believe the best you can do is to be as genuine to who you are as possible.
    • John might lose readers that agree with his writings about food and farming but not his spiritual valves. (There are many people – as John said – that have been burned by the church and cannot think of anything good about it.) But being genuine means showing people your whole self.
    • My brother is one of the most genuine people I know. I’m proud of my brother for putting “it all out there”. I love him.
    • I also think Pope Francis is trying to be genuine. (Obviously, this is my intuition talking. I don’t know him.) And, I hope he continues to try to stay genuine and continues to try and transform the Catholic Church. But even more important than transforming the Church I hope Pope Francis, win or lose, stays true to his genuine self, especially because he is inspiring!

    Dan Gerber

  2. John you are one of the best men I have had the honor to know.

    This shines through no matter your spiritual religion.
    It is your sense of the ineffable that makes you phenomenal. I wouldn’t be ashamed about how the Catholic Church has brought you to be such a profoundly compassionate being.

    Be yourself
    love
    Michelle

  3. I continue to be impressed by your open mind as well as your stamina to share knowledge and experience. I really appreciate all the breadth and depth of this article, an your philosophy at large. Keep going brother.

    Thanks.

  4. I came across your site looking for an interesting pic of the Pope to use with my sermon tomorrow featuring his “Ten Tips to Happiness”. I pastor a small, non-denominational church on a remote island in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I resonate with your being drawn back to the Church of your youth, desiring to experience “something bigger than yourself”. You’re not alone. I have witnessed Catholics, Protestants, and everything in-between (including atheists) hungering for the meaning that Fr. Richard Rohr likes to call the “unitive experience”. There is a new openness, generosity, and passion surrounding the humans-seeking-God journey that is awesome and exhilarating. Your “heart-to-heart” blog caught my spirit and I just want to encourage you to, as St. Paul puts it, “pursue the prize”! (BTW may I use the pic of the Pope-carrying-lamb with your blessing?)

  5. Hi John,

    I wanted to commend you for “coming out” of the Catholic closet!!
    As we Jews say, mazal tov! Congratulations!

    I am about to become bat mitzvah, or, an autonomous, accountable adult in the Jewish community.  This is a decision that has involved a lot of “outing” for me too– “outing” myself as a religious person– as a person who identifies with a systematized way of understanding the meaning of life and approaching our responsibilities to the sacredness of existence!  Although my journey has been different from yours in many ways, I relate to the fear of being perceived as “uncool,” the frustration of wanting to cite rad Biblical quotes without reprisal.  Like you, I see many valid reasons to criticize religion, and have done so myself.  I don’t know when religion became unpopular, or weird, or taboo, but in a lot of circles it is, and that makes me sad.  As you have pointed out, there is deep wisdom and spiritual nourishment in there.  And, religions, like anything else, are subject to evolution, as the Pope exemplifies.  The adult religious responsibilities I am privileged to be assuming today would not have been extended to me 100 years ago (mostly because I am a woman). But now, I join a congregation with a female Rabbi, with tattoo’d and otherwise “alternative” congregants.  Sure, this is my particular community, and does not fly for all Jews by far.  But neither can we be un-counted; we are Jews, we must be included in the definition. You, John, like the Pope for the world, have expanded my definition of Catholicism, of what constitutes a Roman Catholic. I believe the only way we can create these vibrant, life-affirming, revolutionary faith communities we are proud of belonging to is by belonging to them, as who we are.  And that is why it is so great to read your post.  It is my wish that your faith give you strength, and, as Jews say, that your strength is strong! Thanks for sharing!

  6. Hi John,

    I wanted to commend you for “coming out” of the Catholic closet!!
    As we Jews say, mazal tov! Congratulations!

    I am about to become bat mitzvah, or, an autonomous, accountable adult in the Jewish community.  This is a decision that has involved a lot of “outing” for me too– “outing” myself as a religious person– as a person who identifies with a systematized way of understanding the meaning of life and approaching our responsibilities to the sacredness of existence!  Although my journey has been different from yours in many ways, I relate to the fear of being perceived as “uncool,” the frustration of wanting to cite rad Biblical quotes without reprisal.  Like you, I see many valid reasons to criticize religion, and have done so myself.  I don’t know when religion became unpopular, or weird, or taboo, but in a lot of circles it is, and that makes me sad.  As you have pointed out, there is deep wisdom and spiritual nourishment in there.  And, religions, like anything else, are subject to evolution, as the Pope exemplifies.  The adult religious responsibilities I am privileged to be assuming today would not have been extended to me 100 years ago (mostly because I am a woman). But now, I join a congregation with a female Rabbi, with tattoo’d and otherwise “alternative” congregants.  Sure, this is my particular community, and does not fly for all Jews by far.  But neither can we be un-counted; we are Jews, we must be included in the definition. You, John, like the Pope for the world, have expanded my definition of Catholicism, of what constitutes a Roman Catholic. I believe the only way we can create these vibrant, life-affirming, revolutionary faith communities we are proud of belonging to is by belonging to them, as who we are.  And that is why it is so great to read your post.  It is my wish that your faith give you strength, and, as Jews say, that your strength is strong! Thanks for sharing!

  7. Hi John,

    I wanted to commend you for “coming out” of the Catholic closet!!
    As we Jews say, mazal tov! Congratulations!

    I am about to become bat mitzvah, or, an autonomous, accountable adult in the Jewish community. This is a decision that has involved a lot of “outing” for me too– “outing” myself as a religious person– as a person who identifies with a systematized way of understanding the meaning of life and approaching our responsibilities to the sacredness of existence! Although my journey has been different from yours in many ways, I relate to the fear of being perceived as “uncool,” the frustration of wanting to cite rad Biblical quotes without reprisal. Like you, I see many valid reasons to criticize religion, and have done so myself. I don’t know when religion became unpopular, or weird, or taboo, but in a lot of circles it is, and that makes me sad. As you have pointed out, there is deep wisdom and spiritual nourishment in there. And, religions, like anything else, are subject to evolution, as the Pope exemplifies. The adult religious responsibilities I am privileged to be assuming today would not have been extended to me 100 years ago (mostly because I am a woman). But now, I join a congregation with a female Rabbi, with tattoo’d and otherwise “alternative” congregants. Sure, this is my particular community, and does not fly for all Jews by far. But neither can we be un-counted; we are Jews, we must be included in the definition. You, John, like the Pope for the world, have expanded my definition of Catholicism, of what constitutes a Roman Catholic. I believe the only way we can create these vibrant, life-affirming, revolutionary faith communities we are proud of belonging to is by belonging to them, as who we are. And that is why it is so great to read your post. It is my wish that your faith give you strength, and, as Jews say, that your strength is strong! Thanks for sharing!

    With respect,
    Mirisa Livingstar

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