In the past several weeks, I have twice been involved in conversations with “church attending” friends. Both of these conversations took the same turn—a turn I’ve become very familiar with and a turn that leaves me feeling slightly irritated. In both cases, I’ve held my tongue because I wasn’t sure that my irritation was warranted, and I wanted to process the ways in which these conversations may work as an indictment of my behavior.
So, here’s how the conversation goes: Somehow, the topic of spirituality or worship or church attendance will arise. Either before or after I observe that I attend Mass on a regular basis, my partner in conversation says something akin to this: “Oh, I’ve joined a fill-in-the-blank-liberal church because they believe in all the same things that I believe in” (e.g., gay marriage, reproductive choice, female clergy). It may be because I am Catholic and have beliefs which tend to run counter to standard Catholicim (and I am hence being defensive), but there’s something about this response that bothers me. It’s not that I think people shouldn’t be able to join any church for any reason—hell, of course, they should be able to believe whatever they wish and join or not join any group of their desire—it’s more that I don’t like the fact that the position my friends take assumes that it is morally superior to choose a church based on one’s politics. Let me restate: choose or don’t choose your form of worship based on your politics, but don’t act like its an obviously better moral position to make your choice on that basis; don’t make an assumption that would posit my own attendance at Mass as a morally inferior position, because I would argue that my position, while no better, is both spiritually and politically useful.
In Catholicism, Richard P. McBrien observes that while the church does have fairly solid dogma, “theologians have a special responsibility to help the Church come to a better understanding and even clarification of those teachings. This may, on occasion, place the theologian at odds with certain traditional interpretations of those teachings” (76). While I cannot claim to be a theologian, I can claim to take seriously my attempts to come to an understanding of the tradition in which I found myself and in which I have chosen to return after multiple excursions elsewhere. While it would be easier, and more comfortable, for me to simply move to a different spiritual home, one that fits my political and cultural beliefs (and I certainly have a history that shows I’ve taken this route), there is something powerful in the struggle of attempting to understand how an institution to which I belong came to very different conclusions and interpretations. In attempting to seriously work through the distance between beliefs, I am forced to think seriously about how and why I’ve come to believe what I believe, I am forced to question the very ideas that I—and many of my friends—normally assume. It’s an often difficult way to live; it’s an often difficult form of faith; however, its strength is that it forces me to struggle with what I believe, especially when some of those beliefs are at odds with some of the Church’s beliefs. In short, by not choosing my “church” on the basis of my politics and values, I am forced to take my values more seriously, to never assume them.
While I do not think the path I’ve chosen is the right path for everyone, and while I don’t think it is a morally superior route to one’s chosen by others, I do think it is a valid and valuable one. Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter whether or not others value the route I’ve taken, and I’m not trying to convince them, or you, otherwise. I am, however, questioning the fact that it is an assumption that it is of higher value to choose one’s church (rather than one’s faith) based on one’s politics, rather than questioning one’s beliefs because of the tension between those beliefs and those of one’s Church.