Monday, February 28, 2011

WHY STAY CATHOLIC? by Michael Leach

"Why in the hell would an intelligent Episcopalian woman choose to become a Catholic?" I had been a Catholic for less than six months when a cradle Catholic of Irish descent - a classmate of mine at a Catholic university - asked me that question. I don't remember how I answered. I'm sure I wasn't very articulate.

Today I still am not sure how to answer her question, or the more compelling question now that I've been a Catholic (more or less) for nearly two decades: Why Stay Catholic? The hierarchy's attitude toward women and children has not improved. Now more than ever, church leadership seems to run the gamut from insensitive to corrupt. So when I saw the title of Mike Leach's new book, which I first read about in an interview by Heidi Schlumpf in Publishers Weekly, I emailed an editor friend at Loyola Press and brazenly asked for a copy.

Disclaimer: I've been involved in in religion publishing for over 30 years. I know and admire Mike, who has worked in religion publishing longer than I have, and in much more exalted positions. I used to work at Loyola Press, and my editor friend there did not charge me for this book. So you are free to discount everything I'm about to say, though I'll also point out that nobody urged me to read the book or even told me it existed, and nobody asked me to write this review (if they had, I would have refused - I'm a contrarian), and - believe me - nobody is paying me for writing it.

So maybe you can trust me when I tell you that this is a good book for lapsed and semi-lapsed Catholics as well as for regular mass-attenders who nevertheless are troubled by aspects of their church ("weary Catholics," Mike calls them). I'd also recommend the book to people who are considering converting to Catholicism. And Protestants could benefit from reading it too: a lot of what Mike says in the first half of the book is true for all Christians.

Mike writes for laypersons, not clergy or academics. His style is light and breezy, but his ideas run deep. He does not have an agenda. He's not trying to defend irrelevant teachings or counterproductive practices. He's not trying to get you to go to mass every week (he admits he doesn't always go himself). He's clearly not trying to put a good spin on the church's serious faults.

But neither does he spend much time complaining. Mike is in love with the church. It's his family. It's where he meets God. It's where he rubs shoulders with people of faith who have changed the world for the better. It's where he sees the realities - the Reality - that lies beneath the surface, what Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called "the dearest freshness deep down things." What Mike wants to do, I think, is to talk about God's presence everywhere in the world, God's unimaginable love and grace for everyone, and some of the people who make that love and grace visible.

In Part 1, "Ideas," Mike leads with what Andrew Greeley has dubbed the "sacramental imagination." In the next 24 short chapters, he looks at a wide range of great Catholic ideas:  God's all-embracing arms, the seamless garment of life, everyday faithfulness, social justice, the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and even the Catholic penchant for parties ("Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, / There's always laughter and good red wine./ At least I've always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc). Each chapter in this section ends with an "I stay Catholic" sentence or two. For example, a chapter on inclusiveness ends, "I am still Catholic because the story of Bethlehem teaches me we are all welcome. I stay in the church because I know this is true no matter what anybody says."

Underlying just about every chapter is what must be Mike's favorite scriptural passage (and is certainly mine): "Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor ruler, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!" - Romans 8:38-39, NRSV. Mike puts hands and feet on this love in Part 2, "People," and Part 3, "Places," where he offers vignettes of 15 contemporary Catholic Christians and 10 admirable Catholic institutions. In these days when so much of the news about the Catholic church is truly dreadful, it's great to be reminded of so many good Christians, mostly working under the radar. And for readers who want to know more, he ends each chapter in these two sections with one or more URLs.

A two page article that begins "If I were Pope" is worth the price of the book, as is the concluding chapter on how a third Vatican council could unleash a tidal wave of forgiveness. The most moving chapter, however, is the one about Vickie, the love of Mike's life. Over 40 years ago he left the priesthood to marry her. Seven or eight years ago she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. In sickness and in health, their love affair continues. Mike loves her, and he is faithful.

That's probably also how Mike relates to his church, and why he is still a Catholic.

1 comment:

  1. I was raised Jewish and was baptized Christian in my early 40s and then chose to become Catholic after another decade had passed. I get asked this ALL the time, followed up by being asked, "Why don't you become Episcopalian?"