Published July 20, 2021
I take my non-Catholicism seriously. This is, in part, because I have good reasons to become Catholic. My wife is Catholic, as are many of my friends and colleagues. I sometimes write for Catholic publications. Additionally, I am drawn to aspects of Catholicism, especially its magnificent intellectual and aesthetic traditions, which were absent in the non-denominational evangelicalism I was raised in. Thus, I cannot drift along in unreflective Protestantism, but must consider the claims of the Catholic faith.
Having done so, I remain not Catholic because I am not Catholic. To explain the tautology, I am not Catholic because I do not believe essential Catholic doctrines such as transubstantiation. Therefore I cannot, in good conscience, join the Catholic church, even though it would please my wife, simplify Sunday mornings and allow me to claim the Catholic aesthetic and intellectual heritage as my own. Being Catholic means believing and attempting to live by the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Not everyone agrees. For many self-proclaimed Catholics, including the current President, Catholic identity is not about belief manifest in faithfulness to church teaching. Rather, Catholicism is treated as an inherited identity, and devotion is measured by attendance, not adherence. Catholicism of this sort is compatible with a life conformed to the ways of the world. And in our culture of consumption, autonomy and expressive identities, many believe they have a right to claim the religion of their choice, even if they deny its teachings and disobey its commands.
Of course, as a Protestant, I do not think it is wrong per se to reject the Catholic Church and its authority—it depends on what specifically is being denied. What is definitely wrong is the deception (including self-deception) of claiming to be something one is not.
Though there is room for limited dispute within Catholicism, some doctrines are settled. And though everyone falls short of the perfection of the Gospel, the penitent Catholic will go to confession for the sacrament of reconciliation. There is a great difference between those whose sin is followed by repentance, and those who remain in rebellion and deny that they have anything to confess.
Thus, in cases of significant sin and rebellion, especially in public, Catholic leaders have a responsibility to discipline members for their own good and the good of all the Church. This is meant first to bring the wayward to repentance. Those who are rebelling against the Church should be warned of their spiritual peril; if they persist then refusing them communion is for their own good, in light of the Biblical warning that to take communion unworthily is to bring judgment upon oneself, an admonition also heeded by many Protestant churches.
Denying communion to those publicly defying the Church also protects the rest of the congregation from scandal. A church that does not enforce its teachings indicates that they are not worth taking seriously, thereby leading others astray. The higher the profile of the disobedient, the greater the risk of such scandal, and the greater the need for public rebuke.
Nonetheless, public excommunication is only perceived as a punishment if the target still wishes to be Catholic and partake of the Eucharist. For example, it would be pointless for the Catholic Church to declare that I should be denied the Eucharist, because I am not seeking it. But many people want to defy the Catholic Church and have communion too.
Efforts to bar prominent disobedient Catholics, especially pro-abortion politicians, from receiving the Eucharist have therefore provoked pushback. For instance, a New Mexico politician recently made headlines when he complained about being denied communion for a pro-abortion vote—after having been warned repeatedly on the subject. But from the faithful Catholic perspective, this backlash only confirms the need for firm Church leadership to preach and practice the teachings of the Catholic faith. The alternative is to allow lies about the faith to flourish, to the damnation of souls.
For example, the New York Times recently published an essay by Garry Wills arguing, as the headline summarized, “The Bishops Are Wrong About Biden—and Abortion.” This dishonest piece was promptly torn to bits by various writers. The problem is that Wills’ essay was not written and published to persuade, but to reassure. Its target audience does not read National Review or any of the other outlets that ran rebuttals. The point of the piece was not to advance arguments in a good-faith debate, but to provide spiritual plausible deniability to sympathetic readers who wish to avoid the truth of Robert George’s observation that, “If on every issue on which the Catholic Church and the NY Times differ, one is sure the Times is right and the Church is in grave moral error, why claim to be a Catholic? One is a Timesian.”
From a Protestant perspective, this is obvious: if you don’t agree with or abide by the teachings of the Catholic Church, you aren’t Catholic. Clinging to the label when the substance is gone is like cherishing wrapping paper after discarding the gift. But many Timesians want to think of themselves as Catholic. This identification many have many sources, such long habit or the emotional attachment engendered by the memory of a saintly relative. Indeed, ignoring doctrine would naturally lead to emphasizing the personal and emotional basis for Catholic identity.
But no man can serve two masters. Joe Biden, for instance, can support taxpayer-funded abortion on demand until birth, or he can be Catholic. He cannot be both, try though he and his apologists may.
And they certainly do try. It is not just that defending the President is a political imperative. It is also that Biden comes from an era of American Catholicism that seems particularly prone to trying to have it both ways. For a generation or two of postwar American Catholics, the ordinary temptations to rebellion and apostacy were joined to a Catholic culture that was eager for acceptance and determined to fit in with the world. These generations were often poorly catechized—as a Protestant, it is often shocking how little Catholics, older ones in particular, know about their faith.
That the younger Catholics I meet seem to take the faith more seriously may be nothing but coincidence or selection bias, but I suspect that there has been a winnowing. Those who drift with the culture now tend to drift out of the Church altogether, preferring sleeping in and brunch to attending a church service they don’t really believe in. This is not without its costs, but it provides needed clarity.
The point of the Catholic Church is to be the Catholic Church, and some of us appreciate that, even in disagreement. As for those who want Unitarian beliefs with Catholic ceremony, they are welcome to join the Episcopalians. I understand there are literally dozens of them left.
Nathanael Blake is a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.