I don't think I'm all that unique in my religious practices. I'm the kind of Catholic who attends mass on the holidays and the kind of friend who says, "My thoughts are with you," rather than "my prayers." I believe in God, or at least I think that belief in God is a positive and inspiring factor in one's life.
My non-committal dealings with my religion don't bother me for the most part. However, when asked to define my relationship to Catholicism, I have a difficult time. Perhaps this is alright as far as I am concerned, but I have a daughter, and have recently begun to think about what I'll tell her one day -- she's only two -- about the religion she knows through her family. I think about what I would like the church to look like when she's old enough to understand it.
Talking to your children about God is a popular subject and various websites and books address the practical how-to of doing it. There is no shortage of expert opinion on the subject. Yet the proper means of defining the man -- or woman -- in the sky to my child is not what I'm after.
I'm talking about the difficulty of defining oneself as a member of a church even while disagreeing with some of its core beliefs.
I believe the Catholic Church does an excellent job on many of the most important issues, such as opposing the war in Iraq and taking a proactive approach to modern environmental concerns. The Church is steadfast in its fight against poverty, both in the United States and abroad. My grandmother remembers being taught in Catholic school as a young girl: "It was the first time I realized other people needed our help."
But its stances on items such as birth control and the role of women in the church, not to mention a blatant mishandling of sexual abuse cases, that tend to dominate their public image -- to put it mildly.
When I tell someone I'm Catholic, I immediately follow up by defending myself with examples marking my liberalism. I'm pro-choice. I lived with my husband before we got married.
I recently spoke with Father Tom Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, former editor of the Jesuit magazine America, and a contributor to the Washington Post's On Faith blog. He speaks and writes openly about the problems the modern Catholic Church faces.
He gets it.
The human is a questioning animal by nature, he explained, and will, of course, disagree with the hierarchy from time to time. "That's what we call conscience in the Catholic Church," he said, "and in the Catholic Church, conscience has always been supreme."
This notion, that questioning the system is not only expected, but is important, gives me some peace and reminds me that this innate intellectualism is another one of the qualities I admire in the Church.
But the problem isn't a philosophical one. It's practical. Maybe Catholics want to discuss these issues, but where? And with whom?
"People take religion very seriously so it gets very emotional," said Father Reese. "There's a lot of condemnation and name calling over it. The sad thing is we can't just sit down and talk this over. It's like Thanksgiving when everyone has had too many drinks."
And the hierarchy is a "self-perpetuating elite," he continued. "They're promoting people who agree with them. How do you get a church to change when its leadership is that way? When they're disconnected from the people?"
It's a problem, he concluded. Yet he believes it's a problem that the laity can, and should, take into its own hands. One's religion exists beyond the confines of a church. Start a social ministry, he suggested. Study the scriptures. "If we get hung up on the things we can't do and don't do the things we can do, then we're in real trouble."
For me, I don't know what, if anything, is next. But in discussing and writing about the subject, I return to the issue of defining myself as a Catholic with better, if not complete understanding.
What will I tell my daughter? Perhaps I will tell her that I am still Catholic because I understand that Catholicism is imperfect, and that we should not be afraid of discussing our concerns out loud.
I may continue to call myself Catholic and list my grievances in the same breath. But I will tell her that I've stayed with Church because you don't necessarily abandon people or ideas when you disagree with them.
I'm Catholic because I often find my religion in simple acts of service, and that's enough. Because I believe in something larger than the individual. Because in the face of a sometimes incomprehensible world, I hope.