By Frank Wessling
“Practicing Catholic” is a term that crept into our vocabulary with little examination. It has been used lately in a negative way about Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. Some examination seems necessary.
When the announcement of her nomination was made, news sources immediately raised the question of whether Sotomayor was a “practicing” Catholic. This was done to place her in contrast with the Catholics already on the court, presumed to be plain and simple Catholics without reservation.
When it comes to being Catholic there are many ways to judge our fitness, but we should be reluctant to go down the judgment path. One of the church’s glories is its universality, its reach and readiness to embrace every shade of sinner with an impulse toward divine love no matter how weak or culturally conditioned. With that, as a human institution the church does fall into the judgment trap. Our history includes that business known as the Inquisition, in which people judged insufficiently loyal to the institution were tortured and killed. We aren’t proud of that now.
What we seem to do now is make quiet assumptions based on regular attendance at Mass. If we practice showing up at church in this way, an important minimum seems to be achieved. And it is important, especially in a culture like ours that tends to keep religion quiet and private. Faith rises in the desire and hope for transcendence, for getting beyond what ties us down to a lonely, bodily self. Our ultimate Catholic celebration of faith is our identification with Jesus in the Mass. Although it requires conscious participation which is too exclusively mental most of the time, at least it offers a path to growth for those who let it work in them.
Where the culture itself allows the expression of religious hope in public with processions, rallies and festivals for the whole family, the quiet celebration of Mass seems to have a different weight. We consider Latin America a region heavily Catholic, yet only a small minority of the millions who live there are in church on Sundays for Mass. They are often in the streets, though, in communal celebration of their favorite saint. For many of them a minimum element in “practicing” Catholicism would be reverence for the Virgin of Guadalupe.
It’s never a good idea to judge another’s heart or conscience. As Catholics we should be reluctant to judge the Catholicism of others, especially if we don’t share their cultural roots. Some attendance to the rituals and symbols that mark us, such as the sign of the cross, should be accepted as signs of a brother or sister in faith. How extensive or deep such sharing might go would have to be explored. But at least we can share a common name.
As for Sotomayor herself, the Catholic writer Michael Sean Winters had a comment useful for the pious among us of Anglo-European descent. On the America magazine Web site he wrote:
“People ask if Sotomayor is a Catholic and I reply that she is a Puerto Rican. Whether she is active in the Church, the Church is active in her because in Latin culture the Church is carried not only through its institutional manifestation but through the culture and especially through the family.”
Winters continued: “It doesn’t take very long to recognize when I am in a Catholic country, and it has nothing to do with the number of church steeples…. I have come to learn in … visiting la Isla del Encanta that Puerto Ricans never have an ‘adults only’ party. Birthdays, weddings, funerals, the feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist, at all these celebrations the entire family comes, from the youngest to the oldest. When attending my first funeral in Puerto Rico I was horrified that the funeral Mass was conducted at a barren chapel at the funeral parlor, not at the parish church. But my Puerto Rican friends couldn’t care about the architecture — so long as the whole family was there. That was what mattered….”
A person baptized into a Catholic family is a Catholic. How that person practices being Catholic will come out in a variety of ways through a lifetime that includes, for all of us, countless offenses against God and countless experiences of forgiveness through love.
If we could tolerate people represented in the “Godfather” movies as Catholics without a “practicing” question, we should avoid the question altogether.