One of the few qualifications for being a respondent to America’s recent survey of U.S. Catholic women was seemingly a simple one: answer “yes”to the question, “Are you Catholic?” Indeed, the folks who answered our survey all said yes. But the rest of their answers—on topics ranging from Mass attendance to political views to marital status to opinions on the possibility of female deacons—varied widely, demonstrating a range of opinions and beliefs as well as varying levels of understanding of or attention to Catholic teachings.
The America survey was a sociological study that we commissioned in order to find out, in concrete and quantitative terms, what Catholic women believe. It used a statistically significant sample size, was conducted in partnership with a world-renowned research group and was offered as a starting point for a new conversation about women in the life of the church.
Shortly after the data were released, however, the conversation, at least on Facebook and Twitter, often headed in a very specific direction. Time and again, we heard in response to the stats: But these people aren’t “real” Catholics. The only answers that mattered, some argued, were the ones offered by people who attended Mass weekly or more. And, yes, the data set for the 24 percent of Catholic women who attend Mass weekly or more gives a very good overview of how this group of Catholic women thinks about and lives out their faith. This is extremely valuable for understanding how best to serve them and others.
Equally valuable, however, are the thoughts and opinions of the other 76 percent of women who replied, women who identify as Catholic but find themselves less involved in parish life. It is notable that despite looser connections to the faith, these women still consider themselves Catholic. Something made them hold on to that identity offered through baptism, even if their grasp was tenuous. And that offers the hope that there is some part of them that may eventually say yes to becoming more involved.
If we believe in the power of baptism and in the grace it offers, there can be nothing but “real” Catholics among those who have been claimed for Christ through this sacrament. No matter how far from the church one runs, it is impossible to opt out of the “indelible spiritual sign” that baptism provides (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1274).
Of course, our baptism starts us on our spiritual journey, but it does not mean we will be perfect travelers. In the light of baptism, real Catholics include those who have missed Mass for good reasons and bad, who are angry with the church, who are in love with the church, who have grown tired of the church, who cannot imagine themselves anywhere else. Real Catholics sing in their church choir, mumble through the Creed, barely remember their confirmation name, can sing the Ave Maria in Latin by heart, realize they remember nothing of a homily they just heard. Real Catholics are, quite simply, trying their best and sometimes—often—failing. Real Catholics keep trying.
The catechism tells us that “The faith required for Baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop” (No. 1253). Yes, Catholics have a responsibility to grow in faith, but the Catholic community has a responsibility, too: “The whole ecclesial community bears some responsibility for the development and safeguarding of the grace given at Baptism” (No. 1255). To dismiss the experience of other Catholics as inauthentic is to shirk our own baptismal duty.
We may have worthwhile concerns and real frustrations with how others express our shared faith. But disagreement should not equal dismissal. We gain no followers for Christ by discounting others. We may gain some back by listening.
We gain no followers for Christ by discounting others. We may gain some back by listening.
The key question then is not, who are the “real” Catholics, but rather: What real action can we take knowing that some of our brothers and sisters feel disengaged or apathetic or hurt or alienated by the church? How do we bring people more fully into our community, no matter their current level of engagement?
I spoke with many committed Catholic women for my article on leadership, and one theme that arose in my interviews was the idea that the church is one’s home. Home, at its best, is a place we can always come back to and feel welcome. Perhaps that is, in part, why many people stay, why many women profess Catholic identity long after they have stopped going to Mass: You cannot change where you’re from. But maybe it is also why feeling rejected or disappointed by the church can hurt so much.
So what we must strive to do, as a community of faith, is to make people feel at home—not comfortable, not complacent, not self-assured but simply welcomed, with all of our mistakes and misgivings. It does not mean we cannot offer to each other corrections or advice, but it does mean that we cannot say: What you feel does not matter. Because emotions are real. Suffering is real.
What we must strive to do, as a community of faith, is to make people feel at home—not comfortable, not complacent, not self-assured but simply welcomed.
And the people of our church, in the midst of the beauty and solidarity we offer, have too often caused each other great suffering. As in any relationship, that suffering may prompt a moment when some are tempted to leave the church, to wonder, “Is it worth it?”—or, worse perhaps, to stop wondering at all, to let the whole relationship fade away, though it may remain in name.
But the “prophetic and royal mission” Christians share by virtue of our baptism requires us to try as hard as humanly possible, while relying on the grace of God, to point each other to the reason to offer a definitive yes (No. 1268). Because, a million times over, it is worth it. Because the community, the communion, the commitment that the church provides point us, however imperfectly at times, to the God who knows our true worth, to the one who always says yes when we ask to come home, who welcomes us back, who offers a love that is always and forever real.