Catholic Spirituality versus the Institutional Church: Navigating the Choppy Waters

A friend on Instagram wrote this to me recently:

Hello, Carl! I have become so drawn to the Catholic Church and I don’t know what to do. I am an LGBTQ+ Christian, and I have to admit, the sexual-abuse scandals in the RCC plus their stance on female clergy and birth control REALLY hold me back from going forth and becoming Catholic. And yet… I cannot seem to shake the desire to become Catholic. I would love any insight you might have. I feel such a need for Mary, for instance, but I feel so weird praying to her and other saints when I’m not officially Catholic… Thank you for your time. Blessings to you and your family.

This is an important question that cannot be reduced to a simple soundbite answer.

At the risk of misinterpreting, it seems to me you are saying this: “I am drawn to Catholic spirituality but I feel repelled by the institutional church. I don’t know how to make sense of these competing forces in my heart.”

First: you are not alone. Many people struggle with precisely these issues.

I know more than one LGBTQ+ person who is deeply in love with Catholic spirituality but simply won’t go near the church-as-institution, knowing not only that the church’s official teachings still leave no room for loving gay relationships, but also intuitively aware that homophobia is alive and well in the catholic world — even though church teaching insists that gay and lesbian persons be “accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” Unfortunately, because the church maintains that same-sex love is a sin, too many Catholics take that as implicitly permitting them to treat queer folks with animosity, hostility and disgust, oblivious to how contrary that is to Jesus’s mandate to love!

The other issues you bring up: the prohibition on women in ordained ministry and the prohibition against artificial contraception, also scandalize many people both inside and outside the institution. Inside the institution, the fact that some Catholics embrace these teachings (and tend to react with hostility to those who disagree) does not make things any easier. And while there are many Catholics, including practicing Catholics, who conscientiously disagree with official church teaching in each of these three concerns, the fact that the institution itself remains so entrenched in its views offers little comfort to those who pray for change. Indeed, just a few weeks ago the Vatican announced some revisions to Canon Law, including stronger language opposing the ordination of women — and threatening sanctions against any bishops who attempt to ordain a woman.

Ironically, those same canonical revisions also toughen the church’s stance against clerical abuse — a long overdue revision, and perhaps still not near enough to protect children in the future as well as to restore trust in the organization that has betrayed so many.

Institution: No! Spirituality: Yes!

In the midst of these issues, many people, including my correspondent, nevertheless feel drawn to the mystical beauty, poetry, and promise of Catholic mysticism and spirituality. Which, to me, witnesses to just how beautiful Catholic spirituality is, that it can speak to people despite the horrendous flaws on the part of the organization that is meant to safeguard this spirituality!

But this leads to the easiest thing for me to say to my friend. When she wrote, “I feel such a need for Mary, for instance, but I feel so weird praying to her and other saints when I’m not officially Catholic,” my response: let go of those weird feelings, and pray.

You don’t have to be “officially” Catholic in order to pray to Mary and the saints. You don’t have to be a member of the Catholic Church (practicing or otherwise) to appreciate the beauty of Catholic spirituality, or to go on retreats at monasteries or retreat houses, or to read the saints and mystics and learn from their wisdom. Most Catholic spiritual directors are happy to meet with non-Catholics and guide them in their spiritual lives. And you are always welcome to attend mass or other functions at most parishes.

Really, the only barrier for non-members is to the sacraments. And, to be perfectly candid, you can find priests who play fast and loose with that rule too (keeping in mind that technically, that is something that could get the priest in trouble with his bishop).

So if you are drawn to Catholic spirituality, I encourage you to drink deep from the well. The Holy Spirit will meet you, and Mary and the saints will be praying for you.

Now… does this mean that sooner or later you “should” become Catholic? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, “no, not necessarily.”

Inside the Church… and Outside

The Catholic Church has an old teaching, ex ecclesiam nulla salus — Latin for “there is no salvation outside the church.” It’s an amplification of Jesus’s challenging statement as quoted in John 14:6: “No one comes to the father except through me” (click here to read my interpretation of that verse). Yes, there are some hard-line, traditionalist Catholics who love this teaching, not for charitable reasons, but to shore up their prideful insistence that Catholicism is “the only way.” I think we can ignore such fundamentalist thinking. Fortunately, mainstream Catholic teaching has for decades now interpreted this principle in a spiritual sense: ecclesiam understood as the “mystical” church (the invisible community of those who follow Christ), rather than the institutional church. With this in mind, clearly one does not have to become a “card carrying Catholic” in order to experience salvation — or meaningful intimacy with God.

So you may spend your entire life enriched by Catholic spirituality, nurturing a lively relationship to Mary and the saints, and allowing the wisdom of the Catholic mystical tradition to illuminate your prayer life — and then, you may or may not ever become an “official” member of the institutional church.

For those people who conscientiously disagree with church teaching on contraception, gender and sexuality, choosing to become a Catholic will probably require finding a way to be at peace with that profound disagreement. Practically speaking, it probably also means needing to find other Catholics with similar views with whom you can be in meaningful fellowship. Unfortunately, that’s not always easy.

I myself am a practicing Catholic, and I am sympathetic to all the concerns you’ve raised. For me, it’s a matter of living with the unresolved tension. But I am also aware that, as a man in a male-female marriage beyond childbearing years, these issues have little direct impact on me, so it’s probably easier for me to live in that tension than it would be for other people. All this to say, each person has to be true to their own conscience: and just because I (or anyone else) can function with that tension, doesn’t mean that anyone else can (or should).

I know this was a lengthy answer, and I know that it will likely leave many people with more questions than answers. And there will be some (on both “sides”) who will vehemently disagree with some of what I’ve written here. So be it. I’m trying to be as honest as I can, given my own conscience and my own understanding of the challenges involved in balancing a beautiful spirituality with an organization that frankly leaves a lot to be desired. There’s no one right way to navigate these choppy waters. Each of us must be in discernment, listening to God’s call in our own hearts.

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