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Why is Pope a Catholic?

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Marc Ouellet, the Canadian cardinal who reportedly was a contender in the recent papal election, has said the church's positions on women, contraception, homosexuality and abortion are "secondary" considerations for the Catholic Church as it moves forward under Pope Francis.

The church's primary goal, he said, was to help people unite with God, to form "a relationship" with the Creator.

There's nothing unusual about the comment, except for one glaring omission. At a time when Catholics in the West are abandoning the church in droves and shopping for alternatives, the real question, still unasked and unanswered, is why anyone needs or even wants to be a Catholic, as opposed to a Lutheran, an Anglican or whatever, in order to live with God.

The best answer is people affiliate with a particular religious group because it was the faith of their parents, or perhaps their spouse. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, converted to Catholicism after attending church with his third wife, a Catholic, as "a supportive husband."

The fact that the Catholic Church opposes divorce wasn't an obstacle for Gingrich, who said he merely felt a personal connection to Catholicism.

There's also a cohort that joins one religious sect over another because it holds a particular appeal, whether it's the music, the service, the pastor or, in the case of those who make the great leap to Catholicism, because of its rich history and complex theology.

The vast majority of the faithful, however, are Christians, Muslims or Hindus for reasons of simple geography. Those born in India are likely to be Hindu, Europeans are Christian and Muslims associated with the lands of the Middle East and beyond. The determination of faith, in other words, is cultural and geographical, rather than spiritual.

With the rise of globalism and immigration, some of these silos are breaking down, but church affiliation is still largely determined by factors other than rational analysis. It's not as if 800 million Indians all sat down, analyzed the theological options and came to the same conclusion on the basis of logic alone.

But back to the question of the day: Why are Catholics Catholic?

Well, the official response used to be that it was the one true faith. "There is one Universal Church of the faithful, outside of which there is absolutely no salvation," Catholic doctrine preached.

That's a pretty good reason for holding on to your Catholic faith, or even converting, if you want a place in the hereafter, but the fact is the church no longer claims such exclusivity.

The doctrine was interpreted and reinterpreted over the centuries, but the last words on the subject came from Pope John Paul II, who said: "The Church inasmuch as it is the Body of Christ, is simply an instrument of this salvation." The Catholic Church, in other words, can help with salvation, but ultimately it can be found "only and exclusively" through Christ.

And so the question returns: Why be a Catholic when the faith demands more than is reasonable, even for the devout? Who really wants to join a religion that requires abstinence before marriage, declares contraception a sin, opposes gay marriage and holds a variety of other views that are regarded not only as regressive, but harmful?

It must be hard to be a Catholic and not feel like you're a failure. So why bother?

Many Catholics in the West have either stopped going to mass, or joined a church that does a better job at satisfying their spiritual quest, but the Holy See is unrepentant. If it will not yield, however, then it should explain why anyone should be a Catholic, particularly since even the church apparently acknowledges salvation can be found through Christ alone.

The faithful, of course, do not want mere salvation, but something that consoles in the here and now, things such as fraternity and fellowship, maybe even better music with a few more hallelujahs.

As an atheist who believes every religion requires the suspension of disbelief, I nevertheless respect the Catholic Church's extraordinary 2,000-year history and its contributions to education, music, art, architecture, philosophy, libraries and the preservation of literacy and the classics following the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Its rich traditions are compelling, but not enough to fill the pews in its traditional parishes in Europe and North America. For the Catholic magnet, the push has grown stronger than the pull.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 16, 2013 A15


Updated on Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 9:23 AM CDT: Corrects "abolition" to "abortion" in first paragraph

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