Contours of the Catholic Mind

One year ago, following about six years of will-I-won’t-I agonizing, I finally made it all the way into the Catholic Church. In my ongoing immersion into the Catholic world before and since (call it mystagogy, call it acculturation), I have observed a number of interesting patterns I might characterize as quintessentially Catholic ways of thinking. Of course, this is emphatically not to say that all Catholics think alike – we’re as far spread all over the map as anybody, to be sure. And I am more and more convinced that there is no such thing as a typical Catholic.  And yet, paradoxically, there are certain recognizable tendencies I’ve picked up in this oddly fascinating process of developing a Catholic mind, several of which, I find, seem to suit me surprisingly well.  Here are a few of those tendencies as observed after a year of being Catholic.

The very long view. The Catholic left (and occasionally the right, if you get them going on the right issues) may get easily impatient with the pace at which the Catholic Church moves, but one thing I’ve noticed at all levels on which the church operates and across whatever spectrum you can name: Catholics think in centuries. There is a frequency with which we can talk in historical terms, rather than merely from the vantage point of an individual lifetime – can talk of, say, 50 or 100 or 200 years as being not a very long time. It’s as if, even when we lose sight of the broader picture, the whole church’s history is still inescapably there, hovering somewhere in the back of our minds.

The both/and. Maybe it comes from centuries of navigating between oversimplifications (take the early Christological heresies as a case in point), but Catholic thought, in all its beautiful and frustrating variety, has all kinds of room for nuance, and much less room for either/or dualisms. Regrettably, many Catholics seem to be keeping a pretty tenuous grip on this one. At times we seem hopelessly polarized – but even amidst the polarities, the “Catholic both/and” will occasionally slip in, like an unconscious habit. Maybe that’s exactly what it is. We desperately need to recover it to our Catholic consciousness.

Tradition is a living process. And one we can’t escape from. Catholics use the word “traditional” the way Protestants use the word “biblical”: as a sort of measuring rod for theological one-upmanship. We all want to show how the term really applies most fully and robustly to our own position. Again regrettably, the more conventional and limiting definition of tradition, as an absence of or aversion to change (whether spoken of favorably or unfavorably), sometimes makes its way into Catholic semantics and clashes with the more, well, traditional understanding.

So is conversion. What Catholics might call the “conversion process” is similar to what some of the Mennonite circles I grew up in, and still deeply appreciate, would call the “faith journey.” To tell of my conversion would be to tell of my whole life. It would not be untrue to say that both my baptism and my confirmation were climactic conversion experiences, but just as essential were the gradual conversions leading up to those decisions, as well as all the subsequent inexhaustible unpacking of those very live moments. In either case, given the amount of time and energy it takes me to decide just about anything, I’m grateful that I wasn’t required to pinpoint one “conversion moment.” For us it’s not about one decisive moment when you “get saved” so that you can someday go to heaven, but about being in the process of being saved so that, to borrow phrasing from my days in RCIA, your whole life is God getting you in shape to “do heaven” – because “heaven isn’t just a place you go, it’s something you do.”

Held together by ritual. Catholics recognize the power of symbol, whether consciously or not. One of the first things I remember noticing when I began attending Mass regularly was that it’s full of symbols – every ritual action has a significance beyond itself. And gradually, through liturgical immersion, I came to believe in the presence that supersaturates these symbols and makes them more than symbolic. The Eucharist, above all, is more than a symbol, but certainly not less than one. I’ve heard it said that Catholics can’t agree on anything except the Eucharist. And we can’t always agree on the best way to talk about the Eucharist. But it draws us.  And by some great holy mystery it holds us together.

Liturgy is plurality. Liturgy is communal by its very nature. And all throughout the Catholic liturgy we pray in the first person plural – the “Catholic we,” as I’ve heard it called. “We worship you … we believe … our Father … have mercy on us.” This is not just about God and me. It’s about God and all of us together. Even the “I confess,” a rare liturgical act in the singular, would make no sense at all without the community of faith being present. In that sense, it may actually be the most communal thing we ever say.

In all of this, I am amazed and humbled, sometimes frustrated but always profoundly grateful to be a part of this “we,” this big tent, this crazy parade. It’s been a wild ride so far – and it’s far from over.

Julia Smucker is a Mennonite Catholic, or a Mennonite who has come into full communion with the Catholic Church, or a Catholic profoundly and gratefully shaped by her Mennonite heritage — take your pick. She completed an M. A. in Theology with a concentration in systematic theology at Saint John’s School of Theology·Seminary in 2012.


  1. “Catholics use the word ‘traditional’ the way Protestants use the word “biblical”: as a sort of measuring rod for theological one-upmanship.”

    We do? Each and every one of us?

    How, pray tell, do you know that?

    (Unfortunately, I never took a course in logic, but there must some sort of fallacy, with a name, here.)

    The irony is that you use “Catholics” to indicate some sort of universality, which, in one of the marvelous twists of language, cannot apply here.

    1. Well, plenty of Catholics do – just surf the internet if you need evidence. It’s obvious from context, at least to me, that she wasn’t claiming that each and every Catholic does. But some do. Too many do. And some of the same people are defensive about it, and about many things Catholic.

      1. Ok. but “one-upmanship” and “aversion to change” seem like bromides to me, which aren’t really “helpful” (-awr), and they’re even a bit worse than the sometimes-useful stereotypcial, but I’ll leave it at that. I would like to participate here from time to time, but I still haven’t learned your rules yet. (What’s too many? Is it always a weakness to be defensive? How does one question the heart of a premise and not be too disagreeable?)

    2. The fallacy here is mistaking a general statement for an absolute one. And I didn’t actually mean it as an accusation. As a general tendency, I find it interesting particularly because it occurs all across any sort of political or theological spectrum. I’ve seen it done by people I agree with as well as those I disagree with. In fact, I even did it myself, deliberately, in the very paragraph in question.

      1. Thank you for the candid response! Of course, I do the same thing, sometimes, too. My quibbles, as a Traditionalist, are two:

        1. Even so-called ‘reactionary’ yet civilized Traditionalists as I have a much broader view of Tradition than those to the left of us realize; sometimes we can be overly-sensitive, and we’re weary of being painted with so broad a brush, of being truly mischaracterized. (Most of us have read our Shakespeare and Old Testament and have a basic understanding of the messiness of human nature and aren’t nearly so rigid as we are often characterized. It seemed to me that you were painting with the same broad brush.)

        2. It seems that you imply a certain smugness in Catholic practice that is not part of the main-stream at all. I would guess that more than half of the pew-Catholics, for lack of a better term, don’t have a dog in this fight. They’re cultural Catholics who wouldn’t care to read a blog like this, have no idea that Summorum Pontificum was issued, or that defenders of the LCWR are up in arms, have no idea what Benedict XVI is doing. In fact, if I mentioned any one of those things at a cocktail party, I would likely get a response, “Oh really? What are you doing this summer?” (The exceptions proving the rule.)

      2. Oh, my manners fail me. I forgot to add: Welcome to the Church. I’m a convert, too. I hope you find all that you seek. May the Most High God bless, comfort, and support you all your days until you find Eternal Rest in the Blessed City, the Heavenly Salem!

      3. Christopher, thank you for unpacking your quibbles – this is helpful. My responses:

        1. “Even so-called ‘reactionary’ yet civilized Traditionalists as I have a much broader view of Tradition than those to the left of us realize.” Actually, I agree, and that was part of my point. The irony is that for every self-described Traditionalist such as yourself, there is a Catholic to the left of you arguing that their liturgical or theological preference on any given issue is really the more Traditional because it predates yours, or is more consistent with the broader mission of the Church through the ages, or whatever. Tradition gets invoked on all sides of many different questions, much like conservative and liberal Protestants debate whose view is really more “biblical”. That’s all I was saying there, and I really don’t think it’s a bad thing, so long as we’re making well-reasoned cases in a spirit of Christian charity.

        2. To borrow your phrasing, I am weary of the proverbial “pew-Catholics” being painted with so broad a brush. True, there are plenty of Catholics out there who aren’t immersed in all the same things I am, but that doesn’t mean they’re apathetic, and they undoubtedly know things I don’t. People don’t generally go to cocktail parties for heady conversation, so that’s not really a fair scenario.

      4. Julia:

        Thanks for your follow-up answers. I actually grant both of your points. 1. I see what you mean. For instance, people who try to reconstruct liturgies of the Church Fathers as being more authentic, more traditional. You’re certainly right; they do. 2. You’re right, my cocktail party wasn’t a very good example, but you still understood my point and added your clarifications, which I find apt. Thanks.

        At any rate, it seems as if you are enjoying (and are enliveded by) your experiences and investigations. Good. Cheers.

    3. This comment reads as if it were written by someone with a strong defensive agenda. Against what? I’m not sure from the text. Perhaps a course in logic, as well as one in reading would help him. Why go our of one’s way to pick at a person making some informal and generally accurate observations?

  2. Thanks for the insightful post Julia. Although I was raised RC I have spent much time in other Christian churches and I think your observation is a good one. That is, I often encounter Catholic conversations that tend towards argumentation from tradition. And often, these engagements are similar to how evangelicals use the bible. Of course, for many protestant churches there isn’t much in the way of tradition to engage, yet it can be surprising how some churches that have only existed for 25 or 30 years quickly develop a kind of institutional rigidity and orthodoxy that sometimes becomes divisive and exclusionary/ Blessings and obliged.

  3. Thank you for your thoughts, Julia. It’s an intriguing map you sketch, and I enjoyed reading your observations. Much of this rings true, the first point in particular for me as a European Catholic — we have churches still standing that go back to the first millennium, after all. A Catholic “long view” is helped simply by growing up in the shadows of these churches.

  4. Thank you, Julia! I am a revert who is constantly being asked to explain what drew me back to the Church. I’ve blogged on it myself along similar lines, and I really appreciate the new insights you bring to my faith journey.

  5. You know, I mean this as no disrespect but only as the highest compliment, but you could be describing many parts of the Episcopal Church. Perhaps that’s because we – most of us, I can’t generalize either – don’t consider ourselves so much “Protestant” as Anglican Catholics.

    Great post. Thanks for your observations.

    1. I was thinking much along the same lines: whether intended or not, I think it good that the unmodified term “Catholic” was used, as these observations seem to be true for all kinds of Catholic Christians, whether they happen to be Roman Catholic or not.

  6. I think that part of what I consider my Catholicism would make some throw me out the door!

    My belief in the Real Presence and the importance of the Eucharist brings me to a real respect for Creation itself – I’m a tree hugger because I’m Catholic! In addition, my confidence in God both transcendent and imminent makes me comfortable praying in a lot of different places – Catholic churches, Protestant Churches, Buddhist temples, even my kitchen!

    1. Brigid, you are articulating a very dynamic and incarnational sacramental theology that has a solid basis in 20th-century Catholic scholarship (and certain medieval thinkers too, for that matter – I’m thinking of my patron saint Hildegard of Bingen, not to mention Thomas Aquinas). I’m totally with you on transcendence and immanence – an important both/and! As Catholics we can even say along with Quakers that “all of life is sacramental” (even though we disagree on the liturgical implications of this). Or as I’ve heard it put elsewhere in more distinctly Catholic terms, “Incarnation transubstantiates the world.”

  7. My own parish is about 50% to 70 % made up of Catholics who have come into the full communion of the Church from other Christian denominations, Baptist and Methodist primarily. They bring with them all that is good and complimentary of our Catholic Faith with them, especially active participation in the Liturgy and the life of the parish rather than a more passive stance. But they come gladly relinquishing some aspects of their former spiritual home and get uncomfortable when some of that seems to make its way into their current Catholic life, but that is a generalization. Catholicism as someone once told me is more “caught” than “taught.” And since Vatican II our Church, much to the chagrin of ecumenism of another period in the recent past, is able to embrace the Eastern Rite and Anglicans and their heritage into the full communion of the Church. It could well happen with other Protestant denominations more specifically linked to us in the immediate aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, such as the Lutherans specifically. This could not have happened without Vatican II and liturgical reform it brought about and has opened for us the possibility of practicing two forms of the one Rite in our very own Latin Rite including regularizing the SSPX. All of this is positive in my most humble opinion.

  8. Thanks for the article Julia and congrats on the recent degree! This was a great article, and perfect for sharing with the catechists at our parish! You hit on almost every reason that I’m still a Catholic. I LOVE the diversity! Not so much the in-fighting that breeds in such a diverse group of people, but I do really get a great kick out of knowing that I’m part of group that thinks and moves and breathes in different, holy, and Spirit-filled ways! Great writing!

  9. Julia,

    An excellent post; I hope you develop this model. Some ideas from a sociological perspective

    Since Catholicism is about both unity and diversity, these contours contribute as much to its diversity as to its unity.

    If we apply just the first three to liturgy we easily come up with diverse views if we choose to over emphasize any one of them. That is also true if we choose to emphasize any combination of two.

    Even if we choose all three we generate diversity. The history is so long, there is so much we have to chose from, whether to say both/and, or to affirm which things are most traditional.

    Sola scriptura functions in a similar manner.

    Scripture is so diverse, that while one can affirm that Christianity should be based upon Scripture, inevitably one ends up with a canon within the Canon.

    Some scholars, noting the difficulty of a comprehensive biblical, OT, or NT theology, have begun to see the value of the Canon lying as much in its diversity as in its commonality, i.e. it gives different viewpoints that might be used in confronting new situations.

    As a social scientist, I think of religion at the personal and community level as consisting of
    human capital (people’s gifts, talents, virtues, identity),
    social capital (institutions with their social networks e.g. families, friends, small groups, schools, congregations, etc.)
    and cultural capital (beliefs, values, ideas).

    The capitals are three different ways of investing and accumulating labor at both the personal and community levels.

    We tend to think of religion as mainly about cultural capital (beliefs, values) becoming the human capital of personal identity.

    We neglect the critical role of social networks (i.e. not just congregations, but families, friends, small groups schools, etc.) because in the past people tended to live in homogenous environments where families, etc. all had the same cultural capital (e.g. religious and ethnic).

  10. Spiritualities, Unity and Diversity

    The personal, institutional and cultural diversity of complex religions encourages the formation of spiritualities as adaptations of the religion to changing conditions. Spiritualities usually arise as religious orders in Catholicism and as denominations in Protestantism. Sociologically, the rise and spread of spiritualities has been the major engine of growth and renewal in Christianity.

    There has always been some spread of spirituality outside institutional boundaries, e.g. Benedictine spirituality into their parishes and schools. However, prior to the information age there was motivation to keep sharp boundaries about Catholic spiritualities.

    In public high school in the 1950s I discovered the Divine Office; a math teacher introduced me to Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation. A priest was horrified that I was reading Merton since I was heading off to be a Jesuit Novice. Sure enough my Novice Master though the Divine Office meant I should be a Benedictine; another Jesuit though Merton meant I should be a Cistercian. Jesuits of all people, with Ignatius admonition for spiritual directors not to get between God and the person making the retreat, should have known better!

    Now, Catholics are doing interdenominational bible study, going to their spouse’s church service led by a woman minister, and to Chautauqua to hear Catholic women leaders. These examples are core Catholics who attend Mass weekly and participated in RENEW.

    However, the diversity of Catholic spiritualities in our parishes is very limited. Similarly colleges find it easy to be Jesuit, etc. but more difficult to be Catholic. Getting one’s mind into Catholicism without a limiting approach is the challenge.

    Julie, your contours model should be helpful to institutions (parishes, schools, families) and people to think about their existing Catholic identity, and how a diversity of spirituality might increase their Catholicity .

  11. Trans-Denominational Ecumenism of Spiritualities

    Most people see themselves as spiritual, with a personal relationship to the Divine; that identity I define as the spiritual capital aspect of their human capital.

    More congregations are choosing to be non-denominational or deemphasizing their denomination identity. More people are changing denominations as well as parishes and congregations. Many people are defining their spiritual identity without either a congregational or denominational identity.

    In the past people got their spiritual identity from the own denomination whose cultural capital was transmitted through families, friends, and ethnicity as well as the church and schools. Now families, friends and work colleagues as well as books, educational institutions, and the internet give access to a variety of religious culture.

    Research has established that religious networks of families, close friends and small groups are essential to receive the health, and happiness benefits of worshiping regularly. Worship (the larger group) is also necessary but it is insufficient by itself. In persons and families with multiple religious traditions both worship and social networks are likely to be spread over more than one tradition. The evidence from research is that is good rather than bad.

    Ecumenism is becoming more a matter of sharing spiritualities within families, close friends, and small groups. How should denominations, e.g. Catholicism react?

    My Catholic identity is composed of the Solitary tradition (e.g. Merton) Benedictine tradition (Divine Office, community) and Jesuit Tradition (finding God in all things). These could be used to form a variety of committed small groups among the 1005 adults who weekly attend Mass in the CARA parish model. These groups could provide a means of attracting the 1047 who attend at least monthly, and the 1,225 other registered members. Large group events by these small groups could reach out to the community

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