Book Review: Why be Catholic?

Why Be Catholic?: Understanding Our Experience and Tradition by Richard Rohr and Joseph Martos

Last Chance for Catholics?

The Roman Catholic Church has taken so much of a beating lately, mostly self-inflicted, that even lovers of the Church might be forgiven for wondering what might be the point of remaining Catholic.

To answer this desperate question come Richard Rohr and Joseph Martos to remind us of what it is about Catholicism that is still potent and worthy of our attention. Rohr and Martos are quite critical of the "ethnic Catholicism" that has become a hallmark of the religion. The strength of the Irish, Italians, French and others who brought their faith with them as they emigrated is that it was such a strong mark of their identity. The weak part is that this has little to do with the faith that Jesus asked us to exhibit. Similarly, the consumer Catholicism that marks recent American society no longer carries the counter-cultural message of the gospel, but becomes an extension of the national character.

Rohr and Martos highlight the special genius that is Catholicism - among other things, of its embrace (in spite of the male domination of its hierarchy) of the "feminine" spirit of forgiveness, healing and service. Of the martyrs, intellectuals, founders, humanists and eccentrics that have made up the rank and file of its holiest citizens, the saints. Rohr and Martos are hopeful that the Church can rid itself of the malign influences that have come to become synonymous with being a Roman Catholic. They are not afraid to talk of the Church's "shadow" side - its rigidity and dogmatism - while advocating a balance between its masculine and feminine impulses.

The Catholic Church they advocate is one that continually circles back to the Church of Jesus, who eschewed titles and honors and embraced the cross; who reached out to the lowly and forsaken rather than devising canonical penalties against them; who offered salvation the whole world - not only the self-appointed insiders and connected clerical caste. Whether there is still life in Mother Church is a question they would answer in the affirmative; whether the disaffected Catholic reader would agree is another question.

But if you are feeling abandoned by the Church and alienated by those currently in control, Rohr and Martos will remind you that the glories of Catholicism are in its wider view and ultimately in its balance of male and female elements. Bringing that sort of focus on the Church will likely irritate the close-minded but give some hope to those who stubbornly hold onto their place in then Church while the winds of division and exclusion rage on.