“Ask a Priest: Do I Have to Practice Catholicism Even If I Don’t Believe in It?”

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Q: I was baptized and raised Catholic. My family was not very involved in the Church and I never felt any connection to God while attending Mass, Sunday school, etc. As an adult, I found a non-denominational church and for the first time ever felt the presence of God. I attend every Sunday, serve with the childrens ministry, give money to the church, and read my Bible and daily devotionals. I am closer to God than I ever was as a Catholic. My mom persecutes me almost daily about how I was baptized a Catholic and obligated to be a Catholic. She says I am a Catholic whether I like it or not. I am newly engaged and now she says my marriage will be invalid before God if I am not married by a priest. This breaks my heart that she feels this way. I believe that God will be very present in my marriage as my fiancé and I are both very strong in our faith. I would be going against what I believe to be true in my heart if I posed as a Catholic. I’m trying to find some guidance for both myself and my mother in this situation. I feel so much love for God and have faith that I will be saved and that he will be present in all aspects of my life. Am I wrong? Do I have to practice Catholicism even if it is not what I believe in? Does God care more about which church I attend than what is in my heart? Are the sacraments more important than leading a life in imitation of Christ? -D.C.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: I am happy to hear that you feel God is very present in your life and that you love him so much. Your question raises three issues that I would like to address: the first on religious liberty and conscience; the second on Catholic baptism; and the third on your family situation.

Let me say at the start that the Catholic Church forces no one to believe in something against his or her will. The Church at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) affirmed this in its declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.

No. 2 of that declaration said: “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.”

Moreover, the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms the importance of following one’s conscience. No. 1776 says, “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment.”

No. 1778 adds, “Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right.”

In other words, all things considered, you have the right and duty to follow your conscience.

Now, you mentioned that you were baptized as a Catholic. Catholics understand that one of the effects of the sacrament is that it brings a person into the Church. The Catechism in No. 1267 says, “Baptism makes us members of the Body of Christ: ‘Therefore … we are members one of another.’ Baptism incorporates us into the Church.”

Thus the Church sees you as a beloved daughter. And as a mother the Church will, in a sense, always see you and love you as a daughter.

The Church understands that part of its mission from Christ is to minister and watch over the sacraments, including marriage. That is why it requires a Catholic to follow Church law regarding marriage. (For more information see the website.)

If in the future you want to return to the sacraments in the Catholic Church (that is, be able to receive the sacraments of confession, the Eucharist, etc.), then you would need to have your marriage blessed, or convalidated, by the Church. (For further reading see this article.)

A third factor is your family background. You mention that your family wasn’t very involved in the Church as you grew up. Yet now, your mother is “persecuting” you and insisting that you live as a Catholic. It sounds as if Mom has been on her own spiritual journey — which doesn’t quite match your own. That is understandably causing tensions.

You might consider contacting your mom’s parish and speaking with a priest there. Being closer to the situation, he might able to help you and your mom reach some kind of accord.

Also, you could ask the priest about how the Church views your specific status. Specifically you might ask the priest about No. 1124 of the Code of Canon Law. That canon says, “Without express permission of the competent authority, a marriage is prohibited between two baptized persons of whom one is baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it after baptism and has not defected from it by a formal act and the other of whom is enrolled in a Church or ecclesial community not in full communion with the Catholic Church.”

That phrase about defection from the Church “by a formal act” can be open to various interpretations. A parish priest could give you more details.

In the meantime, continue to go deeper into your relationship with Christ. And if ever you find that there is something that your non-denominational church can’t give you, remember the Catholic Church who loves you and stands ready to serve. I will pray for you and your family. God bless!

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