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“Ask a Priest: Do My Sins Make Me ‘Un-Catholic’?”
Q: Being raised as a Catholic my entire life, and surrounded by Catholics, my religion was never questioned. Now that I have moved away from home, surrounded by mostly Baptists, questions posed by others have arisen and have confused me. I have my beliefs but I have also sinned. I recently got into a pretty heated argument with someone who accused me of not being Christian because I have sinned, examples being sex before marriage, drinking alcohol, and being friends with and having beliefs in homosexuality. Because some of these things have happened, does that make me not a Christian? His argument was that you are either committed or you are not. While I understand and respect his opinion, I was uninformed growing up about how serious these sins were to the Church and the Bible. I have my beliefs and was extremely offended and brought to tears to hear him tell me that I am not a Christian. Bottom line, I just want to know if not following every part of Catholicism makes me “un-Catholic.” -G.G.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: All of us are sinners. If only those without sin could be called Catholics, then the Church would have a very small following.
First, I would say that is not up to your acquaintance to go around deciding who is and who isn’t Christian.
Sinning, per se, doesn’t exclude us from the Catholic Church. The Church is here, in fact, to offer us God’s mercy through the sacrament of confession, and to help us grow in our relationship with Jesus. It also does this with the help of all the sacraments and through its teachings and works of education and charity, etc.
The teachings of the Church come to us through Christ. The Church is guided by the Holy Spirit when it teaches on issues of faith and morals; hence, it won’t steer us wrong. Now, Church teachings are broad and deep, and it is not always easy to get a good grip on those teachings. Some of them are subtle, some are rather complex.
This might be part of the particular challenge you face. You mention that you were “uninformed growing up.” Fair enough; many people didn’t get the catechetical training they should have gotten. But that can change.
That you don’t understand some things about the Catholic faith should be a clue as to why some of your beliefs are off target. The answer, then, is to try to learn why the Church teaches what it teaches. The Catholic faith, though mysterious at times, is never unreasonable; it doesn’t go against reason. The faith might go beyond reason, but that isn’t the same as saying it is unreasonable.
Now, there is a difference between sinning and holding beliefs that are contrary to the faith. It is one thing, for instance, to have sex outside marriage; this goes against God’s plan for sex. It is a different thing to say that we don’t believe in the Church’s teaching on sex outside marriage. That is where we go against the faith as such. Both things are bad – having sex outside marriage and disbelieving a Church teaching – but the second thing can be more insidious, because it involves more an act of the intellect.
But let’s step back and look at the big picture. If you identify with being a Catholic, it follows that you should try to live as the Church teaches. In practice this means living the virtue of chastity, avoiding drunkenness or drugs, and making time for prayer and works of charity. It also means studying the faith so as to better understand it.
A good place to start studying the faith would be to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church or its Compendium. To learn about the Church’s teaching on sexuality, look into the theology of the body or see Christopher West’s materials).
Another option would be to enter an RCIA program at a local parish. The RCIA is for people who are thinking of entering the Church. But it can also be helpful for Catholics who simply want to learn more about their faith.
The RCIA might be a good option since it would allow you to study the faith within a community. It is usually easier to understand points of Church teaching when we are studying together with other people.
In short, rather than wondering whether you are “un-Catholic,” it might be better to see yourself as a Catholic who is a “work in progress.” The fact that you are asking all these questions might be a sign that the Holy Spirit is inviting you to come closer to Jesus and to learn more about his Church.
I hope some of this helps.