The Brood: How to Be a Bad Catholic

Footprints on sand beach background. Original public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

After years of delay, I’m starting to feel pressure—both internal and external—to commit. It’s 2022: the world has re-opened (for the majority of us), and our government is stable-ish (for at least another couple of months). Ron and I are working steadily at our many vocations and avocations. Our kids are relatively healthy both mentally and physically. I am running out of excuses to delay. After years of waffling, it’s time to decide:

What kind of Catholic am I going to be?

I have been running through the options like a spiritual Goldilocks. A lapsed Catholic? Too passive. An ex-Catholic? Too definitive. A cafeteria Catholic? Too cheesy. A CINO? Too ambivalent. I am close to a decision.

I think I want to be a bad Catholic.

See, I was raised a good (not great) Catholic. We went to Mass every Sunday, and Confession at least a couple of times per year. We kids attended CCD, and got the sacraments on time with moderate fanfare. We didn’t say a family rosary on our own, but we occasionally joined another family for cookies and prayer. We participated in parish activities at our middle-of-the-road Novus Ordo parish. Sometimes we watched the catholic cartoons we received via mail-order, though we preferred The Great Muppet Caper

When you are raised a “Good Catholic,” there’s nowhere to go but up (or out).

If you are particularly pious or achievement-minded, it’s possible to work your way up to “Great Catholic:” Daily Rosary! Weekly confession! Meatless Fridays! 5-12 children, perfectly turned-out every Sunday! Of course, the trouble with being a Great Catholic is that there are always people inventing means of becoming a Best Catholic. Those means are…confusing. Do we homeschool? Veil? Is NFP contraception after all? Was the founder of the Novus Ordo a secret Freemason?

Of course, for those of us whose faith hits an early crisis, the common path is to go full secular, possibly with a stop at “spiritual, but not religious.”

Sadly for me, there is no clear path from “Good Catholic” to “Bad Catholic.” This is a shame, because as long as there have been Catholics, there have been Bad Catholics. Arguably, many of our Saints were Bad Catholics. St. Catherine of Siena bossed the Pope. St. Hubert skipped Mass to go hunting. St. Joan dressed in men’s clothing, rather than wearing (the medieval equivalent of) a long skirt and boxy cardigan.

There are tons of Bad Catholics in modern media. The spectrum is vast. Bad Catholics can be funny, like Ray Barrone. They can be scary, like Vito Corleone. Brideshead Revisited, for example, is a fantastic 21st century novel written by (Bad Catholic) Evelyn Waugh and riddled with a diverse range of (mostly) Bad Catholics: lapsed and lovable Lord Marchmain with his superstitious mistress, Cara, ecstatic and eccentric Sebastian, melancholy, conflicted Julia, and mischievous, irreverent Cordelia. 

Now, I want to make sure I’m being clear: when I talk about Bad Catholics. I’m not talking about bad PEOPLE who happen to be Catholic. There are plenty of those, of course, and I try to steer clear. I’m talking about good people, real sweetie-pies, who are Bad Catholics. 

How do I identify Bad Catholics? Well, it’s not a perfect science, but there are some qualities I look out for.

For example, good Catholics might bring you casseroles when you are sick or sad. So do bad Catholics, but sometimes they also bring tequila. 

Bad Catholics skip Mass more often than they attend, but (except for the occasional “and also with you”), they know how to follow the form. Bad Catholics go to confession rarely, if at all, and when they do it’s usually to ask pre-emptive forgiveness for the sins they intend to commit that weekend. Bad Catholics do their own thing in terms of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, but woe betide anyone who talks shit about the Church in their presence.

Bad Catholics know a half-dozen bad priests and one good one.

Bad Catholics don’t pray the rosary, but have at least five stashed around their house (and one in their car). Bad Catholics have no idea when the Holy Days of Observation are. Bad Catholics will receive the Eucharist at your wedding or funeral, even if they already broke their fast by toasting you in the parking lot. Bad Catholics don’t believe in an infallible pope, but they might believe in an infallible Nonna.

Bad Catholics make sure their kids get their First Communion, but don’t push hard for Confirmation, particularly if CCD conflicts with picking up the siblings from soccer practice.

Bad Catholics might cross themselves when they pass a graveyard, or say a Hail Mary when they hear sirens, or bury a statue of St. Joseph when they need to sell a house. Bad Catholics leave right after Communion. I don’t know why, but almost all Bad Catholics give something up for Lent. 

Bad Catholics might not be able to quote scripture, but they sure love that “Footprints” poem. 

Bad Catholics don’t usually believe in hell. Bad Catholics almost always believe in love. 

Bad Catholics believe that if there is a God, it better be a kind, loving God that comforts the lonely and suffering, otherwise what’s the point? 

Obviously, I idealize. In truth, I don’t know if I will ever be able to let go of enough of my pride (and neurosis) to become a Bad Catholic in earnest. Maybe Bad Catholicism is not something you can choose. 

Maybe the Bad Catholics I have known are peculiarly blessed. Maybe there is grace to knowing just enough to have hope, but not enough to be tempted to despair. Maybe that’s what it means to come to Christ like a little child. Maybe that’s exactly the grace I need.

I’ll think about that, maybe, the next time I pass a graveyard, or find a rosary in a drawer, or see a set of footprints in the sand. 

Theresa Weiler is a writer, singer, speaker, seeker. She lives in metro Detroit with her husband and four children. Follow her on Twitter @SometimesReese.

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