The Dangers of Hobby Catholicism
More years ago than it would be legal for me to confess, I fell in love with beer brewing as a result of reading the charmingly entitled An Essay on Brewing, Vintage and Distillation, Together With Selected Remedies for Hangover Melancholia: Or, How to Make Boozeby John Festus Adams. Adams opens with an extended discussion of what sort of hobby book this will not be, recounting his experience with a book on growing mushrooms. Written by the Brit who Took Food Seriously, it eventually became clear to Adams while reading this book that the author did not actually expect him to be able to master this most occult of gardening hobbies. It took skill. It took patience. It took a ton of fresh horse manure which simply be be obtained fresh (preferably from a ladies’ riding academy) and in the quantity of about half a ton. And it must be composted for six months — no more and no less. It must be turned every four weeks — not three weeks and certainly not five. And if you weren’t prepared to do all these things Right, there was really no point in doing it at all, because your mushrooms, if they even grew, would be No Good At All.
This, Adams promised, was not the sort of book he was setting out to write. His book was a book about brewing for those who actually wanted to brew. And it was based on the theory that they would brew, and the resulting beer would be pretty good when they did.
All of which is a somewhat self-indulgent introduction (though I do recommend Adams’ book for the sheer joy of reading it, even if you have no intention of brewing) to a rather basic point: It is the inevitable danger of being deeply absorbed in some topic that one begins to draw lines in the sand and say, “If you don’t do X, Y and Z in my favorite way, you are clearly not serious about this and should get out.” And yet for those of us who make reading, talking and writing about the Catholic Church a hobby of sorts, this presents a serious danger. Those of us who are “Catholic geeks” need always to recall that however much the more abstruse corners of Catholic history or theology may fascinate us, that Catholicism is not a hobby or field of study — the exclusive territory of those with sufficient levels of detailed knowledge and experience. Rather, the Church is the Body of Christ on earth, and the source of the sacraments which are channels of grace to those of us in the Church Militant.
The Church is no stranger to intellectualism and knowledge, and there is much benefit to knowing the Church’s teachings and history in detail. And yet, knowledge itself is not our end as Catholics. In the simple yet powerful words I was made to learn as a child, “God made us to know, love and serve Him, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” The rest is all details. Important details, to be sure, to the extent that they help us to love and follow our faith. I’m sure that all of us know many people (often members of our own family) who were easily lead away from the Church because they never really knew and understood it.
And yet a little work around the parish is easily enough to lead one to the humbling conclusion that the people who show up to daily mass at 7:30 every morning and fill the adoration hours in the middle of the night are people with much stronger faith, even if many of them have never cracked open an encyclical. This is certainly not to say (as one determinedly unorthodox old fellow on RCIA team used to assert to my constant annoyance) that, “All knowledge is for not.” But I, at least, often find myself in need of a reminder that knowledge is not all there is. At the deepest level, Catholicism is something we believe and live, not just something we read about.