Catholic Imposter Syndrome

virgin mary night light

Maybe I’m a Virgin Mary nightlight kind of Catholic. Shiny and plastic.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I’m a fake Catholic. Whatever a real Catholic is – it’s a natural question – I’m confident I’m not it.

We do have an identity. Identity enough to be hated across the world and loved across the world, serving in the middle of the world’s worst conflicts and standing in the middle of the world’s most painful scandals. In the midst of that profundity and chaos, it is natural to wonder: how am I a part of this too?

Am I really a part of this, or do I just say that I am?

If I wake up on the wrong side of the bed and the world tilts sideways, I understand that I am not as invested in the Faith as I could be. I understand it painfully. That there are parts of me that tell a lie. If the world is all at an angle that day, those parts ends up being the only things that I can see: my own hypocrisy.

I want to laugh and say something about Catholic guilt. Nothing comes to mind, though. And I’m not smiling.

I used to want to be a “real” Catholic. I wanted, very much, to feel a strong bond to my Church and her people. For me, “real” meant obedience (and, not very coincidentally, a rejection of the values of the adults at my parish). So I bound myself to the Church’s laws like hot iron, hammering down, feeling the sharp pang of the inextricable. The Church and her teachings – as best as I understood them – formed my thought, served as my thought, shaped my new thoughts.

But the Church isn’t a monolith, and never has been. The more I threw myself into what I understood to be authentic Catholicism – a blend of the Fathers and hardcore rightwing American Catholicism – the more I apprehended how the Church is not quite one thing. She wasn’t what I thought, even refused to be what I thought.

She lives. She doesn’t hold still, and she isn’t the unfolding of a logical argument through time.

My studies lit a fire and forced me by dint of my own obedience to hammer myself into a new shape. I will now either stubbornly refuse to say whether I am “liberal” or “conservative” – while quietly resenting that you asked – or I will say that I am something else. Not that I have a name for it. Sometimes I worry that this nameless thing means I’m not really a Catholic anymore.

A younger version of me would think I have betrayed the Faith. That younger version still lives in my head. I have a hard time forgiving her, and the feeling is mutual.

I had to give up a specific kind of certitude. If I wanted to really understand what the Fathers were saying, what Thomas Aquinas achieved, how the Church could develop and shift, I had to let go. Leave behind the iron conviction that comes with having a circumscribed point of view.

Everyone puts themselves into a box. What Catholics accuse each other of is true: the “left” replaces Christian thought with an indistinguishable modernity; the “right” thinks retroactively, and so lacks creativity. They’re right about each other for the wrong reasons, and never right about themselves.

I learned that I had to leave behind the forge work altogether.

I learned that God is uncircumscribable (Anselm), is the Uncircumscribed (John Chrysostom, liturgy), and yet so definitive that he can make my very life into divine life (Athanasius) – even allowing me to cooperate with that change (Thomas Aquinas). God is so definitive that my own little will, that small potency that is mine, matters fundamentally for my ultimate end. So uncircumscribable that ultimately the only word I can offer is “thank you” (eucharistia). To “circumscribe” something is to draw a line around it. No one can draw a line around God.

In an effort of serious agnosticism, Christianity calls God mystery. Unlike serious agnosticism, Christianity calls God mystery. God is known in a “luminous darkness” (Pseudo-Dionysius, Gregory of Nyssa).

What this means, practically, is that my life in faith and my identity as a Catholic is comprehensible and incomprehensible at the same time. Never quite holding still. Never definitive, never quite not-definitive. I comfort myself with the thought that I have appropriated something very, very important from the Catholic past. All while mystery draws me away to a place that infuriates liberals and conservatives.

No, I don’t think the Catholic Church needs an update.

Yes, I think the Catholic Church needs to learn.

It’s her job to learn. It’s not her job to measure herself according to the standards of what is up-to-date, nor to measure herself according to her own, external lack of deviance. The measure is a mystery. The measure is Christ.

What that means, I think, is a constant striving. It means hanging over an abyss, as Hans Urs von Balthasar would say.

I do not really know, ultimately, if I am enough. It is not in my power to know. Only to hope.

Am I right?

Perhaps the wrong question.


3 thoughts on “Catholic Imposter Syndrome

  1. Samantha says:

    This is beautiful. Thank you for speaking the words all of us are thinking inside but too afraid to say aloud. This gives us hope in the complexities and mysteries of our ever-changing spiritual lives.

  2. Fariba says:

    Beautiful! You put into words exactly how I feel as a Catholic. I used to want to be “good” – acceptable by the orthodox Catholics. But an early Christianity class taught me how complex early church history is. I have since discovered Catholicism to be more of a fence than a series of propositions. I realize most days that I am not who I should be. I worry that I haven’t figured everything out. But there is always a level of mystery that no amount of reason can penetrate.

    • You remind me in profound ways of something G.K. Chesterton says in Orthodoxy: “Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls;
      but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is
      the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism.
      We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some
      tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round
      the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game
      and make the place the noisiest of nurseries.”

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