Sometimes I feel that when I talk about Catholicism I have a split personality. This split causes me to do odd things (like add frequent parenthetical statements when writing about my Catholicism). And, when I try to rationalize my “Catholic” ideas, I often wind up contradicting myself. Consider the following conversation I had recently with a non-Catholic friend who had just attended a Catholic Nuptial Mass:
Her: So, I find Catholic communion strange.
Me: In what way?
Her: Well, please excuse my asking, but how isn’t it cannibalism?
Me: Well, it’s not. It’s not actually flesh and blood. Well, I mean, it is. That’s the point. It is. Flesh and blood, I mean. But, we get that we didn’t just roast Jesus on a spit. We aren’t actually eating him. Well, we are. Well, it’s complicated. Do you want me to get into the theology of it?
Me: Well, I’m having a hard time remembering the specifics of the theological argument right now. I know it has something to do with substance and form, but I can’t remember which belongs to which. Can I get back to you?
To clarify central beliefs such as transubstantiation some Catholics maintain a type of Thomist scholasticism: the desire to explain, to categorize, and to define in order to elucidate the most difficult theological ideas. But, no matter how many times I have read the theology, I find that it is sometimes very difficult for me to explain my understanding even of those beliefs that seem most central to what it means to be a Catholic. Is this because there is a little part of me that does not believe in the theological concepts I may be explicating and hence my brain does not consider them important enough to remember? Or, is it some sort of brain failure on my part that renders me capable of “getting” a concept but incapable of retaining what it was exactly that I “got.” It’s certainly not, as a college classmate of mine once [not so] shockingly offered as an explanation, that women’s brains just are not built for that sort of logical, reason-driven, activity.
Instead, I think it could be a difficulty with definition and category, a difficulty that is often articulated by modern Catholic women. I feels that a lot of us who write on this blog and in From the Pews in the Back are really struggling with the question of what it is exactly that makes us Catholic. Perhaps, like the explanation of the transubstantiated Eucharist, whether we can say that we are truly Catholic or not is a matter of substance and form: as there is more than one way for bread to be bread, there is more than one way for a Catholic to be Catholic. As each of us undergoes a unique spiritual journey – whether toward, along, or away from the Catholic life – we are experiencing the transformative, transubstantiative effects of knowledge, inquiry, reason, and belief. Whether Catholic in substance or in form, by essence or by accident, we all share some similarities: we are all seeking to understand something about ourselves, about our families and friends, something about God, or about the nature of faith. What we seek to understand may not ever be something explained rationally but remains something beautifully broken and contradictory, at once both shattered and whole, at once bread and body.
Rebecca Curtin earned her Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard Divinity School in 2008. She now works in the Department of English at Harvard University.