Words matter, and I think we’ve reached a point in US Catholic history, perhaps long ago, where we really need to start thinking about our vocabulary. There are many different rites, forms, uses and jurisdictions in the Catholic Church. There are Roman Catholics, Byzantine Catholics, Maronite Catholics, Coptic Catholics, English Patrimony Catholics, Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, etc., etc., etc.. All of these designations, or monikers, address merely tradition and/or jurisdiction, but they don’t address type. No. There are only two types of Catholics: practicing and lapsed.
I think where we’ve really gone into the weeds on this is over politics. You see, the Catholic Church has long recognized that Catholics can hold to differing political positions, and so Catholics in America have been very careful (perhaps fearful) to attribute a political position to a lapse of faith. That’s understandable — to a point. For example; if one Catholic thinks we should spend more money of the social security system, and another Catholic thinks we should instead mandate that people open up personal retirement accounts in addition to social security, and still yet a third Catholic says we should just leave the whole thing alone, it would be wrong to use such a position to gauge one’s Catholic faith. None of these positions directly violate Catholic teaching, and a Catholic could hold to good-faith positions on any side of the argument. For this reason, the political issue is considered “prudential,” which means Catholics are free to address this issue differently and still remain in good standing with the Church.
The weeds we’ve wandered into only exist because of the direction of a particular political party in the United States. To help understand this, let’s take another political party, in another country, and another time in history. Suppose this was Germany in 1932, and you as a Catholic must choose a political party to support. You’re options are as follows, listed in the order of popularity at that time…
- National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) or “Nazi Party”
- Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD)
- Communist Party of Germany (KDP)
- German Center Party (Center)
- German National People’s Party (DNVP)
- Bavarian People’s Party (BVP)
Now, in 1932 Germany, the lineup was not so great. The top three parties (NSDAP, SPD, KDP) were Marxist and fascist. The DNVP was nationalist and racist. As a German Catholic, in 1932 Germany, the only moral choices you really had were either the German Center Party or the Bavarian People’s Party, neither of which were very popular, and combined they controlled less seats in the Reichstag than the communists (KDP), which was in a distant third place behind the socialists (SPD) and the Nazis (NSDAP). Clearly, if you were voting in accordance with your Catholic faith and formed conscience in 1932, you weren’t on the winning team. In fact, you would be totally disenfranchised by the Nazis about a year later.
What would we say, however, about a German Catholic in 1932, who chose to side with the nationalists (DNVP), or the socialist (SPD), or the communists (KDP), or even the Nazis!? I don’t think there would be any question about it. We would call such a Catholic “lapsed” because his political choice signals a loss of faith in what the Catholic Church teaches about basic human rights and Christian charity.
Now, maybe said Catholic appeared to be a practicing Catholic in every other way. He went to mass weekly. He went to confession almost as often. He carried a rosary in his pocket and used it regularly. He gave lots of money to the Church. He even helped the poor. He subscribed to the basic tenets of the creeds and all major dogmas of the Church. Yet he lacked one very big thing, and that was faith in what the Church taught (and continues to teach) about charity toward other (non-Aryan) people, the right to own private property, and most importantly, the prohibition against murder! Such a Catholic may have appeared Catholic in many ways, but when it came to faith in what the Church actually taught, he was lapsed. There’s no other way to put it.
Merriam-Websters defines “lapsed” as: “having ceased to be active in practice, membership, or belief.” It’s that last word that’s the most important here — belief. When a Catholic ceases to believe what the Church actually teaches on essential matters of faith, said Catholic becomes lapsed. So when a Catholic embraces the ideology of antisemitism over charity towards one’s neighbor, he becomes lapsed. When a Catholic embraces communism over the right to private property, he becomes lapsed. When a Catholic embraces the holocaust over the prohibition against murder, he becomes lapsed. He’s a Lapsed Catholic because he has “ceased to be active in practice, membership,” and most especially “belief” in what the Church teaches.
In the weeds of American politics, one major political party has clearly embraced planks in its platform that directly violate the teachings of the Catholic Church, and that party is the Democratic Party. Most specifically, the plank it has embraced, that most clearly violates Church teaching, is its unconditional support of abortion-on-demand, or the wholesale murder of unborn children. Abortion is a holocaust that has literally taken ten-times more human lives in America than the Nazi holocaust was able to take in Germany. Catholics cannot support this agenda, nor the party that promotes it. Any Catholic who does becomes lapsed, even if said Catholic appears to be faithful in other ways.
The weeds we Catholic Americans have walked into have to do with the terms we use to describe ourselves in relation to our political positions, and this is creating a very big problem. We use many different terms to describe Catholics who are trying to follow the Faith: orthodox, traditional, conservative, good, faithful, sincere, honest and real. As for those Catholics who have denied the Faith in one way or another, we use such terms as: heretical, modernist, liberal, bad, faithless, insincere, dishonest and fake.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve fallen into this word-trap too.
We really need to break it down for simplicity’s sake. There are only two types of Catholics: practicing and lapsed. That’s it. They’re aren’t any more types. Either you believe and follow what the Catholic Church teaches (practicing), or you don’t (lapsed).
Merriam-Websters defines “practicing” as: “actively engaged in a specified career or way of life.” In other words, you’re giving it a sincere and honest try. They say “practice makes perfect” but it doesn’t mean you’re already perfect. It just means you’re working toward that. In the medical field, they call it “practicing medicine.” That means it’s not an exact science. Practicing doctors aren’t perfect. Some are better than others, but none of them are perfect. They “practice” medicine, because their entire careers are about learning how to get better. We could apply this to Practicing Catholics too. We all sin, and we all have personal failings. We even believe the wrong things from time to time. So long as we are open to correction, confession and repentance, we remain Practicing Catholics in good standing with Jesus Christ and his Catholic Church.
In today’s world, we see a lot of Lapsed Catholics, especially here in the United States of America. We can easily see them when they become politicians or celebrities, because they call so much attention to themselves. One way they might becomes lapsed is in personal moral failings, but these days, it’s more common to see Lapsed Catholics who publicly espouse beliefs that are directly opposed to Catholic teaching. Maybe they think this makes them cool, or hip, or cute. Actually, it just makes them lapsed. Such high-profile persons might not be so influential were it not for the lapsed clergy who enable them by refusing to correct them — an essential duty which they are lapse to perform.