On Catholicism and Universalism

Managing Editor’s note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.

 “All I want to say to you is ‘You are the Beloved,’ and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being—‘You are the Beloved.’ ” —Henri J. M. Nouwen

As a kid, I had to take Catholic religious education classes known as CCD in order to be eligible to receive the sacraments. The two points that I remember the most from CCD are 1) the word “catholic” means “universal”, and 2) the Catholic religion is the religion that most closely exemplifies the truth. The latter point was explained using an illustration of a target, with Catholicism in the center, Christianity on the circle surrounding that, Judaism on the circle surrounding that, followed by Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and finally atheism/agnosticism. To my nine-year-old mind, this made absolutely no sense. How could Catholicism claim to be universal if it actively excluded so many people from knowing the truth and obtaining salvation? What did this mean for my friends who were not Catholic? What would happen if I decided not to be a Catholic?

Even at that young age, I knew that there were particular issues (namely, women’s ordination) that I simply did not agree with the Church on. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why God would have given me a desire to be a priest if He also decided to make me a woman, thereby excluding me from that option. Adding this weird and contradictory exclusivity piece just made me even more confused about my faith and my place in it.

I consider this moment to be my introduction to the proverbial “letter of the law vs. spirit of the law” debate. My confusion ultimately became a gift, in that I was inspired to keep learning about my own faith tradition and the traditions of others, and engage in interfaith service projects. I developed and nurtured a passion for social justice, especially regarding women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and mental health advocacy. In this work, religious labeling was not a dividing factor as much as part of one’s personal identity that colored one’s motivations for creating a more just world.

This begs the questions: why do I bother staying Catholic, and why do I care about interfaith work? It all comes down to one factor–the one factor that makes those two points I learned in CCD make any kind of sense: love. By claiming the (admittedly exclusionary, on some level) identity of Catholic, I am called to love everyone, universally. This includes people who espouse different beliefs than I do. How, then, am I to foster this love? For me, it’s through building relationships and working together for a better world, even if it means going against Church teaching. Love is a larger, more transcendent force than any religion, and we’ll only enact it together.

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One thought on “On Catholicism and Universalism

  1. Dorie, I love how you were attuned to asking questions about your faith community and what it taught so early in your life. I also admire your loyalty and love for the Catholic Church despite its shortcomings (and we all have them in our faith communities). Your statement that religious labels should not be divisive but rather motivations for creating a more just world resonates with me as well.

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