What It Means To Be Catholic In 2014

A quarter of Americans identify as Catholic, but their views vary dramatically. NPR's Rachel Martin talks with three Catholics about their views on faith and politics, one year into the new papacy.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

While in Europe, President Obama will stop at the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis, who recently marked his one-year anniversary as leader of the Catholic Church. The pope has gotten a lot of attention for refocusing the church on concerns like global poverty, and playing down hot-button social issues - abortion and gay marriage. To understand how Francis' papacy has affected the American church, we reached out to our listeners on Facebook. We spoke with three Catholics with different perspectives: 33-year-old Jeannie Ewing, from Indiana.

JEANNIE EWING: For me and my generation, I think there are a lot of us who identify more with a traditional Catholic practice. I don't really identify with the progressive way of thinking or believing, theologically.

MARTIN: Twenty-nine-year-old Julian Villareal from Texas.

JULIAN VILLAREAL: Francis being Latin American, he's, I feel, turning the church's attention to the Americas, to the global south, because that's where the church is going to grow.

MARTIN: And our conversation begins with 26-year-old Erin Kunz of North Dakota, who has long struggled to reconcile her politics with her faith.

ERIN KUNZ: For a long time, I've been saying that I'm Catholic quietly. And until Pope Francis was elected, I felt like there was a large majority of people who might have a Catholic history, or feel like Catholicism is their home, but didn't necessarily identify with how Catholics were being portrayed in the news.

MARTIN: Erin, can you be a little more specific? It sounds like there was some distance between you and the church. Why did that happen?

KUNZ: Right. So I would say throughout my high school years, I was a practicing Catholic - until I got into my college years, and I started becoming more politically aware and aligning myself with issues that I felt were really important morally; like, equality for everyone, in terms of marriage. And so going to church became something that felt very defensive. It wasn't even like I was disagreeing with what my church was saying. I felt what they were saying was immoral. And my husband had an experience where the priest basically disregarded the Gospel entirely, and used the homily to talk about how gay rights needs to be stopped, how people who use contraception are like children. And he came home very upset, and we made a decision that day that we could no longer align ourselves with a church that was putting forth these types of messages.

EWING: See, my experience is really different than that. This is Jeannie again. But growing up - I am a cradle Catholic as well, Erin, and I was raised in a very conservative family. But my parents never overtly spoke of politics. It was more of a way we lived. And I think that's why I have such a strong affinity and affection for Pope Francis because I feel like he appeals to both conservatives and liberals. I've never heard a homily like that at our parish, or even anywhere else I've been. I've been to Mass all over the world. I think that's a very unloving way to approach the teachings of the church. I know that there are some radical conservatives that speak that way. But my experience with conservatism in the church is very much a loving approach. It's very much like the truth in charity.

VILLAREAL: Yeah, this is Julian. I guess we can add what does it mean to be an American Catholic? Well, it means that you inevitably have to talk about politics when you talk about your faith. (Laughter)

MARTIN: But do you think that's true? I mean, that was Erin's assertion - is that she feels that by identifying as a Catholic, she's saying something automatically about her politics. Do you share that then?

VILLAREAL: No, not in the same way. And the reason that I've been drawn so much to Pope Francis, and to the things that he says, is because he's trying to steer us away from these issues that just distract in a lot of ways. You know, he says we can't be obsessed with these hot-button issues of contraception or gay marriage. But in our discussion of all of these issues, which are clearly important, doctrine shouldn't just be, you know, set aside willy-nilly. I think Francis is calling us to discuss these issues from a standpoint of humility, of service, of mercy, of love.

MARTIN: It's interesting that for non-Catholics in particular, how one individual - like the pope, the leader of the Catholic Church - can wield so much influence on an individual's faith and religion. Erin, you feel like Pope Francis is the reason that you would return to the church?

KUNZ: Well, if we can redefine ourselves as not necessarily the stereotype that I think has permeated in the era of Pope Benedict, who seemed to want a smaller but purer church, and Pope Francis is reaching out to us and everyone else who wasn't identifying that way to say - you know, come back; you're a part of this, too. It's not a club for the few. It's for all of us.

MARTIN: Does that make sense to you, Julian and Jeannie, that the church would not be diluted if the tent gets bigger?

VILLAREAL: I don't know how to really respond to the people who only see these divisions. And again, Francis is calling all of us to really go to the heart of that message; that yes, the church needs to have its doors open to all, and we need to do that in the mindset of love and compassion and mercy.

KUNZ: Can I just comment quickly about the idea of divisiveness? I think it is easier to say that the divisiveness in the church is frustrating to see, and it shouldn't be about divisiveness, if you've never been outside of the core of what Catholicism claims to be. But when you are outside of it and you have beliefs that you think are moral, then you see the divisions because you are that division. And I think that is the majority of Catholics.

EWING: I also think that - I recognize that people are in different places in their life, and we all have a different journey, a unique journey. My faith was really shaken, to be honest, when I had my youngest daughter, Sarah(ph). She was born with birth defects, and she will have facial differences. And I have to tell you - because we have an older daughter too, and she's quite physically beautiful - it really shook my faith to the core. My husband and I were very real and raw, in those first weeks following Sarah's birth. Like, why didn't God just take her? Or, why didn't I just have a miscarriage? Or, why wouldn't he prevent us from having this misery and this suffering - or her?

And having Sarah has really humbled us, and taught us that it's about the dignity of the person. It's about the core of who we are. That's something that's really influenced our faith and actually has affirmed our faith, our Catholic faith. But it's more about how we live. It's a lifestyle. It's like what St. Francis himself said: Preach the Gospel at all times, but only use words when necessary. And that's really what it's like in our family. We try to do that.

MARTIN: Well, I want to thank all three of you for sharing your thoughts about the Catholic Church. Julian Villareal spoke to us from Austin, Texas; Jeannie Ewing, in Notre Dame, Ind.; and Erin Kunz, speaking to us from Grand Forks, N.D. Thanks to all three of you.

EWING: Thank you.

KUNZ: Thanks a lot.

VILLAREAL: Thank you.

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