Culturally Catholic

By Teresa McMahon


During a recent discussion with friends, the question of conversion came up. I was asked if I would ever consider converting to Judaism, given that my husband is Jewish, our two children are being raised as Jews and we, as a family, attend Temple Beth Emeth, a local Reform congregation.

I explained that for various reasons, conversion just didn’t feel like the right option for me. For one thing, while I may not be a practicing Catholic, and I question much of the Church’s doctrine, I can’t deny that I feel culturally Catholic. They stared blankly, laughed and then said to me, “Huh? That doesn’t make sense. Catholicism is a religious belief system, not a culture.”

I’ve lost count of the number of Jews I’ve met who identify themselves as “culturally Jewish.” These people, for one reason or another feel their belief system doesn’t match Judaism as a religion. Nevertheless, they have family ties and a strong sense of Jewish identity that prompts them to identify themselves as culturally Jewish.

Am I wrong to feel the same way about my Catholic identity? My looks and my name–Teresa Ann McMahon–are clearly Irish Catholic (my sister Margaret Mary was given perhaps the only more Catholic name in the family than mine). I am the youngest of seven children. I can walk into any Catholic church in the world and will know when to kneel and what the English words are to the prayer being said. I feel at ease with stained glass, incense, dark alcoves filled with votive candles, wooden pews with kneelers, and congregations that sing only the first two verses of a hymn.

I believe that empirical evidence indicates that Jesus Christ’s birthday was not on December 25, but Christmas Day still signifies a bright spot in the midst of dark winter for me. Easter is my favorite Catholic holy day not because I unequivocally believe that Jesus rose from the dead, but because it signifies the return of spring, forgiveness, hope, and starting again.

There are habits of practice that I still hold. Fridays during Lent I have a strong desire for a Fish Fillet sandwich and feel guilty if I eat meat. I sometimes invoke the name “St. Anthony” when I can’t find something, not because I believe the patron saint of lost items is going to help me, but because saying it makes me smile as I recall an old friend who recently passed away. He was a priest who was constantly losing his car keys. Relaxing enough to smile usually eases my stress long enough for me to remember where I left my keys. So who’s to say that this practice doesn’t work?

Are all my examples of Catholic culture just habits and stereotypes? What makes a culture? Shared language, art, literature, music, dress, and shared history all seem to be components of culture and can be found in Catholicism. While Latin is no longer a live language, it is a common denominator for all Catholics. Decoration of Catholic churches and Catholic art tends to be elaborate and ornate and often depicts dark subject matter. And, tell me that plaid skirts, black Mary Janes and white button-down shirts don’t bring to mind Catholic school students!

Catholics know what it means to dress like a nun. Big breakfasts of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and donuts after Mass are our bagels with smears. As a people, I think Catholics have guilt about good things that come too easily. Just as Catholic art tends to emphasize Jesus dying on the cross on his way to rising from the dead, Catholics often feel the need to engage in a struggle before we deserve our reward–or maybe that is just me.

You could say I’m culturally Irish and one component of that is being Catholic, but three quarters of my genetic background is German. I really know more about being American Catholic than about being Irish. As an American Catholic, I am one of those referred to as a “cafeteria Catholic.” I thoughtfully pick and choose from the teachings of the Church, something that has been criticized by Rome because it is so endemic in the United States and so counter to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

I did an Internet search on Secular Humanistic Jews to learn more about “cultural Jews.” Secular Humanistic Jews see Judaism as the “human-centered history, culture, civilization, ethical values, and shared fate of the Jewish people. Encompassing many languages and a vast body of literature, art, dance, music, and food, Judaism is much more than a set of religious beliefs and practices.”

Is Catholicism only a set of religious beliefs and practices? Most of my examples of culture have been based on direct ties to Catholic religious beliefs. I don’t know that I’ve ever worried about the shared fate of the Catholic people.

On the other hand, if Judaism is defined as much more than a set of religious beliefs and practices, then by this logic, I could never actually become Jewish by converting. I cannot become Jewish if Judaism is “much more than a set of religious beliefs and practices.”

I’ve now spent hours trying to find the perfect ending for this essay. But I’ve come to the realization that this article, like the discussion, has not been neatly resolved, but rather continues to be open for further discussion.


About Teresa McMahon

Teresa McMahon, Ph.D., lives with her husband Barry Fishman and two children, Claire and Emily, in Michigan, where she is a member of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor. In addition to singing and dancing in her family room with her daughters, she is an educational researcher.