In that blurry space between having no interest in Catholicism and deciding to join the church, there was a short time in which I was curious about the Catholic church and its culture. I wasn’t committed, but I was interested.
You might think the Catholic church had nothing to offer me in this time. What could I gain from it not being a believer? But like a neighbor’s overgrown fruit tree, its branches stretched into my yard, and I was still able to benefit from Catholic spirituality and culture even though I wasn’t Catholic.
Anglicans are obviously a good example of people living in that middle space. As my wife affectionately puts it, Anglicans are Catholic, just without the pope.
But what about those who have no faith in any religion or any God? What can the church offer the unbeliever?
A whole lot!
The Stained Glass
My first real experience in a Catholic church was when I was going to school in Chicago. It was located downtown, and I was walking distance from what I think was Holy Name Cathedral, though I didn’t know anything about it then – name or otherwise.
The place was so quiet compared to the busy outside. It was nearly empty, but someone was playing an organ quietly and there were a couple others there.
There are so few places in the world now that are places of stillness, and finding one in the middle of a big city is exceptional. Getting away from home, away from work, to a space dedicated to quiet reflection is healthy for anyone.
Consider it like a free museum, if nothing else. The more you know about the art and architecture, the more you will get from it. They are always speaking in the silence, and they have a lot to say.
For example, what does it mean that at the heart of every cathedral is the image of a man who gave his life for what he believed? What does that teach us about who history decides to remember and who it forgets? Or what about the variety of people in the stained glass windows? Some are monks, others kings. Still others are simple young men and, yes, women.
These are places that can inspire any imagination.
Pope Francis has become well-known for speaking to the church with the larger world in mind. His two encyclicals, Fratelli Tutti and Laudato Si’, address the degradation of the environment, poverty, modern-day slavery, polarization, racism, unfettered capitalism, and a lot more. These are not merely Catholic issues. They transcend the boundaries of politics and religion.
He is not alone in the church writing about social issues either. The church has a long, rich tradition of speaking out for social change. Any serious consideration of social justice issues has to take into account the large body of Catholic literature on this subject. And many who fight for social issues, whether people of faith or not, can find a lot of moral support for their cause in Catholic teaching.
The Music, Art and Literature of Catholic Culture
This is going to sound snobbish, but if you have had no exposure to any Catholic-themed music, art, or literature, you know hardly anything about music, art or literature. That’s not a bigoted statement. I’m not sticking my nose up in the air while typing this. It’s just a fact.
Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Bernstein, Liszt, and Stravinsky (just to name a few) all wrote music for the Catholic Mass. Think of Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. As for books, consider Dante’s Inferno, or more recently the writings of Flannery O’Connor or even Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Even today, people with no affiliation with any church put music to Catholic themes.
You don’t have to be religious to like the good music, art, and literature Catholic culture holds out to you. And these inspired works are some of the best… ever.
Imbibe, but Beware
Education should go in all directions. We all have something to learn from each other no matter what we believe. No one should think, whether because of prejudice or a distaste for religion in general, that Catholicism has nothing to offer as well.
Still, there is a danger in diving too deeply into the Catholic world. Like me, you might become so enchanted you never come out of it. 😉
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