Knowing your faith: What does it mean to be a ‘practicing Catholic’? Print E-mail
Knowing Your Faith
Written by John Joy, For the Catholic Herald   
Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017 -- 12:00 AM
Knowing Your Faith column

John Joy

You might run into the term "practicing Catholic" in various contexts: if you teach in a Catholic school, for example, or if you serve as a catechist in your parish, or as a Confirmation sponsor or a godparent, you are supposed to be a “practicing Catholic”. But what does that mean exactly?

According to the Wisconsin Catholic Conference's Standards for Educators in Catholic Schools and Parishes, it means: "a Catholic in good standing who participates fully in the worship and life of the Church, and who understands and accepts the teachings of the Church and moral demands of the Gospel, as articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church."

This definition has three main components. Let's unpack them:

First, what does it mean to be "in good standing"? To be in good standing, one must lead a life of faith in keeping with the function to be taken on (e.g., as teacher, catechist, sponsor, godparent, etc.). One must not be bound by any canonical penalty legitimately imposed or declared. And one must not be obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin (including, but not limited to, living with an unmarried sexual partner or living in an adulterous second union).

Second, what does it mean to "participate fully in the worship and life of the Church"? At minimum, this means observing the seven precepts of the Church, which are:

(1) You must attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest on those days from unnecessary servile labor.

(2) You must confess your sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a year.

(3) You must receive Holy Communion at least during the Easter Season.

(4) You must observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.

(5) You must help to provide for the material needs of the Church according to your means.

(6) You must observe the marriage laws of the Church.

(7) You must participate in the Church’s mission of evangelization.

Third, what does it mean to "understand and accept the teachings of the Church and moral demands of the Gospel, as articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church"? This third part contains two sub-parts: the teachings of the Church and the moral demands of the Gospel. Let’s begin with the latter:

The moral demands of the Gospel require us to cultivate both the human virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance) and the theological virtues (faith, hope, charity) and to keep the commandments. A practicing Catholic, therefore, is one who sincerely strives, with the help of God’s grace, to avoid:

Sins against God:

(1) voluntary doubt, incredulity, heresy, despair, presumption, indifference, ingratitude, lukewarmness, acedia, hatred of God, superstition, idolatry, divination, magic or sorcery, Spiritism, tempting God, sacrilege, simony, atheism;

(2) abuse of God's name, blasphemy, false oaths, perjury;

(3) failing to participate in the Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, engaging in unnecessary servile work on Sundays or holy days of obligation.

And sins against our neighbors:

(4) failing to give respect and rightful obedience to those in positions of legitimate authority;

(5) murder, abortion, euthanasia, suicide, scandal, excessive use of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine;

(6) lust, masturbation, fornication, pornography, prostitution, rape, homosexual practices, contraception, direct sterilization, artificial insemination, surrogate pregnancy, in vitro fertilization, adultery, divorce, polygamy, incest;

(7) theft, fraud, paying unjust wages, enslaving human beings, usury;

(8) false witness, perjury, rash judgment, detraction, calumny, lying;

(9) lustful thoughts and desires;

(10) covetous thoughts and desires, greed, envy.

A list like this cannot be really complete, but like a good examination of conscience, it can serve as a helpful starting point for reflecting on our own faithfulness to the moral demands of the Gospel.

And of course, none of us is perfect! We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But God is merciful! He is longing to forgive us in the Sacrament of Confession if only we will repent and resolve, with the help of his grace, to sin no more, and to avoid the near occasion of sin.

Finally, what does it mean, "to understand and accept the teachings of the Church"? The Church's Profession of Faith, after the recitation of “Nicene Creed,” concludes with the following three statements:

(1) With firm faith, I also believe everything contained in the word of God, whether written or handed down in tradition, which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed.

(2) I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.

(3) Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.

The Catechism goes into more detail about what exactly these teachings are, but a great place to start for summaries of the most important articles of faith is with the official creeds of the Church: the "Apostles’ Creed" and the "Nicene Creed," which are familiar from the Rosary and the Mass; but then also the "Athanasian Creed," the "Creed of Pope Pius IV," and the "Credo of the People of God," which is the Profession of Faith of Blessed Pope Paul VI.

These three creeds tend to be less familiar to most Catholics because we don’t recite them on a regular basis, but they are beautiful statements of the Church's faith that are well worth the read, and they spell out an essential part of what it means to be a practicing Catholic.


John Joy, STL, is marriage and family coordinator for the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis, Diocese of Madison.