Several years ago, a Catholic school board, frustrated because some of its teachers were no longer attending church regularly while others were flaunting the church’s teaching regarding living together before marriage, decided to tighten its hiring policies. They tried to implement a policy which demanded that any teachers hired in the future would be “practicing Catholics”. They ran into a hornet’s nest.

Immediately there was a wave of counterchallenge: What precisely constitutes a practicing Catholic Who defines this? Is the old criterion –  you must go to mass every Sunday and obey the Church’s teaching on sexuality and marriage – not simply reflective of a bias? What about somebody who does practice in the old sense but has no sense whatever of social justice or who lacks fundamental charity? Is he or she more of a practicing Catholic than somebody who is committed to justice but does not go to church every Sunday? Is somebody who obeys the letter of the law regarding the sixth commandment but abuses power more Catholic than the person who is gentle and nurturing but is living with someone he or she is not married to? What constitutes practice of a faith?

What does? This is not just a theoretical item. More and more, various Catholic institutions and organizations, from school boards to parish councils, must make very concrete decisions based upon how they view this question: Who should be allowed to teach in a Catholic school? Who should be permitted on a parish council? Who should be allowed to do ministry within the church? By what criteria do we decide these questions? 

For Catholics in the recent past, things were more clear: A practicing Catholic, when the concept was boiled down to its lowest common denominator, was somebody who attended mass every Sunday (save when excused for grave reasons) and was not publicly at odds with the church’s teaching regarding dogma and morals. Anyone who did not meet those criteria would, ordinarily, not be allowed to teach in a Catholic school, serve on a church board, or do any public ministry in the church. Today, as the questions just raised highlight, things are not so clear. All kinds of questions are being raised that suggest that the old way of viewing this biases things too much in one direction. 

So what does constitute a practicing Catholic?

The question is not a simple one. First off, it must be admitted that no one, save God, is fully a practicing Catholic. All of us fail in some aspects to live the faith; everyone has gaps in his or her faith practice. Thus, strictly speaking, none of us can ever claim fully to be practicing our faith. However, beyond that necessary and important confession of ambiguity, not all is vague. There are some essential components to Roman Catholicism that can be named and thus, at some point, one can define what constitutes the practice of that faith.

The essential components of Roman Catholicism are:

  • Full initiation into the community.
  • Regular participation in the Eucharist within the local community, including within that a sensitivity to the liturgical rhythm of the church’s life. This component is so emphasized because, as Roman Catholics, we are a Eucharistic community, that is, our primary gathering is around the Eucharist.
  • A life of prayer and private morality.
  • A commitment to social teachings of the church.
  • A sense of responsibility for ministry and leadership within the church, including the financial.
  • A concern for the universal church – its unity, its spread, and its maintenance.
  • A concern and respect for public forum within the community; that is, negatively, not being a source of scandal.

Given those essentials, what constitutes a practicing Catholic?

Classically, as we saw, it has meant that one attended mass regularly (every Sunday) and was not at odds with the public forum of the church regarding morals or dogma, namely, one was not causing scandal. This definition, while not ideal, does contain within itself the important essentials and should be retained as the minimum high jump bar.

The definition of a practicing Catholic must go further:  A practicing Catholic is a fully initiated member of the community who participates regularly within the Sunday Eucharist and participates as well in the prayer life (both public and private), the social action, the ministry and leadership, and the missionary concerns of the church. As well, he or she should not be at variance in the public forum vis-à-vis major doctrinal or moral teachings of the church.

Now, even allowing for the fact that only God practices the faith perfectly, to do public ministry within the church, be it teaching or serving on a church board, one should, minimally at least, meet this criterion.