The Dangers of Hobby Catholicism

More years ago than it would be legal for me to confess, I fell in love with beer brewing as a result of reading the charmingly entitled An Essay on Brewing, Vintage and Distillation, Together With Selected Remedies for Hangover Melancholia: Or, How to Make Boozeby John Festus Adams. Adams opens with an extended discussion of what sort of hobby book this will not be, recounting his experience with a book on growing mushrooms. Written by the Brit who Took Food Seriously, it eventually became clear to Adams while reading this book that the author did not actually expect him to be able to master this most occult of gardening hobbies. It took skill. It took patience. It took a ton of fresh horse manure which simply be be obtained fresh (preferably from a ladies’ riding academy) and in the quantity of about half a ton. And it must be composted for six months — no more and no less. It must be turned every four weeks — not three weeks and certainly not five. And if you weren’t prepared to do all these things Right, there was really no point in doing it at all, because your mushrooms, if they even grew, would be No Good At All.

This, Adams promised, was not the sort of book he was setting out to write. His book was a book about brewing for those who actually wanted to brew. And it was based on the theory that they would brew, and the resulting beer would be pretty good when they did.

All of which is a somewhat self-indulgent introduction (though I do recommend Adams’ book for the sheer joy of reading it, even if you have no intention of brewing) to a rather basic point: It is the inevitable danger of being deeply absorbed in some topic that one begins to draw lines in the sand and say, “If you don’t do X, Y and Z in my favorite way, you are clearly not serious about this and should get out.” And yet for those of us who make reading, talking and writing about the Catholic Church a hobby of sorts, this presents a serious danger. Those of us who are “Catholic geeks” need always to recall that however much the more abstruse corners of Catholic history or theology may fascinate us, that Catholicism is not a hobby or field of study — the exclusive territory of those with sufficient levels of detailed knowledge and experience. Rather, the Church is the Body of Christ on earth, and the source of the sacraments which are channels of grace to those of us in the Church Militant.

The Church is no stranger to intellectualism and knowledge, and there is much benefit to knowing the Church’s teachings and history in detail. And yet, knowledge itself is not our end as Catholics. In the simple yet powerful words I was made to learn as a child, “God made us to know, love and serve Him, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” The rest is all details. Important details, to be sure, to the extent that they help us to love and follow our faith. I’m sure that all of us know many people (often members of our own family) who were easily lead away from the Church because they never really knew and understood it.

And yet a little work around the parish is easily enough to lead one to the humbling conclusion that the people who show up to daily mass at 7:30 every morning and fill the adoration hours in the middle of the night are people with much stronger faith, even if many of them have never cracked open an encyclical. This is certainly not to say (as one determinedly unorthodox old fellow on RCIA team used to assert to my constant annoyance) that, “All knowledge is for not.” But I, at least, often find myself in need of a reminder that knowledge is not all there is. At the deepest level, Catholicism is something we believe and live, not just something we read about.

11 Responses to The Dangers of Hobby Catholicism

  1. John Henry says:

    Thank you for the helpful reminder. It’s easy to fall into thinking our particular interpretation of Catholic doctrine is the One. True. Interpretation., but, of course, then we’ve generally established our own, much smaller, church in the process.

    I would only add that, even more than a belief, Catholicism is a relationship. I am frequently reminded of John 15, when Jesus says “I am the vine, you are the branches…apart from me you can do nothing.” Even belief and action, very good things in themselves, and very great gifts, are wasted without prayer.

  2. e. says:

    1 ¶ If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
    2 And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
    3 And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
    4 ¶ Charity is patient, is kind: charity envieth not, dealeth not perversely, is not puffed up,
    5 Is not ambitious, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh no evil:
    6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth:
    7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

    1 Cor 13: 1-7 (DRV)

    Forgive me if I missed the cryptic vulgarity that might have actually been present in the Greek; after all, I’m not an Iafratist scriptural scholar but rather a biblical illiterate, no less; which apparently in Christ’s Kingdom means I’m consigned to the lowest dregs of Heaven’s heirachy or, even worse, destined to the lower bowels of Hell.

  3. Phillip says:

    Oops, that should be “hear”.

  4. I agree with you, e., but let’s leave that one on the thread where it came from.

    While this seemed apropos, I’d actualy had the post on the back burner for some weeks, and I like to think the point is generally applicable. 🙂

  5. Oh, and Philip, I hadn’t heard. That’s interesting. I’m trying to think if that’s a slap or a prize or both.

  6. Phillip says:

    Everyone I know who’s been to Malta has liked it. But it certainly ain’t Rome.

  7. I meant it as no disrespect to Malta, but as diplomatic posts go, I can’t imagine its what one could persuade onself is important.

  8. e. says:


    Actually, your post seems very apropos to such a circumstance as that.

    It kinda reminds me of why St. Francis himself was initially opposed to the study of theology for those of his order; he thought that such knowledge would puff them up.

    It wasn’t until the great Anthony of Padua convinced him otherwise that he came to change his mind on the matter.

  9. Elaine Krewer says:

    There’s nothing wrong with pursing Catholic doctrine or history as a “hobby” or “special interest” in the same way one might pursue history, literature, art, gardening, fishing, sports, etc. as a hobby or for enjoyment. I do this to some extent myself. I actually enjoy learning about stuff like bishops’ coats of arms, the different types of Monsignors, the “call letters” of different religious orders (OSB, CSC, OFM, etc.)

    But… the thing one has to watch out for is mistaking one’s “geeky” interest in all things Catholic for genuine holiness, or assuming that it makes one a “better” or wiser Catholic than others not so inclined. Just because I can name the last 10 or so popes or can identify the 20-some different rites of the Catholic Church doesn’t mean I’m any closer to God or any more holy than someone who doesn’t know or couldn’t care less about these things.

  10. Don L says:

    I just stumbled upon this site and as a traditional Roman Catholic (I detest having to define it so pointedly, but these days…) I am impressed with what appears to be lots of wisdom here,(as opposed to expertese)

    I fully recognize the danger, having too much knowledge of faith, rubs elbows with. The Church has seen plenty of doctrinal and biblical experts who no longer seemed able to locate their knees for bending in humility and prayer.
    I had the wonderful experience of dealing with the lofty only to finally recognize true faith in my simple Mother-in-law.One day as she was ironing shirts for her poor tenent from Poland, I, concerned she was being used by him, spoke up, only to be told, “If I don’t iron his shirts for him, who will?”
    I hung my head -having been taught a valuable life lesson by a Catholic woman who spent much of her life on her knees praying.
    This finally taught me how the simple folks have just as much chance for attaining heaven as do the brilliant theologians. I have since learned – maybe even a better chance. Intellegence, like beauty, can be a cross and/or an obstacle.

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