All posts by Mike Filce

Mike Filce lives in South Lake Tahoe, attends St. Theresa Church and teaches English at South Tahoe High School. His wife, Anne, is a teaching-principal at St. Theresa Catholic School; his daughter, Cara, attended St. Theresa School since kindergarten and is now a 10th grader at South Tahoe High School; his son, Charlie, is entering the eighth grade at St. Theresa.

Falling Away and Coming Home

There has been no shortage of critiques levied at the Catholic Church in recent decades. Plenty to attack, after all.

I grew up with neighbors who discovered the local Calvary Chapel and became “born again.” They had always sneered at my Catholic faith, but this “rebirth” brought with it an eagerness to challenge this ignorant little kid about why we were cannibals and engaged in “idol-worship” — i.e. Mary, the Saints — you know the drill.

Later, as the Church was rocked by scandal, Catholic-bashing reached new heights in the media; I mean, what else could they do with such low-hanging fruit?

I kept wondering, won’t the Church have to dial back its rules just to survive all this? Won’t it need to ease up a bit if it’s going to emerge from these trials intact? Maybe relax the rules a little regarding pre-marital and extra-marital sex, divorce and annulments? Abortion, even? To convey how far at sea I was, I really believed it would . . . and part of me thought it should.

How absolutely adrift I was.

Like many of those raised Catholic, I had indeed drifted. But unlike many, my falling away had nothing to do with the sex abuse scandals that would soon impact the Church. Instead, I rationalized my passivity and absence by pointing at the failings of priests and what I interpreted as the Church’s preoccupation with wealth. My distaste fixated on priests who seemed to have missed the lessons on humility — who appeared to make the mass about themselves, who aggrandized themselves by selling cassettes of their every homily and smiled like unctuous salesmen — in short, who seemed more show than substance.

Suffice it to say, if you want a reason to stop attending Catholic mass, you tend to find it. I had watched several older siblings pull this off already, citing “phony” priests, “Puritanism,” and the ever-popular critique, “hypocrisy.” Oh yeah, I found plenty of that, too. It wasn’t until years later that I realized I could find hypocrisy everywhere — in every human institution or organization, and because I am human, in myself too — though that was the last realization in the chain. It always seems to be.

When we’re young, we want so much for the world to be the idyllic place we thought it was, and we hold fiercely to that ideal. As a result, we also hold our elders — parents, teachers, older siblings, adults around us or in the larger world — to an impossibly high standard of righteousness. And if they happen to be representatives of a religion, an even higher standard of perfection. As we move into our teenage years, we begin to sense the inevitable disillusionment, and we hone our critical blade to a razor’s edge. But why?

It starts with the fact that teenagers feel everything more acutely, including hurt. We see weakness, sin or foible, and it hurts us beyond repair. It shatters our illusions — our world — the one we previously thought was perfect. Disillusionment causes hurt, and as teenagers, our natural defense mechanism to ward off that hurt is to allow religious folks no room for flaws and failings — and we shield ourselves with scorn. It’s a loss like any death, and even at that age we experience the entire cycle — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — but acceptance usually just becomes cynicism. And later, apathy.

The critical step for me was not merely a religious maturation, but an evolving understanding of myself — my motivations and attitudes — and an understanding of our universal human nature. More simply, I got more honest with myself about why I was doing what I was doing, and what I wasn’t doing. Eventually, this led to exploring a number of other faith congregations because I wasn’t yet ready to absolve Catholicism. It wasn’t until I felt something lacking in every other faith, which I would come to realize as the sacraments, that I knew I had to find my way back.

In time, I understood what I was doing and why — that I had been applying an impossible standard of righteousness to a human institution. Which isn’t to say I was letting off the hook sexual abusers or those who had allowed them to thrive. That was a different matter to me, outside of my experience, although it may have added to my detachment. But through what I can only assume was Grace, I grew to separate the human failings from the actual tenets and doctrines of the Faith.

As a result, I stopped blaming the Catholic Faith for the behaviors and attitudes of its representatives. Mostly, I realized that failings like hypocrisy are part of the universal human experience, failings we can’t avoid no matter how hard we try. I realized how easy it is to find flaws in representatives of any institution, organization, political or religious group — and therefore how easy it is to attribute those faults to the whole.

Partly what helped me was my experience as a public high school English teacher: I could hold up many teachers as arguments against public education, completely ignoring the system and its attributes distinct from its human elements. Same goes for law enforcement, the medical establishment, environmental groups, and even civil rights causes. Anywhere you have humans involved, you have flawed institutions. That’s just part of this messy existence we have — at least within any social group. Perhaps this is what drives certain individuals completely off the grid and away from all society. And even then, do they escape their human failings? I doubt it.

When we get past the charges of hypocrisy, most critiques express that the Catholic Church demands too much, and that these demands put it out of touch with people today: premarital and extramarital sex, birth control, practicing the sacraments regularly, and so on. The tenets are simply too hard to follow, we complain.

And to some extent, I empathized with these frustrations. Like many people, I looked at the Church’s doctrines and thought they were too rigid, too unrealistic and impractical in today’s world, harboring the belief that some day there would become an “American Catholic Church” — one that is more forgiving or tolerant — of sexual laxity, of sacramental laziness and so on. I began to see priests who seemed more liberal in their interpretation of doctrine, who seemed less offended by divorce and pre-marital sex. I thought it almost inevitable that they would rise up; I pictured scores of priests standing up to the Vatican and saying, “We go this way instead!” Clearly, I had a ways yet to go toward wisdom and maturity.

But then something happened. Over the years, as society continued toward greater laxity and moral relativism — more accepting of gay marriage, LBGTQ openness in general across the board, more accepting of divorce and abortion — the Church, under the leadership of the Pope, stood tall and unyielding in its stance against these trends. And I thought — wow — this just might be the only moral constant in the world. I had to respect that . . . and I also had to wonder why.

But to pursue that question, I flipped it on its head, asking, why not? Is there a chance that what we might be confused about what we actually want? — which led to other questions: What would it mean if this actually happened? Would we really wish our faith to be any less than what the Church has proscribed? Would we really want a Church that changes with society’s whims and vacillating moral standards? Would we want the Pope to come out and say, “Young people will not remain celibate, and so we are revising our moral teaching to say that it’s o.k. to live together, to have sex with multiple partners before marrying”? Would we then want to go about the practice of our faith the next day with this new understanding of what morality means? Really? I sort of doubt it.

No, in this way we are like children: we want clear boundaries and standards to strive toward, even if we know they are nearly impossible to meet. We want to know someone or something cares about our striving to become the very best and purest versions of ourselves — even if we aren’t strong enough to fully achieve that version. We want to know someone believes we have the potential, at least.

We don’t really want a Pope, a Church and a God who say to us, “It’s o.k. that you are weak and needy – I understand that you are less than capable of spiritual greatness; don’t worry — you have no hope of being moral, so don’t beat yourself up over it. We’ll be waiting here for you no matter how mediocre and flaccid your efforts are to be decent.” And perhaps that is the essence of Free Will as taught by the Catholic Church — that our God and our Church believe in our potential for spiritual perfection and respect our ability to strive toward it.

In short, I stopped criticizing the Faith when I realized the Church was setting a standard we should aspire to. And following quickly on the heels of this understanding was the realization that this is precisely what a church should do; it’s just that most do not.

As teachers and parents, my wife and I have unfortunately seen that few parents lay down expectations for civil behavior and then hold their children accountable for those standards. Likewise, few religions parent their faithful with expectations and accountability. Instead, they temper their message and go with the flow, gauging the mood of their congregation and keeping an eye toward membership. They seem to focus entirely on the compassion and love, without the expectation to become a better, more Christ-like version of ourselves.

So then, is the Catholic Church expecting us to meet these exceedingly high standards? Well, it’s a bit like parenting, isn’t it? The standards are set, knowing there will be failings, but also that forgiveness will be granted with compassion and love so that we might rise and try again . . . and again.

There’s an honesty in that, and that’s what brought me home.

Transubstantiation: Do We Believe?

From east to west in the Catholic Church, the uniquely sacramental life of the Catholic Church defines us. The sacraments take us from the symbolic or representational to the actual experience of God present in our lives.  To borrow from the trades, it is the difference between surveying a blueprint and walking through the finished home. To borrow from sports and entertainment, it is the difference between studying game film and playing in the championship game; listening to music and playing in a band before a packed house; playing “Wii golf” and teeing off at Edgewood Tahoe; watching Warren Miller’s ski film, Children of Winter, and plunging through three feet of fresh powder; the difference between flipping through Surfer Magazine and paddling out into smooth rolling lefts at Ventura County line.

I published an article a while back in the hopes of generating discussion on a topic I felt compelled to confront personally, and one I felt essential that my fellow Catholics confront as well: the singularly defining doctrine of the Transubstantiation—the premise of the article being that while we claim this belief as the very heart of our faith, vast numbers of the “faithful” do not in fact embrace this doctrine as the Church defines it.

Then this Spring, in an unexpected confluence, Fr. Benedict DeLeon, our Pastor at St. Theresa Church and School in South Lake Tahoe, addressed this very issue with my son’s graduating class at their Confirmation rehearsal: he called them to account for their response to the Eucharist, and specifically to the unique belief of our Faith in the Transubstantiation. Clearly he considered this issue vital to their choice to be confirmed, as well he should, and he earned my appreciation and respect for doing so.

But how often does that happen—that a priest confronts the faithful over whether they truly believe and have faith in this central doctrine? How much more often do our clergy simply “turn a blind eye,” knowing in their hearts that a significant portion of their congregation does not truly embrace this central and defining Catholic doctrine?

As mentioned, I published the article and moved on, grateful that Fr. Ben at least addressed the topic with my son, but not otherwise preoccupied with it . . . until another conversation happened.

Recently we were at dinner with friends—a Catholic schoolteacher and her husband. Conversation turned to the verbiage of the “new” mass, and then eventually to the sacrament of the Eucharist. As we tossed around our personal feelings about receiving both species rather than the host only, the teacher’s husband, uttering one of those remarks intended to authoritatively conclude the discussion, exclaimed, “well, it’s all symbolic anyway!” Now, I must admit that this man was not raised Catholic, but converted to share in his wife’s faith; on the other hand, he is the spouse of a Catholic schoolteacher. Rarely have I winced so openly. I was floored . . . and momentarily speechless. But as that moment passed, I realized that I was strangely at the same time not so shocked . . . due in part to that earlier article I wrote.

My wife and I chimed in response, “No—it’s actually not,” which probably did little to affect him, but I did concede that many, if not most Catholics, probably think as he does, even while practicing the sacrament and attending mass year in and year out. And I stand by my opinion: “most” means the majority, and I believe that includes a significant number who even convince themselves that they believe in the actual, present Body and Blood of Christ—those who are confident that they share the doctrinal view—but in reality do not. Let’s face it: we are not a culture concerned with detail and nuance any longer, and the line between transubstantiation and what amounts to consubstantiation for many Catholics blurs into a meaningless distinction. Even the fact that most perceive this difference as one of “nuance,” when it is in fact the difference between being Catholic and not being Catholic, serves to illustrate the dire condition of the faithful.

I would bet that if you passed out copies of the Daily Missal to a group of Catholics and asked them to locate the moment at which the transubstantiation occurs, even prompting with “the consecration,” you would find something less like informed consistency and more like hesitant guessing and uncertainty.

Now, I’m not suggesting we go around trying to trip our Catholic friends up as if they’re game show contestants, but it does invite another series of questions: why do we no longer call attention to the moment as in the past with the ringing of the bells? Why not make it clearer in the missal for that matter—so we Catholics can see for ourselves, so we can show our children, and so we can show those not of our faith exactly what we believe and where it occurs with confidence? Why not label the moment “The Consecration” at least? Too literal? Too crass? — Is ignorance preferable?

Jump to the pragmatic and practical concerns of the Church today: times are tough in every sense of the phrase. The Church has found itself in the position of not wanting to risk further alienating Catholics and non-Catholics alike, while maintaining the strength and authority of its guidance here and throughout the world. Understandably, challenging believers’ devotion to a doctrine—even such a central and defining one—is hardly atop the Catholic Church’s “to do” list; but at the same time, can the Church—can we its Body—afford not to challenge one another and ourselves over this tenet? Can our Faith survive if it is based on a flawed premise? For that matter, can the Church itself survive if it indulges its faithful in a comfortable and convenient illusion? To do so is to invite a climate of relativism, and at a time we can least afford it: in short, one either believes that the Body and Blood ARE Christ present, or that they merely represent or symbolize Christ present.

The difference that defines such relativism is akin to a photo of a wave rolling meekly ashore versus an actual wave one finds himself paddling into on a surfboard—scratching desperately after its unrelenting momentum, feeling its inexorable pull, popping up to one’s feet just as the board noses down and into the suction of the wave face, joining its force, entering its consuming and cresting arch where symbiosis and fluidity unite; and even after that initial soaring, when the close-out comes—tumbling helplessly but with full commitment into the powerful wash and thunderous roll toward the shore, rendering surfer utterly dependent on the force of the wave (after all, it didn’t come those thousands of miles for nothing) before breaking at last into that gasping for air and light, granted only as the wave is spent . . . but now both are one and are changed by the experience.

Perhaps today, at such a moment in the history of our Catholic Church, such allowances and indulgences of Sacramental interpretation may seem small—as minute amounts of moisture to a concrete foundation . . . but in the end, that moisture freezes—contracting and expanding, inviting mildew, and eventually erosion, crumbling and disintegrating under the weight of the structure it supports, which topples to the ground, rots and decays, disappears into the eternity of soil.

FilceMike Filce lives in South Lake Tahoe, attends St. Theresa Church and teaches English at South Tahoe High School. His wife, Anne, is a teaching-principal at St. Theresa Catholic School; his daughter, Cara, attended St. Theresa School since kindergarten and is now a 10th grader at South Tahoe High School; his son, Charlie, is entering the eighth grade at St. Theresa.

Transubstantiation: A Church Divided

This article written by Mike Filce was originally published on “The Devout Life,” a blog by Mindy Goorchenko. Reprinted with permission.

A Church Divided

We are a church divided. And though it is a division that goes unspoken and unseen, it is one that tears at the very heart of our Faith. This is not a division over abortion, premarital and extramarital sex, or other hot-button issues, but one more firmly rooted in the foundations of our faith than any other issue. It is over the doctrine of Transubstantiation.

The Singularly Defining Doctrine

We Catholics promulgate the idea that “Jesus comes to us physically because of his great love for us,” and that “Divine power changes bread and wine into the real body and blood of Christ, and he dwells physically on earth in every tabernacle, and comes physically into us in Holy Communion.”

Yet many who profess to be Catholic do not fully embrace this singularly defining doctrine.

When we strip away the creeds that we espouse, when we remove the icons, vestments, the accoutrements of Mass, the Penitential and Communion rites, the Liturgies of the Word and the Eucharist, even the Sacraments as a whole, what makes the Catholic faith different?

While all these are certainly integral and vital elements of our faith, the greatest difference, and arguably the most controversial, is the Catholic belief in the doctrine of Transubstantiation. It is our understanding of the Eucharist and what happens to it during the consecration, that separates Catholics from all others. This one issue raises the stakes. It defines and distinguishes Catholics from all other Christians.

Transubstantiation v. Consubstantiation

The Fourth Lateran Council first used the term “transubstantiation” in 1215 to explain Christ’s remarks, “This is my body” and “This is my blood,” (New American, Mk 14:22, 24) as applied to the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.

Two key events highlight the origins of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. First, in Capernaum, Jesus said to the Jews:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (New American, John 6:53–58) Later, at the Last Supper, we hear that Christ…

“…took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to [the apostles], saying, ‘This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you.’”(New American, Luke 22: 19-20).

In 1517, just over three hundred years from the Fourth Lateran Council, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses appeared, attacking the Catholic Church. Luther essentially believed in Consubstantiation, a term meaning that Christ is present, but the bread and wine are present as well. This is opposed to the Catholic view that the bread and wine are no longer bread and wine, but truly and actually the body and blood of Christ.

Hardly a distinction, some might say, but a distinction that defines, separates, and challenges the very core of our faith.

What the Church Teaches

Partly in response to Luther and others of like mind, The Council of Trent later reconfirmed the Catholic dogma in 1551, declaring “anathema” anyone who denied “that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the blood” (Session 13, Canon 2).

From that moment forward, to deny this doctrine became “extremely serious, for the Church teaches infallibly that Christ is present through transubstantiation.” Thus, whatever its origins, “the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation sets up a mighty bulwark around the dogma of the Real Presence and constitutes in itself a distinct doctrinal article.”

In recent times, the doctrine has been reaffirmed, as in Pope John Paul II’s 2003 Encyclical Letter, Ecclesia de Eucharista, “The sacramental re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice, crowned by the resurrection, in the Mass involves a most special presence which—in the words of Paul VI—“is called ‘real’ not as a way of excluding all other types of presence as if they were ‘not real,’ but because it is a presence in the fullest sense: a substantial presence whereby Christ, the God-Man, is wholly and entirely present.” This sets forth once more the perennially valid teaching of the Council of Trent.

In order to reach an even wider audience, the following passage was included in the Second Edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1374):

“The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as “the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend.” (St. Thomas Aquinas) In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.”

In short, the Catholic Church is unambiguous in its interpretation of the last supper and the Eucharist. The unequivocal truth, according to Catholicism, is that the bread and wine, at the time we receive them, ARE the body and blood of Christ.

It Goes Against Reason?

Nonetheless, for many it is a difficult doctrine to “swallow.” According to John Young, theologian and philosopher, “Protestants reject transubstantiation, and so do many Catholic scholars. The average Catholic is vague concerning the nature of the Eucharistic presence of Christ, and one can sympathize with him, in view of the lack of clear teaching about the Most Blessed Sacrament.”

He further asserts, “The basic objection to the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence is not that it is against Scripture, but that it is against reason.” Theologian and professor at Virginia Seminary, Charles P. Price similarly believes that “most Catholics, without realizing it or perhaps considering it, actually believe in Consubstantiation,” as did Luther, and even a Catholic would be hard-pressed to refute the allegation.

And so, we go about the practice of our religion—attending mass regularly, supporting our parish schools, participating in the sacraments, and most importantly, walking up the aisle, answering “Amen,” and taking the host into our body, returning unchallenged to our pews. No one stands up to declare us “anathema” if our acceptance is less than wholehearted, for who besides God can know what is in our hearts? Even if we also participate in the sacrament of Reconciliation and confess our sins, Transubstantiation is not a regular topic in the confessional. We remain safe in our unbelief or willful ignorance, by which I refer to the choice not to think about this doctrine. The choice not to discern what precisely it means or what precisely is in our hearts, simply because it is easier that way.

The challenge before the Church and all of us who form her is two-fold: For clerics, perhaps the exigency of the moment is to address this perception directly, to challenge congregants to think deeply, to pray about their faith, because it is faith that is at issue here. Specifically it is that murky region in which reason does not necessarily promote faith. For the laity, it is a call to reflect, to pray, to explore our faith and probe our doubts. Faith is above reason, but faith is not unreasonable.

An Arbitrary Hierarchy

As we do so, we might consider that our faculty of reason is indeed a God-given gift, but it does not make us gods. A brief review of the renaissance or the enlightenment would tell us that our powers of reasoning are evolving, for better or worse, and there is no evidence that this evolution is complete. There is no reason to believe that we are at the apogee of human reason.

From this patently clear truth, it requires no great leap to realize that placing reason before faith, or before anything else for that matter, constitutes an arbitrary hierarchy at the very least. We return to the urgent question before us: Does our faith require reason? Can it only be made secure and abiding through reason? If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then we are talking about something other than faith. Perhaps credence or open-mindedness instead. If, on the other hand, we can acknowledge that reason may not be the highest authority, that reason—perhaps the greatest source of hubris—may in fact tempt us away from belief, then we are much closer to embracing this doctrine, and reaffirming the foundation of our Catholic Faith.

Works Consulted

Bromiley, G. W. Elwell Evangelical Dictionary. BELIEVE Religious, Information Source. 22 September 2005.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition, Vatican City: Liguori Publications, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997.

John Paul II. Encyclical Letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 17 April 2003.

The New American Bible, St. Joseph Edition. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1987.

Pohle, J. “The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume V. K. Knight: Online Edition, 2003. 22 September 2005.

Price, Charles P.. “Consubstantiation: General Information.” BELIEVE Religious.

Young, John, B.Th.. “Transubstantiation and reason.” 23 September 2005.

Mike Filce lives in South Lake Tahoe, attends St. Theresa Church and teaches English at South Tahoe High School. His wife, Anne, is a teaching-principal at St. Theresa Catholic School; his daughter, Cara, attended St. Theresa School since kindergarten and is now a 10th grader at South Tahoe High School; his son, Charlie, is entering the eighth grade at St. Theresa.