In a recent BBC interview, Anthony Fauci reflects on his own “complicated” relationship with the Catholic Church. Fauci and the reporter are strolling the corridors of his new place of work, the Jesuit-run Georgetown University—where his wife studied, the two married, and their children were born.

Passing the chapel where they tied the knot, the reporter admires its beauty. Fauci agrees: “Yeah. It’s really nice.” Does he still go there? “No.” Does he practice the faith? Again, an immediate no. Why not, she wonders? He answers,

“A number of complicated reasons. . . . First of all, I think my own personal ethics in life are I think enough to keep me going on the right path. And I think that there are enough negative aspects about the organizational Church, that you are very well aware of. I’m not against it. I identify myself as a Catholic. I was raised, I was baptized, I was confirmed, I was married in the Church. My children were baptized in the Church. But as far as practicing it, it seems almost like a pro forma thing that I don’t really need to do.”

Fauci is divisive as a public health figure — and his merits in this area are not my concern here — but many, indeed most, baptized Catholics would find this to be a respectable take on religion. Almost half of those raised Catholic leave the Church and never return; yet many in that group are “cultural Catholics” who still identify as Catholic in some way, or “ex-Catholics” who still touch base with the institutional Church on occasion.

And of all those who identify as Catholic — including those who came back, or never left — sizable majorities disagree with or are doubtful of the Church’s moral or theological teachings. Fauci is just one voice in a veritable sea of souls who understand what it means to be Catholic in a similar way.

The problem with this worldview — one evident even to an impartial observer with no skin in the game — is not so much, as practicing Catholics often claim, that such Catholics cannot really be called or counted as “Catholic” in some fundamental sense. There is truth to the old saying: “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” In fact, the Code of Canon Law treats all baptized Catholics above the age of reason as bound by the Church’s ecclesiastical laws—that is, as Catholic. The Church remains, as ever, a patient mother, waiting with open arms to welcome her children back home.

No, the problem is that such Catholics, to borrow from Kierkegaard, fail to “become what they are.” They live in a state of what the existentialists called inauthenticity: play-acting as what they are not. This charade runs in both directions: they are Catholic, yet reduce religion to personal ethics and deny any need of the institutional Church; they become worldly, yet keep the Church at their disposal for academic degrees, special occasions, or times of crisis.

They are neither believers nor unbelievers, but passengers; neither wayward prodigal sons in a far country nor loyal elder brothers at home, but aimless middle brothers who come and go as they please. Churches are nice, they admit, but not that nice; they are not against attending them, they aver, but are too busy to do it themselves. They are, in fact, the true pro forma Catholics — too tepid to inhabit their own tradition but also too timid to leave it behind. They want to have their cake but still eat it….

From Catholic World Report