A generation ago, Catholics like Mary McCarthy, John O'Hara and F. Scott Fitzgerald were intent on explanining, either in public memoirs or private grimping, why they had left the Church. Today, Catholics are publicly confessing why they stay. John Delaney, a former editor at Doubleday and one of the persons responsible for that house's solid record of publishing in theology and philosophy, asked eight loyalists "to articulate their belief" in this area of "changes and upheavals."

In reading through these essays - by Sidney Callahan, John Deedy, Andrew Greeley, James Hitchcock, Candida Lund, Richard P. Mcbrien, Abigail Mccarthy, Fulton J. Sheen - it is obvious, once more, that the country priest of Bernanas had it right: The Church has room for all, "goats included."

Happily, only one chewer of tin cans is in this collection, the Rev. Greeley, who whines in self-pity because he thinks his fellow priests enviously resent "the modest recognition that my work has earned."

Outside of Greeley, what we have here is a mix of thoughtful men and women who are so committed to their Christianity that they are not about to let their Catholicism interfere.

They are aware that the plurality of the Church refers as much to its diversity of peoples as to its diversity of roles: the juridical Church, the pastoral Church, the capitalistic Church, can become ends in themselves and create any number of defects, from the worldliness of a Jesuit's rectory to the lines of a Pallotine's fund-raising pitch. With the American Church free of persecution, the defects from within become the lions to which the modern Christian is thrown.

Yet, amid the shreds, the faith becomes stronger. John Deedy, a journalist formerly with Commonweal, writes that whatever the law points within Catholicism "they are less frequent for me than they used to be. I can still get annoyed by the leadership's political involvements and the zealousness that it brings to issues of wider public concern than the denominational, including abortion and aid to parochial schools. At the same time, I would rather be a member of a Church whose excesses were on the side of life and the improved human condition than of a Church with no excesses at all and hardly anything to distinguish if from a kind of democratic humanism."

I found it bracing that the essayists shared their hearty reasons for maintaining membership in the institutional church. But at the same time, I was disappointed that none spoke of the financial costs of that membership. How much in hard cash are they paying for the benefits they so obviously cherish? These are eight Catholics - four laypeople, three priests and one siste - but we are not given a word about money. If the book was about belief only, financial disclosures would be irrelevant. But it is about membership. We should have been told the dues.

If we are left to guess about this matter, another comes through with certainty: that being born into Catholicism has much to do with current affiliation. Five of the eight say so explicitly. Only one of the eight actively speculates on the accident of the eight actively speculates on the accident of birth. "If I had been born a Protestant," writes the Rev. McBrien of Boston College, "it is more than likely that I should still be a Protestant, just as Martin Marty, George Lindbeck, James Gustafson, and other Protestant theologians I admire and respect remain faithful to their particular traditions. . . Had I been born a Jew, I should probably still be a a Jew, lodged theologically somewhere between Reform and Conservative."

Catholic teaching holds as rubbish the notion that one religion is as good as another, but the idea of Roman Catholicism as "the one true church" has bloodies the world for centuries with crusades, pogroms, holy wars and inquisitions. Until further evidence comes in, perhaps in a few thousand years if things move quickly, it must be assumed that being born into a Catholic family is a chancy an event as being born to Hinduism. But a dangerous mindset persists: Archbishop Sheen writes that "I am a Catholic because the Lord, through no merits of mine, willed to lift me from the weak and fallen human state to that of sharing His Divine Life. . . One is a Catholic by the Grace of God." But why is God stingy with grace for other people, which means most of the non-Catholic planet?

Most of the essayists stay above this useless "true church" sargument.

Sensibly, their message is that life is too brief to fret about religions. It is consuming enough to be religious, or as one of the saints said to "Be wyo you are, but be that perfectly".

That is much the beauty of this collection. The contributors (except for Greeley) are proselytizers not for a religion but for a strong expression of that religion. Except for the economics of their membership, they write instructively and candidly about the nature of Catholicism and their own Catholic natures. Any would religion, so many of which are misunderstood by the practitioners as well as outsiders, would be bolstered by members who can keep the faith so strongly while sharing their thoughts about it so clearly.