Someone once said that an atheist who is searching may be closer to God than a Catholic who believes he has God in the palm of his hand. I think that’s pretty true.
As a “cradle-Catholic” (one who is born and raised in the Catholic Church), I have seen firsthand that Catholicism has many shades and means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Recently an opinion article was published in the New York Times about Catholicism, particularly American Catholicism, in light of the papacy of Pope Francis. The article illustrates the range of “catholicism” from those who advocate against the reforms of Vatican II, desiring a return to the Traditional Latin Mass to those who have been ex-communicated by the Vatican and still retain the term “Catholic” for the name of their congregations. The author, Peter Manseau, writes,
Who is a Catholic? Is it a matter of baptism? Belief? Loyalty? Psychology? For some, the answer depends on tests of political purity. For others, who may no longer receive the sacraments but continue to identify with the faith, “once a Catholic, always Catholic” is not just a principle of canon law (semel catholicus, semper catholicus), but the diagnosis of a chronic condition.
In my own experience I have encountered this very diversity. I’ve seen stale Catholicism where the teachings and lifestyle of the faith take no root, yet people collect Sacraments and perform rituals out of some kind of perfunctory superstition. Fortunately, these Catholics seem to be out of the fray, where the more heated division takes place between two opposing yet active extremes. I’ve seen Catholic angst from more left-leaning, progressive Catholics who seem to disregard the institutional Church as being completely bass ackwards, along with many of the Church’s teachings, in pursuit of a more ecumenical and anarchist, yet elusive ideal rooted solely in what is written in the Gospels without the context of 2000 years of history and interpretation. But I have also encountered more right-leaning, traditionalist Catholics who frequently exclaim “So and so is NOT Catholic” and who seek to define the in-group and out-group, clinging to the letter of the law as their basis for making such distinctions, while utterly ignoring the reality that the exclusion they espouse is explicitly counter to the inclusion Jesus preached.
Frankly, this is nothing new. Jesus dealt with the same binary reality, being condemned both by Jews and Romans alike in his effort to admonish hypocrisy, preach reform, and call everyone on to a higher, but more challenging way of life: one of compassion, solidarity, and love, not of condemnation and finger pointing.
The focus on the lack of consensus over the semantics of the label “CATHOLIC” really serves to create more division than unity and it distracts us from the higher calling and meaning of our lives, which is to look outside of ourselves and follow a higher calling, one to love and serve God, the Greatest Love and Lover of All. And, inconveniently enough, we are called to love and serve that very Love in one another, without exception. Additionally, the preoccupation with the precise definition of the word and how to apply it (aka: who’s in and who’s out), serves to disrupt our own personal spirituality. We become distracted from discovering our own deeper identity and calling by being concerned about comparisons to others.
Fear versus Fear
At least for the sake of linguistics, let’s take a look at the root of this nebulous word, Catholic. The word “catholic” comes from the Greek term meaning “universal” or the phrase “on the whole”. When I picture the word “universal”, I imagine a broad expanse of outer space, distant galaxies and stars, unfathomable distance, a mind-blowing reality.
One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to Scripture (see Isaiah 11:2-3) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church is the term “Fear of the Lord” or “Wonder and Awe”. When I look up at the night sky (maybe not in LA, but in general) and try to comprehend the vastness of space, of time, of existence, I am filled with Wonder and Awe and I realize how small I am, and how little I really know. And even breaking it down the other way, when I ponder how infinitesimally small subatomic particles are, and yet they make up all matter, again, I wonder where do I fit in to this all? And how, in the midst of the infinitely large and infinitely small, do I exist and see order? Okay, I realize I’m getting pretty existential, but these are the kinds of concepts that are meant to be at the heart of religion, and at the heart of Catholicism. We are meant to realize our smallness and our fragility in light of something (or Someone) much greater and more mysterious that we are. And in that, we are meant to realize our intrinsic connectedness in this broad, enigmatic scheme of our own existence.
So just to clarify, the word “fear” here isn’t referring to fear as in being afraid of God, like he’s gonna strike you with lightning bolts or condemn you. Rather, “fear” refers more to the overwhelming prospect of contemplating infinity or existence or time and space. Truly, fear, as in being afraid and letting those feelings dictate your behavior, is actually condemned in Scripture and in Catholicism. Fear is contrary to love and is frequently discouraged (about 365 times) throughout the Bible. This kind of fear really gets in the way of love, which is what we are all called to, and is what leads to our division. So, just to clarify, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, the cranky nun who said “fear is the heart of love” was either misguided, or you misunderstood her (by the way, I still love “I’ll Follow You Into The Dark“, suuuuch a catchy and poignant song).
In a TED talk on vulnerability by author, researcher and public speaker Brené Brown, she comments on the problem of trying to quantify and make certain things which are intended to be mysterious:
The other thing we do is, we make everything that is uncertain, certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery, to certainty. ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, shut up.’ That’s it. Just certain. The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are. This is what politics looks like today. There’s no discourse anymore. There’s no conversation. There’s just blame.”
How true is that? In America, a country whose collective identity is based on principles of patriotism and liberty (although also undeniably rooted in a history of slavery and oppression), we place a lot of stock in our politics as part of our identity. We are afraid of uncertainty in others and in ourselves, and we seek to make things black and white (or red and blue), no shades of grey (or purple). We see, today, a country that is polarized by its politics, and this absolutely spills over into our religion (or lack thereof) and determines or at least predicts a lot of how we include or alienate people. Ironically, this is not at the heart of the Gospel, and is contrary to Christianity. In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 12, Verses 22-28, we read,
Then they brought to him a demoniac who was blind and mute. He cured the mute person so that he could speak and see. All the crowd was astounded, and said, “Could this perhaps be the Son of David?”But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “This man drives out demons only by the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” But he knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste, and no town or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself; how, then, will his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own people drive them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
The context of this passage is that Jesus has command over “unclean spirits” and he drives out demons. People cannot seem to understand where his power comes from and they accuse him of being in league with Satan. They fear what they do not understand (familiar?). He rebukes this in pointing out that it wouldn’t make much sense to be driving away some of his own. How often are we misunderstood in our own actions, when our intentions are to heal and to stand up for what is just? We encounter opposition all the time, but we see in Jesus solidarity with those who are misunderstood and oppressed, and he points out that God is also on our side. God is on the side of righteousness (not self-righteousness). With this in mind, we must try to keep our egos and our fears out of our decision making, and act out of love, vulnerability and faith.
Whether we are religious or not, and regardless of how we decide to define the parameters of “Catholicism”, Jesus gives us some advice that we can all benefit from, that our Church, our country, our society, the human family, cannot stand when it is divided. We are called to embrace our diversity of opinions and to seek to understand and build solidarity with those who are different from us. Yes, there is suffering and pain and discomfort in embracing the other, but it is better to sit with one another united in that discomfort, rather than to “discharge [our] pain and discomfort” (Brené Brown, The Power of Vulnerability) with blame onto one another.
Embracing the Grey
A Jesuit priest who was the pastor at the parish I attended in college once told me that the Catholic Church is like a big family reunion. Unlike other congregational churches, often made up of homogenous, like-minded individuals, in the Catholic Church there is a lot more diversity. You’ve got your Tea Party cousins playing Go Fish with your neo-liberal hippie grandparents at one table, while your Libertarian uncle grills burgers with your Green Party third cousin twice-removed whose flipping veggie patties. Regardless of our opinions and politics, we’re all family. The Catholic Church, in its universality, is meant to unify not to divide. The more we strive to find a middle ground, to have compassion for the experiences of others by listening and humbling ourselves, the stronger our “kingdom” will be.
The irony in it all is that we are really not as different as we think. No one really knows it all, and life is not about “being right” but about following our conscience and being true to our inner selves. We all have fears and insecurities, and we’re all just trying to figure out how to live and love in the best way possible. For the most part, we all seek to do good while we’re on earth and to leave it in a better condition than we found it. The 10 Commandments, the rest of Scripture, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church provide a foundation on which to direct our efforts for doing good and loving rightly. But ultimately the light that guides us on our path comes from inside of us, the tiny whispering voice of the Spirit who speaks in the silence of our hearts, and only lights the path one step ahead. We can strive to inform our consciences and to share what wisdom we have with others, but each of us walks our own path. We cannot control what others choose to do or how we each choose to live. All we can do is love each other in our frailty and continue to walk forward in faith, side by side, hand in hand, through the fog of uncertainty.
For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three, but the greatest of these is love. – 1Corinthians 13: 9-13