Who are the 'real' Catholics?

The good news about the Catholic Church is it’s like a big family. The bad news about the Catholic Church is ... it’s like a big family. 

It’s not a secret that the big family called the Catholic Church is “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic” while we members of the Catholic Church are often fragmented, sinful, prone to sectarianism and often so consumed with internecine squabbling that we have no time to be apostolic. It’s complicated and can sometimes result in a destructive feedback loop.

Culturally Catholic

So, for instance, some Catholics take an accommodationist approach to the world and become sponges for whatever the going thing is in pop culture. Stretching the word “catholicity” well past the breaking point, some will accept anything — even things flatly incompatible with the Faith such as denial of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, abortion, casual rejection of the Real Presence, goddess worship, even atheism — as somehow falling under the Big Tent of our Big Family of Faith. So we can run into the strange spectacle of people who call themselves “Catholic” while rejecting large swaths of Catholic teaching which the Church herself regards as non-negotiable — beginning with bothering to go to Mass. 

Such folk often see “Catholic” as a sort of ethnicity into which one happens to have been born rather than as any identifiable body of doctrine or practice to which one is bound. Their attitude to the teaching office of the Church is something like that of a young buck to a grandparent whom he regards as old-fashioned and out of touch. They say things like, “Just because I don’t buy what the old guy says doesn’t mean I’m not a member of the family.”  

There may well still be various streaks of old-fashioned Catholic piety present (lighting candles to pray, holy medals treasured, automatic “Hail Marys” in times of crisis). But the way in which such folk relate to God and the Church is often not particularly connected with a well-formed understanding of what the Church actually teaches, nor with how it relates to ordinary human existence.  

The principal teacher for many such folk is the television, radio and Internet, and the accidents of one’s political and cultural associations at work, the bar, the gym or the classroom. The idea of cracking open the Catechism of the Catholic Church often never occurs to such folk. 

This can be very baffling to those who recognize that Jesus meant business when he said to the apostles and their heirs, the bishops, “Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (Lk 10:16). Those who have struggled to the point where, even through agonizing pain, they feel bound to say “I believe all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims is revealed by God” can be shocked (and rightly so) at this cavalier attitude to the revelation of God — a revelation that did, after all, cost our Lord crucifixion and his Church untold numbers of martyrs. Not surprisingly, there are strong reactions among such folk to those who treat doctrine and obedience lightly. 

St. Peter
Jesus chose St. Peter, a ‘shuffler,’ to head the Church. Thinkstock

Modern-day Pharisees

But sometimes there’s something else that happens as well. As our general Western culture becomes more and more overtly hostile to the Church, there can begin to be a growing fear and even contempt for Catholics who are perceived less and less as members of the Church and more and more as fifth columnists: enemies within who are, as the phrase goes, “Catholics in Name Only.” 

Catholics falling into the grip of this reaction can then begin to embrace the opposite evil from that of their lax brethren. They can make the same mistake that some Jews did 2,000 years ago when they saw their countrymen going over to the immorality and paganism of Greek culture and abandoning the traditions and customs of Israel. They can start to regard themselves as “separated ones” — “Pharisees” is what they were called in ancient Aramaic. More and more, a gimlet eye begins to be trained on fellow Catholics in the suspicion that they are subverting True Catholic Faith. An insidious fear and contempt takes root as the duty of charity is replaced by the habit of searching more and more for the telltale sign of an impure heart beating in the breast of a seeming brother or sister. 

As the fever grows, the Church itself comes under suspicion for failure to banish, punish and discipline impurity. No longer is the focus merely on those who openly and nakedly defy the Church over such clear and obvious doctrines as the Real Presence in the Eucharist or the morality of abortion or homosexual acts.  

The circle of suspicion expands to matters of liberty and trivialities elevated to the level of dogma. Women who wear pants — or those who wear chapel veils — or folks who receive Communion in the hand — or those who receive it on their knees — fall under the vehement suspicion that they are not “real Catholics.” Vigilante lay inquisitors begin to emerge, urging ostracism for things which the Church herself treats as matters of liberty.

Caught in the middle

The lax Catholic does not, of course, find himself chastened or called to deeper conversion by this spectacle. If he notices it at all — which is unlikely if he hasn’t been to Mass in several years — he finds himself affirmed in his laxity, reasoning that if this increasingly bitter and loveless inquisition is what “real” Catholic faith is, then no thanks. He will also, quite mistakenly, wind up using this farrago of majoring in minors to justify his own willingness to ignore majoring in majors such as the creed, the sacraments, and the virtues. As C.S. Lewis says: Opposite evils, so far from balancing, aggravate each other. 

Meanwhile, ordinary people in the middle of this ecclesial Cold War often have no idea what’s going on as they walk into the sectarian minefield. A person prays, does works of mercy, raises his kids, works hard, goes to Mass and afterward, at the coffee hour, mentions something interesting he read recently — only to be abruptly iced out of the conversation for the unwitting sin of having read the article by The Wrong Person in The Wrong Magazine. 

All this is as old as the New Testament. St. Paul was caught in the vice grip of a similar factional spirit. For some Greek Christians, he was seen as hopelessly unsophisticated because of his crude belief in the resurrection of the body when all advanced thinkers knew that such things could not occur (see 1 Cor 15). Contrarily, for some Jewish Christians, he was regarded as a sinister progressivist and enemy of traditional Messianic faith because he did not bind Gentiles to the ceremonial laws of Moses. 

A last resort

In short, in every age there have been a) Catholics who don’t much feel like acting or thinking as Catholics; b) Catholics eager to find such people and kick them and anybody who might smell a bit like them out of the Church for the sake of purity; c) ordinary people caught in the middle and d) the Church herself, trying to shepherd this vast herd of cats toward heaven. 

So, what do ordinary Catholics, caught in this tension between Holy Church and its often obstreperous members, do? 

The pattern is laid out by our Lord: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church. If he refuses to listen even to the Church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” (Mt 18:15-17). 

Of course, as priest scandals have sometimes shown, taking problems to the Church is not a foolproof method for remedy and, when actual crimes and not mere disagreements are in the mix, we may have to take our problem to Caesar, who does not, as St. Paul notes, bear the sword in vain (Rm 13). 

But such things are, in fact, quite rare in the life of the Church and there is no need to go nuclear and dredge up the abuse scandal every time some vigilante layman feels ticked about a tasteless felt banner in the sanctuary. Most of our quarrels in the Church, like most of our quarrels in the family, are not about molestation and murder, but about relatively small things. The urge to purge is, therefore, usually part of the problem, not part of the solution. Laity who are overly fond of demanding banishment, ostracism and excommunication as first responses to problems in the Church have as healthy an approach to the body of Christ as anorexics have to their own body. 

And no small part of this is due to the fact that you can’t kick people out of a Church they aren’t going to. After all, many of the problems of the casual Catholicism described above typify people who don’t go to Mass anymore. So when Catholics take their anger out on fellow Catholics for these problems, they often wind up taking it out on people who are still going to Mass and trying, by their best lights, to be good Catholics. 

Ditching fear

This is why Jesus tells the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares and reminds us that it is only at the close of the age that “the Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (Mt 13:24-30; 36-43

This brings us to the last point: ditching fear and embracing God’s confident love. St. Paul says, “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control” (2 Tm 1:7). Jesus tells Peter that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church. That’s an image from ancient warfare. It means that the Church is the battering ram and hell is the besieged city. But how often do we talk as though the Church is on the ropes, evil forces are tunneling under our houses and we are helpless before hell’s onslaught? 

When we ditch fear and embrace love, we don’t have to adopt a habit of suspicion toward our neighbor. We already know they are sinners — like us — but we also know that greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world (1 Jn 4:4). 

Mark Shea writes the Catholic and Enjoying blog and is the author of “The Heart of Catholic Prayer: Opening the Our Father and the Hail Mary” (OSV, $12.95), to be released next spring. 

Grace is perfected in weakness

There is and always has been evil working in a partly hidden way in the life of the Church. Right from the start, the apostolic college has one whom Jesus calls a “devil” in its midst. Likewise, John warns about how Antichrist is already busy with his dirty work (see 1 Jn 2:18-19). There is chaos and division in the Church right from the start. Jesus’ point is that we cannot embrace the impulse to Puritanism, the notion that all we have to do are just get rid of the people we deem “false Catholics” and then the Church will be fixed. Such human attempts at percussive maintenance nearly always cause more damage than they fix. It’s the first, simplest and most infallibly wrong solution to the problem of evil, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn summed up the error nicely when he said, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” 

Jesus, anticipating our tendency toward Phariseeism, did something remarkable when he founded the Church. As G.K. Chesterton points out:

“When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing his great society, he chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward — in a word, a man. And upon this rock he has built his Church, and the gates of hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing — the historic Christian Church — was founded upon a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.” 

The first practical conclusion we should draw from this as laypeople is that we must fight sin and evil in the Church and labor for the sanctification of its members, but not waste time trying to figure out who is and is not “really” a Catholic. For it wasn’t just Judas who was a devil. Jesus called Peter “Satan,” too. But Peter wound up all right. A too-hasty push to purge the Church of allegedly second-rate Catholics of dubious fidelity would have pushed Peter out, too. Indeed, nobody seems to have noticed that Judas was the real problem because Peter got all the rebukes. We’re lousy judges. 

For similar reasons, it is wise to remember that God is, as George MacDonald once remarked, “easy to please, but hard to satisfy.” This means that we should do our best to cut everybody else slack while we make as few excuses for ourselves as possible. So, we should and can argue with a fellow Catholic when we think him wrong, but we argue against their ideas and actions, not speculate on questions like “Is he a real Catholic?”  

None of us will be fully real Catholics until we get to heaven, but God is pleased even with our stumbles if we are trying to obey him. At one time or another — namely, every time you ever sinned in thought, word, or deed — you denied the same Faith a fellow Catholic may be denying now. But Christ is still there, interceding for them as he interceded for you. 

Further reading: Wisdom of St. Paul and Uncle Screwtape