Mean Catholics

I once had an argument with a non-Christian friend about a point of Christian apologetics. I thought I came off pretty well in the debate, and I was hoping my friend would concede the point.  Instead, he said something I was not expecting. “But Dave,” he said, “I just don’t like Christians.” Ouch! Truth is a lot less persuasive if you can’t stand the person delivering it.

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I hear this a lot in my work with non-Catholics. I sometimes ask, “What is keeping you from becoming a Catholic?” Not infrequently they answer, “Catholics. Catholics are my biggest obstacle to becoming Catholic.” I am reminded of what Mahatma Gandhi said, “I like your Christ.  I don’t like your Christians.”  This is something the Holy Father, Pope Francis, has also spoken about. In a Wednesday audience (October 29, 2014), he complained about mean Catholics: “if this or that person is a Christian,” someone might say, “then I shall become an atheist.”

So what should we do about the problem of mean Catholics? One option, historically, has been Puritanism.  Puritans are those who are sure they know who the “real” Christians are.  They reject everyone else.  In colonial New England, for example, Puritans wouldn’t let you receive the sacraments, or become a minister or even vote in civil elections or run for office if you couldn’t “prove” you were one of the “real” Christians. Puritanism is attractive because it seems to solve the problem of bad Christians. We write them off as “not really Christian” and withdraw into our sect.

But Puritanism doesn’t work. New England Puritans from the very beginning split up into factions, each one sure they were the “real Christians” and that everyone else was a mere pretender. Puritanism is also unfaithful to the teaching of Jesus. In the parable of the tares, the Lord teaches there are good and bad in the Church. “Let them grow together until the harvest,” he said. (Matthew 13: 24-30)

We must avoid Puritanism, furthermore, because we can make mistakes about who the “good” and “bad” Catholics really are. It’s very easy to think the “good Catholics” are those we feel comfortable with, those who look or sound like us.  But the best Catholics may be the ones who go unnoticed, like the poor widow in the gospel. “Do you see this poor widow,” Jesus said, “She put in more than all the rest.” (Luke 21:3)

We may also misjudge who is really mean or bad. In 1944, the Anglican theologian and lay apologist C.S. Lewis gave an address called “The Inner Ring.” He pointed out that in most organizations or societies there are confidential discussions, unofficial hierarchies, and intimate circles that exclude us.  One of our strongest temptations is to resent that exclusion, even when it is perfectly innocent.  Sometimes we may call someone “mean,” simply because we envy their friends or influence.

But I don’t deny that there are truly “mean” peple in the church. There are the self-absorbed, the narcissistic, and the materialistic.  There are also the cocky, doctrinaire, holier-than-thou Pharisees. Jesus told us to expect this. We find both types even among his disciples. (Judas was a money grubber and a traitor. James and John could be unforgiving and censorious.)

So, again, what do we do? The solution is to remember why Christ founded the Church. The Church is not an exclusive social club for saints. It’s a hospital for sinners. The whole liturgical and sacramental system of the Chruch presumes that we will sin against each other. “If you remember your brother has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and be reconciled to your brother.” (Matthew 5:23)  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” “I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters. . .

The truth is we need our sinful, mean, fellow Catholics. The Church is supposed to be like a sacrament, a sign and instrument of union between God and neighbor. We are supposed to show the world how to forgive, how to overcome differences, how to “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:7)  If everyone were beautiful and easy, what kind of heroic charity would we need? Like in marriage, we enter the Church starry-eyed and full of wonder. But reality sets in eventually and the work begins. “But the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 24:13)

I went to Mass recently with a friend who complained to me, “These aren’t my people. I don’t have anything in common with them.” Exactly. Where else can you find a bunch of people (some nice, some mean), thrown together, with nothing in common, but pledged to get along no matter what.  Jesus gives us the example. As St. Paul once said, “For a good man, someone might dare to die. But God showed his love for us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

7 thoughts on “Mean Catholics

  1. Christopher

    The thing to do is not to follow the example of some people around us, but to remember what Christ and His Church really teach on how to live our lives, follow that example, and surround ourselves with people who try their best to do the same. I’m not saying that we should hate or condemn the others, but why should we follow their example or be around them? Could it not have a profound influence on us? I would think so.

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  2. Adam

    Christopher,
    You say – ‘Could it not have a profound influence on us? I would think so.’
    It could, but it could have a profound influence on them too. How else can we witness Christ to others unless we do ‘proclaim’ our witness through contact with those who do not have Christ in their lives 🙂

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  3. Christopher

    I see your point. Unfortunately, though, how we conduct ourselves is not going to influence every single person around us. I like the way Dr. Anders puts it on “Called To Communion” when this issue comes up on the program: “In the Church, there are good people and there are bad people”. That’s a simple way to explain it to anybody he brings up the priest scandal, or just the way that some lay Catholics behave. It’s simple and direct.

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  4. Doug

    How beautiful this post is in callin us to recognize we are all sinners saved by grace. I was in fellowship much like the Puritan sect described and I enjoyed the clarity and certainty of knowing who was in and out. At the same time I was not growing as a Christian and instead may have been regressing as I retreated into the safe confines of our elect group and avoided contact with the “world” that could introduce uncertainty. Since I have begun to embrace Catholicism my heart has opened up to the world in compassion and love while judgmentalism has subsided as I understand Jesus truly became human. Theough rosary I realize we are all sinners and in need of prayer from our Holy mother and others. What a blessing the Cathiloic church has been although I am not yet a member I hooe to be soon. Please pray for me. Thanks.

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  5. Matteo

    I have noticed something about people who “don’t like Christians.” They know that Christ calls them to walk away from the world (Mt. 4:19 & 9:9) and their sins (John 8:11). But they like their sins. To such people Christians are a standing rebuke.

    Our Lord also tells us to expect the world to hate us as it hated Him.

    John 15:18: “If the world hate you, know ye, that it hath hated me before you.”

    There may be some harsh Christians but I don’t know any. So why the perceived rebuke? When a believer shines the light of Christ (Mt. 5:16), even even feebly, sinners see their sin. This hurts. When unbelievers say they just “don’t like Christians,” what they are really saying is, “Don’t force me to see my sin.”

    For this reason, when people seek to change Church teaching and practice to accommodate fornicators, adulterers, sodomites, etc., they are working to quench (if it were possible) the lamp of Truth by which sinners recognize their need for redemption in Jesus Christ.

    Christ is, as 1 Peter2:8 says, “… a stone of stumbling, and a rock of scandal, to them who stumble at the word, neither do believe, whereunto also they are set.”

    That’s just how it is.

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