For 46 years I thought I was smarter than Holy Mother Church. For 23 of those 46 years I attended Mass every week with my very patient and loving Catholic bride, Sandy. This shows you how much I was blinded by my own pride. The example of my wife and a crazy little book she gave me for Christmas in 2002 called “Rome Sweet Home” by Scott Hahn were predominate reasons for my Tiber swim. Some ladies in her Catholic Bible study (for many Catholics and most Protestants “Catholic Bible Study” is an oxymoron, sort of like “jumbo shrimp”) mentioned two former evangelical authors, Scott Hahn and Mark Shea as resources for her confused Protestant husband.
Hahn demonstrated that the primary foundational doctrine of nearly all Protestant ecclesial communities is “Sola Scriptura”. I never considered the idea that this doctrine was a theological assumption rather than a scriptural truth. Shortly after the absorbing the shock of “Rome Sweet Home”, I read Mark Shea’s “By What Authority.” Shea asked the question, “How can a fallible Church define an infallible Canon?” After the one-two punch of Hahn and Shea, my Protestant goose was cooked. I was confirmed at Easter Vigil 2003 and I’ve never regretted the decision for a minute.
America’s Best Kept Secret
Shortly after embracing the sacramental life of the Church, I became filled with the guilt about waiting so long to embrace the happiness and joy that God had waiting for me in the Church. I thought to myself at the time, the Catholic Church has to be “the best kept secret in America” (even after going to mass every week for so many years!). A few years later, when I started my Facebook account, I thought that Facebook and other social media might provide an opportunity to help rectify this problem. I’ve tried to plants some seeds but I have learned that many of the same issues that have prevented people from discovering the fullness of truth remain with the advent of social media and virtual communities.
#1 Some of Us Stay Trapped in Own Echo Chambers
One of the best ways we learn something new is having open, free and respectful dialogs with those who disagree with us. There is absolutely nothing wrong with “agreeing to disagree”. It often takes time for the Holy Spirit to work on us. Unfortunately there is trend today for many of us to stay trapped in our own echo chambers. We end up preaching to the choir. Our existing biases or beliefs (even if based on incorrect assumptions) are amplified or reinforced by when we stay trapped in our own echo chamber. Different or competing views are often censored, disallowed or at a minimum, underrepresented.
The weekend starting Friday, June 26, 2015 had to have broken the record for “unfriending” in the history of Facebook. Unless you were a castaway on a remote island, you would know the SCOTUS decision on gay marriage was the impetuous for the flurry of “unfriending”. Here is a posting from a longtime friend I will refer to as Ms. D.
Ms. D. is a beautiful person with a generous heart and also a lapsed Catholic. I have never unfriended anyone for political or religious reasons. However, I had several high school friends “unfriend” me about 2 years ago when I wrote a post why I supported the traditional definition of marriage. In my posting, I didn’t use one argument from scripture or tradition. I also stated that I cherished my friends that disagreed with me, including those in loving homosexual relationships. I freely acknowledged we live in a post-Christian nation, which means if we are going to discuss issues like abortion or gay marriage, we should offer logic and facts rather than appealing principally to divine revelation.
My argument went something like this:
- New human life is created from the sperm of a man and the egg of a woman. While two homosexuals can demonstrate sacrificial love for each other, they will never be able to give their own gift of fertility to each other in an act of marital unity.
- The differences between men and women are deeper than any social construct. Isn’t it reasonable to suggest that moms and dads bring different gifts to their children?
- From these two principles alone, we can reasonably conclude something that has also been demonstrated by numerous social studies: Children’s best chance of achieving emotional and physical wellbeing happen when they are raised by biological parents who demonstrate a lifelong commitment of total self-donation and sacrificial love for each other.
- Isn’t it likely that the initial reason the state had any interest at all in marriage would have been to establish a culture that promotes stable families?
I didn’t get any responses from my secular leftist friends (like Ms. D.) who simply ignored my post. However, I was flooded with a torrent of negative comments from fellow Christians, most of them practicing Catholics. All of them essentially told me I was wrong about most of my points and essentially called me out lacking compassion for our homosexual brothers and sisters. This brings me to issue #2.
#2 Will the Real (Orthodox) Catholics Please Stand Up?
Here is a recent posting from one of my best Catholic friends, I will call Sister J:
Here is a similar posting from Fr. James Martin SJ:
If a non-Catholic were to read my friend’s post or Father Martin’s post they might think that the Church really has no clear teaching on the definition of marriage. America has been struggling with the question of “What does it mean to be a Catholic?” since Vatican II.
At the time my wife gave me the book by Scott Hahn, I was seriously considering dropping out of RCIA. Our program was led by a religious sister, Sister K. who never wore a habit. (Sister K. used to joke that she “kicked the habit.”) Sister K. was really big on acting according to our “conscience” (although I don’t remember much discussion about the requirement of properly forming our “conscience”).
Sister K. rarely talked about the moral issues but was really keen on her understanding of social justice. Sister K. was also a big promoter of the “spirit of Vatican II”. She would say things like Vatican II did away with the idea of “mortal” sins and we no longer needed to go to confession before receiving the Eucharist. Nearly every week in our class she railed against the papacy and the patriarchal church and how unfair it is that woman can’t be ordained as priests. Once she said that in God’s eyes there is no difference between a Catholic and a Mormon. I thought to myself, “Why am I even here in RCIA if God doesn’t care.”
While I was skeptical of her presentation of the faith at times, I wasn’t versed well enough yet to challenge Sister K. during the year I was confirmed. However, in a subsequent year I participated as a sponsor for another catechumen. By that time I had read most of the Catechism and it was becoming harder to bite my tongue each week. I finally challenged her privately by giving her a seven page letter documenting the contradictions between her presentations and what was in the Catechism. Sister K. said she considered herself to be thoroughly “orthodox” and that I was the one with issues not her. Apparently I had simply converted from being a “fundamentalist” Protestant to being a “fundamentalist” pre-Vatican II Catholic. (Never mind that I love all of the documents of Vatican II and have no problems with the Novus Ordo mass). In addition to our theological differences, sometimes Sister K. and I were at odds on political issues as well.
#3 Politics can be Poisonous to Fruitful Discussions about Faith
When Sister K was teaching us about Catholic Social Teaching (CST) in so many words she said we are all liberal Democrats now. She actually gave a 20 minute stump speech for the pro-abortion presidential candidate, also a catholic, John Kerry. She agreed completely with his statement that Catholics can be privately “pro-life” but we don’t have the right to impose our views on others. That is like saying Catholics should emulate Robert E Lee. He said he “personally” never owned any slaves but he didn’t have the right to impose his personal views on other slave owners.
I would have been just as annoyed with Sister K if she said “we are all conservative Republicans now” and gave a 20 minute stump speech for George W Bush, saying that there is no problem for Catholics to support preemptive wars and the use of torture. God is not a Republican. God is not a Democrat. God is not a conservative. God is not a liberal. God is not an American. God does not see borders.
Political conversations are even more poisonous on Facebook. When people start arguing about politics, civility can quickly go out the door. Some people are more tied to their political identity than they are to their faith identity. I have seen this go both ways. Many conservative Catholics make excuses for Republican actions and policies related to immigration, labor, pre-emptive wars, torture etc. Many liberal Catholics make excuses for Democrat Party policies and legislation related to abortion, contraception, religious liberty, HHS mandates, euthanasia, gay marriage, etc.
When we compromise our spiritual values for our political values we end up becoming “Cafeteria Catholics”. I propose we remain devout followers of Jesus Christ and the Church He founded and therefore “qualify” our political affiliations. I’d rather be known as a “Cafeteria Republican” or a “Cafeteria Democrat” than a “Cafeteria Catholic”. How about getting involved with a party (or start a new one) and evangelize the culture within with true Catholic Christian values? Imagine how much better the Democratic Party would be today if we had more Dorothy Days and fewer Nancy Pelosis.
Ultimately how we apply the principals of CST to the political process and specific policies or legislation is prudential. I honestly think I could make the case for nuanced versions of both socialist “liberation theology” and capitalist “free market libertarianism” as being in line with orthodox principles of CST. We do the cause of evangelization a disservice when we preach that liberals (or “liberation theology” and capitalist “free market libertarianism” as being in line with orthodox principles of CST. We do the cause of evangelization a disservice when we preach that liberals (or Democrats) are better Catholics than conservatives (or Republicans) and vis-versa.
It is not my intent to disparage my very good brothers and sisters in Christ: Sister J, Sister K or Father Martin. I know all three have been spot on for many of their understandings in regards to the Church’s teachings relating to faith and morals. All of us will be held accountable for the graces we have received. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find out that they have been cooperating with the graces they have received better than I have. I didn’t receive their formation (good or bad) nor have I shared their experiences. I know their heart is in the right place. While I encourage orthodoxy as I understand it, I can only be responsible for my own actions and how I communicate the truths I have received during my lifetime. Everything is grace. As Pope Francis would say “Who am I to judge?”
#4 Catholics Behaving Badly
In my option, “Catholics behaving badly” is number one reason more people don’t consider the Catholic faith as a serious choice for their life. Many skeptics almost immediately pull out the Crusades, the Inquisition, the treatment of Galileo, the scandalous behavior of popes like Alexander VI or the Medici popes, the handling of the sex abuse scandal, the corruption at the Vatican bank and other Vatican offices etc. to stop the discussion of anything positive I might offer.
Some friends have asked me “Why doesn’t the church sell off its millions (perhaps billions?) of dollars in assets and give the money to the poor?” I personally don’t think this would be a prudent move. Regardless, I always respond that the Church only claims to have preserved the deposit of faith given to her by Christ and to dispense the sacraments instituted by Christ. The sacraments give us “sanctifying grace”. That means they have the potential to change us from the inside out (assuming we receive them through the eyes of faith and elect to participate in the graces given to us). However, the Church has always consisted of sinners of all types from the Pope to the average pew slug (including yours truly). As Pope Francis is fond of saying, “The Church is hospital for sinners”. The Church only promises to teach the right thing, not to do the right thing.
While some might use scandalous behavior of some of our leaders during its 2000 year history as an excuse not to take Catholicism seriously, I think the larger impediment is the behavior of the Catholics next door (or the next office/cube). When I was a young evangelical Christian high school student, I had a few Catholic friends that were positive role models. However, the vast majority of Catholics I knew lived lives completely indistinguishable from non-believing pagans. Now as a practicing Catholic, every day I have to challenge myself. Am I going to be part of the problem or part of the solution? Am I just talking the talk or am I also walking the walk?
Catholics behaving badly can also be seen on Facebook. The infighting and lack of charity among Catholics online is often scandalous. Jesus taught us that the world will know that we are Christians by our love for one another (Jn 13:35). Sometimes I feel like Rodney King and want to shout “Can’t we all just get along?”
About Tim Cooper
Tim is Senior Manager of Tax Technology for DMA. Tim’s conversion story was published in Journeys Home 2 by Marcus Grodi’s Coming Home Network. Tim is married to Sandy and has one daughter, Katie. He is a volunteer for the Coming Home Network and at their parish, St. Charles Borromeo, Fort Wayne, Indiana.