Today Max Lindeman writes an interesting response to a Salon.com article by a self-proclaimed “a gay-friendly, feminist, pro-choice, bigmouthed practicing Catholic.” Although I don’t agree with him on every particular, his piece, The Witness of Mary Elizabeth Williams, is worth a read.
Here are a few of his most salient points:
In the Catholic press, the conflicted or cafeteria Catholic is most often represented as a demographic bloc: the 82% of Catholics who approve of artificial birth control, the 54% that supports gay marriage. If anyone embodies the numbers, it’s usually a politician, like Nancy Pelosi, who attends Mass despite voting in defiance of Church teachings. For this reason, Williams’ piece is instructive. Writing less as a pundit than as an Everymom, she lays flesh on the bones of the type. What she ends up producing is, in fact, a kind of apologetic, aimed at those of her readers who are dead set against religion of any kind.
Now, it’s certainly true that Williams’ own beliefs don’t add up to the whole Catholic megillah. But neither do they resemble very closely the caricature of “bad religion” that Ross Douthat and others put about. She has very little to say on self-fulfillment or self-actualization; instead, her dreams for her kids center on their relations to others, in particular, that they be good and make themselves useful. This is a far cry from Deepak Chopra, much less Eat, Pray, Love. Even Fr. Richard John Neuhaus conceded that “Golden Rule Christianity” should not be dismissed so lightly. “You can do a lot worse than the Golden Rule,” he writes, “as a maxim in support of social peace and cooperation.”
What would Pope Francis make of Mary Elizabeth Williams? Probably several contradictory things. On the good side, by teaching her kids the very basics of Christianity and by trusting the Church to do the rest — indeed, by declaring in public that she loves her faith — Williams is evangelizing. Her Church, though it keeps her daughters occupied for a few hours on weekends, is no babysitter. On the bad side, because she professes support for abortion and same-sex marriage to the very same, very large, readership, “Eucharistic coherence” would probably require she be denied Communion. In short, she’d get a mixed review.
I’m beginning to think the Church could achieve near-complete Eucharistic coherence if it were to launch a massive PR campaign elevating the popular perception, or at least the self-perception, of baptized Catholics who voluntarily refrain from communing. It could be emphasized that these people, far from pariahs, are auxilaries, associates, fellow-travelers.
Max Lindenman makes a wonderful point. If we treat so-called “Cafeteria Catholics” with contempt and derision, we aren’t exactly inviting them in deeper are we? It’s not just that we have a problem with treating them like pariahs, it’s even a problem when we treat them as a block instead of giving them the dignity of recognizing that each one of them has a unique story and is on a different place in a journey to full communion with Christ. Instead, they tend to be treated as if they are departing. “And don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” is a sentiment I’ve seen expressed far too many times. So how can we be sure to be always welcoming even when we point out the truth that certain beliefs and actions mean that you aren’t in full communion with the Church? This isn’t just a PR problem. This is the heart of the New Evangelization.
Sadly, many of the comments I saw when the original Salon piece was being shared on Facebook were contemptuous or at least disrespectful. None of them I thought would make anyone who agreed with of felt sympathy with Mary Elizabeth Williams feel like they were being welcomed into the Church. On Max Lindeman’s piece one commenter says outright that Mary Elizabeth Williams is not Catholic. St Paul exhorts us to have patience with those whose faith is weaker than ours. And among the spiritual works of mercy are the exhortations to counsel the doubtful, to instruct the ignorant, and to comfort the afflicted. Too often I think Catholics zero in on the part about “admonishing sinners” and on the “instruct” but ignore all the other spiritual works and above all that the heart of these works is extending Christ’s love and mercy to others. Isolating our obligation to instruct from the rest of the works of mercy and using the “truth” as a bludgeon, makes virtue into a vice and does more harm than good.
Moreover, cultural shunning only works when the entire culture is Catholic. When Catholics are a struggling minority, as we are in 21st century America, the shunned will happily go elsewhere. So if we are truly concerned with the spiritual well-being of each and every one of them, the question is, how can we invite those who are not yet in full communion with the Church to enter more deeply into an encounter with Christ. Hint, it’s not by labeling them “Cafeteria Catholics” and excoriating them publicly for their stance on abortion or gay marriage or divorce or whatever issue is keeping them apart. People who are told they are not able to receive communion understandably feel rejected. So the tricky task before us is how to make them feel welcome while being firm about the meaning of receiving the Eucharist. Some people seemed to think that Max was offering a specific proposal, I thought of it more as outlining a problem with a little nod toward one kind of possible solution. I do like the way he makes a nod toward the fact that baptized Catholics who are not in a position to receive communion are likely to have quite a bit in common with catechumens.
I have a friend who left the Church because once a priest told her in an unfriendly way that she could not be Catholic and pro-choice. Not, mind you, that she couldn’t receive communion, but that she wasn’t Catholic. This is the problem. The message my friend received wasn’t, hey you know the Church’s teaching on life is beautiful, you should come and learn more about why she teaches this. It was, get out, you aren’t welcome. Now I wasn’t there and I didn’t hear the exact words the priest used, but whatever was said, the effect wasn’t one of evangelization, you know? We are losing souls and we need to consider carefully what means we are using to woo them back.
Kathy Schiffer writes about Two Atheists Who Changed Their Minds and Why quoting an atheist who was surprised at the reception he received from Catholics on Reddit:
What I have come to learn from this subreddit, besides the answers to my questions, is that it is far better to engage in polite discussions with people whom I disagree with rather than be a part of a like-minded mob because in the end, like-minded or not, a mob is still a mob and mobs are almost always an ugly lot.
I think the reason why people join like-minded mobs, however, is because, and I could be wrong, rightly or wrongly, people fall into a victimhood mentality – the thought that we are surrounded by enemies and that we feel the need to lash out lest we are forced out of existence. As an individual, I doubt that my experiences here will bring about a tectonic shift in the way theists and atheists discuss with one another, much less dispel people’s sense of victimhood. However, it has reminded me of the importance of civility and the need to understand rather than hate. Perhaps this modest start is as good as any.
How much is this feeling of being surrounded by enemies, powerless and besieged, at the root of the need to villainize Caeteria Catholics? But Cafeteria Catholics, pro choice Catholics, Catholics who don’t see eye to eye with the Church on contraception and women’s ordination and divorce… they aren’t the enemy. They are the lost sheep. We have a mission. A mission from God. We are sent to gather them in, to bring them to the shepherd who can heal them.
My friend Kate says, “Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples is partly about this. People are chucking doctrines because they don’t know Christ. If we don’t share Christ with them, nothing else matters.”
Nothing else matters. If we tell people they aren’t Catholic, aren’t we in essence telling them that they don’t belong to Christ? And isn’t that the worst lie that there is? Of course they belong to Christ! Of course they are loved by him.
So many Catholics want to emphasize obedience before mercy, rules before love. Before people can hear the message calling them to repent, they must first hear the message of God’s love and mercy. Children follow their parents’ rules when they feel connected to their parents. When they feel confident of their mother’s love and their father’s love, then they gladly obey. But a child who feel unloved and rejected already will feel that rules are arbitrary and will rebel. First come the proclamation of Christ’s love. Then comes an understanding of the rules and a willingness to follow them. Admonition of sinners is only effective in the context of relationship. When the relationship is broken, the Father first seeks out the lost child to bring him home. Only then, when he knows he is wanted and loved, can a child begin to be healed of his hurts.
Some of the Catholics I’ve been chatting with on Facebook remind me of the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son: they don’t want to make a special place for so-called Cafeteria Catholics. They say: “those who are not in full communion ought not be given a special place. They should be helped to full communion.” But how else are we to help them to full communion except by giving them a special place. But the problem is that unlike the younger son, our brothers and sisters have never known what it was to live within the Father’s love. They don’t know what it means to have share in his inheritance. So kill the fatted calf, I say. Put a robe on their backs and a ring on their fingers. Welcome them to the feast. Only when they have known the warmth of the Father’s embrace will they be able to recognize that they have sinned against him. Then and only then can we expect them to fall on their knees and beg for forgiveness. Our Father in Heaven runs out to meet the son where he is, can we do any less?