Thoughts are funny that way. You don’t always even know that they’re there, or that something bigger than a fleeting opinion is brewing, percolating, and taking root. Then suddenly you have this kind of aha moment, like I had this morning, as I scrolled through my Facebook feed to see the day’s news and happenings. Which as you all know is pretty much centered around the Supreme Court’s ruling that gay marriage is legal in all fifty states.
My friends comprise a funny and eclectic mix of people. I woke up to find angry rants and happy rainbows, concerned hand-wringing and jubilant declarations of victory, with a few thoughtful and measured comments thrown in for good measure. The ruling was not, in my humble opinion, particularly surprising, though it could certainly be a game-changer for Christians holding to a historic view of marriage, particularly if they are employed by the government or hold a clerical position in a church. We’ll see how things play out, I suppose. The court has spoken.
And it was precisely this ruling, or rather the reaction to this ruling, that finally brought my thoughts into focus and prompted me to find the space in my day to sit at my laptop and write. I have some housework to do, and I know my kids are going to want me to take them outside and watch them splash and play in our pool at some point, but for now I’m here.
I’ll begin by saying that when my husband and I first began exploring the Catholic Church, we didn’t know much about it. To us, it just seemed like yet another denomination, but kind of a weird one–because of Mary and the pope and all the people who belonged to it, even though there were thousands of other churches available that loved Jesus but didn’t have all that other weird stuff. Having an admittedly impoverished view of church history, I did not understand how the Catholic Church fit with the Protestant Reformation or what place she held in the history of the world, in general. And so we went looking, trying to connect the dots and fit the puzzle pieces together, when even just months earlier we’d had no clue that a puzzle even existed.
See we’d been pretty comfortable in our own little religious vacuum, where we read the Bible and said our prayers and tried to follow God the best we knew how, which is what people who love God do. But everyone is different and so some people say that God thinks you should do this, while others say God says you SHOULDN’T do this, and along the way all those distinctives start to seem kind of arbitrary.
Funny thing was though that the Catholic Church was different. For one thing, it predated the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent splintering into a bajillion different denominations over doctrinal and, let’s face it, political divides. That was new for me, to think there was a time when if you were a Christian in the west, you were Catholic. You accepted the Sacramental view of faith and the concept of Apostolic Succession. Worshipping God was not so much embodied by a feel-good rock song with a chorus that repeats itself over and over again, but by assisting at Mass. Liturgy and Sacrament. Union with Christ had not been diminished to simply learning more about God through study, or through listening to as many sermons as possible, but instead was found through actually receiving Jesus Himself, in the Eucharist.
And salvation came via baptism–incidentally, just like the New Testament says and the Old Testament foreshadows–and not by way of a sinner’s prayer during an emotional altar call or by being smart and knowing all of the right things about all of the right things.
This was the Christian faith for centuries. This was what Christians believed, for centuries, that Jesus founded this church upon Saint Peter and that this church was the pillar and foundation of the truth. And that this church was for EVERYONE. Men, women, slaves, the poor, the rich, the Jews, the Gentiles, the adulteress, prostitutes, holy people. Just everyone. And the nature of this church was that you didn’t have to be able to read or know lots of stuff to fully participate. The word Catholic means, simply, “universal.” This is why we affirm our church as the universal church, both in the creeds and in casual conversation.
And this beautiful universality cannot be overemphasized. It cannot be stated too strongly that the historic Christian faith exists for ALL PEOPLE of all races and nations and persuasions. We’re all sinners, every last one of us, who need to experience the mercy, grace, and transformative love of Jesus. The confessional has always seemed a leveling thing to me, a place where each and every person is humbled and laid bare, yet deeply loved in our humanity. You go in and pour out your sins, some of them for the seemingly millioneth time, you receive words of hope and healing and finally, absolution, and then go forward to do penance and “sin no more.” The gospel of Jesus Christ is, without a doubt, intended to be good news. For everyone. The gate may be narrow, but is open to all.
This universal aspect of the faith was undeniably one of the most attractive, compelling, and surprising things to me about Catholicism, and it drew me in and kept me reading. To this day, when I find myself frustrated with the Church, it is what leads me to ask, like Saint Peter does as recorded in John 6, “To whom else would I go, Lord?”
Yet what I’ve seen and experienced recently online from some corners of the Catholic community just plain makes me sad. And I’m not just (or even primarily) talking about gay marriage here. You would think some people don’t truly see our church as universal, as existing as a beacon of hope and love for all men, women and children, particularly the oppressed. I’m STILL in shock over some of the Catholic commentary over the Charleston shootings and subsequent Confederate flag discussion. And I’m not advocating for a shallow ecumenism or an “I’m okay and you’re okay” sort of relativistic outlook, but simply an openness and love towards HUMANITY. Because God loves people. Even amidst our messiness and sin, God loves us. And yet the message that traditionally-minded Christians send is prone to being one of distaste, anger, and political fury. And I get it, I do, because when we believe in the value of something like religious freedom (or freedom to do stuff in general) and feel like we’re maybe going to lose some of our rights, and when we think our Christian ideology is increasingly coming under attack, our instinct is to hunker down, protect ourselves, and then launch an offensive. Because they are wrong, and we are right. It’s us vs. them, you know.
We feed ourselves upon the inevitable spin of extremist commentators and surround ourselves with people who think just like us, and all of a sudden we really truly don’t WANT to be a universal church any longer. Our focus narrows as we openly mock, belittle, and shame whichever class of people happens to be making news at the moment: homosexuals, transsexuals, black men, liberals, Muslims, and fundamentalist evangelicals with a reality show. Social media platforms devolve into bully pulpits where I AM CATHOLIC AND I AM ANGRY replaces conversation and friendship and community–and if this is happening on social media channels, surely it is also happening in parish halls and neighborhood coffee shops and youth soccer field sidelines.
And the church begins to more closely resemble a grumpy old maid than Christ’s radiant bride.
Now PLEASE don’t get me wrong. There is absolutely a place for Christians to engage in debate, disagreement, and dissent. We need Christians in the public square. There is a time to speak up and share why one might oppose a national redefining of marriage, or explain the reasoning behind the Catholic sexual ethic. I especially applaud courageous bishops, priests and deacons who articulate God’s design for life to the faithful in their respective dioceses and parishes. That is part of their job, offering guidance and clarification and help. But when I share something with people on my Facebook page or here on my blog, as a mother and a writer, I should ask myself if it is contributing positively to the discussion. If it’s making God’s love more accessible and transparent. I’ve never made my beliefs or values a secret, and occasionally I can be blunt, but I do try to be careful in how I express ideas. I never want to give the impression that I’m trying to dupe people or promote a watered-down Christianity, but I also want to present a balanced picture of Christianity. Because my faith is about so much more than what I happen to think about the social issue of the day. So.much.more.
What if we spent less time reducing things to fiery political issues, and spent more time listening to people? What if, instead of posting a snarky meme that denigrates gay people (or black people or democrat people or republican people), we looked for a bit of common ground or said a prayer or stopped to consider where those on the opposing viewpoint might be coming from? What about the next time we hear somebody say that something was racially unjust, we empathize, and educate ourselves about the legacy of slavery and the narrative of racial difference?
What if we become a universal church, a church for all people?
See the beautiful thing about religion is that we are free from the chains of a culture’s social and political whims. We are free to worship, believe, and live in relationship with a God who put the stars in the sky and set the earth in motion. He existed before–and will outlast–nations, kingdoms, and governments. And this is great news, because it means we can busy ourselves with the work of loving others, pursuing justice, and being the hands and feet of God’s mercy. And you know, perhaps the day will indeed come when religious freedom in our country ceases to exist, or ceases to exist as we know it. Maybe my church will lose its nonprofit status and maybe my priest will wind up in jail, all in the name of eradicating intolerance. Maybe things will get really, really bad for Catholics like me. Maybe the west will see martyrdom again. I don’t know, because I don’t know the future. But I DO know that nothing, least of all fear of the future, need get in the way of the call to radical Christian love. Nothing need force me into the fetal position, or leave me unable to extend a warm welcome to my gay friends. Nothing should lead me to snicker at or ignore the repeated cries for help from the oppressed–be they living in prisons, urban neighborhoods, or mental anguish.
And even if you feel a bit defensive, and like the culture cares little for your God, remember that Jesus instructed His disciples to, if they came upon a town that rejected their message, shake the dirt off their sandals and leave–NOT humiliate, attack, and destroy.
I just keep thinking about this idea that we are Christ’s Church, a universal church, and how beautiful it could be if we made the commitment to love freely, honestly, and without condition. If we stopped conflating politics with human beings, and if we really invested in taking Jesus’ message of love and hope to the world in a way that people could hear. We are historically the faith of the peasants, the illiterate, and the broken, after all.
And I honestly won’t have much time today to reflect on the falling sky, anyhow. My kids have emerged, chores are done, and they’re wanting to swim. Bathing suits are on and goggles are in hand, the sun is shining, and while the water feels a little cold to me, I’m always up for an afternoon of poolside sun-bathing in my lawn chair. There’s talk of eating popsicles on the deck, and there’s excitement in the air because we have a family movie night at church this evening. My children are happy, carefree, and enjoying their summer, as children should. They love God, and they love their Catholic faith, and so they love life. Some might say that we’re fiddling while Rome burns, but I suppose I see it a bit differently.
The Christian life should be marked by holiness, joy, faith, hope, and love, regardless what laws might pass and regardless what sort of government we have. We may be called to suffer for our faith one day, and I pray that God will give us the courage to suffer well. Furthermore, we have an incredible opportunity and responsibility to bring the hope of Christ to a hurting world, and that begins with how we treat our loved ones at home, and extends to how we treat the marginalized in society. WE NEED TO TELL THE TRUTH, but we need to do it with love and clarity, not politically-fueled vitriol.
So in case you didn’t know, the Catholic Church is a church for everyone. We’re not perfect, but we love Jesus and we love people and we need God just as much as anyone. You might not vote like me, and you might not like my church, but I’ll tell you that the love of Jesus and the dignity of the human person is darn good news. Before some angry Catholic accuses me of not being Catholic enough, I will come out and say that I do subscribe to the historic Christian beliefs about creation, people, and sexuality. 100%. I believe that Holy Matrimony is a sacrament, which God confers upon the union between one man and one woman.
But my God is even bigger than all of that, and my faith is not merely the sum total of the section in the Catechism related to homosexuality. Regarding other recent events, my God cares deeply about oppression and racial injustice, and surely grieves over not only the legacy left behind by slavery and Jim Crow, but also over the blind eye which has been turned by whites for centuries–particularly among some religious folks, seemingly more married to Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter than Jesus’ call for love and unity.
So. I’m gonna try to just keep loving, listening, and being friends with people. Speaking truth when I can, and hopefully cultivating a heart that is soft towards the human condition. And no matter who you are, I would invite you to join me!