The Witness of Mary Elizabeth Williams

Salon staffer Mary Elizabeth Williams calls herself “a gay-friendly, feminist, pro-choice, bigmouthed practicing Catholic.” In two weeks, she expects to watch as her older daughter is confirmed in the faith. In an essay published yesterday, she dissects her motives and expectations.

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, and attracts the scorn due any public servant. For this reason, Williams’ piece is instructive. Writing less as a pundit than as an Everymom, she lays softer flesh on the bones of the type. What she ends up producing is, in fact, a kind of apologetic aimed at those Salon readers who hate all religion on general principle..

In her own words, Williams has “struggled over the years over how to impart the Christian values I treasure to my kids without saddling them with the worst aspects of organized religion — to raise them without shame or intolerance or fear of a mean old God.” In practice, these values mean that her kids should “do service to others,” “respect other people’s values,” “that they…love everybody.” Williams hopes “they are never too rigid in their worldviews that they can’t allow for mystery,” that “they are outspoken and strong,” but mostly that “they are kind.”

A couple of things struck me here. First, in handing her daughters over to the RCIC staff at her “terrific, Capuchin-run little parish church,” Williams is knowingly surrendering them to the care of people whose values she doesn’t wholly share. In her account, the “Sunday school” is “somewhat more (cough) traditional [than the rest of the parish],” and “has given us plenty of opportunities for questions and conversations, discussions about talking snakes and the like.” But Williams is okay with offering hostages to fortune. She writes: “I don’t care if they remain Catholic or become Protestant missionaries or explore Buddhism or choose atheism.” Presumably, she recognizes that either or both girls could also turn out super-Catholic — with a dozen kids, a blog on National Catholic Register, or both — and has come to terms with it.

Second, even in the face of everything Mom and Mother Church teach, the girls seem to be following their own inner cues. The elder, “a natural skeptic,” takes after her mother “in that she questions what she can’t see but she wants to believe that it’s out there anyway.” The younger, “a natural believer with the heart of a preacher,” is “open about her faith to the point of exuberance; she loves Jesus, her dad says, like Prince loves Jesus.” A future Adore Ministries recruit? Inshallah.

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 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.”

At the very least, then, we can be confident Williams’ daughters won’t turn into mean girls or cyberbullies or Ponzi schemers. In an era when elite families are hiring disabled people to chaperone their striplings on trips to Disney World — the hope being that the guides’ handicaps will get the kids onto the express lane to the rides — any determination to impress kids with a sense of humility or social obligation is cause for applause.

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. Absent any gross conflict of interests, they’d be encouraged to work in ministry, and even, to a point, permitted to rise. Like gentlemen-volunteers in the Peninsular War, they’d be serving the Church Militant at their own will, and on their own terms.

It might help if they — make that “we,” since I, with all my ambivalence, might be the first on this bandwagon — identified themselves with some kind of badge. I don’t mean anything demeaning like a penitent’s sanbenito. I was thinking more in terms of something simple and dignified, like a catechumen’s wooden cross. Not only would that make it easier for us to pick our post-dismissal calamari buddies, the Church would be able to tell at a glance just how much time, talent, and treasure it owes to the halfhearted and semi-circumcised.

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  • Gia

    She’s not a Catholic, whatever she tells herself or others. I could call myself a marathon runner all day, but unless I actually run a marathon, I’m not one. Her poor kids. Hoping they are given the grace to support a Church their mother only believes in on her own terms.

  • tedseeber

    I struggle with cafeteria Catholicism- was once one myself. But my mother recently told me, that she thought perhaps the bad CCD of the 1970s turned out to be very good reverse psychology- at least for the 60% who stayed Catholic and didn’t end up atheist. “Jesus loves you rah rah rah” is a pretty good start. I just wish I had discovered Humanae Vitae when I was a teenager instead of in my late 20s. A LOT of pain from sexual relativism would have been avoided.

  • Robster

    This compromising attitude is what is destroying Catholicism. The laity may declare they don’t follow the church teachings in whatever area, and are usually unadmonished. Indeed, they are often aided and abetted by the clergy, often as not in partial or complete sympathy. Or even if not in sympathy, they dont have the guts to confront them on it. They dont want to suffer a loss of revenue, or perish the thought, the possibility that someone doesn’t like them.

  • Melanie B

    I’d say that she’s Catholic– anyone who is baptized is a Catholic– she just a Catholic who hasn’t received any meaningful formation. She’s not yet a disciple.
    In her book Forming Intentional Disciples Sherry Weddell says that only 48 percent
    of Catholics were absolutely certain that the God they believed in was a
    God with whom they could have a personal relationship. I suspect that
    what she needs is to be introduced to Christ as a person with whom she
    can have a relationship.

    I don’t think it’s very helpful to go around proclaiming that people aren’t Catholic. St Paul exhorts us to have patience with those
    whose faith is weaker than ours. Maybe instead of worrying about
    whether or not someone passes a Catholic purity test, we should consider
    whether they are in need of help. If we treat Catholics who don’t yet think with the mind of the Church with contempt and derision, we aren’t exactly inviting them in deeper are we?
    This is the heart of the New Evangelization. Instead of telling people that they aren’t really Catholic, we should look to see why they think as they do. Your comment assumes bad faith on her part rather than poor formation. It sees her as an enemy, an outsider, instead of a lost sheep. Could it be she’s never really had the Gospel proclaimed to her?

  • Melanie B

    What is destroying Catholicism– if it is being destroyed– is a failure of Catholics to be holy and to follow Christ.

  • James

    Yes. This.

    I have been part of the problem more often than part of the solution.

  • James

    Mary Elizabeth Williams isn’t a “Cafeteria Catholic”. From her columns, it seems like she doesn’t know enough about the menu to truly “pick and choose”. Like many of her generation, she’s badly catechized and poorly formed.

    Subjectively, her Catholic faith may be stronger than mine. Her ignorance of the faith is a flaw, but her belief in the “Golden rule” is a strength. She knows something is there, even though she doesn’t understand it.

    She’s gotten all the “rules”. Maybe that’s how the faith was presented in her family? That’s certainly how it’s presented in popular culture. What she doesn’t understand is the why behind the what.

    She probably has never been taught any other Catholic teaching on sexuality other than “DON’T”. So, naturally, she assumes that Catholic teaching against gay marriage and contraception is the arbitrary rules of some old guys in Rome.

    If Catholic teaching were simply arbitrary rules, I would agree with her completely.

    The Catholic faith is a very reasonable faith, but so many on BOTH sides of the “culture war” treat it as arbitrary. The “left” see this as need for further reform. The “right” sees this “arbitrariness” as a test of faith. Both are wrong.

    But it’s more than about reasonableness, it’s about “friendship with Jesus”, as Benedict XVI put it. Or “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” as Evangelical Christians like to say. It sounds like she wants that relationship but doesn’t understand how she can get it in the Catholic Church.

    This is what the New Evangelization is all about.

  • Zac

    Intriguing idea, Max.

  • Manny

    “struggled over the years over how to impart the Christian values I treasure to my kids without saddling them with the worst aspects of organized religion — to raise them without shame or intolerance or fear of a mean old God.”

    Raise them without shame? Having a sense of shame is the whole point. Adhering to “thou shall not” is not just an intellectual exercise but an emotional acceptance of God’s will. Porn stars over ride their sense of shame and do things for public viewing that would and should shame each of us into crawling under a rock. Williams is not really religious. She’s one of those people who claim to be “spiritual” that reduces down to drivel. Deep down she doesn’t want to be Catholic.

  • Manny

    Maybe so Mealnie, but Williams clearly doesn’t want to be Catholic. I’m not looking to push anyone out, and I certainly don’t have any say in it. Lord knows I’m not completely conventional, but I cannot see how anyone can claim to be Catholic when they are pro abortion. One can understand the logic of any other position, but there is no justification that I can surmise that would fold in the abortion position within Christianity. She just wants to live some meaningless “spiritual” life without religion, and just like anyone else who claims to live a “spiriutal life without religion” makes up her own morality as she goes along.

  • Manny

    Completely agree with you Gia.

  • Brian Sullivan

    Max, If I may pay you the highest compliment–you made me think.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Here’s a thought. The punishment for killing an innocent in the OT was death. Yet even if deiberately causing a women to miscarry, as long as she were not severely injured, was to properly compensated. No death? Why not?
    It is also mentioned about the “quickening” of the fetus, somewhere around the end of the first trimester or at the beginning of the second, when life is breathed into the child.
    I am not pro-abortion but I am a man, and there is something to this quote: “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”
    If you think that pro-choice is just a belief to maintain a loose lifestyle without consequences, hedonism disguised as a question of human rights, then you do not know either the agony most women endure who make this decision or the compassion others feel for their plight.

  • Manny

    Pulease, as if I’m a new comer to the abortion debate. I quite understand the difficulties women face with pregnancies. Abortion should never be an option. If you don’t think pro-life is biblically based, argue with the Catholic hierarchy. And that quote about a man thinking it a sacrement is inane.

  • Jeff

    Well, is that strange? Your complaint seems weird to me.

    Today, there are many prolifers who are pro death penalty. Few of them would quibble if a mother who took her infant on his first birthday and cut him up with scissors were sent to the gas chambers. “Serves her right,” they’d say.

    But I have yet to meet the prolife fanatic who wants to see girls who have abortions toasted in the electric chair. And no one is more convinced of the rights and the humanity of the “foetus” than the prolife fanatic.

    Why the seeming disjunction? Well it’s nothing to do with quickening. I think it’s because though we encounter one year olds in the flesh, even a pregnant woman doesn’t encounter the humanity of the child she carries in quite the same way. And this is even more true in the early stages of pregnancy.

    I guess God could have revealed to the ancient Hebrews that the unborn child was fully alive and human even before the advent of modern medicine. He could also have told them that the earth goes around the sun.

    Not that they would be very likely to understand either of those things. And God doesn’t usually do stuff like that anyway.

    He usually takes us at the stage of intellectual, spiritual, and moral development that we occupy and begins to lift and illuminate.

    For all those reasons, the distinction between abortion and other types of illicit killing in the OT seems to me perfectly understandable.

  • lainnj

    She seeks to reduce an offensive and complicated religion down to “be kind.” If that’s it, she could and should do without the Catholic Church. Teaching kids that the Church is about goodness and kindness is not being completely honest with them, and is part of what contributed to so many problems in the Church. The Church is run by deeply flawed people. It has no monopoly on goodness or kindness (to say the least), and kids shouldn’t be taught that is does, for many reasons.