The good news about the Catholic Church is…

it’s like a big family. The bad news about the Catholic Church is… it’s like a big family.

A convert encountering this reality writes:

Hello Mr. Shea,

Firstly, I have become a regular reader of your blog and I thoroughly enjoy it. I must admit as person just now entering back into the pursuit of a college degree, I find myself reaching for the dictionary occasionally. At least give me credit for trying to understand versus pretending to understand.

Indubitably. Though my vocabularistic strategies may appear obstreperous and obtuse, I have the serenest conviction that your intellectual hegemony will extend even so far as to grok my groove. 🙂

I think I was much more intelligent a few years ago, but the regular exposure to children has warped my grey matter into a substance just North of Silly Putty. Actually, I think the experience of fatherhood may have been the last straw in my conversion to Catholicism…

Children can often drive a man to his knees in prayer.

The quagmire I would like to propose to you is what can/should we do regarding the interior divisions of the Catholic faithful?

Basically what Paul and every other shepherd since has had to do: urge the faithful (starting with our own selves) to “become what we are.”

When a majority of the justices on the Supreme Court of the U.S. are Catholic and we still can’t overturn Roe vs. Wade, we have a problem. When our leading Catholic University gives awards to pro-abortion politicians, we have a problem. When a pro-abortion President appoints Catholics to important positions within his cabinet and the pro-abortion stampede continues, we have a problem. When two leading Catholic intellectuals feel the need to have a debate over whether or not it is ok to support a pro-abortion President, we have a problem.

I could go on and on, but I fear I may begin to sound like Jeff Foxworthy. “You know you’re a liberal Catholic if.(insert your contradiction here)”

(Hey, you could post that on the blog and have readers fill in the blank. Ok, yeah, bad idea…)

My point is, I don’t understand the confusion and division.

There’s no reason you should. Sin is a mystery. It *can’t* be understood anymore than God can be understood. But for the opposite reason: God is too bright and sin, hell, and evil are too dark and murky. Jesus “explains” by means of story, not by means of philosophical treatise:

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the householder came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants * said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'”

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “He who sows the good seed is the Son of man; the field is the world, and the good seed means the sons of the kingdom; the weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43)

This describes a real truth: there is and always has been evil working in a partly hidden way in the life of the Church. Right from the start, the apostolic college has one whom Jesus calls a “devil” in its midst. Likewise, John will warn about how antichrist is already busy with his dirty work. Paul will be obliged to fight against both Judaizers and sundry gnostics who want to improve the gospel with the latest theories from Greco-Roman paganism. There will be chaos and division in the Church right from the start. Jesus’ point is that we cannot embrace the impulse to Puritanism, the notion that all we have to do are just get rid of the people we deem “evil” and then the Church will be fixed and the Eschaton Immanentized. Such human attempts at repair always cause more damage than they fix.

That’s because we’re not God and our grasp of who is and is not a “real” Catholic is very shoddy. We are always inclined to count ourselves as “real” Catholics despite our sins, while being very inclined to judge others as CINO’s despite their protestations of fidelity. Our urge is to write “My face here” over photos of the Pope and start excommunicating all the riff-raff, the people we could do without, who never will be missed. It’s the first and simplest solution to the problem of evil and Solzhenitsyn summed up the problem with it nicely when he said, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Jesus, anticipating this problem, did something remarkable when he founded the Church. As the Prophet Chesterton points out:

When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward — in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing — the historic Christian Church — was founded upon a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.

The first practical conclusion I draw from this is that we must fight sin and evil in the Church, but not waste time trying to figure out who is and is not “really” a Catholic or “really” a Christian. (I’m not saying you are doing this, only noting that it is an extremely common temptation and one to which the blogosphere is all too commonly prey.) Y’see, it wasn’t just Judas who was a devil. Jesus called Peter “Satan”. But Peter wound up alright. A too-hasty push to “purge the Church” would have pushed Peter out too. Uncle Screwtape inadvertantly gives some of the soundest advice I know on this matter when he accidently warns us (via his advice to Wormwood) of one of the central missions of Hell when it comes to poisoning Christian fellowship:


I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian. Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties; indeed, in your better moments, I trust you would hardly even wish to do so. In the meantime we must make the best of the situation. There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a I brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us. All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favour.

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do riot mean the Church as we see her spread but through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes I our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather in oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. At his present stage, you see, he has an idea of “Christians” in his mind which he supposes to be spiritual but which, in fact, is largely pictorial. His mind is full of togas and sandals and armour and bare legs and the mere fact that the other people in church wear modern clothes is a real—though of course an unconscious—difficulty to him. Never let it come to the surface; never let him ask what he expected them to look like. Keep everything hazy in his mind now, and you will have all eternity wherein to amuse yourself by producing in him the peculiar kind of clarity which Hell affords.

Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman. The Enemy allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every human endeavour. It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing. The Enemy takes this risk because He has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His “free” lovers and servants—”sons” is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to “do it on their own”. And there lies our opportunity. But also, remember, there lies our danger. If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.

I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the people in the next pew afford no rational ground for disappointment. Of course if they do—if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner—then your task is so much the easier. All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question “If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?” You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these “smug”, commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.

Your affectionate uncle

“If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?” You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head.

The Church will be immeasurably stronger once Christians carve that passage into their foreheads (backwards, so they can read it every morning in the mirror).

I have read through the Catechism (and Dr. Kreeft’s wonderful simplification) and I don’t see the problem. The Catechism is a lengthy read, but it’s not hard to understand. The Church is very clear about what is right versus wrong and does a very good job of explaining why. And the thing that surprised me the most is that there are not a lot of basic rules to worry about (maybe rules isn’t the right word. You’re the wordsmith, not me).

Actually, the Catechism reminds me a lot of the Rules of Golf. The rules themselves are very simply. It’s the interpretations that get you in trouble.

I have read the various ideas behind how things got to this point. I guess the best way to sum up the problem is “my will be done” versus “thy will be done”. So what do we do?

In my opinion, I see a strong need to re-catechize the faithful. We need to explain the faith and the reasons behind our beliefs. I see too much misunderstanding in the faithful that leads to problems. Much of the misunderstanding comes from the secular world, but many of the faithful are stuck in this distorted world and they start to believe the propaganda spit out on a regular basis. This propaganda can even have the effect of creating bigotry and racism within our Church. I notice more these days a misunderstanding of the Church’s position on homosexuals that creates an “unwelcome” atmosphere to our gay brothers and sisters that is carried even further by the uneducated Catholic.

I honestly believe this has to be done on the parish level. Obviously technology has created a way to reach the masses but the secular media and world have cornered a large portion of this world, making it difficult for the average Joe to find the “light in the darkness”. There is too much misinformation out there that only makes the gap a little larger.

Parish level catechesis, apologetics and evangelization might be the only way to slow the onslaught. The secular world, weather intentional or not, has done a great job of employing “War College 101 – Divide and Conquer”.

What are your thoughts on this Mr. Shea? I keep seeing a lot of debating but no one wants to offer any real solutions. I’m curious to hear your take on this.

I pretty much agree with all this. That’s why I run the blog and do what I do, to try to further the catechetical mission as best I can. One thing to bear in mind (which many of us converts overlook) is that many cradle Catholics do not encounter or experience their faith primarily as a body of doctrines to assent to, but as a family. That makes a big difference in perception. A convert knows he is going to be asked to say, “I believe all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.” A cradle Catholic never really quite has such a moment. So for a convert, it’s a big deal to be able to say that honestly. While for many a cradle Catholic it’s much more like the kid who grows up in the house and, when he hits adolescences says, “I love my Mom and Dad, but they think some crazy stuff and I don’t buy it.” The convert’s response of “If you don’t believe what the Church says about X, why do you bother calling yourself ‘Catholic’?” is as unintelligible to the cradle Catholic as if somebody asked me, “If you don’t like Lawrence Welk or agree with your Dad about voting Republican, why do you even bother to call youself a Shea?” The response, “Because I *am* a Shea and I love my family.” The understanding of the Faith as a coherent whole is not there, but the understanding of the Church as family remains (for now) solid and intact. Converts and cradles would do well to see what each other prize about the Faith.

My apologies for the long e-mail. I’m sure you have more important things to do. Thank you for your time.

Sweat thou it not.

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