by guest contributor H. Lillian Vogl
I’ve been noticing lately that there are two deeply different belief systems found among people who call themselves “practicing Catholic.” I’m going to avoid typical labels with all their baggage and call the two groups “Open Catholics” and “Roman Exclusionists.” (At first I thought to use the term “exclusionary Catholics,” but that would be far too oxymoronic, given that “catholic” means universal.) There isn’t a single litmus test of belief, practice, or state of life between these two groups, but rather a pervasive difference in faith and worldview, which I intend to tease out.
Incarnational vs. Incantational:
The most important thing to know about the faith of Open Catholics is that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us. God went so far as take on human flesh and suffer every indignity that the fallen human race has ever dished out, because He desired so deeply to have a personal, loving relationship with each human person. Our bodies are good, this world He made is meant to be enjoyed, and God is not offended by our informality with Him but hurt by our holding Him at a distance. We draw closer to Him in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, but also in heartfelt prayer, in dialog with other believers and non-believers about what is good and evil in this world, in appreciating and collaborating in the infinite diversity of His creation, and in what we do for the least of these. All of these modes of drawing closer to the Incarnate God are essential to our Catholic faith. Particular practices, on the other hand, from saying the rosary to knowing precisely what the Catechism has to say about these topics, are beneficial but ultimately optional. Non-Catholics can draw closer to God by many of these means (other than the Eucharist), and thus it is not strange to find some are closer to God than some Catholics who have the Eucharist. We believe we’re all on the same journey, but Open Catholics are in communion with the Catholic Church because we believe it can give us a better roadmap and sustenance along the way.
Roman Exclusionists, on the other hand, are very concerned about the rectitude of ritual. The infinitude of God does not cause them to praise diversity in humanity, but to emphasize shame and fear of our unworthiness in comparison. Their central concern is attaining to holiness by following very exactly the commands of God about liturgy and sin, as they perceive them. The liturgy of the Mass should be focused on signifying “reverence,” which they believe makes it more pleasing to God and more efficacious in bringing the worshiper to Heaven one day. The solution to sin is knowledge of the Catechism and recourse to the Sacrament of Confession. Reciting certain prayers is also sure to increase holiness. Those who don’t do these things, whether out of the darkness of ignorance or stubborn refusal to submit to the teachings of the Church, are almost surely damned because they do not perform the incantations necessary for salvation. Exclusionists see evangelization as telling people what formulas they should be following so that they can be saved. There is no point in listening to others because it is assumed the person outside the Church has nothing to offer but corruption.
Mystery vs. Magic
The faith of an Open Catholic claims to know and understand very little with certainty, beyond this central point of God’s incarnation out of love and the content of the Creeds. We trust that He established the Church and its Sacraments for our benefit, but how they work upon our lives is a mystery to us. The fact that we have faith in the mystery of the Incarnation and gift of the Church, while others of our friends don’t, is a mystery to us. We don’t assume our friends without faith are motivated by hedonism or pride when they express their doubts. How God will judge any one of us at the end of our lives is a mystery. Likewise, we don’t try to deduce the reasons why some people suffer so much more than others. We believe that Heaven breaks through to our world in mysterious ways such as words of knowledge, apparitions, and providential favors, often granted through the intercession of the saints. But when and why the supernatural penetrates the natural is a mystery too, so we don’t expect oracles or fulfillment of prayer requests as if by Santa and his elves, nor that righteousness “earns” us happy life. We believe there are realities beyond what can be observed with the senses or verified with science, but we don’t believe claims that directly contradict empirical evidence just because someone says they come from God.
Roman Exclusionists ask us to believe in magic: if the incantational formulas are followed, we can have certainty of consequences. If certain rules of marriage are followed, it will be unbreakable. When a priest is ordained, especially as a Bishop or Pope, he becomes an oracle wholly reliable to speak for God on all matters of faith and morals, at all times. (If they don’t agree what the cleric says, he must be a false one and should be removed from office.) Likewise, anyone canonized a saint is treated as an oracle, if only in retrospect,whom it would be a sacrilege to contradict. If Baptism has been administered at any age, the person is responsible as having been given the gift of faith, and is apostate and condemned by God if they grow to doubt it. The Exclusionists tell us that the Church’s formulas are unbending for our benefit, and any situational analysis or evolution according to changing circumstances is anathema “relativism.” Another person finding suffering from fidelity is not a call to compassionately listen to doubts that may be provoked or offer assistance to ease the suffering, but elicits exhortations to keep repeating the magic formula, which will eventually “work” and/or gain the sufferer great merits in Heaven for their pain. There’s no possibility that the accumulation of evidence contrary to the efficacy of any of these magical formulas could be meaningful; nor can there be admission of scholarly research debunking traditional hagiographies–it’s the heresy of modernism to believe your lying eyes over the traditional teachings of the Church.
Penitential vs. Puritanical
Open Catholics see the fact that we’re all sinners as a call to be merciful toward one another, and even toward ourselves. We seek to understand how we have hurt others, and how we can help heal these hurts. We are introspective about things like privilege and our response to victims. We are always seeking to do better at reconciliation, and to reform institutions that have perpetrated structures of sin. The point of penitence is to work towards healing and liberation, not to wallow in self-loathing.
Roman Exclusionists talk a lot about “purifying” the Church and themselves. They wish to banish sin categorically, and to banish certain types of sinners from the Church to make it “pure.” They are very concerned about who is or is not worthy to receive Communion. They are always urging people to tell all their sins, errors, and weaknesses to a priest in the Sacrament of Confession, which, when accompanied by sufficient self-loathing, is the key to purifying the sinner’s soul. They give more attention to the harm that sin causes to the “spotlessness” of the Church than to the ways individual lives are wrecked by someone else’s sin. They mock concerns about racism, sexism, ableism, and the like. They focus obsessively on sexual sins as the root of all strife in family and society, and hardly discuss any other sins such as greed, slander, or manipulation.
Familial vs. Patriarchal
Open Catholics seek to establish a faith community that is welcoming and nurturing. Women’s voices and talents are prominent alongside men’s, and there is not strict separation between men’s and women’s talents and roles. (The priesthood is the major exception, being reserved to males, but we have a variety of views regarding the prospect of that changing, and do not consider those who would countenance the idea of female priests to be a dangerous infection to be banished from the community, nor those who believe that female priests are impossible.) Adult laity are treated like adult children, able to educate themselves and form their consciences, not forever dependent on clerics to direct their every move. We prefer the familial discourse of siblings, children, parents, and grandparents as the model for how we relate to each other within the Church, sometimes frank, sometimes funny, seldom formal. Hierarchy and respect for authority exist but they are not paramount; leadership means expending oneself for weaker members of the family, not lording power over them.
Fruitful vs. Petrified
The Open Catholic Church is held together as fruitful branches attached to the Living Vine. The Roman Exclusionists are held together by fusing into the rock of Peter, becoming another layer of stone. The former is always reforming; the latter is bound to tradition. The former pursues social justice; the latter insists on retributive justice. The former stresses liberation from sin and Christian freedom; the latter stresses fear of Hell and authoritarian enforcement of religious conformity.
The Consequence of Two Churches
You may be thinking, Why am I being so divisive? I know the guardians of Roman Exclusionism will show up in full force to protest this post on social media. Others will feel uncomfortable and hurt by it, call me hypocritical for “dividing” Catholics, and say our Church is both/and. True, the views of Roman Exclusionists are not without foundation in Catholic tradition, even among canonized saints. So why would I divide these views into distinct categories and criticize only one side?
I draw these lines because I believe I have one job as a person blessed with the gift of Catholic faith: to tell the Good News and help bring others to know and love God. I do believe the Open Catholic Church provides everyone with the surest path to beatitude. I want to invite them into this sacred place, to see what I see, to love what I love, to grow into a universal family together.
But I cannot in good conscience invite anyone into the circles of Roman Exclusionism. I have seen far too much pride, elitism, condemnatory rhetoric, indifference to and even intentional infliction of psychological pain, and all manner of spiritual abuse coming from this group. Rather than saving those crushed in spirit, they are the crushers of the spirit (and the Spirit). I have many Catholic friends who have recently left the Catholic Church, or are contemplating doing so, because their conscience dictates that they no longer enable the culture of abuse they have encountered here. The Exclusionists have been very successful at their central mission of making large portions of baptized Catholics feel excluded from the Church (while admittedly attracting a few converts who like the certainty they promise). Tragically, they have often been more “successful” at reducing the overall number of practicing Catholics than the Open Catholics have been at evangelizing and increasing the same.
I can invite my friends into an imperfect Church, admitting that God has a lot of work to do on each of us still. What I can’t do is invite them to a church with a fundamentally different conception of God, how He wants us to relate to him, and what the Church has to do with all of this. It would make no more sense for me to encourage people to become Mormons than it would for me to encourage them to embrace Roman Exclusionism.
I am blessed to live in a high-density area where there are Catholic parishes smattered about every few miles. A few months ago I stopped going to the Roman Exclusionary parish where I am officially assigned and started going to an Open Catholic parish instead, only 5-10 minutes further away. But not everyone has this option. And anyone dipping their toes in the waters of the Catholic Church, whether for the first time or after a long hiatus, is unlikely to know which type any given parish is. You can’t always tell by architecture or music or the ethnicity of parishioners. These are things often “inherited” from previous priests and the character of the local community, and don’t necessarily correlate with the faith divide. Rather, look in the bulletin for signs of inclusion or exclusion. Do parish activities include opportunities for hands-on helping of poor members of the community or needy around the world? Does the bulletin contain warm words of welcome to visitors? Do they have a lot of activities that are not segregated by age and gender? Or does the bulletin bespeak the exclusion of altar girls, the unwillingness of the priests to even give a blessing in the communion line to those who cannot receive the Eucharist, or fussiness about the types of attire worshipers wear? Are opportunities to learn more about the faith generally held in a dialogical or lecture formats?
Don’t get me wrong: I am not a Donatist, and believe any Catholic parish will serve for the efficacious administration of the Sacraments in a pinch. Neither do I share the goal of Roman Exclusionists to drive people away from communion who have fundamentally different ideas about God from me. (Remember, Open Catholics claim to know little definitively about the mind of the ineffable Eternal Alpha and Omega, so who am I to judge?) But if what draws you into the Church is the Open Catholic worldview, be forewarned that there are weeds in this field. Unless your faith is extraordinarily strong, spending much time around the Exclusionists will choke the joy of the Gospel with fear. Fear of change and other perspectives. Fear of God’s wrath. Fear you’re not good enough to be here.
If you find yourself in a situation where Masses are only accessible to you at a parish dominated by Roman Exclusionist priests and parishioners, then I invite you to look on social media for Open Catholics to build up your faith in the Love that drives out fear. To be sure, there are even more Roman Exclusionists online than you’ll find in any parish, but there are also Catholic communities of care. Many times the latter are “secret” Facebook groups because too many of their members have experienced condemnation and persecution from the Exclusionists, and want to create a “safe space” for open and honest dialogue. Start by following favorite bloggers and friending people who make thoughtful and compassionate comments. If you’re not readily finding groups for Open Catholic fellowship, try sending a private message to a trusted friend to see if they know of any you can join.
And if you find the only parishes available to you are just too oppressive to your love of God to stay, then neither do I condemn you. I pray that our journeys to the fullness of God’s love will one day bring us together in perfect communion in Heaven. And I apologize for the people who have hurt you in the name of the Catholic Church, which can be at once my perfect mother and my vicious, arrogant sibling. If there is anything I can do to help you heal, just let me know. More than anything, I want you to know God’s love through the Body of Christ, and if no one else is doing that for you, I want to be the one who does.
image credit: wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6b/Logishin_two_churches.jpg