The Catholic Church is criticized for sneaking an attitude of “merit” into her followers. We believe (so we are informed) that we can “gain” Heaven by some weight of action. The critique is best expressed as a sneer: “What, you confess your sins to the priest and, voila, you’re forgiven your murder, theft, child-molestation? Hike a trail, kiss the knee-bone of a Saint, and the grace of God floods into your heart?” Catholics pretend to conquer the Infinite God through some knockout combo of finite actions. Wisdom knows better. No human action can merit friendship with God — and certainly not something as dumb as bowing in front of a statue.
I agree, and hold with the Church that friendship with God is a sheer gift, one we cannot deserve or merit, no matter how perky and adorable we believe ourselves to be. But the Church’s detractors miss the point. A Catholic could pervert his various bows, genuflections, fasts and rosaries into a series of experience points that eventually cause his Hell-bound Pokemon to evolve into The Saved. But the original experience of these devotions is precisely the death of all merit — a resounding affirmation of the pure givenness of salvation.
A child throws paint on paper, wipes it with his face, calls it a “boat” and hands it to his mother. She beams and posts it on that Original Facebook Wall — the fridge. No one observing this relationship would be foolish enough to say that the child earns his mother’s love. Rather, the mother’s gift of love makes her child’s hapless attempts at “art” effective and worthy of praise. It is not despite, but precisely because of the unbridgeable distance between the objective worth of the finger-painting and the honor it earns that we understand the efficacy of the child’s work to be rooted in the generosity of his mother — and not his dubious craftsmanship.
Humor, in its basic form, involves a consciousness of incongruity. When Protestants sneer at the “indulgence theology” of Catholicism, I cannot fault their theology — only their lack of humor. The distance between chewing this bread and communion with the Infinite God is so immense that it can only be a joke. The incongruity between our distracted prayers and the reward of eternal, undistracted Love is so obvious that only the eyes trained on comedy will “get it.” If we are quiet when we pray it is because we are suppressing a chuckle. The humor of Catholicism is its own catechism: When the objective distance between the human action and the divine reward makes us giggle, we can only conclude, in a felt, bodily experience of the proposition, that if our acts attain to our salvation, it is not on the basis of their objective worth, but on the generosity of our Savior.
Our actions do not merit, but participate in the unfathomable humor of our God, who freely offers us absurd bridges over infinite distances and bids us cross. Ironically, it is precisely the view that disdains all this bone-kissing, scapular-wearing, prostrating, and pilgrimaging that ends up, in the actually praxis of life, with the attitude of merit. It is not the Catholic Church, with all her indulgences, who labors under an aesthetic of The Elect and The Damned; of a “righteous people” so sure of their own salvation that they even deny it to others. The Catholic Church cannot pretend that anyone is exempt from the possibility of salvation — she daily experiences the impropriety, the grotesque gratuity with which God pursues sinners. When, by the terrible mercy of God, touching a piece of wood has been made efficacious to my salvation, it becomes difficult to exclude even the so-worst of us — if He uses the wood of the cross and the ashes of Ash Wednesday, to what depths won’t he sink to raise up a sinner from his despair? Indulgences express only this — that God indulges us. When such activities are banned and replaced by quiet, interior, invisible, spiritualistic assents of faith, the universal, salvific work of Christ slowly devolves into the salvation of a spiritual elite. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, must be catholic — universal. If God gives his grace with such flagrant disregard for the dignity of his station, who am I to judge my neighbor suffering under the same, comic, incarnate God?