Cautionary Tales

As a convert to the Catholic Faith, I naturally want to see others embrace it as well.  But when I talk with folks who want to be Catholic I often find myself repeating Jesus’ counsel to “Count the cost.”  Why?

One thing that concerns me about converts, especially from Protestantism, is that some seem to still be basically Protestant. Some become Catholic, not because they have concluded that the Church is the trustworthy sacrament of redemption given to the world by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, but because they are fed up with Protestantism and are leaving it and joining the Catholics–in protest. Such folk are soon disconcerted that the people at Our Lady of Perpetual Ordinariness are not this haven of saints and scholars, but a bunch of regular people.  Some don’t know their faith at all.  Some hold political opinions that are very different from the convert’s.  Some don’t much take the Church’s teaching seriously.  Some get their spiritual insights from Oprah, or are devout but superstitious, or have a Protestant brother-in-law who has taught them to say “Praise the Lord!” a lot.

It’s all so… average to the convert who was bargaining on a safe haven from All That. And when some Pope or bishop does something not to their liking, such converts not infrequently embrace some form of the “Two Churches/Two Magisteria” theory of a pre- vs. post-Vatican II Church and (either slowly or quickly) start to hive off into some extreme form of what they call “traditionalism” but which is, in fact, yet another kind of Protestantism, albeit one with ultra-Catholic aesthetics.

What we need to remember is that the Catholic Church is and always has been the vessel of salvation for the world. That means that most of the people you meet are going to be ordinary–like you and me. They are going to have the ordinary tastes, prejudices, mediocrities, failures, and virtues of their time and place. There are, to be sure, great heroes and extraordinary people in the Catholic communion. But to expect that as the norm and then be outraged and disappointed when it is not is, I think, great folly and, in the end, great pride. Remember the hellish “wisdom” of C.S. Lewis’ Uncle Screwtape, who would keep far from our minds the thought, “If I, being what I am, can consider myself in some sense a Christian, then why can’t these people next to me in the pew”?

So though I have been appalled by some of the sins that have been revealed in the ranks of the Church in the past few years, I’ve never been shocked. What did I expect? They’re just sinners like I am, and I know what I’m capable of. In the same way, dreadful liturgical music, suburban “Church of Aren’t We Fabulous” smugness, Our Lady of Pizza Hut architecture, and “True Meaning of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes is Caring and Sharing” homilies, and the other stuff that sometimes ails the Church has never turned me away. For all averageness is just a reminder that the Church, thank God, has room for mediocre folk like myself.

“Well then,” it may be asked, “if the average Catholic is so average, why bother joining the Church?” To quote Walker Percy, “What else is there?” After all, it is not the Church that is mediocre, but only we, her members. The Church is, curiously, something that exists before she has any members, because She is founded not by us, but by Christ. The Church is the spotless Bride of Christ, made so by the Holy Spirit in the washing with water and the Word. We, her members, are generally nebbishes and schleps. But She is glorious and beautiful, terrible as an army with banners. And in her all the fullness of the Faith subsists.  In that Faith, by the grace of God, I hope one day to be made perfect in love of God and neighbor. But it is not my job to immanentize the eschaton. So I can be more than merely content living in this strange divine sea of a Church, whose members are, like me, stunningly ordinary, but whose soul, the Holy Spirit, is slowly bringing us along “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:13-16).

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