Photo by Zoe Anderson
There are many times when I’ve walked out of mass, or out of a Catholic school function and thought to myself, “Hmm… that person doesn’t seem very Catholic.” In truth, I’ve thought it about whole rows of people, complete sections, even. (Oh boy, now no one is ever going to sit next to me.) I point out my sinful and serial tendency because I suspect I’m not the only person in the world who has judged a fellow Catholic and found the person in question considerably lacking in terms of their Catholicity. As if there’s this invisible yardstick by which everyone is measured to gauge whether they’re Catholic enough. Oh no, they don’t have a rosary hanging from their rearview. They fall short. He loves the guitar mass. Seriously? He’s practically fallen away. She’s seeking more fellowship at her church. Please! Why doesn’t she just head over to the Lutheran place around the corner?
Of course, the inverse is true as well. Someone knows all the Latin words to Salve Regina, or they can quote scripture like the general population quotes Seinfeld, and I think, “Whoa! Now, that’s a devout Catholic.” I can’t lie—when I spy a scapular peeking out from underneath someone’s shirt collar, I’m convinced the person has serious “Catholic cred.” Or when I see a priest in a full black cassock, I think, “Now, he’s holy!”
Okay, I’m a Catholic snob, but allow me to dig a little deeper. I can explain how this propensity to classify a Catholic’s worthiness takes hold in a person like me. In college, I was in the pro-life group. We were a small, but tenacious group of young adults. We passed out flyers to angry coeds who would sneer and roll their eyes. We painted the university’s rock in the middle of campus during parents’ weekend, thanking mom and dad for being pro-life. Needless to say, it didn’t make it the whole 24 hours without being defaced. At best, we were patronized like mental patients who were off our meds. Mostly, we were met with open scorn. I came to expect that kind of treatment from the opposition. But I didn’t understand when those same people would turn up in the pews next to me at the university mass that Sunday.
More recently, you can imagine my shock at a fundraising meeting for my kids’ Catholic school when one of the moms casually mentioned her little daughter, Betty is named after Betty Friedan. She divulged sheepishly, “I don’t usually mention this in these circles. But I love Betty Friedan.” I was mid-bite into my doughnut when I looked around at the rest of the group to assess their outrage. They were curious. “Who’s Betty Friedan, again?” “She’s a feminist hero! She started NOW and NARAL. You know, National Abortion Rights Action League,” Betty’s mom chirped. I couldn’t finish my doughnut.
The Catholic Church, by its universal nature, is a big tent. But this big? People are often gallingly loose with the term Catholic. How often have you heard, “I’m Catholic, but I only go to mass on the big holidays”? Sunday attendance is a requirement, folks. A 2010 Pew Research study found that only one-third of Catholics believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist. As a former cafeteria Catholic, I picked and chose whatever sounded good and very politely passed on the less appealing stuff. Yes—pizza! No—Brussel sprouts. However, while the church encourages us to use our conscience on moral matters, as members of Christ’s body, we are required to form our conscience according to the teachings of the Church, even the Brussel sprout teachings. (I’ve got a great recipe for roasting them by the way, which makes them quite palatable, tasty even.)
I explain all of this to offer backstory on my predilection for rating other Catholics. Don’t misunderstand me. When I consider myself to be more Catholic than someone else, I am well aware that it is contrary to our faith. But I’m offering an explanation for my prideful problem. As a member of a group who is often belittled and demonized for holding countercultural beliefs, I want to know that we are all in the trenches together. It’s important for me to know that we are united in our faith.
It would be reckless and plain-old stupid to equate someone’s stance on abortion with whether or not they have a rearview rosary dangling in their car. So, when I start judging someone, or a whole pew of people, I try to remind myself that I used to be one of those wan Christians—“Speak the name of Jesus, just not too loudly. In fact, let’s just whisper His name…” But now I’m in. Annoyingly in. And I expect everyone else to be as in as I am. Sometimes, they’re not. As frustrating as that may be, it doesn’t excuse my Christian litmus test. Does that mean I don’t kindly mention when someone is in mortal danger? No. But it does mean if they don’t happen to be wearing a miraculous medal around their neck, I can’t dock points. Only the good Lord truly knows the intricacies of our souls. In the meantime, I will work on the virtue of patience and continue to resist these needless comparisons. The only worthwhile comparison is holding our existence up to the extraordinary lives of the saints and ultimately to our Lord Jesus, Himself. Then how well do we stack up? Yes, as Catholics we are undoubtedly expected to be in communion with the Church. But those who spontaneously hold hands during the Our Father, or enjoy praise & worship songs over Gregorian chant are just as legit. It is a big tent, this universal Church. We’ve got room for keyboards and pipe organs. We are a Church of the Dominicans AND the Jesuits. Just don’t get me started on some of those Jesuits… and so it goes.