“Father,” said the middle aged man, “When I was ten years old I was a faithful altar server and I turned up one day to serve wearing sneakers and the priest told me I couldn’t serve because I was wearing the wrong shoes.” Then with an air of indignant self righteousness he declared, “And I’ve never been back to a Catholic church since.”
Well, OK. But maybe, just maybe that was an excuse for not going to Mass?
One of the most common conversations I have as a Catholic priest is with people who have left the faith because of a bad example. Some of the stories are excuses for the person’s own hypocrisy, but other stories are genuine and the tales they tell of awful Catholics are heart-numbing.
There are plenty of people out there who want to dismiss the Catholic faith because of bad Catholics. “How can you follow a faith” they wail, “which has suppressed women, tortured and raped little boys and killed millions of people?”
Every Catholic has to admit that there are bad Catholics. Really bad Catholics. Vile, evil, wicked and depraved people who are Catholics.
However, since when do we judge any group or nation or religion only by their worst examples and by only by their followers and not by their beliefs?
Let’s say we want to decide if America is a great country or not. Would it be fair to judge America by the corrupt politicians, the murderous gangsters, the greedy Wall Street bankers, the drug-addled movie stars, the serial killers and the inhabitants of our worst jails? I don’t think so.
We’d have to take them into account, but we’d also have to consider the great and good Americans, the ordinary good folks, the noble, brave and best examples of American citizenry. We’d also have to weigh America not only by the actions and decisions of her citizens, but by her founding principles, her documents of state—the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Same with the Catholic faith. Consider the whole thing objectively.
Likewise with Catholicism. We should look with shame and dismay on pedophile priests, fat-cat cardinals, bigoted bishops and lazy laypeople. We should acknowledge the pompous popes, the ignorant nuns and monstrous monks.
But then, if one is going to be fair at all, on the other side of the scales you will need to put the saints in all their variety, energy, beauty and hilarious humanity. Along with the bad you’ve got to consider the good. You’ll have to consider the cultural achievements of Catholicism, the hospitals, schools, orphanages and hospices. You’ll have to consider the Gothic cathedrals, abbey churches and the art, music and literature that is Catholics.
Finally, in the face of the hypocrites, heretics, criminals and creeps who are Catholic you have to consider the multitude of ordinary, down to earth, week by week and day by day sitting in the pew Catholics. You have to consider the army of good, decent, funny, hard working, humble and holy laypeople who serve God and others in their simplicity and by their lives prove the authenticity, beauty, truth and goodness of the Catholic faith.