You and Your Heathen Friend

A reader writes:

    Can a faithful, orthodox Catholic be best friends with a non-Catholic (a non-Christian, even)? I've been criticized by women holier than me that my best friend is not Catholic--- they question how I can connect with someone when something so basic is missing. No common lens to interpret the world, speaking different languages almost.

    They wondered how can being friends with non-Catholics be beneficial to the improvement and salvation of one's soul? If you are friends with a non-Catholic for reasons other than Catholicism, then you are putting an emphasis on secular external things rather than trying to do spiritual work on your soul like you could with a Catholic friend.

My first response to this reader is, "Your Holiness!  Where have you been?"  Because of course our beloved John Paul II was best friends with the decidedly non-Catholic Jerzy Kluger, a Jew from Poland -- and he took a fair amount of criticism for this friendship (as did Kluger!).  If only because of John Paul II's example, it should be obvious that good Catholics can, of course, be best friends with non-Catholics. 

That answer seemed so obvious to me that I had to think really hard before I could even understand why someone would ask such a thing.  I've come up with a few possibilities.

The first explanation is that they are jerks.  I mean, look, some people really are just jerks -- or else terrified.  They say they're trying to be holy, but they really mean that they don't want to catch your gross heathen cooties.  I have no idea how you can read the Gospels and still come out thinking that the main idea of Christianity is that you're supposed to hog the good news all to yourself  -- but I guess if you subsist on a steady diet of fear, paranoia and, most of all, pride, you could tell yourself that you're keeping yourself pure by not fraternizing with the "enemy."  And once you start identifying anyone as the enemy, it's amazing how quickly more and more people get added to that category.

Another, more charitable explanation is that these folks truly don't understand what friendship is for.  They seem to believe that the only purpose for friendship is for the benefit of one's soul -- that friendship is just one of an array of spiritually utilitarian tools we're supposed to employ as we work toward Heaven.  This is kinda sorta true, in the same way that everything in our lives ought to help us get toward Heaven.  But still, with an attitude like that, they must have some wonderful parties, right?

"Well, Tertullian, and what kind of birthday cake would you like this year?"

"Chocolate, please, Mater.  Because I prefer vanilla, and I can offer up the chocolate for the salvation of your soul."

I mean, phooey.  There are lots of ways to work on your salvation, but being a full-time poop is really not one of them.  C. S. Lewis famously said, “What draws people to be friends is that they see the same truth. They share it.”  That's what friendship is for:  so two people who have something in common can enjoy it together.

But the thing that they have in common does not have to be their religious faith.  It could be art, music, sports, some kind of recreation, a similar devotion to their children, a similar sense of humor, a similar work ethic, even a similar taste in food -- and these could be the basis of genuine friendships, if not all at the same level of profundity.

And furthermore, "if it's true, it's Catholic."  If you both think something is true, even if it's just, "Boy, Otis Redding is fantastic," then the Catholic Church has got you both covered.

C. S. Lewis also famously said, "Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another:  'What!  You too?  I thought I was the only one.'"  Note that we often utterly fail to experience that pleasant shock of familiarity when we're with people who do share our faith.  I like some Catholics.  I don't like others.  If I'm being a good Catholic, you're not entirely sure which category you're in.  But that doesn't mean there aren't categories.

The third great misunderstanding under which my reader's critics are laboring is that there is nothing good outside of the Catholic faith -- that, since the Catholic Faith contains the fullness of truth, there must therefore not be anything good or valuable or precious to be found outside the walls of the Church.  This is ignorance, pure and simple.  The Catechism quotes Lumen Gentium:

    843 The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as "a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life."332

And Nostra Aetate makes it clear:

    The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.. . .

    The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.

And then, of course, it says in Catholica Purissima Maxima:

    But oh gosh, don't be friends with them.  Because, ew.

Yeah, not really.  If the Church can accept that there is some truth in other religions, doesn't it follow that there's some good in the people who belong to those religions?  Anyway, how the heck are we supposed to spread the Gospel if we can't hang around with people who haven't heard the Gospel?  Why should they listen to us if they don't already know and like us?  How are we supposed to make any progress in our own understanding of the Faith if we're grabbing onto it so tightly that we never hold it up for anyone to see?

All in all, it's not only permissible to be good friends with non-Catholics, it's probably essential.

But!  You will say.  How can you tell me to just throw myself out there and be friends with just anybody?  I wish I were strong enough to live that way, but I'm not.  I am shaken by bad influences, and I need to be surrounded by people who will bolster my faith and keep me on the straight and narrow.

Well, that's good, too.  We should have Catholic friends who understand us, who will support and encourage us in our counter-cultural ways, and who make it easier for us to live in a way that is pleasing to Christ.  It's probably a bad sign if we don't have any Catholic friends (assuming we have friends at all).  We're not made of stone: our friends do influence us.  And there's nothing more insufferable than a Catholic who's such an advanced Catholic that he can't stand being with other Catholics.

But it's also a bad sign if we don't have any non-Catholic friends.  That's probably a sign of snobbery or fear, which are not considered virtues by anyone, Catholic or not.

Our faith should be something that we can share with our friends -- or something that is rooted so securely in our hearts that it won't be disturbed, whether our friends share it or not.