Cave, Flirt, Duck — or Engage

For today’s Catholics, the crushing influence of the culture is everywhere, demanding conformity. The United States are increasingly not just united, but homogenized.

Go for lunch in the middle of the Arizona desert or in the Boston-Washington corridor and you’ll hear the same music blaring from cars, see the same DVDs for sale at the gas stations, choose where you’ll eat from nearly the same list of restaurants, then sit in mostly identical booths eating mostly identical food.

This prevailing culture is indifferent to our faith at best; often, it’s antagonistic. There are at least four possibilities for us who are faced with this: to cave in to it, flirt with it, duck from it or engage it.

Caving. The most common response to the world, of course, is capitulation. Faced with the world’s vigorous campaign demanding conformity, the most common response is simply to conform.

Polls of Catholics don’t tell us very much, because they typically don’t separate Catholics who still go to Mass and confession from those who don’t. But they do tell us that most people who describe themselves as Catholics have abandoned the Church in every important way. For the most part, say the polls, self-described Catholics have just as many abortions and divorces as non-Catholics, use the same contraceptives and believe the same things as non-Catholics — and go to Mass almost as rarely, too.

Flirting.  The next most common response by Catholics to the world’s barrage is to try, mightily, to fit into both places at once. Most of us are guilty of this. We feel a real affinity for the faith, but we also love what the world has to offer, and we think maybe the Church is a little out of touch in one area or another.

A question mark flickers in our mind about the faith. Perhaps it’s the Church’s stand against homosexual “marriage” or fetal research. Perhaps it’s the Church’s opposition to war or capital punishment. For one reason or another, we somehow doubt that the Church is everything it claims to be, and so we flirt with what the world has to offer.

We want to watch what everyone else is watching. We want the same size family everybody else has. We want to be Catholic, but we don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb. So we begin to accommodate, taking a little of this from the faith and a little of that from the world.

Everybody is in need of conversion, and in the best-case scenario our attempts to accommodate are just so many bumps on our faith journey. But they could be something much worse. They could be a less honest form of capitulation: Those who flirt with a mistress have already separated from their true spouse in their hearts.

Ducking. Another common response to the world among those of us who are devout in our faith is to become critics, separate ourselves from the world in order to judge it.

This reaction causes us to become angry denouncers of the world, constantly on the watch for its errors, ready to judge and condemn. We withdraw from it as much as we can, avoid as much contact with “worldly” people as possible, and live a parallel existence.

The problem, of course, is that this attitude is the opposite of Christ’s and the opposite of the Church’s. Christ loved the world and came to save it, not condemn it. He established the Church to spread his faith to the world, not to separate itself from the world.

Engagement. Which brings us to the last response Catholics can have to the world — they can engage it. This is the response of a Catholic who doesn’t fear the world, isn’t unhealthily captivated by its lures and isn’t embarrassed by his own faith. This attitude may describe us less than we like, but it’s the ideal. It’s what we’re aiming for.

To the Catholic ready to engage the world, the culture of consumerism, abortion and broken families that Pope John Paul II called “the culture of death” isn’t an all-consuming monster that has overpowered the Church. It’s the sad state of affairs that we have been called in our time to heal. The world is not a force that threatens us so much as it is a place in desperate need of what we have to offer. “Worldly” people can’t be viewed as threats — they are wounded people in need of healing.

It’s a great question to ponder on the anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s death as Holy Week approaches.  Which of these responses did John Paul have to the world? And how can I be more like him?