“Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’” (Jn 6.68).
“What else is there?” —Walker Percy
Every once in a while, former students will come to see me about Catholicism, and I try to be very candid. “Don’t do it,” I warn them, pointing to the crucifix on my wall. “See that? It’s where you’re headed if you’re not careful.”
Still, they ask their questions, and I do my best to answer them. They wonder about the Mass, and I advise them to go and see for themselves. “What about confessing your sins to priests instead of directly to God?” I walk them through John 20. “Why do you worship Mary?” I correct their misguided impressions and point to the Magnificat. “Do you really believe that wafer is Christ’s body?” Yup – John 6.
With each successive question, I get more and more uneasy. “They’re buying this,” I think to myself. “They’re caught in the Church’s tractor beam, and they’re goners.” Of course, it’s not my fault – I’m just the messenger, and a pretty flawed one at that – but I still feel a sense of responsibility.
Catholicism is not for the faint of heart, after all, and I want to make sure my friends know what they’re getting themselves into. So I tell them about the saints and martyrs – the nutty sacrifices that they made in service to the Gospel – and it only spurs their fascination. Weird.
Enough already! Time to act! From now on, I’m going to be more systematic and thorough in how I caution potential converts – it’s only fair, don’t you think? Others have proffered advice on how to avoid Catholic conversion, but here’s a streamlined version that I’m going to implement on a trial basis. Let me know what you think – I’m open to suggestions.
1. Read only your Bible. Avoid reading the Church fathers and the earliest Christians’ interpretation of Sacred Scripture – the Didache, for example: give it a pass. Also, and in particular, skip those first-century witnesses to how the primitive church understood the Gospel message, including especially those who were personally familiar with Jesus’ closest associates – like St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the Apostle John. Better to stick with modern translations of the Bible and modern non-Catholic commentators – or at least Catholic commentators who are sufficiently modern. And those New Testament passages that seem to back up Church teaching, like those listed above? There’s plenty of spin available online and elsewhere that can explain them all away. You just have to be diligent in tracking it down.
2. Study the Church’s detractors and their version of Catholic teaching. Whatever you do, do not study the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or the documents of Vatican II. Plus, steer clear of the writings of Pope Benedict XVI and St. Pope John Paul II, not to mention Pope Francis. Speaking of which: When the Pope shows up on the news? Be sure to attend carefully to what mainstream pundits and commentators tell you he said and did. Once you start relying on official Church outlets for updates and insights, then you’re likely to find a dangerous doctrinal continuity between Pope Francis and all his predecessors.
3. Focus on the most egregious examples of Catholic hypocrisy, misdeeds, and immorality. This is plenty easy these days, given all the intense scrutiny the Church receives on account of her rigorous and seemingly anachronistic moral code – and sex is only the beginning. When the thought occurs to you that other faiths have their own share of leaders who’ve failed to live up to their own standards, shake it off. A double standard here is a must! And when you become aware of the quiet holiness of ordinary Catholics, chalk it up as a clearly extraordinary phenomenon – something that happens despite the Faith and the Sacraments and the Holy Spirit, not something that happens because of them. Case in point: When Pope Francis drew attention to Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day in his recent remarks to Congress, did he really think that they’d be positive role models for American Catholics? Seriously, a peripatetic monk and a peacenik rabble-rouser? C’mon.
If this three-step method seems too contrived and complicated, there’s an alternative one-step approach suggested by none other than Woody Allen. There’s a funny scene in his 1986 film “Hannah and Her Sisters” where his tortured character, Mickey, tries on Catholicism for size. Desperate to find meaning in life, Mickey talks with a priest, goes to Mass, and then ends up at home unloading his shopping bag: a crucifix, a holy picture, a prayer book, and then some mayo and a loaf of Wonder Bread.
Later, Mickey sheds his Romish affectation in favor of a Marx Brothers-inspired optimism – a narrow escape! It makes me think that the shopping bag approach to evangelization might be the most effective – that a superficial presentation of Catholicism is just the thing to ward off vulnerable wannabes.
I just think it’s safer that way.