Do You See What I See? Do You Hear What I Hear?

A Layman’s Plea for Tolerance of Catholics

And so we’ve entered the Christmas season, a beautiful and wondrous time of year in which people of all faiths try to be a little nicer to one another, meet up with old friends and distant family, and engage in some nostalgia, both happy and sorrowful, for times gone by.  It has also, sadly, become a time when militant atheists, nihilists, and a variety of other “ists” feel compelled and comfortable in mocking Christianity, and most specifically and brutally, the Catholic Church.  It might seem presumptuous for a 44-year old man to attempt to defend a great faith that has existed for two millennia.  But if there is something I sense as a layman that perhaps the leaders of the Church may not, it’s the need, in the political patois of the day, for a better “ground game” to defend Catholics against a continued and intensifying onslaught of secular bigotry.  Catholics need help and inspiration for as famed writer Andre Dubus once said “belief is believing in God; faith is believing that God believes in you.”   What follows is not an airtight academic defense of the Church, the nuances of the faith, or its more controversial precepts.  Catholics have had St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Thomas More, John Henry Cardinal Newman, and hundreds of other geniuses to do that.  This is simply a humble plea for those disposed to have an aversion to the Church and the faith upon which it is based to see it through the eyes of the faithful.

Regretfully, in today’s world, describing oneself as “spiritual” is about as far as one can get without being labeled at best, a hopelessly superstitious rube, and at worst, a misogynistic and homophobic bigot with secrets to hide.  The great irony in all this, of course, is that those calling most loudly for tolerance in society are often the most aggressively intolerant of Christians in general and Catholics in particular.  It has become the pabulum of certain anti-Catholic voices among the political left, Hollywood, and the mass media to claim that the Church has done more harm than good throughout history, completely ignoring its past and present contributions to charity, art, science, and scholarship.  Of course, those interested in the truth would be hard-pressed to find another organization so committed to helping and educating others.  While modern Catholics recognize that hasn’t all been achieved without controversy or scandal, we also wonder why we are so often the subject of ridicule and scorn. More than twenty years ago, the late President of Georgetown University and later, The New York Public Library, Father Timothy Healy, S.J., was quoted as saying that “anti-Catholicism is the one allowable bigotry”  to of all places The New York Times.  Modern Catholics often find it difficult to see how the much vaunted plea for tolerance is ever extended to them.

There is no denying that the Church’s unpopularity lies, at its core, with its views on human sexuality and the sins, past and present, of the institution of the Church.  While it can be argued whether the Church’s views on sex are out-of-step with modern society, those unfamiliar with the faith should understand that the sentiment behind them lies with what we see as a simple and incontrovertible truth — life is precious and young lives in particular deserve great respect and attention.  Because life is such a wonder, we all must modify our own behavior to ensure that newborns are best protected and nurtured within the confines of a family with two loving parents.  The Church has also been outspoken in its belief, often realized among young people only later in life, that casual intimacy, like booze and drugs, is often not a form of personal liberty but rather an instrument of personal enslavement.

There’s no denying that the question of abortion often tends to be the greatest source of tension between the faithful and the secular.  I believe the difference between those who consider themselves pro-choice and those who consider themselves pro-life can be summed up in the idea that those who believe in abortion rights see it as a question of women’s rights, while those who believe in the right to life see it as an issue of human rights.  That is to say, the basic virtues of each argument lie essentially in the same sentiment — the weak need to be protected against the strong.  The biggest difference between the two sides of the issue, to my mind, lies with an interpretation of motive.  For whatever reason, those who are pro-life have been caricatured as misogynists intent on denying women their rights rather than simply those who demand that a respect for what we should all hold to be most sacred – life itself.  This caricature has no doubt been made more vivid at times by the comments of the asinine, but that shouldn’t be used to discredit a respect for life that lies at the core of our faith.

Regretfully, because the work of the Church will always be carried out by mere mortals, it will never be fully insulated from the sinful actions of its practitioners.  There is no denying that deplorable and inexcusable sexual scandals between priests and children have left the Church wide open for justifiable claims of hypocrisy.  Of course, these are sins of individuals not of the belief system set forth by Christ two thousand years ago.  It is important to remember that these acts are abhorrent and antithetical to the basic tenets of a faith that holds sacred the protection of the innocent and the defenseless.  Somehow the scandals of organized religion have been used to discredit the faith upon which these religions were based.  Logically, this argument makes no more sense than rejecting democracy due to the sins of a failed Vice Presidential candidate or the beauty of sport due to the deplorable acts of a college football coach.  Because we are all sinners, we should all remember French author de La Rochefoucauld’s observation that “hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.”    Our universal imperfections should not be used to deny the existence of sin or to discredit the value of righteousness.  The basis of our faith is that there is a saint and sinner in each one of us and that we are all ultimately worthy of redemption.  These are noble goals that reveal the beautiful humanity of our religion.  If they carry with them a downside, it is that it too often allows the Church to make excuses for those charged with carrying out its mission when they sin, to give them another chance, and fail to hold them accountable here on Earth.  In order for it to burnish its image of a great bulwark against sin and personal failing, the Church must continue to demand more, not less, of both those charged with administering the faith as well as the faithful themselves.

As a product of the New York State Regents system, I remember well my freshman year social studies class (they have long since abandoned calling it history) which focused exclusively on Asian and African Studies.  I remember learning all about Muhammad and memorizing the five pillars of Islam.  In retrospect this seems odd to me know for at no time during my education in the public school system was I ever taught about the existence and influence of Jesus, arguably time’s single most important historical figure.  One doesn’t need to be a Christian or accept the “mysticism” that surrounds his life to recognize the truth in this.  There has been no other man that quite changed the course of history the way Jesus has and continues to do.  It can be argued that his intense focus on forgiveness, rather than on retribution, was the basis for the great progress of Western Civilization.  Asking us to “turn the other cheek” rather than “seek an eye for an eye,” allowed humanity to look forward, not to lead perfectly just lives but better ones.
I’ve been going to Church my whole life with varying degrees of regularity. I can’t say that I’ve always fully understood the readings and homily but I can say that whether I attended mass in my hometown, at college, abroad, or at my current parish on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I’ve never heard a priest implore anyone to do anything other than to be humble with oneself, to be patient and kind with others, and to reject the temporal anesthetics and earthly temptations that do little for those with a conscience other than distance themselves from their innate goodness and personal freedom.

And so in this Christmas season, I have a simple plea for tolerance among the “ists” – try to remember that Catholics have been, and continue to be, one of the great protectors, as the late great Governor of New York Al Smith once believed and Cardinal Dolan recently reminded us, for the “uns” – “the unemployed, the uninsured, the unwanted, the unwed mother, the innocent fragile unborn baby in her womb, the undocumented, the un-housed, the unhealthy, the unfed, [and the] under-educated. ”  For two thousand years, the Catholic Church has remained the world’s largest charitable and educational organization – running hospitals, orphanages, and homes for the poor and the aged, founding the college system, developing the scientific method, and establishing the laws of evidence  – all cheerfully and without fanfare.  For all those inclined to revile the Church and what it stands for, practicing Catholics like me have a humble request – attend any mass at any time at any Catholic church in the world.  It won’t take more than an hour of your time, you won’t be asked to convert, and I can promise you that the priest will encourage you to do only one thing – love thy neighbor as you might love yourself.  Seeing and understanding the great rituals of the mass as a method for helping people achieve this great goal might allow you to see what I see, and hear what I hear, when I go to church on Sunday.