Despite our differences, we are one holy, Catholic, dysfunctional family

by Brian Harper

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What do Dorothy Day, Geoffrey Chaucer, Rick Santorum, Maureen Dowd, Mother Teresa and Oscar Wilde have in common? Not much. But they all are or were Catholics.

Some may rush to dispute the Catholicity of some of these folks. Chaucer's biography is too spotty to know whether he was practicing. Santorum's comments about the LGBT community rarely land in the ballpark of love or kindness. Dowd is deeply and, some would argue, disrespectfully critical of the Catholic church. Wilde's conversion did not come until he was lying on his deathbed. And Day committed that unpardonable sin in North American politics: dabbling in socialism. Horror of horrors!

Truth be told, I am sometimes prone to this sort of behavior; that is, questioning someone else's devotion to my faith, bemoaning the tragedy of my sharing a religion with someone whose views I find unsound, sometimes offensively so. I will gather a tidbit of information or hear a quote out of context and find myself thinking, "I don't want any part if they're members, too!"

There is hardly any need for me to point out all that is wrong with this kind of thinking, but I will anyway. Many could look at the countless imperfections in how I practice my religion and reach the same conclusion: If he is Catholic, no thanks.

It also presumes an insider's access to others' hearts, which, of course, only God and the individual at hand have.

Less obviously, however, it deprives Catholicism of a gift that is all too often seen as a trapping: its diversity.

Like many, I have been inspired and impressed by Pope Francis' leadership and singular style in pithily expressing the beauties and mysteries of the faith. I have also been surprised by the extent to which he has been a sword of division.

In our country's partisanship-on-steroids landscape, talking heads on both the right and left have thrown elbows in trying to claim Francis as one of their own. Whether it is his remarks on capitalism or his teaching on abortion, people pick the comments they find agreeable, ignore the ones they do not and assume a spokesperson's status as they tell the opposition and anyone who will listen to beware: The pope is on our side, not yours.

It is all pretty obnoxious, but what I find most annoying is not that people are carelessly commandeering the pope's words to affirm opinions they already hold. Rather, it is that their motivation to do so seems to be closing the doors on those who are not like them. To progressives, Paul Ryan hates poor people. To conservatives, Sr. Simone Campbell is a radical feminist. Soon enough, we are sneering that our opponents are "Catholic in name only," that they have completely missed Jesus' message. We, on the other hand, totally get it.

For me, the biggest issue with this line-in-the-sand style of Catholicism is not that it is mean, though it is. It is not that it is uncharitable, though it is. It is that it is unworkable.

Shortly after Pope Francis' election, David Brooks wrote a column in The New York Times comparing Catholicism's current crossroads to its previous dire straits in North Africa at the outset of the fourth century. Brooks contrasted the approach of the Donatists, who "believed the church needed to purify itself and return to its core identity," with that espoused by St. Augustine, who "wanted the church to go on offense and swallow the world."

"This would involve swallowing impurities as well as purities," Brooks wrote. "It would mean putting to use those who are imperfect. This was the price to be paid if you wanted an active church coexisting with sinners, disciplining and rebuking them."

Brooks' piece refers to how the Catholic church ought to relate to secular society, but it can also be instructive in intracommunity clashes, especially in an age when we seem to feel that it is our personal duty to excommunicate any fellow believer with whom we disagree.

We live in an extraordinarily and boundlessly diverse world. If our faith is to have any significance, it must be reflective of that world. It must leave space for people coming with viewpoints, experiences, questions and points of emphasis across the ideological spectrum. Otherwise, we will be little more than a homogenous club of like-minded individuals with nothing to say to anyone outside a tight group. How will we possibly be able to encounter the complicated world lying beyond our cathedral walls if we cannot stomach the complexities within?

St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises includes a Presupposition, which states, "It is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to put a good interpretation on another's statement than to condemn it as false."

Writer Jim Manney explains: "Ignatius isn't saying that we should play Mister Nice Guy and ignore mistakes and false beliefs. ... But before we start correcting other people, we need to do something else, and that is to do everything we can to understand how the other person understands the proposition that bothers us so much."

I am not arguing for a carte blanche Catholicism in which any and every opinion is valid, nor am I saying we are wrong to dispute or even correct each other.

All I am saying is that name-calling, suspicion, and barriers to entry need not be our default when differences arise. Even when someone believes something we see as brazenly misguided, we can at the very least try to generously understand the reason behind their perspective.

This may mean a Catholic who believes using contraception is sinful allows that Catholics advocating for greater access to birth control may have something valuable to say about the challenges facing parents with limited financial resources. It may mean a Catholic inspired by Pope Leo XIII's preferential option for the poor in Rerum Novarum considers that politicians promoting cuts to federal social programs may do so out of a conviction in subsidiarity, or problems being handled at the lowest level possible.

None of this means shifting values or automatically accepting others'. To me, it simply means learning to look at the Catholic church the way we see our families on Thanksgiving Day: as a big, messy, seemingly dysfunctional group of people with sometimes wildly different beliefs but who love each other and are glad for everyone's presence anyway.

This may feel untenable, unorthodox or impossibly dissonant. But if we are willing to face the paradoxes of the Trinity, the virgin birth and a savior entering the world as a baby in a barn, surely we can learn to sit at the table with people who are not like us and count it as a blessing.

[Brian Harper is a writer, musician and community outreach coordinator for a small business. His work is available at]

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