Monday, November 23, 2015

Welcome to the (Dysfunctional) Catholic Family!

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So you’ve completed the RCIA program, been confirmed (possibly baptized, if you weren’t before), and have even got your first rosary, bottle of Holy Water, and collection envelopes. Congratulations, and benedicamus Domino! You’ve joined the Catholic Church! Like the song in The Music Man says, “So what the heck, you’re welcome; glad to have you with us, even though we may not ever mention it again.”

It’s theoretically possible that you were comatose for the last twenty years and, like Rip Van Winkle, just woke up before you began the conversion process. Or, you could be young enough to not remember the scandals of the “Long Lent” of 2002 (and haven’t seen Spotlight yet) — was it really that long ago? In any event, I’ll trust you decided that the people of the Church don’t have to be perfect in order for the Church to teach the fullness of Christ’s truth. Many former Protestants and non-Christians convinced themselves of the truth of the Church’s doctrines, through self-directed study, even before they registered for the classes.

If we were perfect, we wouldn’t need the Church to begin with. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. ... I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13).

Catholic Factionalism

So now you’re here. And you’re beginning to notice that we spend almost as much time arguing with each other as we do with non-Catholics. Or, you notice they do things differently at St. Francis Xavier than they do at your home parish of Our Lady of Council Bluffs (yes, there is such a parish); for instance, you stand to greet your neighbor before Mass, but you realize nobody said to do this, and your neighbor is looking at your hand like it’s a dead carp on the front stoop. Or you may meet two Knights of Columbus arguing over Bernie Sanders’ merits as a potential President, the one damning him as a “socialist”, the other nigh unto a card-carrying Socialist himself.

Doesn’t look much like the “society with a single religious feeling, a single unity of discipline, and a single bond of hope” Tertullian wrote of at the end of the second century, does it? If the Church were a family, a therapist might call it dysfunctional. Didn’t St. Paul condemn factionalism in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)?

Certainly. Again, if all it took to wreak a change in human behavior were a citation from Scripture, we wouldn’t need a Church, let alone one so full of fractious people. Contrary to popular belief, sheep aren’t easily led; with the right shepherd and a couple of herd dogs, the critters will still do as they darn well please.

The Three Flavors of Latin-rite Catholicism

Although there’s some overlap, Latin-rite Catholics come in three basic flavors: traditionalist, orthodox (with a small “o”), and liberal. There’s also some overlap in secular political stances, with traditionalists and some orthodox being conservative, other orthodox being moderates or libertarians, and liberals largely progressive.


The heart of the traditionalist segment is the Extraordinary Rite, or Tridentine Latin Mass. Some will go miles out of their way to attend a Latin Mass rather than the Ordinary Form (aka Novus Ordo, or Mass of Paul VI), with the Novus Ordo in Latin being a second choice — yes, the Novus Ordo can be and is sometimes celebrated in Latin! — and will attend a NO Mass only if other options are unavailable or too impractical.

Traditionalists are (mostly) faithful to the magisterium; many, however, aren’t fond of Pope Francis, and worry that he’s leading the Church in the wrong direction. (Some weren’t fond of Pope St. John Paul II, either.) Many are critical of Vatican II, especially because of the changes that were made in its name, and of some popes’ social-justice encyclicals. Some sympathize with the Society of St. Pius X, a group which rejected the Council. However, the traditionalists’ love for the beauty and the richness of the pre-Vatican II traditions keep those treasures alive for the rest of us.


The small-o orthodox Catholics also value traditional practices; some may have attended Latin Masses at some point. However, most are content to go to Novus Ordo Masses, so long as they’re celebrated with reverence and respect; most accepted, and some applauded, the most recent English translation of the Latin Missal when it was introduced in Advent 2011. They have a slightly higher level of tolerance for innovation, putting up with guitar-led songs and sometimes adopting the orans position during the Our Father, but raising a protest or fleeing to another parish at the first sign of liturgical puppets.

Most orthodox Catholics love Pope Francis and are quick to defend him against traditionalist critics. However, most also love(d) Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and agree that Francis isn’t as careful or as nuanced as his predecessors. They, too, are (mostly) faithful to the Magisterium, though some do sometimes argue with traditionalists — and each other — over documents and doctrines, particularly those concerning social justice.


Liberal Catholics could also be called “Catholic Buts”, for their habit of introducing their opinions on certain issues with “I’m (a devout) Catholic, but ….” They tend to attend Mass less frequently than other Catholics, sometimes appearing in the pews only at Christmas and Easter (“C-and-E Catholics”), and to forgo sending their kids to CCD or Catholic schools, especially if they’ve married outside the Faith. Many have never seen or participated in a Latin Mass, and don’t particularly care if they never do; many don’t go to Confession from one end of the year to the other, even if they’ve committed a mortal sin. They have a much larger tolerance for liturgical innovation, even liturgical abuse; they might even applaud if Father allowed a “woman priest” to concelebrate Mass with him, or if the processional and recessional were danced.

The most notable trait of liberal Catholics, though, is that they reject many Catholic doctrines while still self-identifying as Catholic; many view their dissent as loyal attempts to reform the Church. Most liberals love Pope Francis, and didn’t like Benedict or St. John Paul. Some, however, have become disillusioned with Francis, as he’s clearly not going to get rid of the doctrines they dislike, or call for a Vatican Council III to do so.

Where Do You Fit In?

“Where do I fit in this?” you may ask yourself.

My response is, “Don’t try to pigeonhole yourself. At least, not yet.” First, try to find out more; listen to what each side has to say, and learn more about traditional practices, even going to a Latin Mass. Read the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, as well as any other resource for understanding Church teachings. Eventually, as you make your decisions about the internal issues and the traditions, you may find yourself gravitating more toward a particular circle.

Second, whichever group you gravitate towards, your politics should follow your religion, not vice-versa. We belong to God before we belong to any nation; we belong to the Church before we belong to any party. Especially in America, it’s hard to keep your politics from influencing your reading of Church doctrine. Remember, though, that if the Church teaches a certain activity to be inherently or manifestly evil, that teaching is to be treated as objectively true, not simply the Vatican’s subjective opinion. Any support you give to that activity, even with the best of motives, could be considered formal cooperation in evil, and therefore a mortal sin.

(In many cases, election time will usually find you faced with choices between candidates who both/all support moral evils. You have two choices: 1) Write in a candidate; 2) Hold your nose and pull the lever/press the button/fill out the card. Well, you could always avoid voting, too; but that surrenders your participation in the democratic process, which isn’t a sin but would be a shame.)

Third, remember that you go to Mass to worship the Lord and receive his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Holy Eucharist. You’re not there to sit in judgment on the celebrant, or the choir, or your fellow worshippers. That’s not to say you should let liturgical abuses and irregularities go unremarked, or that you can’t “parish shop” for the right fit (it drives pastors crazy, but sometimes that’s the only way you can register your dissatisfaction with sufficient strength). But don’t march out of the church in a righteous huff, or make a nuisance of yourself with loud denunciations, if the priest and congregation don’t meet your exacting standards. I say again, if you were perfect, you wouldn’t need to go to Mass.

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In sum, be faithful; be obedient; but be your own kind of Catholic. There’s plenty of room for variation within the bounds of dogma, doctrine, and discipline. As the late Fr. Andrew Greeley used to say (following James Joyce), “Catholic” means “Here comes everybody!”

We’re not saints yet, but we’re working on it. Welcome home.