All in the Family

"The good news about the Catholic Church is: it's like a big family," said my friend Mike. "The bad news about the Catholic Church is, it's like a big family."

Truer words were never spoken. And they account very well for why the Church often seems to look so different on the inside than on the outside. It's like this:

When my wife, Janet, was a kid her family was military and got transferred all over the place. They were, as the phrase goes, "aliens and strangers in the land." Sometimes they would get transferred to a base and the local kids would zero in on them as "new kids" and pick fights with them. Result, Janet's siblings learned to look out for each other when the neighbors were on the warpath. Attack one of them and you found yourself facing all of them.

But, of course, that didn't mean the siblings couldn't drive each other crazy. They loved each other dearly (and never more than when they were the object of pummelings by the neighbor kids), but they also had to learn how to live with each other like everybody else. However, the neighborhood kids knew nothing about any internecine squabbling among Janet's brother and sisters. All the neighbor kids saw was the United Family Front coming toward them when they took it into their head to bop one of the younger kids in the family.

In a similar way, I sometimes get the impression many people outside the Catholic Church (for instance, on the Internet) imagine the Church is a featureless monolith in which all Catholics download instructions from the Vatican's Orbital Mind Control Laser Platform in Geosynchronous Orbit above North America. This impression is, to a certain degree, understandable. For where Catholics are constantly under some sort of assault from wider culture, Catholics are less inclined to discuss differences between themselves lest they give opportunity to some anti-Catholic to attack their faith ("There! You see? Catholics can't even make up their minds about the death penalty. So much for an infallible Church! Ha!"). Often Catholics have their hands full, in such a situation, simply demonstrating that they are, in fact, Christian. They don't have time or room for nuanced discussion of intramural differences. And so, people outside the Catholic communion get the idea that Catholics march in lock step.

Sometimes, for whatever reason, these people outside the Church look inside the Church. When they do, they immediately discover what any visitor to my wife's house would have discovered: this is hardly a monolithic family. We argue. We kiss. We make up. We have long-standing disagreements about stuff. We are, in a word, human. This is not, by the way, anything new or a sign of the End Times. It has been going on ever since the Church got in a big argument (recounted in Acts 15) over whether or not Gentiles should be circumcised. Indeed, one of the things John Henry Newman saw as a sign of the truth of the Catholic Faith was that the Church was a mess in the New Testament, stayed a mess through the Patristic period, the Dark Ages, the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance, continued a mess through the Reformation, Counter-Reformation and Enlightenment and remained a mess today. This, according to Newman, showed it is the same Church.

I like this argument, which is totally Catholic. I also think this argument is one which Catholics ought to, ever so gently, clue their non-Catholic neighbor in on when possible, if for no other reason than to soften the blow of discovering that the Church is a communion of sinners before it is a communion of saints. This realization, once you get over the shock of it, is rather comforting. You don't have to be perfect to be Catholic, just human.

Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea