... reminded me of a letter I'd written in grad school to the student newspaper. Someone had written a column about Catholicism that suggested that being Catholic was about earning the requisite number of "heaven points" by attending so many Masses, or saying so many prayers, or helping so many old ladies across the street. It was a silly caricature, but one, it seemed, this columnist took seriously. [I don't recall if she was a lapsed Catholic or an evangelical attacking "works righteousness." I suspect it was the former ... ]
Anyway, the following letter from yours truly was duly published. Various conversations recently have reminded me of the fact that so many cradle Catholics seem to grow up with a conception of Catholicism that is only about following the "rules."
(This was written, oh, in the early part of the decade, I'd say. I'd probably elaborate a bit more on how all this ties to the a relationship with Jesus, and His Church, the continuing presence of the Body of Christ, if I were to rewrite it now, but hey ... )
I have to confess that I found X's column “New rules for good Catholics” to be mildly amusing. Caricatures tend to provoke amusement. Like every caricature, it was also a distortion. Let me offer an alternative perspective.
At its heart, Catholicism is a love story. It is the story of a God who is madly, passionately and crazily in love with us, His creation. A God who pursues us relentlessly; who is ready to embrace us and throw a party for us as the prodigal father in the story of the man and his two sons (Luke 15:11-32), not waiting to listen to our litany of faults; who would gladly abandon the ninety-nine good sheep to go in search for the one stray. A God who is involved in the muck and mess of our earthly lives in ways more intimate and wondrous than we dare imagine. A God who so wants our hearts, that there is “nothing in all creation” that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:39). At its heart there is also a paradox – that true love takes its most powerful and real form in the shape of a man, arms outstretched, cruelly nailed to a cross; that true love trusts ultimately in the God who brings new life out of an ignominious death.
“For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). If we are “made right” in God’s eyes, it’s not because we have earned the requisite number of heavenly brownie points. God is not this old man in the sky, with a long beard, weird and bizarre rules and a mean thunderbolt, who gets his jollies by watching us puny mortals jump through a maze of divine hoops. God is on our side. God is with us, Emmanuel. The Good News is precisely this that a share in God’s very life is available to us through faith, that God loves us as we are, with no strings or conditions, that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Anyone who has been in love, who has experienced love, knows that love calls forth a response. So it is with God’s love – once it penetrates our being, once we “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) we are transformed, changed forever. This is what holiness is about – responding to, and cooperating with God’s grace, already at work in our lives. This is where the “rules” ought to fit in – for laying the boundaries and groundwork for our lives as disciples of Christ. Just as there are rules and disciplines in athletic tournaments, so it is in the spiritual life. For Catholics, central to our spiritual lives is the Eucharist and the sacramental life of the Church – Christ’s very tangible, continuing presence in the world.
This is, admittedly, a very idealized picture. I will be the first acknowledge that more often than not that Christians – Catholics – continue to screw up, continue to live our lives as if we could manipulate God, as if we could box the living God into our own categories and limited understandings, and continue, by our sinfulness, to be an obstacle, (skandalon in Greek) to the spreading of the Good News. We in the church need to ask ourselves to what extent are we responsible for this distorted image of a God of senseless rules and “heaven points?” And to Ms. ----, and the others who might share her views, I can only respond with the invitation Jesus gave his disciples, “Come and see!”