I had told the story to illustrate some thoughts about mercy, but it was also a story that helped me into the Catholic Church. It’s the story of a small old-fashioned Baptist-y church I got to know as a secular-minded teenager, because friends brought me. (I told it here on Aleteia.)
It was the New England country church out of a fifties movie. A beautiful young woman started coming to the youth group, and because she had been abused by her father, some church members quickly drove her out. No one resisted very hard. People said, “She’s no better than she should be.” They worried that she might be promiscuous and might seduce the boys.
I don’t remember hearing a merciful word said about her or to her. Out she went. It was a wicked thing to do.
Catholics Acting Badly
Soon after I became a serious Christian, Protestant friends must have sensed in me a dangerous Catholic leaning I didn’t know I had. Out of the blue, they would tell me stories of Catholics acting badly. Even people I barely knew would do this. This went on for years, and some kept telling me the stories after my family and I had entered the Church.
We could be talking about football or ice cream and they’d feel the need to tell me about a Renaissance cardinal who had children by several women or a Catholic mobster who went to Mass after killing people. They loved stories about guilt-ridden Irish Catholics who thought God hated them. They much enjoyed telling stories of ex-Catholics they’d known, especially the ones who had finally “found Jesus” in a Protestant church.
They offered these stories as examples of what they thought Catholicism is and does. Each story was paradigmatic, exemplary. The sins and failures they described they thought essentially Catholic.
Most believed the stories proved Catholicism not just an inferior form of Christianity, as hamburger is inferior to steak. They believed it a corrupt form of Christianity, as inferior to Protestantism as sewer runoff is to pure spring water. I don’t exaggerate.
They had a theoretical system that justified, as they thought, this reading of Catholicism. Their system had to do with what they called “works righteousness” and the supposed mechanical nature of the sacraments. Catholics didn’t care about holiness because they could buy God’s favor so cheaply.
They also believed Catholicism “worldly.” For this too they had a theory: Catholics were the descendants of those who in Christianity’s very earliest days had refused to sustain the high standards of “Gospel Christianity” and had conformed their religion to the world. That was the origin of the Catholic understanding of tradition — “human tradition,” they called it — the hierarchy, and the sacramental system. Again, I don’t exaggerate.
A surprising number of my fellow Episcopalians told stories of childhood Italian neighbors. I began to think WASP Episcopalians must purposely buy houses near Italian families, the way one might want to live close to the library or the zoo. In their stories, the Italian parents drank too much, the father’s had girlfriends, the girls were loose, the boys petty criminals, and yet (this they declaimed indignantly) they always went to Mass, everyone wore crucifixes, and they had a big gaudy picture of Mary in the front hall.
Now, I owe them a lot. Much of my conversion to serious Christianity I owe to a saintly Baptist deacon and his son. I found the Catholic Church because they pushed me off the ledge and down the slippery slope.
But what I’d seen at that little country church protected me. My friends’ stories were water off a duck’s back. They weren’t the arguments against becoming Catholic my friends thought they were, because I had seen genuine wickedness in one of their own model churches. (It wasn’t the only thing of its sort I saw there, and later elsewhere among my Evangelical brethren.)
When people told me such stories, I thought, “glass houses.” It was like being lectured on your dress sense by a man wearing a paisley tie with a plaid shirt. I knew their world well, and I was not moved by their claims to superior Christianity. Whatever were the arguments against becoming a Catholic, the unique and exemplary sinfulness of Catholics was not one.
Even as a Protestant, I thought the matter was at least a draw and I had other reasons for thinking the Church had won on this point alone. She had all those amazing saints, for one thing, and I’d met some of those Catholics my friends had condemned, and found people who loved the Lord as deeply as any of their Protestant critics. And the Italians were a lot more fun than the old ladies.