The people who had explained Catholicism to me had their sins, which were as great as the Catholics’, just more socially acceptable in our circles. I remember someone condemning the Catholic kids’ drinking, though he himself was an ardent dope-smoker. And no one, including me, noticed the problem. The self-regard and snobbery they showed in talking of the people at the parochial school were acts lacking charity, their far subtler form of aggression. We didn’t hit people, we just dismissed them as cretins. It was a worse form of aggression, I think: the guy who swears at you and then swings at your head might become a friend after the fight, but the person who thinks you’re just inferior isn’t likely even to speak to you.
Still, all that said, we can be embarrassed at the apparently casual way some practicing Catholics relate to the moral law. The Catholic mobster you see in movies is not entirely imaginary. We all live lives at variance with our faith, but a few of us live lives so spectacularly at variance.
The English writer Ronald Knox had to deal with this, because when he became a Catholic about one hundred years ago, a very large percentage of the men in prison were Catholics, and former colleagues would point this out to him. I can imagine how they said it, because friends said things like that to me after I became a Catholic. They seemed to think that the news of some Catholic sinner would send me scurrying in horror back to Anglicanism, which struck me then as expecting me to get back onto the Titanic because some of the crew of the rescue ship were known thieves. If the choice were losing my wallet and arriving safely in New York or drowning in the north Atlantic with my wallet safe, the choice was easy to make.
In a book collecting his talks to Oxford students called In Soft Garments, Fr. Knox saw the problem, but he also saw that it said something comforting about Catholicism. “In a way this is a compliment to our religion,” he argued. “Because it does mean that a Catholic does not necessarily cease to be a Catholic because he is a rogue. He knows what is right when he is doing what is wrong.”
The Protestant, Knox continued, “as a rule will give up his faith first and his morals afterward; with Catholics it is the other way round. The Protestant only feels his religion to be true as long as he goes on practicing it; the Catholic feels the truth of his religion as something independent of himself, which does not cease to be valid when he, personally, fails to live up to its precepts.”
Knox generalized, of course, but in my observation it’s a fair generalization. Most Protestants I’ve known who substantially changed their lives shrugged off their faith, and there’s something admirable in their consistency. They’re honest men trying to live with integrity. I keep meeting Catholics who haven’t been to Mass in years but yell in protest if anyone even implies that they are no longer Catholics. A Croatian waitress In New York once said to me, “Of course I’m Catholic!” but when asked where she found a Croatian-language Mass said, with real shock, “I didn’t say I was religious.”
I’d rather that than an unbelieving life lived with integrity. The mobster, the waitress, and the rest of us remain, whatever our sins, connected to the Church by a thread, and there’s always the chance that we will stop swimming away and God will be able to pull us in and bring us home.
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary.Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng. This article was first published in Touchstone and is reprinted with permission of the author.