Or do Catholics simply have a comfortable sense of trusting familiarity with all of it?
It used to scandalize me, back when I was a young Protestant, recently converted to Christianity from the cultural Christianity of my childhood. Catholics seemed so casual about things. They seemed to shrug at sin, wink at sin. In the Protestant world I had entered, everyone took things dead seriously.
A matter of life and death — for some
In the Protestant world of my youth, nearly everything was a matter of life or death. The Evangelicals made your salvation a drama that depended on you making a decisive commitment. They loved the drama of a sobbing sinner stumbling forward at the altar call.
The mainliners didn’t sweat salvation the same way, but they made your social conscience almost as crucial. God expected you to respect picket lines, protest the war, protect the environments, eat union-grown grapes.
But the Catholics. Gosh, they didn’t seem to sweat anything. The few Catholics I knew — my college town had more Wiccans than Catholics — didn’t seem vexed by human sins, personal or social. They might like devotion and care about social causes, but they didn’t pursue them as intensely as the Protestants I knew.
Older people told me that Catholics had confession. They could axe-murder an entire middle school, go to confession, and Whoosh! they were okay. God was happy with them again. The axe murder? No big deal. Confession magically wiped the slate clean no matter what you did.
That’s the way it looked to me. Many of the Catholic kids I knew, let’s just say they would never make the cover of Our Sunday Visitor. They might make the most wanted posters in the Post Office.
The problem with my world
As I got older, I began to see the problems with my world. Evangelicals kept up their idea of perfection by defining sin pretty narrowly. If you didn’t drink or swear and you went to church a lot, you were okay. You might be a gossip. You might be exploiting your employees. But you were okay if you just didn’t drink or swear.
They had this idea that once you’d made that decisive commitment, you were in. “Once saved, always saved,” they’d say. This meant they tended to think that whatever they did was okay, because they were saved. They seemed to feel, “I’m okay with God, God must be okay with me.”
I saw this in action. A small group in a country church I knew ganged up on the pastor and drove him out. He was a good man and a fine pastor. His critics launched a telephone campaign of constant criticism. They organized secret meetings in their homes to plot. They ambushed him with trick questions at church meetings. It seemed to be a sport to them. People I knew tried to talk them out of it, but they were convinced they were doing God’s work. It was one of the cruelest things I’d seen.
Mainline Protestantism had its own problems. They tended to forget about sin entirely. Christianity was about fellowship. And eating union grapes. If you went to them struggling with guilt, you’d get the sign-up sheet for the next protest. They seemed to think you expiated your sins on the picket line.
Severely weakened criticism
All this severely weakened their criticism of the Catholic Church. I had already started liking the Catholic Church for many reasons. I began to think confession was kind of a cool thing. Sure, some Catholics abused it, using it as a get out of jail free card. People are people. I heard stories about crazy priests emotionally beating on people. So not a perfect system.
But a couple of Catholics I knew well enough to ask went because they had walked away from God and wanted to be close to him again. They might like going, they might hate going, but they went. They had God’s official representative to listen to them, give them advice, and then tell them that they were officially forgiven and God was really happy to have them back.
After being a Catholic for a few years, I can understand why people think the Church is too casual about sin. I can be too casual about it. It’s easy to use confession as a forgiveness machine and the Mass as a medicine that cures you without your having to do anything. I know how easily you can presume on God’s love.
But that’s just the risk God chose to take when he gave us the Church and her sacraments. Our Protestant friends are not wrong in their criticism, but they miss what God Himself is doing through the Church. He flings his grace around, as we heard in last Sunday’s gospel reading. He lets some fall on rocky or thorny ground, so that some will fall on fertile ground. He gives us gifts we can abuse, because he wants to give us life.