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Hooray for Nominal Catholics!

When I first began RCIA in 2006, there was a gentleman in my class named Larry. He was either in his late fifties or early sixties. A very successful entrepreneur, and a person with a sincere and kind disposition, Larry had been attending mass with his wife, Mary, for the previous thirty-some years. So why was Larry only now entering RCIA? He explained to me that Mary had been raised Catholic and that when they had kids they both agreed that it would be in the best interests of the children to give them a religious upbringing. So they did. They attended mass and sent the kids to parochial schools and so forth, but all the while Larry simply could care less whether Catholic doctrines were true or not. He just never thought about it. At least, that is what he told me.

Once their kids were grown, Larry and Mary continued attending mass, because they had been doing it for so long; they didn’t want to break up their Sunday routine. On a particular Sunday during the recitation of the Creed, Larry began to wonder what it all meant and if any of it was true. So there he was sitting next to me on the first day of RCIA, though are paths to that point had been profoundly different.

Before I began RCIA, I was part of an Evangelical community in Seattle. It was the kind of place where one had to be on all the time. There were small groups throughout the week, Scripture studies, picnics, and various other events always taking place. We were all required to be “on fire for the Lord” 24/7, which we were to demonstrate with unceasing exuberance and eagerness for whatever the day’s activities. Consequently, that community experienced a great deal of turnover. When people weren’t feeling it, they just stopped coming. It was also rare for people to leave and come back. There wasn’t really a way to welcome them back to our community, so they’d just start going to a similar but different community when they felt like it.

No one like Larry could have made it in that community for a day, let alone thirty-some years. The second he walked in the door everyone would descend on him, discover his nominalism, and quickly invite him to a million different social events all secretly ordered to making sure that everyone remains on fire all the time. The small group leaders formed an effective team. The nominal were detected and closely monitored until such time as they began showing the appropriate amount of excitement. Larry would have been polite to everyone. He would have given friendly nods and taken down the time and place of the next small group session, but Larry would never have come back. He wouldn’t have felt welcome there. Because, you see, Larry was everything this group disdained—a guy who just wanted to go through the motions every Sunday and otherwise be left alone.

There are all sorts of names to criticize nominal Catholics, and one can understand why. Faith in Christ is transformative of the entire person, so one rightly rebels at the thought of this being reduced to empty gesture and pretense. Allow me here to draw an analogy from marriage. I recall reading a letter from a woman who was explaining to me why she was divorcing her husband. In her view, the whole relationship had become something of a fraud. They still acted like husband and wife in several ways, but the deep intimacy which is the essence of marriage was not there. They both knew it wasn’t, and that it hadn’t been for some time, but they just went on pretending. So she left. She explained to me that she preferred nothing to the pretense. She preferred no marriage at all to a fake marriage. Disdain for nominal Catholics seems to me to operate on much the same premise. Either be Catholic or do not, but none of this wishy-washy, nominal pretense.

I think this approach is flawed. Don’t get me wrong. It is true that it is better to have a good marriage than a bad marriage. It is better to be alive in your faith than indifferent. Nominalism should not be anyone’s goal, but I am thankful to God for all of the nominal Catholics that fill the pews each Sunday, every other Sunday, once a month, only Christmas and Easter, or maybe not even that. I’m thankful that the Church has room for these people, for people like Larry. Everyone has to start somewhere, right? Everyone’s journey has twists and turns and setbacks, right? Furthermore, there is a world below nominalism. Here one gives up even the pretense and steadily drifts further and further away. In a similar sense, the world below a bad marriage is divorce. I believe the pretense is meant to be painful so as to deter us from mistaking it for a place in which one can rest content, but the way out of the pain is to pull closer to the goal of which the pretense is a distorted version of, not to turn one’s back on it entirely.

In closing, nominal Catholics don’t need to be reminded every Sunday of how very unsatisfactory they are; they don’t need to be targeted. Indeed, I am often amazed at how easily those who criticize nominal Catholics can assume the superiority of their own faith and devotion. I think that in many cases this can be a much more dangerous spiritual condition than that of the nominalist, but that is a subject for another post.

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2 Comments

  1. Andrew:

    Thanks for this beautiful reflection on the ways in which the Church is “mother” to us all.

    I think we are all “Larry,” to the extent that we fall short in our responses to God. The difference between Larry and his critics is that Larry gets just how far he is from living the way that he should and he owns up to it.

    Larry’s critics delude themselves into thinking that their liturgical rigor, their commitment to social justice, their doctrinal purity or their inclusivity of the marginalized is what separates them from the unclean like Larry and makes them the kind of Christians who truly live out the Gospel. What they don’t recognize is that all of us, whatever the degree of our devotion to God, are united to each other by the fact that we must each pray daily “forgive us our trespasses.”

    The problem with Larry’s critics is that they mark Larry as “other” because of his imperfect devotion, when in reality it is precisely Larry’s imperfection that unites him with the rest of the Church! Larry’s critics seem to forget that “God loved us first” and only because of that totally unmerited gift of God’s love are we brought up into the life of the Spirit and united to the Body of Christ.

    It is always consoling to me to see people at mass who are visibly like Larry—feeling out of place and showing it—because it reminds me that I too am Larry, totally dependent on God’s grace and totally unworthy to claim that I am better than anyone else.

    • Thanks Joshua. I completely agree. The tendency toward self exaltation through creating us and them seems hardwired into the human condition (at least since the Fall).

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