Mary Pope-Handy 408 204-7673

The other day, a friend of mine thanked me for starting this blog. She asked if I could address the topic of what to do when people say nasty things to you about  being Catholic.  In other words, how to respond to myths and prejudice.

Right now, with the terrible pedophilia and cover up scandals ravaging many parts of the church (both in dioceses and with “regular” or ordinary priests and also within religious orders, in many countries), on top of misunderstandings and bias we have genuine and deserved anger from both within and without.  So perhaps the unpleasant comments are coming a little faster and more openly than usual.

But how to respond when faced with nasty comments?  Often they are based on incorrect information.  It can be hard to answer when you may not have a solid footing on the topic yourself.  Ideally, then, it can be an opportunity for you to talk to others who might be able to fill you in on that subject and have your own knowledge (and maybe even your faith) grow in the process.

There’s a wonderful little book, light reading with solid content, that I have given away probably 2 dozen or more times.  For many Catholics, it goes over “the basics” in an easy to digest way that makes sense and is easy to read and absorb.  Written with humor (and cartoons) at times, it was something I found helpful when I was a teacher of high school students.  The book is titled “How to Survive Being Married to a Catholic” and is published by Paulist Press.  It’s really a book aimed at explaining basic Catholic tenants in a simple, matter of fact way.  You can order it online or see if Ave Maria Community Book Center*, our large, local Catholic bookstore, carries it.

Another book, for those who want more to read and a more in-depth look at anti-Catholicism (which I haven’t read personally but have been told good things about) is
Anti-Catholicism in America: The Last Acceptable Prejudice.

But back to the immediate problem, what to say when faced with an unpleasant comment? It depends on what it is, of course.

The scandals: When it’s about the multiple scandals, I have to agree – they are horrific, they are crimes, there are some bishops who (in my opinion) belong in jail.  That’s not anti-Catholic, that’s having your eyes open.  But it is negative and it is unpleasant, it just happens to be true.  For too many years, we thought that the priests, and even more so the bishops, could do no wrong. There was too much secrecy.  It was too easy to become a priest (for a couple or more decades, that has not so much been the case – we do have better screening now).  This arena is for books and not for a short blog post, but in short, when people vent, I hang my head in shame over what was done by these people, I agree, and I hope that as a church we can get our act together fast.

On matters of faith or theology: This is where we bump into a complete lack of understanding sometimes.  Have you ever heard the statement “Catholics aren’t really Christian?”  That’s the worst one and of course it is completely false.  Catholics and Orthodox Christians are the founding fathers of Christianity – the original Christians who separated from each other in the first thousand years of Christianity.  Both claim to be “the original church” but if you look closely at them, they appear like twins separated at birth (or soon afterward) with fairly small differences** overall.  (I would love to see more ecumenical advances made with this large and ancient body of believers. That’s for another post.)

Ok that was a small tangent but the idea here is that Catholics are the original Christians. When you hear something like that comment about Catholics not being Christian, if you’re up for the discussion, ask why they feel that way.  Perhaps you can change a heart or mind at that point.

The reasons someone may articulate such a thing are often hard to understand.  They may suggest “Catholics worship statues” or “Catholics pray to saints and you should only pray to God”. These are not uncommon misreads on our faith.

If you are Catholic, you know that we don’t worship statues any more than our Orthodox brothers and sisters worship icons.  We are a visual people (look at our churches and they are full of religious imagery) who take inspiration and gain focus from objects such as crosses, statues, candles and being in holy places.  If we pray before the image of St. Clare of Assisi, we are not expecting the image to do anything.  It is for our benefit and concentration and edification that we see something that helps us to connect with our sister in faith.  We are hoping that St. Clare will respond to our request that she pray for us (not her statue).

The communion of saints is a wonderful Catholic and ancient Christian belief (you will find it among Coptic Christians and Orthodox too) that is the root of misunderstanding both of this “praying to statues” and “worshipping saints” nonsense.  So let’s talk about that for a moment.

The Catholic Church believes that the faithful, whether alive or dead, are all part of the same family of belief, the Church.  The veil between life and death is not really so great.  We also believe that when you die it’s not necessarily a slam dunk into heaven, some may be on a longer journey of getting ready to be close to God (we call this purgatory).  We, too, are on a journey here in this life, trying to grow in faith and working to be more Christ-like with the help of God’s grace.  We believe that we can all pray for each other.

Have you ever asked friends to pray for you?  Most non-Catholic Christians do this all the time, and so do we.  It is the same with our deceased loved ones and saints (who are role models in faith for us and we believe exemplary Christians).  With intercession, we are simply asking them to pray for us.  (Intercession is when someone else prays for you.)

So no, we do not worship saintsWe do not worship statues.  We believe that others, alive or dead, can pray with and for us and this communion of saints is an ancient Christian belief and practice that we have clung to faithfully. (If they would look at or listen to the words of the Hail Mary, they would see that it is a request that she pray for us: “pray for us sinners…”.)

There are other areas where misunderstandings morph into prejudice but I think that these discussed above are the most common ones.  Often those who misunderstand simply do not have a good grounding in the facts.

I find arguing over theology tiresome and am not prone to debate. If someone wants to learn the truth, I would love to explain what I know to be accurate to the best of my ability and help them to gain a better understanding. Often getting some historical perspective helps (many who are confused have no sense of the origins of Christianity). It saddens me when people make nasty, hurtful comments about the Catholic faith.  I have not had real problems with this in my life, just the occasional crazy statement that surprises me.

For my friends, though, who feel like they don’t have the theological background to respond when faced with these things, I do suggest the books listed above. Or call  a friend, priest, someone you know to have a few more answers and see if you can’t look at the unpleasantness as an opportunity to deepen your own knowledge and faith.

Something else that can be done, of course, is to take yourself out of the “line of fire”.  If you are attending a bible study that’s not at a Catholic Church, you might want to try to find one that is.  I know it’s not as easy as we’d like (one friend of mine did not easily find one 20 years or so ago and “left the church” when she found one at a Protestant church) but many parishes do have bible studies.  At some point I hope to assemble a list of them so that my friends can more easily locate a bible study at a Catholic parish close to home.

*Ave Maria has a wide selection of Christian books, on diverse topics ranging from sacraments to patristics to ethics and parenting – if you’ve never been, go check it out. The shop also has cards, gifts, rosaries, music and all kinds of nice gift items.  To see their location, go to their website and click on the “Contact Us” link.

**The theologies found in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are nearly identical. I will return to this topic in a later post.