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Starting Point

Church fills table with wayward offspring


It happened in the last century. I had written an essay for America magazine called “The Last Catholics in America.” Its purpose was to bring those Catholics who welcome change and those who don’t closer together. The ink had hardly dried when I found myself on a TV talk show with an executive from Catholics United for the Faith.

Catholics United for the Faith is an organization with profound loyalty to the pope and the official teachings of the church. Its representative was a middle-age fellow not unlike myself, rumpled from a day of work and no more intimidating than Robert Young in “Father Knows Best.”

While a makeup artist powder-puffed our faces and an electrician wired us for sound, my new friend and I chatted about our jobs and families, and discovered how much we had in common.

The show began. The man from Catholics United for the Faith was cast as the conservative; I was the liberal. That made me nervous because I like to think of myself as a reconciler. My friends at work will tell you that my fiercest ideology is, “Please, let’s not argue.”

Questions rained on us, and we protected each other with a shared umbrella of civility while answering as best -- and cleverly -- as we could. At one point, however, my colleague suggested that I was a “supermarket Catholic,” one who picks and chooses pieces of his faith as if it were food rather than follows the current menu of the official church.

“What’s so bad about that?” I answered. “The Catholic church is one of the greatest spiritual supermarkets the world has ever known! … The problem is that the church has been promoting only a small portion of what is available in its storehouse, and a lot of people are hungry for what’s been hidden, including its infinite variety of desserts!”

Truth was, we were in a game, and while neither of us meant to hurt the other, to score points, perhaps we did.

A couple of years later the term “supermarket Catholic” devolved into “cafeteria Catholic,” a derogatory term used to divide allegedly picky Catholics from those who eat what is put on their plates. The label entered the national consciousness, and suddenly the words dissent and assent became dog tags. Many Catholics issued zingers on talk shows that played out only in their minds.

Truth is, their Catholic cholesterol levels on the hot issues of the day could never be high enough to separate them from the love of Christ that beat in their hearts. The bloodstream of every Catholic -- liberal, conservative or confused -- traces back to the same pool of blood at the foot of a cross.

My television guest and I shared the same spiritual DNA. If we hadn’t been playing characters in a game, we would have trumpeted the truth that in reality we were guests at a Great Feast whose tables are set for everyone: “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame … and there is still room for more” (Luke 14:15-24).

Catholicism means throwing a party for everyone. We need someone to remind us: The church is not a country club; it’s a family. Dissent doesn’t kill families; disinterest does. Cafeteria Catholicism is family talk; Country Club Catholicism is refusing the invitation to a feast prepared for us all.

The church as family fills its tables to bursting for prodigal sons and daughters -- morning, noon and night. Like the parent in that parable, such a church refuses to condemn or even compare one family member to another. It takes Jesus’ words to heart: “Judge not so that you might not be judged.” Or better yet, “My child, you are always here with me, and everything I have is yours” (Luke 15:31).

Every once in a while, every one of us Catholics needs to remember the invitation of Jesus to a full house, and to cultivate good manners at the table built for us all.

After the TV interview, my colleague and I shook hands, thanked each other for our endeavors to shed light not heat, and resumed our small talk. We didn’t say it but we knew that he was as much a supermarket Catholic as I was, and I was as much a prix fixe Catholic as he was. Each of us chose to emphasize some parts of our faith over others, but both of us shared the same faith and knew we still had more to learn. The “faith that passes all understanding” is by definition a faith that is always “in search of understanding.”

I also knew that the man from the Catholics United for the Faith was a good guy who’d be nice to have over for dinner. It didn’t happen, but only for the same reasons that middle-aged folk seldom have even old friends over for dinner anymore. They talk about it when they bump into each other at the supermarket. They just don’t get around to it.

Nobody’s perfect.

But after all, who else is the Great Feast for?

Michael Leach is executive director of Orbis Books. This excerpt is from I Like Being Catholic, co-edited by Leach and Therese Borchard and published by Doubleday in October.

National Catholic Reporter, October 20, 2000