Apples and Oranges
by Frank DeSiano, CSP
Let’s face it, Catholics almost always come off looking poorly, particularly when compared with congregations that have an intense and focused identity, such as Evangelical or Pentecostal Protestants. By almost any standard, comparing these two groups yields dismaying results for Catholics (and, probably for mainline Protestants, too). In terms of reading scripture, daily prayer, attendance at worship, articulation about faith, and outreach of a spiritual or social sort, Catholics usually get a much lower grade. Kenda Creasy Dean verifies this again in her new book Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church—a book that argues that most Protestant and Catholic teens have little idea what real Christianity is; they are only reflecting the blah, self-centered, therapeutic attitude which constitutes most modern American Church experiences.
I wonder, however, if this whole line of thinking is fair. After all, virtually by definition, Catholicism has a very different religious system than congregational Evangelical Protestantism. Catholics and other mainline Protestants (and Eastern Orthodox) baptize their children. This means their whole ecclesial attitude is that of the wide net, the net the pulls all sorts of things in from the sea. Sorting out what comes into this wide net happens when God’s judgment comes in its fullness, although some judgment surely is happening now.
In other words, the basic screening that happens in Catholic communities is through baptism and the gradual identification of a child, through family and church associations, with Jesus Christ. The screening of Evangelical churches is quite different. By definition, they are intentional—adults who submit to decisive experiences as evidence of their church participation. They steer members to choose explicitly on a variety of levels and, as a result, claim a fairly high level of involvement for their participants. It is not like they have some active members who are pulling less-than-active members along. Rather, everyone has to pull. Theological and social configurations of the congregation ensure this.
Evangelical churches are often small-sized, intensely congregational. Catholic parishes are, by definition, not congregational. The Catholic basis of parish is the apostolic mandate of the local bishop, not the preaching or organizational skills of a pastor or a church board. Even megachurches, which may reach thousands on a Sunday, pale in comparison with Catholic parishes which, though scattered, reach tens, and even hundreds, of thousands on Sunday.
Look at the ecclesiology, de facto, of Catholics: a broad community of wheat and weeds that sees people drawn in various ways into the network of God. Although people associate Catholics with excommunication, in fact that happens hardly at all. Active members rub shoulders with less than active members; people can claim a Catholic identity even though they rarely show signs of this. We await the various ways latent identity with Christ will become active at different times in a Catholic’s life.
Naturally, Catholics wish their whole membership were highly involved and highly committed. Naturally, Catholics work toward this—they want commitment and holiness as much as any Christian congregation. But by purposely throwing out a wide net, Catholicism hopes that its values, even if only somewhat realized, will permeate more broadly throughout its Church and, indeed, throughout society.
One of the tendencies in modern Catholicism is to draw lines about who is “really” in and who is “not really” in the Church. Church goers bemoan non-church-goers; very active members bemoan those who “just come to Church on Sunday and put an envelope in”; Catholics who see themselves as highly spiritual bemoan even active Catholics who may not appear to them as all that “spiritual.” In doing this, Catholics apply selective standards on the broad group. Contrast this tendency with the common teaching of catechisms in the 1950s—that if the worst sinners should happen to repent on their deathbeds, they could be saved. Sure, being highly involved was important, but God is not small-minded.
The Catholic system has been broadly inclusive for at least 1,800 years; and the fruit of Catholicism has been abundant in all those 1,800 years. Saints have inspired the rest of us; martyrs have gotten the attention of non-martyrs; the devout have welcomed even apostates upon repentance. In the wide-net Catholic approach, explicit Gospel holiness expresses itself in diverse and powerful ways throughout Catholic experience. Spreading butter thinner doesn’t make it less butter.
Because Catholicism operates this way, does it make sense to interview a broad sample of people, some of whom are generic Catholics and others of whom are highly involved Evangelicals, and then compare the groups? I wonder if this is not a skewered way to approach things from the start. And I wonder if the characteristics of the smaller, highly committed Evangelicals do not sneak themselves into being the fundamental criteria of all religious measurement. In other words, if one is not actively religious like a fervent Evangelical, then one simply is not religious.
If one took a group of highly active and motivated Catholics and measured them against another group of highly active and motivated Protestants, I wonder if the groups might match up a little better. Or a group of somewhat generic Catholics in comparison with a group of somewhat generic Evangelicals (if one could find any)?
Anyhow, comparing lite beer with single-malt scotch would probably have the beer come off poorly every time. But what if the beer, in the end, is more affordable and drinkable? Maybe more people would get it, and maybe, in God’s grace, it can end up affecting more people, and effecting more good.
Or, for a non-alcoholic metaphor, comparing apples and oranges, when acidity is the measure, would make apples always look poorly. But if one were looking for fiber and bulk, one would come to a different conclusion.
The road may be wide for those on the way to perdition, but that dragnet surely pulls in a lot of surprising things—and the wheat only suffers when the farmers start yanking the weeds.