My devout Cuban father was afraid that I would leave the faith after seeing the political divisions inside the Catholic Church. He is deceased now, but after 30 years of “church work” that has taken me to most dioceses in the United States and dozens more around the world, I could tell him a few stories. They add up to this: “Yes Dad, there is politics, but there is still more beauty than division, in the form of human beings serving one another according to their vocation.” Here are a few things I’ve seen:
• The man who asked me to address a crisis-pregnancy center fundraiser in the Midwest. On the way to dinner, we dropped by a warehouse where he and other Catholic volunteers collected and distributed every imaginable kind of household good so that poor and immigrant families, single parents and people just released from prison could “shop” for free for their new lives. In one aisle, a mother and her little daughter were excitedly counting out their new spoons and forks.
• The parish pro-life director who met, as she prayed outside an abortion clinic, a pregnant mom seeking a late-term abortion for her baby, who had been given a fatal diagnosis. Without calling home, the parish director offered to adopt the child. She and her husband did adopt him and cared for him around the clock until his death a year later.
• The woman moved to share the church’s good news about the dignity of women with homeless women in a large Catholic shelter; the priest in charge invited her, knowing that the poor need food for the soul too.
The people of God in action—this is what I saw. There is immense beauty here for those open to it. I came home from every adventure with new energy and determined to “keep faith” with these living witnesses.
You might say that my experience is anecdotal. Yet it’s also 30 years long and far-flung. My point is this: Catholics in action are not divided the way some in the press often portray us, or even as we sometimes imagine ourselves to be. Catholics’ true “opponents” are all the “-isms” obscuring God or luring us away from being a woman or man for others: materialism, individualism, sexual expressionism, elitism, careerism—whether inside or outside the church. Our opponents are not other Catholic pilgrims who are in conscientious conversation with God, working to help human beings in need. This remains true even if some pilgrims are overly attracted to the shiny object of politics.
Often I’ve thought that it might go a long way if Catholics at least managed to avoid two political tics: speaking as if a particular candidate or party embodied Christ-like love for all people; and forgetting how many proposed laws are a complex mix of good and bad. In a more benevolent vein, Catholics might even ponder with affection the traits held in common by Catholics brimming with passion about all sorts of social justice issues.
First, they assume personal responsibility to answer blatant lies or injustices. Catholic activists don’t understand why not everyone can see, for example, that workers need a living wage or that abortion harms everyone involved. These activists personally keep afloat the company that makes the bumper sticker: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
Second, they are more than a little impatient with messages and lifestyles broadcasting that there is something more important in life than figuring out how to love and serve other people. The thought-bubble over their heads most days reads: “What do these people not get about ‘we are all gonna’ die soon, so X doesn’t matter much.’”
It could be an accident of birth (for example, our moms marched for civil rights or volunteered at a crisis pregnancy center) or a chance encounter with people along the way that set us on the trail of the particular issue that seized our life. This is my “good Samaritan theory” about God strewing certain issues across certain paths.
But no matter how it happened, it is good and right to cheer on one another’s works of charity, to cross-donate, to speak warmly about one another—even while we still disagree over the political means to achieve certain ends.
All of which is to say that even 30 years of intense “familiarity” with the church has yet to sour me; on the contrary, it calls me toward continual conversion and a higher road.