When I was a second grader in Catholic school, another girl stuck her tongue out at me in the middle of a math lesson. Being 7 years old, I was infuriated by this offense, and I did my duty of promptly tattling on her.
Our teacher, one of the few I really remember from my younger years, was fairly strict and loved to cite the Ten Commandments. When the tongue-wagger denied all wrongdoing, the teacher reminded me of the Eighth Commandment, to not bear false witness against our neighbor, and the situation was over. Well, in real life it was over. In my mind, it is still replaying itself at odd times, reminding me of the grave injustice done in that classroom. My pride does not always let me let such things go so easily.
Let us try our absolute best not to come to blanket judgments about who a person is based on a single statement a person makes on the internet.
I do not write this because I want everyone to attack this woman and give her the just rewards she so deserved then. I bring it up because I think it can teach us a lesson about today.
In the second grade, I jumped to a conclusion. I believe it was a correct conclusion, but still I jumped. I believed my classmate was trying to hurt me. She did not communicate this directly, but I knew what I knew.
Look at the conversations among your Catholic friends and among your nonreligious friends. Is there a difference in their tone?
Or did I? Was she being nasty, or was she reacting to some slight she thought I perpetrated against her? Is that how she was taught to respond to people? Was she merely having a bad day?
Many of us believe that we have moved past the playground behavior of seeking reasons to take offense, but if we are honest, we will admit to making snap judgments about character. I do it. A lot. It is not pretty, and it is not holy, and it is not just.
It would be nice to think that once upon a time, before the internet, we did not reduce a person’s character to one statement or misstep. I don’t know if that world ever existed, but these days it seems that few of us even try to avoid this temptation.
For months in 2020, I read articles about how U.S. Catholics should vote. Now I read articles about how Catholics should respond to the election and how they should respond to the Covid-19 pandemic’s mask requirements and shutdowns of places to gather, particularly the shutdowns of our churches. What I do not often see is how we should respond in our hearts— and how we should respond with our words.
They shall know we are Christians by our love.
Are we living up to that?
We have some powerful and enduring personal and social justice teachings in our faith. I think most non-Catholics know many of our principles and doctrines, even if they do not understand them. But what do we want the wider culture to associate with Catholicism? Do we want to be identified by our opinions on mail-in ballots or mask requirements, or do we want Catholics to be known by how well we shone a light in the darkness, which oppressed groups we sided with and how our justice was always tempered with mercy? If we want to be able to say that we never discount the human in favor of ideology, we must prove it now.
How can we make our world know us—and because they know us, love the one who has sent us? How can we be Christ in this incredibly tumultuous and divisive world?
I propose that instead of identifying people with labels such as progressive, conservative, traditional or modern, we instead do the harder work of seeking out the humanity and the authenticity in each person we encounter. Let us assume the best of those we disagree with. Let us try our absolute best not to come to blanket judgments about who a person is based on a single statement a person makes on the internet. Let us not accuse, or lash out in anger; let us remember that sometimes anger is legitimate, but that does not mean it always needs to be given voice.
Let us expect more from ourselves and from our fellow Catholics.
I urge you to look at Facebook and your other social media feeds. Look at the posts from your Catholic sources, your wider Christian sources and your more secular sources. Look at the conversations among your Catholic friends and among your nonreligious friends. Is there a difference in their tone? If there is not (and I sadly guess this is the case), then we need to be the change. We need to lead by example. We need to be the pioneers in bringing respect to popular discourse. We need to follow the great Jesuit principle of seeing God in all things...and in all persons.
Catholics don’t agree on everything, but we do agree on a lot. If we want to make a mark on the world, if we want to make a difference in the world, if we want to evangelize and open hearts and lead souls to the one we follow, then we must, in every circumstance, take that first step in love.
If not, I fear that on our judgment day we will have to answer for those we turned away.
More from America: