There Are Always Outside Observers


During my first and only pregnancy, I was frequently asked about my plans for baby number two. I was a bit older as a first-time mom, so those questioning me were sometimes quick to inform me that the next baby should be soon. People did not hesitate to tell me that to stop at one child would be a selfish move.

Catholics can be quite critical of those with small families. They often presume that a small family came about through the use of artificial birth control or what they consider a selfish use of Natural Family Planning. While acknowledging that some of those small families are the result of fertility issues, they are quick to judge everyone else.

Then there is the other side of the coin. Some of my Catholic Facebook friends announce their most recent pregnancies in private groups before telling relatives. They post to look for support. They dread telling their extended families, Catholic or otherwise, the joyous news because they have heard all the criticisms before. They post for suggestions on how to announce their news and how to deal with the aftermath.

Tommy Tighe, the author of The Catholic Hipster Handbook and other books, put it this way:

I’m so entirely done with Catholics judging other Catholics for the amount of kids they have/don’t have.

Instead, put yourself in the shoes of those of us facing infertility, multiple miscarriages, infant death, or financial/health/emotional/relationship struggles and pray for us.

It hit a nerve. Several people commented about their infertility or other issues limiting their family sizes. Others told of being criticized for having too many children. Some talked about how we, as Catholics, are too quick to judge in general. One woman who thinks Catholics can be pretty judgmental noted that she is an “outside observer.” By that, I  presume she means she is not Catholic.

If we believe the Catholic Church is what she claims to be, we need to pay attention to those outside observers.

Another interesting discussion took place online one evening. Someone posted a lament about the lack of kneeling to receive Eucharist. She could have left it there, but she went further and criticized those who receive while standing even if there is no kneeler.

I mentioned that I am one of those people. My preference is to kneel, but I am unable to do so on the floor.

This woman presumed it was a matter of pain that kept me off my knees. She said that while she understood, she suggested that I remember what Jesus suffered for me and deal with a few seconds of discomfort.

It surprised me she made that presumption. My issue is with mobility. I can get down on my knees but not back up unless I have something to hold on to. She replied that she is not a monster and does not expect people to do what they cannot do.

Yet, how is she to know who among us is unable? You would never know by looking at me.

I was in another interesting discussion about where people sit at Mass. Some believe that those who sit in the back are not involved with Mass. Others made comments about people who sit in front, showing off their piousness. It surprised me to see an extended debate full of unkind words about where in the church we choose to worship.

I look back at these conversations and think about people lurking on these forums, people who are not Catholic. There are always outside observers. How many who might be considering Catholicism are turned off by the words we use with others?

My concern is not that discussion takes place about these issues. Even where the Church allows several options, we all have our preferences. It is the way we approach them that is worrisome.

Years ago, on a then-popular Catholic forum, discussion ensued on Catholics who do not adhere to Church teachings. The consensus was that they should leave the Church. We were not talking about people who are trying to change the Church from within or politicians who mislead people about Church teachings, but the ordinary person in the pews who quietly disagree with Church teachings and does not necessarily live them.

At one time I was that person. If I had left the Church, my husband and daughter would have departed with me. The opportunity to persuade us of the truth of Catholicism would have been lost.

Staying brought forth good fruits. I now consider myself passionately and faithfully Catholic. My daughter was instrumental in bringing two of her friends into the Church. One is a former agnostic; the other described himself as an atheist. A short time later, my mother-in-law came home from the Lutheran tradition at the age of 85.

I explained this. Some said it made no difference; I should have left the Church. They could not consider that maybe God had better plans.

We do, of course, judge behaviors all the time. Judging helps us to discern right from wrong. We also perceive those behaviors that help us to grow in holiness. That can be different from person to person.

It is important to defend our faith when Catholics are acting in ways that go against Church teachings. It can be fruitful to discuss behaviors where the Church allows for more than one option. In either case, the issue is how we make use of words. Are we trying to show we are right, or to bring others to God?

Governor Andrew Cuomo is in the news these days for his outspokenness about abortion. Catholics should be angry about that, especially coming from a governor who says he is Catholic.

Word is he has received death threats. I have seen the comments expressing the wish that he would burn in hell. Is this how we demonstrate that we worship a God who is love?

God does not want anybody to be separated from Him. He loves Andrew Cuomo as much as He loves the rest of us. If we love God, we want what God wants, which is for all of us to spend eternity with Him in heaven. To pray for the governor would be a compassionate response. To speak as persuasively as we can, with the goal of changing hearts, might plant the seeds that one day saves a soul.

The same holds true for any discussion. To defend the Church against heresy, speak with love and show the beauty of her teachings. If the topic is behaviors where there are options, and you are convinced yours is the better way, be persuasive and willing to listen to the other point of view. Then leave the rest up to God. When these discussions are taking place online, remember there are always lurkers. Think about them as you comment.

In her conversion story, Sabrina Vu says this:

As my friendships with the others in the group began to deepen, I began to see that Catholicism consisted of more than just a cultural heritage or a set of traditions. These Catholic friends walked with me and Tom as we navigated the ins and outs of being in a cross-denominational relationship. They helped us through the times of loneliness and confusion we experienced in our struggle to understand God’s will for our relationship. Through their faith and joy, they became witnesses to me that the Catholic faith has the power to reach young hearts and minds.

These were young Catholics demonstrating how Catholics should behave, rather than trying to score points in an argument. That is the kind of witness that changes hearts.

We live in a time of division. As secular society seems divided, so too is the Church.

It is not the first time, of course.  There is evidence of division even in New Testament times.  The second reading on February 6 was the famous passage in Corinthians about love, 1 Cor 12:31—13:13. Paul speaks of all the things that love is and does during a time when Christians were arguing. I will quote from a homily given that weekend:

I know mid-February will be here soon, but try to hear St. Paul correctly. He is begging the feuding Corinthian Christians to get along, and while he never once mentions God in the passage we heard, he can do that because his whole conversation with them has been about their commitment to Christ.

In everything, remember our commitment to Christ. First and foremost, remember we are servants of God. Be a good witness. Strive to act and speak in ways that help people want what we have.

I am not suggesting that we never be strong in our language. Some Catholics are calling on Cuomo’s bishop to proclaim that he is not to receive Eucharist until he repents and confesses. Others are trying to persuade Archbishop Dolan of the same. It would seem an appropriate response. Governor Cuomo is a public figure whose action concerning abortion goes against Church teachings. For these Bishops to only speak against it but not take any action is scandalous. It sends a strong message to Catholics and others that it is not a big deal to announce you are Catholic yet publicly live in opposition to Church teachings.

To quote a different part of Corinthians, “’Everything is lawful,’ but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is lawful,’ but not everything builds up” (1 Cor 10:23, NABRE). In all things let us build up, to help each other and ourselves to grow in holiness.

There is a difference between language that builds up vs language that divides. In all things, consider your goal. Are you attempting to express your own emotion or to bring people to God? To love God is to strive for the latter. Do not forget, in public discussions, there are more than just those involved in the conversation to influence. There is always an outside observer.

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4 thoughts on “There Are Always Outside Observers”

  1. A simple point from a male… the woman who becomes a baby factory, like my Irish born Grandmother who had 13, can suffer repeated agony such as my wife did. She had three children and suffered illness during each pregnancy. Her doctor told her she could not have another child or she would die. She got pregnant again and suffered a bedridden existence for nearly nine months.

    What is the Catholic family to do when the pain is too great?

    1. I understand difficult pregnancies. I also suffered serious illness during my pregnancy and was bedridden, though not for the entire 9 months. Fortunately, the Church doesn’t teach that wives must have several children.

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