A family member called the other night, shaken by a recent exchange with a stranger in an airport. This relative was raised Catholic, loves his Catholicism, but chooses to attend a Presbyterian church out of love for his wife and respect for her religious traditions. When he mentioned that he was returning home for his daughter’s confirmation to the airport stranger, the stranger asked with interest if he was Catholic. “Actually,” my relative replied, “we go to a Presbyterian church.” The stranger scoffed. “Oh, I get it,” he said, “you go to fake church.” He went on to belittle my relative’s choice to worship with his wife and daughters and to openly deride and insult their Presbyterian tradition.
“What should I have said?” my relative asked me. “I was so upset, I couldn’t think of anything.” At first, so was I. Admittedly, my usual approach to belligerent, triumphal people is not to approach them at all. But sometimes they find us, and when they do, it’s good to keep a few ideas in mind.
First, the Catholic Church recognizes that all Christians share one faith, one Lord and one Baptism (Ephesians 4:5). If the Church’s stance toward the Protestant churches was one of wholesale disapproval and rejection, this would not be the case. Instead the Church teaches that Baptism “establishes a sacramental bond of unity which links all who have been reborn by it.” (Unitatis Redintegratio, para. 22) So the first problem with the airport stranger’s Catholic triumphalism in the face of our separated brethren is that they’re not really separated, as far as Church teaching on Baptism is concerned.
And yet important sacramental realities do separate Christians, especially differing theological understandings of the Eucharist. This is why the Church wishes Christians of all stripes to keep lines of communication open. This is the second idea to remember: Church teaching does not endorse the airport stranger’s superior, pugnacious attitude. Rather, it has taken pains to modernize its approach toward dialogue with those of other faiths and beliefs, notably with the decrees on Ecumenism and Interfaith relations promulgated by the Second Vatican Council. (It is often forgotten or overlooked by even well-informed Catholics that “The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council.” (UR para. 1)) In Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, the Council exhorts the faithful “to refrain from superficiality and imprudent zeal,” in our relations with other Christians, “which can hinder real progress toward unity.” (para. 24) Derisive, combative triumphalism of the kind my relative experienced has no place in any sincere effort toward Christian reunification, the promotion of which the Council makes clear is the ongoing responsibility of all Catholics.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the kind of religious bullying my relative experienced does the airport stranger’s own Catholicism (and mine, thank you very much) more harm than good. Shame, guilt-trips and intimidation play no role in evangelization. On the contrary, at a 2017 gathering of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, Pope Francis called the Church to a style of evangelization marked by the gratuitous mercy of God, who came not to call the righteous, but sinners. It is especially important to tread lightly when dialoguing with those on the margins of Catholicism, like my relative, or the hordes of young adults who have walked away from the Church for any number of quite legitimate reasons, like poor experiences of pastoral ministry, and the Church’s failure to demonstrate its own relevance to their lives. (For a compelling study of these reasons, check out this book.) They already have reasons not to be Catholic; we must take care not to give them even more with careless displays of religious snobbery of the sort that got Saul of Tarsus, that arrogant persecutor of Christians, knocked off his horse.
Alas, displays of religious insensitivity are not always so egregious as that which inspired this post. For instance, a (traditionalist-leaning) Catholic friend recently told me a story, meant to amuse, about overhearing a Protestant minister worry that she’d misspoken in a sermon, accidentally committing a heresy. “Can you imagine?” she asked me, “a Protestant worried about committing a heresy? I mean, isn’t that what they’re doing all the time?” (Cue righteous laughter.) After pausing to listen to the pretty cricket noises for a second, I calmly suggested to her that all religious traditions have standards of belief and practice that are just as important to them as our own. She cocked her head at me, as if considering whether I were too dull to get the joke, or maybe (even worse) a relativist.
I’m not a relativist – that is, someone who thinks that truths like “Christ is Lord” can be true for some people, but not necessarily true for everyone. It’s difficult to be a relativist on this great feast of Christ the King, where Catholics envision and pray for Christ to come into his throne of majesty over all the nations of the world to rule with justice and equity (and that that’s a good thing). You don’t have to be a relativist to promote and practice religious sensitivity. It’s perfectly okay to believe that your religion is the very best one, to be whole-heartedly accepting of others while still believing that Christ is King of the universe this day and until the end of time. If you don’t think your religion is best, you might be in the wrong religion. But recall today’s Gospel story, where Jesus evades the title of “king,” identifying himself instead as one who testifies to the truth. Bullying other people for their religious choices is poor testimony, and it’s the worst way to show that your religion is right. Religious sensitivity is unconcerned with whose religion is right. Religious sensitivity is, at its core, about our shared humanity, and about testifying to your own religion well.