Here’s a letter from a reader:
I hear so much in NCRegister about things like Purgatory, the Rosary, Prayers for the Dead, Confession, Indulgences, etc. Valid and invalid marriages. All this discussion, some of it quite bitter, about whether any given ceremony or ordinance is “valid”. Whether or not such and such “counts” …
Wouldn’t it be better to simply focus in on Christian belief, the idea that we are all imperfect, that that lack of perfection is already paid for in the blood of the Risen Christ, and that in Christianity we no longer have to worry, that our sins are forgiven, and that we should try to live as best as we can according to the Bible?
First, he is onto something. It’s very odd and off-putting when Catholics spend most of their time bitterly squabbling over very specific, minute details about the Faith. The Church is supposed to be the bridge over which we pass into eternal goodness, truth, and beauty; but too often, we pause halfway because we can’t stop arguing about the various benefits and drawbacks of cantilevers and arches, or because we’d rather endlessly complain about having to pay a fifty-cent toll than get to the other side. And some people look at these squabbles and think, “Ugh, I’d rather stay on the shore, thanks — or I’ll take my chances swimming.”
What motivates us to do this? Why do Catholics worry about details? Why can’t we just relax, trust in salvation, pursue virtue, and leave it at that? There are a few reasons.
First is a bad motivation, and it is this: It’s easier to focus on details than it is to look into our own hearts. It’s easier to spend time arguing about ceremonies and canon law than it is to spend time looking in awe at the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and asking Him sincerely and trustingly to make our hearts like His own. We can allow details to take up all our time and attention, forgetting altogether why the details exist in the first place. Raise your hand if you ever found yourself calling someone a name because you disagree on the definition of charity! Duh.
Our second motivation, though, is a good one, and it is this: human beings really do need details.
Consider this: We already know what happens when we “simply focus in on Christian belief, the idea that we are all imperfect, that that lack of perfection is already paid for in the blood of the Risen Christ, and that in Christianity we no longer have to worry, that our sins are forgiven, and that we should try to live as best as we can according to the Bible.” We get anywhere between 200 and 33,820 distinct protestant denominations or churches. Whichever number is accurate, the fact remains that there are many; and yet each one believes they are doing exactly what the reader describes — and most of them contradicting each other in small and large ways. Many of these “just follow Jesus” Christians are just as bitter and insistent on details as the pettiest, most legalistic of Catholics. So, that doesn’t work! They can’t all be right; but if they’re not right, then what’s the point?
People need guidance. Jesus referred to us as “sheep” more times than I can count, and if you’ve ever met a sheep, you know that you can’t really count on them to just be sensible and do their best. That is a recipe for a dead sheep. Sheep need a shepherd and a sheepfold: somewhere that the leader can lead them to, so that they will be safe and sheltered.
So, fine, we need a church, and a church has walls — walls that are intended to save us, not to limit us. But that doesn’t explain why there need to be so many details. Does it really matter what material the walls of the sheepfold are made of, as long as they do their job?
Yes and no. Think of the Ten Commandments as the basic walls of the sheepfold. We need those walls, not to limit us, but to keep us from falling off a cliff or being devoured by wolves.
And now consider this: sheep need and want than just basic protection and shelter. They need to have a sustainable supply of food. They has to be some way of cleaning out all the poop that will accumulate. When lots of sheep congregate together, they give each other diseases, so someone needs to think about hygiene and medical care. Someone needs to figure out what to do with the dead sheep, and someone needs to figure out what to do with that one sheep who won’t stop kicking everyone. Since there are so very many sheep, the shepherd might need some assistants to carry out his plan to care for the sheep. Some especially advanced sheep might even start wondering if there is anything to look forward to beyond the sheepfold, and whether they ought to be doing something to prepare for that life?
By now, you will surely realize that I don’t know a lot about actual sheep! But I do know something about people; and I understand very clearly that people need and long for more than the most rudimentary walls to keep them safe. And this is what the Church offers us, when she gives us the things that strike outsiders as unnecessarily complicated: she gives us the details and complications that invariably arise when our goal goes beyond mere survival. Questions like whether or not there is purgatory, and what happens there, and how we should talk to God, and what happens to do the dead, and is there anything we can do about it, and what should we do when we sin, and whether there is anything we can do to come closer to God, and how should we think about love and sex and babies and our obligation to society? When the Church studies and ponders and begs the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to answer these questions, that is evidence that the Church wants to offer us more than mere survival.
Is it possible to get so caught up in these issues that we forget what the end goal is? Oh, my, yes. We’re sheep. We’re stupid, selfish, easily distracted. But if a dumb sheep starts nibbling on the medicine spoon, rather than drinking the medicine, that doesn’t mean that vets aren’t necessary. It means the sheep needs to be redirected to the goal, which is being healed.
A good shepherd offers his sheep more than four basic walls. A good shepherd wants his sheep not only to survive, but to be healthy, to grow, to produce something good — and, in the case of the Good Shepherd, eventually to become transformed.