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Is There Any Difference?

Every so often one of my sister's and I have this conversation over the phone. It usually begins with one of us relating a funny story about a run-in at a party or a bar with someone who is pissed off at organized religion (often times, I might add, for good reason). And it usually ends with one of us asking the other if there is any real difference, in the end, between ourselves, self-identified "religious people," and the majority of our friends, self-identified "non-religious people," that is, in terms of how we actually live. Is there any substantive difference? Or are we just hedging our bets? Of course, we are not talking about the art we hang on our walls or whether or not we are nice to people or work for non-profits or have a lot of siblings. We are wondering if there is any real palpable difference in the logic of our daily lives as a result of our Catholicism, and if not, why not?

I recently met up with an Objectivist friend at the Met, and in the process of arguing with him over the logic of love vs. the logic of rational self-interest, I realized that I knew all the right Catholic things to say, and all the best arguments to put forth, but in terms of my day to day decision making I was much more a Utilitarian than I would like to admit. My lifestlyle in many ways, belied my belief. I too cared about success and power and believed on some perhaps unconscious level that my individual achievements were, in fact, a good indication of my worth. I spoke of self-sacrifice but knew little of it, and I wondered, "Is there any real difference in terms of how I actually live?"



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Ana,I appreciated your comments on this point. This is one of the drums I consistently beat in my marriage and family work. If we are saying Catholic prayers, and participating in Catholic rituals but the way we run our marriage and family lives looks exactly like the unchurched people down the street (or worse) what the hell are we doing? Does scripture say, "Look at those Christians! See how they resemble everybody else!"As I recall, Cardinal George once said, "Catholics in America are Catholic in piety but Calvinist in Culture." Well, some of them are. But as you note, Ana, many of us are also essentially secular ultilitarians who stink of incense. We have to do better.I am constantly reminding couples and families that there is a Catholic difference that makes a difference in the way people live their lives that goes beyond Catholic piety. If our parenting practices do not reflect the self-donative nature of the body, the loving guidance discipline of Don Bosco, or Jean Baptiste de la Salle, or the Christian sense of obedience as the loving response to having first been loved (as opposed to blind obedience--"Do what I tell you because I have the power to make you.") then we are undermining the advancement of Catholic culture at its most basic level--the relationships that stand at the foundation of society.And while it is of critical importance to ask if our society is living out CST or if I am doing my bit to serve the poor, sick, and lowly in my community, it is just as important to consider my conduct toward my closest neighbors--my spouse and children--and ask if I am really living the Catholic difference or if, save for the art on the walls, I treat my wife and kids just like everybody else.

A most apt question, Anna, and a question that has been asked through the ages.A distant moon ago a major donor was introduced to us at a general gathering of our high school seminary. What struck me was how obsequious the priest professors were to this wealthy person, as opposed to their general behavior towards us which was rather grumpy.Catholic publications still glorify celebrities who wear the label Christian, unlike the action of Jesus who blasted celebrities more than honored them. Notice how so many "close" clerical friends of Mel Gibson are scrambling for cover now.In fact I noticed that for the most part that priests were not that happy a group. Then came the jargon that is a blight on the church, in my opinion.Priests, we were told, had the power of the sacraments and we had to revere them above all. Even to speak ill of them was a greater sin than to criticize any other group. Greeley rightly describes this abuse as the sacralization of the clergy.Today, the Pastor is far from the brightest person in the community.So it goes that we are set as long as we are baptized and married in the church, believe in the Trinity and are against abortion. The Nicene Creed is more important than helping one's enemies. Dogma is more important than behavior.There is nothing wrong with success as long as we know that we are sinners and that our justification depends on our humility rather than on lording over others.

Bill Mazzella - "There is nothing wrong with success as long as we know that...our justification depends on our humility...." With fear and trembling I humbly suggest your statement could be interpreted to mean that we can "earn" justification.

Anna, I find it very interesting that you decided to write about this topic. As a black catholic from the south, otherwise known as the land of Baptist pastors who drive BMWs, I often wonder about the difference between those of us who called ourselves Christians and those of us whom act like Christ. Many times my friends who do not even consider themselves religious are the ones who shine the light of Christ through their thoughtfulness and kind actions. To me, if I may venture to answer your question, the difference between religious and non-religious is what you actually do when you are not in church. My Sunday school teacher once told me God can see you, even on Saturday night. Hahaha. So to me God is love, Christ is love, the Holy Spirit is love, and if your life is an expression of love, you are religious.

Anna:Great question, and one I wrestle with myself. I don't have a good answer. But here are a couple of disconnected thoughts for what they are worth.I've been reading two books this summer by (Notre Dame's own) Jean Porter on the natural law. One of the (many, many) issues she addresses is the "distinctiveness" of Christian ethics. On the one hand, she rejects the idea that the Christian ethic is merely to "be human" because there are many ways of "being human" that can be seen as grounded in a defensible concept of human nature. At the same time, she says that it is not surprising that there is some overlap between Christian ethics and secular ethics in our society, since we are a culture deeply shaped by Christianity.I don't think the truth of Christianity can be defended by appealing to evidence that Christians are better people than non-believers. At time I think there may be more evidence to the contrary! I will say, though, that "eschatological witness" of the type we see in people like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, or St. Francis of Assisi does seem to be more prevelent among religious believers. That's one (certainly not the only) reason the saints are important. They reveal the possibilities of the human when animated by supernatural grace.I play poker with a group of friends, some of whom are believers, and some of whom are atheists. All of us volunteer at various things and have devoted time in one way or another to making the world a better place. We're all parents who try to do our best raising our kids. I suspect if you came into the room and tried to pick out the believers from the atheists, you might not be able to do it (especially with the language you'll hear from me after a bad beat...:-)So what's the difference between the believers and the atheists? The believers pray. Meditate on that awhile and see where it takes you.God bless,Peter

Sometimes grace can be an awareness that something is missing,that there's a hole we need to fill. Isn't the fact that Anna is troubled by the lack of difference Catholicism/religion makes in her life a sign that it does?As a convert, one of the joys of Catholicism for me is that the church validates those moments of grace and helps me channel that grace into a greater communion with God.I may ignore or fail to see the grace I receive through my own stubbornness or utilitarianism or rational self-interest. And that happens more days than not, probably. But that grace is still what I seek and yearn for, and I think most Catholics do..

Anna:Great post. Thanks for starting the conversation in such a humble way. I too want to offer a couple of disconnected observations--for whatever they're worth.Living in the exurbs of North Florida (the no-man's land between St. Augustine and Jacksonville), I too wonder what difference there is in the witness of my life as compared with my neighbors. Sure, we pray together every evening as a family--an often comical event, given the ages of our four young children. And yes, we are among the very few on our street who attend church on Sundays. But what about the rest of the day? I find one of the biggest challenges is the frighteningly isolated lives led by typical American suburbanites. Pull out of your garage in the morning. Go to work in your cubicle. Pull into your garage at night. Have dinner. Play with the kids or help them with homework. Put them to bed. Turn on the TV. And the weekends are spent mowing the lawn (with the iPod plugged into your ears), cleaning the house, watching football or basketball on TV, and taking your kids to the community pool for some fun. Where's the opportunity for interaction that might allow the light of Christ to shine? You may have some acquaintances in the neighborhood, but what's missing is the expectation that close friendships can even develop in which the distinctiveness of your life can be made manifest. Call it the tyranny of the superficial.The other thought is that this isolation has its own diluting effect on the individual or family trying to live the Christian life. Without the witness and encouragement of other individuals or families with the same convictions, it is easy to get caught up in the prevailing ethos and to lower one's vision. That may be one reason why lay organizations and communities seem to be doing so well. If the local parish appears to be little more than a place for baptized upper-middle-class folks to affirm each other in their comfortable lives, groups like Opus Dei and the NeoCatechumenal Way sure do seem appealing. Having once been a member of an intentional, charismatic community for fourteen years, I can attest to the effects that close fellowship, communal prayer, and a common purpose have on one's Christian life and, hence, witness.

Anna,As a Christian you have a high ideal set before you by Christ: Love your neighbor as yourself. It sounds easy at first, but the more you allow yourself to think about it--as I suspect you have--the more demanding it becomes. Your friend has, perhaps, a simple set of principles--I will not venture a paraphrase--that he can fairly well follow. The two standards are not commensurate, but yours is the right one. Of course the ideal of love of neighbor is not peculiar to Christians, much less Catholics, and in fact it is part of the law of Moses. All idealistic ethical standards demand more than most of us can give. If you want to compare your actually living with anyone's, compare your self with someone who has comparable ideals. But perhaps comparisons in such cases are odious, as the saying gooes.

I think that one of the best things that happened within Catholicism (US and well as worldwide) in the past 40 or so years is the realization that it is NOT ipso facto the best kid on the block. The triumphalistic organization that I was raised in during the 1940s and 1950s has turned out to have more than a little egg on its face. We discovered that yes, folks other than Catholics could make it to heaven a major blow to our distinctiveness. Some of the worst racists during the US civil rights movement (think of Marquette Park in Chicago, the folks in Bostons Southie, and the debacle in Louisiana wherein the bishop excommunicated Leander Perez et al) turned out to be Catholics. We discovered that Catholic divorce, abortion and out-of-wedlock birth rates are no better than the rest of society. US Catholic university graduates started to break into business, education and political circles on an unprecedented basis and, to our dismay, they turned out to be no better nor, admittedly, no worse than the rest of society. We used to trumpet that our Sunday Mass attendance was head and shoulders over the attendance rates of Protestants. Well, look around today and see where we are.All in all we have had a good dose of humbling reality thrown in our face. One of the hard lessons to learn is that the church of the good old days turned out at lot of pious agnostics whose Catholicism was primarily cultural. We have a lot to learn and this exposure to our soft underside may indeed be our salvation yet. However, the resurgence of Restorationism within clerical and Vaticanista circles may once again rescue defeat from the jaws of victory.

is there a difference? of course there's a difference. the difference is: faith. either you have it or you don't. if you have it, then it's as clear as day. andif you don't have it, you can't quite get with the faithful because you don't have it. but that doesn't mean you can't still be a good decent honest worthwhile member of society. all it means is that your path is a different path. there are many paths is this world.

To this very interesting topic, I would add only my observation that the question of a "difference" arises in part because the American church seems far too preocuppied with ideological debates and partisanship and far too little concerned with virtue in the real world. (See the recent spat between First Things' blog and Commonweal's blog for the latest example of how ready the people of God are to beat each other up over ideological slights.) I use the phrase "virtue in the real world" deliberately to mean something other than the all too common moralizing that is not tethered to a grasp of real people in complex situations. This grasp of real people in complex situations would be very hard work and would require the post-Vatican II church to recognize and try to understand the complexity of the modern world. Unfortunately, the urge to ideology circumvents this kind of effort, because it makes people too quick to pick up the nearest stick (such as a favorable headline from a favorite news source, etc.) and whack someone with it rather than undertake the hard work of really understanding our world with some depth and making choices commensurate to that understanding. In my opinion, several decades of partisanship has filled the American church with way too many righteous hip-shooters who are in it for the jousting, not for virtue.So, I would say that faith, if lived differently, could make a huge difference in how people live. But if faith is just another reason to plunge into partisan combat, then the differences in real lives as they are actually lived, with the sound turned off, can be disappointing small.

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