“So you think I’m a sinner?”
I had just finished giving a parish talk to a group of about 40 people on the topic of mercy. In my talk I noted that everyone needs mercy, because we’re all sinners. I didn’t particularly dwell on the topic, but I made clear that our sinful nature, and our sinful decisions, are why mercy is necessary. The woman continued, “Everyone here has come to church during the week to hear a religious talk, so I’d say we’re all good people. Why do you think we’re sinners?”
Adventures in Catholicland
For over 20 years I’ve been involved in evangelization work at both parish and diocesan levels. During that time, I’ve spoken at more than 100 different parishes, presenting the faith to thousands of people. The vast majority of my talks have been in parishes, before crowds of 30-50 people. I have had countless interactions with those who attend, either during a question-and-answer period, or chatting afterwards. In addition to the exchange noted above, here’s a sampling of some of the encounters I’ve had:
- I gave a talk on Confession, and a man noted, with pride, that he hadn’t gone to Confession in years, and the Church didn’t require it anymore.
- In one talk I mentioned the possibility of people, even people in the audience, going to Hell. Soon afterwards our bishop received complaints that I was condemning the audience to Hell.
- After mentioning the Church’s teaching on artificial birth control in a talk, I was approached by a woman afterwards who told me, “I’ve never heard that discussed in a Catholic church before.” She was in her 60’s.
- After speaking at a parish whose pastor was a well-known dissenter from Church teaching, a man told me how much he loves his pastor, noting that he makes everyone feel “welcome.”
- A woman came up to me after a talk to let me know that the Church was “awful” before Vatican II, but now it was moving in the right direction. When I asked her to specify how it had been awful, she simply said, “in everything.”
- After referencing Pope Benedict XVI in a talk, I was asked by a man why I didn’t talk about Pope Francis. “He’s changed everything that Benedict did.”
To these examples I could add countless more.
Amy the Average Catholic
Over the years I’ve gotten to know my typical audience, which I would describe as “average Catholics.” They are not people who have left the Church or are antagonistic to the Faith. Neither are they hard-core Catholics, the type that might travel hours to hear Scott Hahn speak or go to a Steubenville Conference. They attend Mass regularly (perhaps 2-3 times a month, maybe more) and identify as Catholic, but do not follow Catholic news or Catholic blogs. They form their impressions of the Church and her teachings from hearing the weekly homily, talking with their fellow Catholics, and following the mainstream news.
I have encountered many good and decent souls among my parish visits, but over time I’ve formed an impression of what I would call The Average Catholic. Let’s call her “Amy” (the Average Catholic is usually female):
We are all good people going to heaven. Amy the Average Catholic assumes she – and all her friends – are going to Heaven. Usually she ignores the topic of Hell; when pressed she would dismiss it as a medieval invention. Amy doesn’t believe there is anything fundamentally wrong with herself. Sure, she might eat too many sweets, or could work on her patience. But any problems she might have would only require a life coach, not a Savior.
The Church’s teachings on sexuality are an embarrassment. Amy believes the Church can be a force for good in this world, reminding people to be kind and to take care of those around us. But when it comes to moral issues, especially those related to sexuality, Amy is embarrassed by the Church’s teachings. She wishes the Church would just avoid those topics.
The Church is a place to socially gather and feel welcome. If asked, “Why are you Catholic?” Amy would probably answer vaguely that she grew up Catholic, and it makes her feel good about herself. She goes to her parish to see friends and hopefully hear a nice homily. It’s a place she feels welcome, and it’s what decent people do.
The Church evolves over time, and is better the more it is like the world. According to Amy, the Church has an unfortunate history it must get beyond. It’s not really the Church’s fault; after all, everyone used to be discriminatory and old-fashioned. But now that we are in the 21st century, the Church needs to be updated and become more like the world. Otherwise, the Church is in danger of being left behind.
Essentially, Amy the Average Catholic is an Episcopalian.
Conform to This World, or Transform It?
From this experience, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that how the Church has been teaching and proclaiming the Gospel for decades isn’t working. It doesn’t bring people into a deep relationship with Christ, it doesn’t change their lives for the better (or at all), and it doesn’t change the world in any measurable way.
Instead of proposing the Church as an alternative to the world, Church leaders for decades have preached non-confrontation with the world. This skewed emphasis has had its impact: Amy cares more about her parish’s recycling program than she does about the eternal salvation of the person sitting in the pew next to her.
This problem isn’t confined to leaders who promote heretical beliefs. Of course hierarchs such as Kasper or Cupich cause terrible harm. The deeper problem, however, is one of emphasis. Our Lord said, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:33), but too often church leaders seek first earthly acceptance. They avoid topics deemed “controversial” by worldly standards, and in doing so, stick with a spectrum of subjects ranging from “be kind” all the way to “be nice.” They treat topics like sin and damnation like embarrassing relatives at a family gathering. Thus, for years Amy hasn’t heard a word about her eternal destination, or been challenged to live differently than the world tells her to live. Into that void her mind has been filled with the priorities and mores of this world.
St. Paul wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Unfortunately, for decades the Church has acted as if conformity to this world will magically lead to the world becoming Catholic. Instead the Church has become like the world. I have seen firsthand the results of this disastrous policy, and for the sake of Amy and all average Catholics, the Church must urgently reorder her priorities.
And in case you were wondering, my answer to the question “So you think I’m a sinner?” was a simple “yes,” followed by, “and so am I.”
Eric Sammons, a former Evangelical, entered the Catholic Church in 1993. He is the father of seven children and author of seven books, including The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did.