There Ain’t No Pure Church

Some people become Catholic because the Church is a communion of sinners and slobs who are losers, oddballs, factory rejects, and broken dunderheads who can’t tell their butt from a hole in the ground and who have messed up their lives so badly that they know only God can save them. They don’t know from nothing about liturgical fussbudgetry, high theology, ecclesial politics, or all the obsessions that preoccupy us here in the hothouse of Catholic cyberspace.

What they know is that they have a problem with alcohol, that their second marriage is on the rocks, that the job was crummy till they lost it, that they don’t know what to do with Mom now that she’s got Alzheimers, that they wish they could break the porn habit but don’t know how, that they are lonely, confused, and afraid. When they encounter the love and mercy of Christ in the Church, they are grateful, and they see the Church as a place where sinners like them can get seven-times-seventy second chances as they stumble painfully toward the Heavenly Zion they will never deserve but that God, in His amazing mercy, has granted them in Christ crucified.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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They instinctively seat themselves in the back at Mass, because they do not feel worthy to be there and they see themselves as being among their betters. The whole wonder of the Church as a gift stands before them, and they recognize that other Catholics are screw-ups like them and are ready to welcome them, or at least put up with them, when their screw-upishness is manifest. They may argue with these other Catholics when they think them wrong, but they wouldn’t dream of reading them out of the Church. They make a fundamental distinction between the unworthiness of an act or idea and the divine acceptance of the person who holds the idea or does the act. They desire, in a word, to regard the Church as Catholic, because they are grateful that God regards a loser like them as worthy to be part of the Church.

And then there are people who become Catholic on these terms:

You’re free to fiddle while Rome burns if that is your choice. You’re free to listen to those who say, “Go back to sleep, everything is fine.”

The next time you’re at Mass where the priest has his back turned to God, where the hymns are as heretical as they are ridiculous, where priest or deacon or militant nun or whomever is spouting obviously erroneous doctrines at the “homily,” where the parking lot is filled with cars sporting Obama bumper stickers, where the parish RCIA might as well be taught by Nancy Pelosi, where altar girls and un-extraordinary ministrettes of holy communion parade through the sanctuary, where everyone is more wrapped up in doing a Touchdown Orans at prayer than in humble awe of the Lord Jesus… at that time, look to the Tabernacle (if you can even figure out where it’s stored) and tell the Lord whether you think all that is OK.

Or is it that you’re aware of all that, but you think it magically happened for no reason, along with the pedophilia scandal and the sodomy fests at the seminaries and the whole theological-liturgical scorched earth reign of terror that has been going on for decades… that all happened totally out of nowhere, by coincidence, all quite unrelated?

Just go on ahead and continue to lampoon me as some bitter sedevacantist misanthrope. Your nonsensical insults will be muffled by all the sand your head is currently stuck in.

I don’t want to fight with you. Peace be with you. I’ll leave you with this. Back when I was a Prot, a fellow was mocking Catholics over the Real Presence. “If they really believed that was their Lord, they’d go up there on their knees.” Interesting point, actually. And now I do. Not that those who receive standing and in their grubby hands don’t believe… but why do they do it? God providentially gave me the grace to find the TLM, and now the sweet savor of true reverence has spoiled me.

The term for the attitude suffusing this tract from my comboxes is “Protestantism.” Indeed, the precise term is “Congregationalism.”


To be sure, I can empathize. It was something I myself was tempted to for multiple reasons as a new convert. It works this way: You can become Catholic, not so much to be Catholic as to extend the middle finger to the last Protestant sect you left behind in your hurt and anger. You establish an unwritten contract with God that, in becoming Catholic, you will show those clowns you left behind what for, and that the Church you are now embracing is Christ’s true and perfect Church (and, just between you and me, a Church worthy of me after my long sojourn through the painful and twisty maze of American Protestantism).

You then turn to that perfect Church at the culmination of your journey… and find that the average Catholic is average, and the average parish is average and is plagued by all sorts of problems — and that even your average bishop is average. You endure homilies in which the priest calls the Scripture (and I quote) a “crock.” You go to crapola summer vacation Bible schools where the kids are forced to parrot their way through a dumb play with a Christ Mime Lady catechizing us about picking up litter. You have priests wander off to fulfill their calling as a gay masseuse. You have RCIAs full of twaddle and the occasional deacon blessing you in the Name of God the Father and Mother and the occasional lecture about how Exodus is a legend like a Paul Bunyan story and, in between, liturgies that are not so much heretical as banal.

So, after three years of this nonsense, you finally head for another parish because you feel you must, just to keep your family safe from the boredom punctuated by nuttiness. All this I grant as a perfectly legitimate thing for a Catholic to do who is really surrounded by grotesque distortions of Catholic teaching.

But the problem is this: You can get hyper-sensitized and bitter. The shock of discovering that the average Catholic is average leaves you prone to see not just a gross violation as a sign of creeping apostasy, but everything as a sign of creeping apostasy. The distance between the vision of the Universal Church you have seen in the theology books and life as it is lived at the parish level throws you into crisis.

At which point you have a choice. You can face the fact that the Church has always been a hospital for screw-ups with Simon Peter (and, um, you) as chief of the cowards, shufflers, and snobs who make up our band of sinners in desperate need of treatment… or you can scan the herd with your gimlet eye and decide that they are a pack of “clapping fornicators” whose only wish is to profane the Eucharist with their “grubby hands” (as my reader above so generously put it elsewhere).

You can choose to sit in judgment of a priest reverently celebrating a valid Mass and accuse him of “turning his back on God” while admiring your own “humble awe” as you sneer in disgust at your average neighbor for not being up to snuff. In short, you can enter into the prideful fantasy of believing that the average Catholic is not merely average but your enemy, and that there exists somewhere the Perfect Parish with Perfect Liturgy and Perfect People. Because, as we all know, the Tridentine Rite Catholic is blissfully free of fornication and all other serious sin and always was until the damned Second Vatican Council introduced the Seven Deadly Sins into Catholic life.

My reader’s impatient contempt for, well, about 99 percent of the Church outside the hothouse of his tiny subculture will sooner or later run up against the George McClellan Principle of Utopian Christianity: namely, that though he has arrived, for the moment, in what he fancies is the perfect sect within the Church and escaped the pollution of, well, virtually all of what the Church herself calls “the Church,” he has also brought himself. And that means that sooner or later he will again confront the imperfections of the people around him — and his own imperfections as well.

At that point, he will either have to face the fact that the Church is basically made for slobs and screw-ups and the incorrigibly Average or else blame his troubles on everybody else and leave again for someplace still purer. To the question, “What’s wrong with the Church?” he will have to answer either humbly, “I am” or proudly, “They are!”


Part of the key to getting out of this confused and angry morass of Puritanism is to learn to distinguish majors from minors. The tirade my reader offered here and elsewhere is filled with floating anger that jumbles up pedophilic crimes with Communion in the hand, lesbo-paganism with standing to receive Communion, fornication with irritating music, paganism with a minor mention of Earth Day in the parish bulletin. Small shibboleths become tripwires that trigger explosions of rage about trivial matters and confirm the Puritan Catholic in an attitude of grim watchfulness over (and contempt for) the slightest indications that his fellow Catholic is one of Them. And, as he makes clear, virtually all Catholics are Them, and good riddance.

For myself, I frankly don’t care and don’t think it’s any of my business whether people stand or kneel, receive on the tongue or in the hand, celebrate ad orientem, and pray in the orans position or not. Likewise, I’ll take any liturgy the Church gives me with gratitude, because I don’t deserve a thing and God graciously gives me the Mass anyway. When it comes to receiving communion, whatever the local ordinary allows is fine by me (and typically, in my experience, you can receive in the hand or on the tongue, kneeling or standing, as you please). Me: I receive standing and on the tongue and have not the slightest idea or concern what my neighbor does. They are brother and sister Catholics, and whatever they do is between them and God.

But my reader has telegraphed loud and clear that he is watching his neighbor like a hawk and is quite certain that God shares his disgust with and rejection of the overwhelming bulk of his fellow Catholics, no matter what his ordinary allows. Indeed, his ordinary is likewise jumbled up in the modernist sodomite liturgical pervert morass, and the proof is that he allows communion in the hand.

For my reader, a huge number of his fellow Catholics are not brothers and sisters, but the Enemy — including, especially, the bishop — if they allow or receive Communion in their grubby hands or stand to receive or engage in other tripwire trivialities. He has made it loud and clear that if somebody standing next to him prays in the orans position, they are contemptible scum and are to be despised, rejected, and fled from in disgust. If a priest celebrates the Paul VI rite reverently, he’s still a bad priest who turns his back on Almighty God. And since virtually every priest in the Latin rite celebrates the Paul VI rite facing the people, they’re virtually all bad — including the Judases who sometimes celebrate the Tridentine Rite but then join in turning their backs on God in the Paul VI rite. In short, my reader has made clear that he loves the Church but can’t stand almost any actual Catholics. It’s a profoundly Protestant attitude.


Now the irony of all this is that it means, as far as I am concerned, my sectarian Catholic reader is one more eccentric member of this big bag of cats called the Catholic Church that the Holy Spirit has been slowly and painfully creating for 2,000 years. His pretense that he can escape communion with a slob like me by hiving off to his Puritan sect within the Church and blotting the rest of the unwashed herd of sheep from his mind except when he wishes to vilify them does not actually sever the link of communion between us. He remains my brother Catholic whether he likes it or not.

So, by the way, does every Catholic I have ever argued with about torture, or consequentialism, or abortion, or anything else under the sun. Unless a bishop excommunicates a member of the Church, my default position is to assume they are Catholic, and I will defend them against combox bishop wannabes with dimestore bulls of excommunication to my last breath, even if I strenuously disagree with some idea they hold or some sin I believe they are committing. My reason is simple: They may or may not be bad Catholics, theologically, philosophically, morally, or intellectually. But it is certain, at any rate, that I am a bad Catholic, so I have no intention of reading anybody out of the Church, though I’m quite willing to argue with them when I think they are wrong about something. I have too acute a fear of this parable to do otherwise:

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, “Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, “Pay what you owe.” So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Mt 18:21-35)

My thinking on this was formed long ago by the invaluable Uncle Screwtape, who writes:

I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the people in the next pew afford no rational ground for disappointment. Of course if they do — if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner — then your task is so much the easier. All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question “If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?” You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these “smug,” commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.

If I, being what I am, can consider myself a Christian and a Catholic, why can’t the people that I run into on the Web — including those Catholics I think desperately wrong about something and even those who don’t want to associate with the grubby-handed hoi polloi like me at the contemptible Paul VI Mass?

Indeed, my habit is to extend this principle very far. So I have no problem acknowledging that non-Catholic Christians are in some real (albeit imperfect) union with the Church and will even accept as Christian (in some sense) anybody who names the Name. This includes Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other people who are very far out at the end of the bell curve theologically. Doesn’t mean I have to think they are good Christians either theologically, morally, or intellectually. All it means is that when some confused human being comes staggering down the road of life and is trying to get to Jesus crying, “Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner,” I’m not going to be the one to say, “Get lost!” After all, Jesus didn’t tell me to get lost — and I really was lost and more ignorant of Jesus than a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness. Who am I, then, to grab one of these by the lapels and shout, “Pay me the orthodoxy you owe me”? Best to do like Priscilla and Aquila did with the half-baked Apollos and “expound to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26).

Bottom line: “Everybody is a material heretic,” said a priest I once knew. That is, nobody fully lives or believes the gospel. We’re all a bunch of slobs and losers and incorrigibly average people, including the people who don’t want to be associated with slobs, losers, and average people. And I’m the biggest slob, loser, and average sinner of them all, yet God still loves even me and lets me come to Mass and receive the astounding gift of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus. Why should I tell any other Catholic they aren’t welcome? That’s the bishop’s job, not mine. It’s weeds and wheat till the Last Day.


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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