Sunday, May 16, 2010

Those Heretics May Not Like being Called Heretics

What harm could possibly come of calling Baptists "heretics?" Particularly when the remark is made on a nice Catholic blog that's mostly read by Catholics who like being Catholic?

That's not a hypothetical situation. I ran into a comment like that this week, in another blog. It was part of a statement that, once I'd read it carefully, was actually somewhat complimentary. Along the lines of 'even those heretics over there did something right,' but complimentary.

Catholics have a Job to Do

The Great Commission says we're supposed to "make disciples of all nations." (Matthew 28:16-20)

I think an important step in convincing someone that what you're saying is true is convincing that person that you're not irritating or hostile.

After more than fifty years of dealing with people, I've noticed that many don't react well to condescension, derogatory comments about their culture, or being called names.

That doesn't mean that Catholics have to be blind, deaf and dumb about what needs changing. It would be no charity to do nothing while someone else erodes their health with, say, substance abuse. And we have an obligation to deal with our culture.

As a Catholic living in America, I have the obligation to be involved in this county's political process. ("Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility," United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (2003))

So: Catholics are supposed to be holier-than-thou busybodies who go around denouncing the unbeliever?!

I don't think so.

Wrapping yourself up in self-righteousness and making pronouncements like "thou drunkard!" may play well in a few circumstances - but I don't think it's likely to get results.

Being Right, being Kind, being Smart

Let's take another none-too-hypothetical case: a young woman's boyfriend says he'll leave if she doesn't have her baby killed. Or it's her boss, or husband, or professor who doesn't want the baby.

In America, those men have the legal right to pressure her into killing her child. We're quite open-minded about the matter: American law lets women make the decision themselves.

But the dominant culture calls it a 'woman's right' when she decides to kill her baby when a man demands it; and reminds her of how selfish she is, bringing an "unwanted child" into the world, if she doesn't.

(An oversimplification of American culture? Yes. But this post is already long: over 375 words at the end of the last paragraph. I think what I wrote is a fairly accurate outline of the current situation.)

Since the Catholic Church teaches that people are persons - no matter what their age or physical condition - killing that baby isn't right. Even if it's legal.

So, what should be done in a situation like that? There are quite a few options: the easiest is to play along with the dominant culture, give the young woman a ride to a women's health center, and congratulate yourself on how open-minded you are.

Or, someone who doesn't think abortion is right could:
  1. Call the young woman a harlot
  2. Blame society
  3. Treat her as if she means as much as the baby
That's not an exhaustive list of possible approaches, of course.

I'd pick #3, myself. First, because it's true - she does matter. Second, because treating someone with respect improves the odds that the person will pay attention to what you say.

Back to those heretics and other people who aren't like me.

"Heretic!" It's True: But is it Right?

Time for a definition. "Heretic" means:
  • "A person who holds religious beliefs in conflict with the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church"
  • "A person who holds unorthodox opinions in any field (not merely religion)"
    (Princeton's WordNet)
Okay - so people who aren't Catholics are, by definition, heretics.

It's accurate to call Baptists, for example, "heretics."

It might even feel good.

But is it a good idea?

I don't think so.

I haven't researched this, but my guess is that most Baptists are not former Catholics who converted to the Baptist faith. Odds are, they're Baptists because their parents were.

Back in the 16th century, there was perhaps more justification in using "heretic" to describe people who we now refer to collectively as Protestants. Many of them were people who had grown up in the Church, gotten fed up, and decided to leave.

Almost four centuries later?

Many non-Catholic Christians grew up in the denomination or church or Bible study they're in now: or one very much like it. They didn't decide to leave the Catholic Church: They were never Catholics, and neither were their parents.

They don't think they're heretics.

I didn't. But after quite a bit of study, I realized that the denomination I'd been born into was not the outfit that my Lord had set up.

I still don't think of my parents and the folks in the choir back in the Red River Valley of the North as "heretics." I think they're missing some critical parts of the Christian faith - but I think the phrase "separated brethren" is both more diplomatic - and more accurate.

The Protestants I've known, except for the occasional crackpot, have been more-or-less decent people who sincerely believe that they're following the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

I'm convinced that they're not seeing the big picture - but I'm also convinced that calling them "heretics" won't make them think that I'm right and they're wrong.

"I'm Right and They're Wrong?!"

I think that terms like "heretic" are likely to turn what could have been an opportunity for learning into a personal confrontation. You've lost an important opportunity for communication when the other person feels that your goal is 'I win, you lose.'

Why Should I Care What 'Good Catholics' Say About Those Outsiders?

The 'love your neighbor' thing applies here - but so does common sense. A blog may be very "Catholic." But unless it's one of those members-only things, just about anybody can wander in.

I'm fine with that. Although there's a (legitimate, I think) appeal to social clubs whose members all share similar interests, habits, and views - the Catholic Church isn't a social club.

Part of our job is to "make disciples of all nations." We're not likely to do that if we have something like a 'Catholics Only' sign on the door, and use arguably-derogatory terms to describe people who aren't us.

So, as a fellow who used to be one of 'those heretics' - let's remember that we're not the only folks around, and show a bit of respect.

Vaguely-related posts:
An example of using "separated brethren" where "heretic" would do:

Updated (July 27, 2010)

I modified one paragraph and added another, in the section headed "Being Right, being Kind, being Smart." The two paragraphs are the ones starting with "But the dominant culture calls it a 'woman's right'...."

(I understood what I meant to say quite well: but hadn't done the best job of expressing the ideas. This should be a little less obscure, I hope.)

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.