Catholic Sense 15

What’s Sauce for the Goose

By David Mills

There you are, minding your own business, going to work, going to Mass, hanging out at home, talking to your neighbors, complaining about the Pirates, when Whammo! someone suggests that you’re an idiot. The kind of idiot who’d buy the deed to a bar in downtown Mecca because the seller promised you a huge profit and the admiration of your neighbors.

Or better: the kind of idiot who buys one of those expensive exercise machines because the ads say that by exercising for just five minutes a day for just three months you can have the body of an Olympic gymnast! Without giving up rocky road ice cream, half-pound hamburgers, or barbecue potato chips!

I’m thinking of those times when someone, completely out of blue, criticizes Christianity or the Catholic Church in particular. Someone tells you that you are a Christian because you’re not very smart, or that you want to get something for nothing, or that you can’t face the world without the crutch of religion, or that you’re too lazy to think for yourself, or that you’ve grown up with it and don’t want to change.

The people who tell you this can be the nicest people you know, too. They often smile at you as they dismiss the faith on which you’ve built your life, apparently thinking you’re not going to be offended. They speak as if they’re just teasing you about your funny tie or your taste for fat romantic novels.

They usually don’t have much of a reason. They may say something about evolution or offer some crack-brained history from a book like The da Vinci Code or point to children with leukemia or invoke the Crusades or the Inquisition or the trial of Galileo.

They may even blame the Catholic Church for health-and-wealth-gospel televangelists and Mormon polygamist cults or even (I have actually heard this done) for Muslim fundamentalists. Some people apparently think that all religions are the same, so anyone who believes in God is guilty of the sins of anyone else who believes in God, whether or not the God they believe in is the same God.

If they’ve read a little, they’ll tell you that the Church developed its institutions and its doctrines to increase its own power. We don’t have the papacy because Jesus gave it to us. We have it because the bishops of Rome wanted more control over the Church and the world and made up a doctrine of the Church that justified their taking it.

If you are like me, you never know what to say. You feel you ought to say something, because your faith and through it your Savior is being attacked. If other people are listening, they might think that the critic has a point if you don’t protest.

But you know any defense you can mount is likely, as parents say when watching little children begin to fight over a toy, to end in tears. In some cases, you know there’s a good answer, but you don’t know it. In others, you may know the answer but know it won’t make any difference. Someone who can so smugly sweep away an entire religious tradition that has obviously brought a vast amount of good to the world, is not likely to argue fairly.

If you do happen to know the answer and be good at arguing, and are calm enough not to get flustered or angry, you might try to challenge the critic. You probably won’t change his mind, but you might at least show anyone listening that there is something to be said for the Church.

Even if you don’t know the answer or aren’t good at arguing, you may still want to say something. You might just ask the critic, “Well, what do you believe? What are you a member of?” What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, as my grandmother liked to say.

If he admits to having some institutional commitment, religious or not, you might ask him, “And no one in your tradition has ever done anything bad? Do you really want to be held responsible for their sins? Be fair, that’s the rule you’ve set for Christianity.”

If he claims to be an atheist or rationalist or freethinker, you might ask him, “So, to use your own standard, you’ll take responsibility for all the crimes committed by people who didn’t believe in God?” Like the Chinese tyrant Mao, whose Cultural Revolution of the sixties may have been the greatest human rights violation in human history. Or Stalin, who murdered tens of millions of innocent people and terrorized his own country for decades. Secularism’s body count in much, much, much higher than Christianity’s.

I don’t predict much success, but you might at least make the critic pause the next time he wants to dismiss Christianity so easily, and that’s something.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared in the Pittsburgh Catholic on February 26, 2010.