Questionable Means

(Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributer to the Living Faith quarterly devotional.)

“Katie!” he called sharply. “Why did you do this?”

What Katie had done, for some reason only understood by her then-seven-year-old mind, was right on the bathroom mirror. In toothpaste.

You have to give it to her though. Through her tears, Katie spoke ably in her own defense.

“But I did it for God!”

For you see, what Katie had done was to cover the bathroom mirror with the Good News: “I Love God.”

No matter that it was written in minty-fresh Colgate. The ends justify the means, don’t they? Well, don’t they?

It’s a constant question for Catholics, this question of ends and means. There are so many things we want to happen. Does it matter how we try to make them happen?

We want, for example, community. Never mind that community in the Catholic sense is rooted in our sharing of Christ in the Eucharist. Never mind that perhaps the best way to build authentic community might just be to build up our faith in the Real Presence.

No. Instead, let’s copy the Kiwanas or the first day of fourth grade instead. Let’s “build” community by ordering people to introduce themselves to each other before Mass begins. What, I have always wondered, is that supposed to accomplish anyway? We know who we know, and those we don’t – don’t we invariably forget their names? Isn’t this pre-Mass introduction business really a low-rent, theologically impossible Sign of Peace? Isn’t it just awful? Isn't the practice of asking visitors to call out their home bases from the congregation even worse?

This misunderstanding of the nature Christian “community” and the terribly disruptive ways pseudo-liturgists have devised to propagate it aren’t the only unfortunate means use to reach worthy ends that we Catholics endure.

It’s good to want congregations to sing. But is the best means to this end training cantors to treat congregations like intransigent children?

Wouldn’t it be better to just use music that’s actually singable?

We did a good thing, decades ago, when we decided that children should emerge from catechesis knowing about the reality of God’s love rather than just dogmatic statements about God. Again, a marvelous end. But was the best means to this end really stripping the textbooks of any content whatsoever? Was it a good idea, in the way to teaching God’s love, to stop teaching Who God is?

On a recent trip up Michigan way, a couple more examples of questionable means popped out at me. One was hanging on an Episcopal Church that stands across the way from the new stadium that houses the Detroit Tigers. It was a huge banner that read, “Pray for the Tigers Here!”

Sure, it’s good to encourage prayer. Good to want your church to grow. Good to show support for the local team. It’s even good to let your sense of humor show. But I don’t know – when your efforts culminate in a message that gives the distinct impression that you think that God will actually work to see the Tigers beat the Brewers, it seems you’ve got some serious trivialization of religion going on.

A few miles down the road, we ran into another example, this one, sad to say out of a Catholic church. This one made my jaw drop, and almost caused my husband to drive off the road when I read it aloud from the bulletin of a church we’d visited late in the day. (I didn't say this in the printed version of this column, but I'll tell you here – it was the Shrine of the Little Flower.

It was a note from one of the priests in anticipation of the Feast of Corpus Christi. The father had nothing but worthy intentions and a marvelous end in sight: remind his congregation of the proper, reverent way to receive Communion. The note was fine up until this paragraph:

“For those receiving in the hands: it takes two hands to handle a Whopper!”

As my mother would say: You think I'm making this up. I'm not.

Oh, my. Does irreverence contribute to the cause of reverence? I can’t believe it does. Once again, great ends, astonishingly lousy means.

It’s something for every one of us to think about, especially those engaged in ministry. We’re trying to build up the Body of Christ. Are we using the best stones for the job, or is toothpaste on the bathroom mirror about the best we can do?

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage