Those Funny American Catholics

“You do know that picture is funny?” he asked me, cautiously. “It” is a photo of a church sign I took and used as a photo essay feature called 1000 Words on my website.

Of course I know it’s funny! That’s why I took it. But I think the two of us consider it funny for different reasons.

The sign says “Preserve Religious Freedom.” It also says “Bingo Friday 7 pm.”

That’s funny.

But it’s not funny because we Catholics are dumb yokels who think bingo is the pinnacle of social occasions and are getting a bit above ourselves, daring to talk about something as high-minded as religious freedom.

It’s funny because we know what religious freedom is and when it is under attack. AND we run bingo games. The two are not mutually exclusive.

We American Catholics fought hard to get where we are. We fought oppression and poverty and war in the countries our ancestors came from. We fought bigotry and immigration quotas and “Know Nothings” and the KKK here. We fought ourselves — our Irish gangs and our Italian Mafia and our drunks and our freeloaders — to make it in a Protestant country that thought of us as a foreign menace who worshiped a foreign God. We put flags in our churches to prove we were patriots, we went to work for police and fire departments to prove we weren’t criminals, we built and sent our children to thousands of Catholic schools to prove to our Protestant neighbors that we could be just as smart, work just as hard, and become just as successful as they were.

Lately, we’ve been fighting among ourselves about other things: Who is a “real” Catholic, whether established Catholics need to help Latino, African, and Asian Catholic immigrants, whether going to Mass matters, whether abortion is really all that bad. The fights can get vicious; the shouts and fist-pounding can be impassioned.

But the Protestants and secularists fail to understand one big truth about the Catholic Church: We expect people to break the rules. If you’re a Southern Baptist and you can’t stop drinking, you stop being a Southern Baptist. If you’re a Nazarene and you want to dance, you stop being a Nazarene. If you’re fed up with the whole thing, you just ignore religion altogether and see how well you can get along without it.

But if you’re a Catholic, we always take you back. You get drunk every Friday? You’re welcome to Mass on Sunday. Have an affair? Go to Mass. Steal from your boss? Go to Mass. Our failings — and our fights with each other are failings — don’t mean anything in the long run, because all people have failings and the Church brings us Christ, who is the remedy for all failings. If you divorce and remarry, you’re supposed to come to church every week and kneel in your pew while other people receive communion because even being a persistent, defiant sinner is no excuse for missing Mass. If you leave your wife and children and run off to Europe with a mistress, gambling all your children’s money away and becoming a notorious crime kingpin — you can call for a priest on your deathbed and we will STILL take you back.

So if our bishops fight with each other and our lay people shout at each other about Marxism and the “seamless garment” of “life issues,” if our more creative sisters take a bus trip around the country in defiance of the Pope — that does not mean any of us are no longer Catholics. And if you tell us we have to provide and pay for other people’s “morning after” pills and sterilizations and contraception — that does not mean that we are no longer Americans. We aren’t giving up on a country where the government does not have the power to make us violate our consciences or act against our religious convictions, a country founded on the principle that one’s obligation to God come before one’s obligation to the state.

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Gail D. Finke is an author and mother living in Cincinnati, where she writes for The Catholic Beat at Sacred Heart Radio.

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