Angry polemics usually give the impression that the Faith we hold rests on shaky foundations
Some years ago I was on holiday in Turkey, staying at a very pleasant coastal resort on the Aegean Sea. One Friday, taking a walk through the town, at about midday, someone put a leaflet into my hand. At first glance, the leaflet seemed to contain some sort of children’s cartoon – an odd thing to give out outside a mosque, I thought. Then I realised what it was: though I could not read Turkish, the caricature that illustrated the text made it plain that this was anti-Semitic propaganda. I handed the leaflet back to the man who had given it to me with a polite smile of refusal.
The leaflet in question resembled the sort of thing published by the National Socialist Der Stürmer. I was shocked that such things could be printed and distributed so long after the terrible lesson left us by the Nazis, but I said to myself at the time that the man handing out such stuff was no doubt completely untypical of Turks in general, in no way reflecting the policies of the (in those days) Kemalist government of Turkey – and, above all, a man who had almost certainly never met a Jew and had no real knowledge of Judaism. The man, and those who thought like him, were an astonishingly bad advertisement for whatever it was that they wished to promote.
At various times since then I have come across other examples of religious prejudice, but this time directed at Catholics, quite often by people who I have encountered while on holiday and not wearing my cassock, and who perhaps did not realise I was a priest. Like the man outside the mosque, these people give one a queasy feeling. In that they are anti-Catholic, and I am a Catholic, they make one feel particularly uncomfortable, especially when they seem to be reasonable-sounding and outwardly “nice” people. But what they project is anything but nice. As in the case of the man outside the mosque, these people generally do not know much about Catholicism, and have little or no direct experience of it. They may, in fact, never have knowingly met a Catholic. Moreover, what they say, is quite simply ignorant in the narrow sense of the word. That is to say, the shallowest research would reveal it to be unfounded. I have been told that Catholics worship statues, that all priests are rapists, that Catholics worship the Blessed Virgin Mary, that the Catholic Church is a front for Freemasons and “international Jewry” and, most distressingly of all to my mind, that certain Catholic saints were sorcerers or worse.
All this makes unpleasant hearing. But whenever I have met such people I have refrained from rising to the challenge of putting them right, if it is clear that their misapprehensions about the Faith are not simple misunderstandings. There is really no point in trying to engage with people who are seemingly immune to reasoning and whose positions are the fruit of a rejection of rationality. We are not going to change them, at least not any time soon, and can only pray for them. At the same time, we can reflect that their prejudice is not a good advertisement for their own beliefs. And we can learn from them.
The lesson we can learn is a very important one indeed. For us Catholics – particularly us English Catholics – there is always a temptation to take up robust positions against other faiths. (There are plainly historical reasons for this.) But it is really important that we do not give way to this temptation. When we meet, let us say, a Methodist, it is by far much better that we dwell on what we share, and the positive contribution made by Methodists, than on what divides us. (I use the example of Methodism because I know that Catholic-Methodist friction is in fact extremely rare, indeed more or less unheard of.) To try and score points against our fellow Christians, or to take pleasure in their difficulties, is really counterproductive, and indeed, un-Christian. It is uncharitable, it is often based on ignorance, and most of all it projects a harsh, unkind and slightly hysterical image of Catholicism.
Catholicism is essentially a calm faith, rooted in the scriptures and the Tradition, and it has no need whatever to take a shrill tone with those who interpret the scriptures differently or who have inherited different traditions. This is not to practice the heresy of indifferentism: it is merely to hold the Catholic position in a way that is coherent with a faith-filled approach. After all, we shall convince no one of the rightness of certain disputed positions by polemics and sectarianism. We may convince them to have a second look at what we believe, and the reasons we have for believing, by calmness, kindness and Christian charity. Polemics and sectarianism of the type I have in mind usually give the impression that the Faith we hold rests on shaky foundations, in that such an approach seems to be overcompensating for the lack of credibility in the doctrines it seeks to support.
In the end, when one looks at its opposite, there is no substitute for charity. When I remember the man outside the mosque distributing his leaflets, and the others who I have met over the years who have been hysterically anti-Catholic, I am convinced that we must resist all temptations to adopt a similar approach against those who do not share the Catholic Faith.