There are Catholics who are convinced with absolute certainty that everyone else is wrong and they’re right. I’ve met them rarely in the flesh and often in com boxes. They scream at one another across a great divide – positive that they’ve discovered heresy. There are those who are sure that the Church has been hijacked by traditionalists, and that the great reforms in the Spirit of Vatican II are being watered down and scaled back. Only those fighting for social justice – by which they mean women priests, gay marriage, and intercommunion with other denominations (and even other religions) – are truly Catholic. Yelling right back are those that consider Pius X as the last great Pope, and those involved in Vatican II as fools at best and apostates at worst. In their view, only those who attend the Latin Mass and receive the Eucharist on the tongue while kneeling are truly Catholic.
Mark Shea has written a post in response to one of the latter. I think his diagnosis is pretty good, though the worst case of spiritual bullying I’ve ever seen in real parish life came from a little clique at the other end of the liturgical spectrum.
The point Shea draws out can certainly apply to anyone who decides their view entitles them to regard anyone else as a heretic:
Now the irony of all this is that it means, as far as I am concerned, my sectarian Catholic reader is one more eccentric member of this big bag of cats called the Catholic Church that the Holy Spirit has been slowly and painfully creating for 2,000 years. His pretense that he can escape communion with a slob like me by hiving off to his Puritan sect within the Church and blotting the rest of the unwashed herd of sheep from his mind except when he wishes to vilify them does not actually sever the link of communion between us. He remains my brother Catholic whether he likes it or not.
So, by the way, does every Catholic I have ever argued with about torture, or consequentialism, or abortion, or anything else under the sun. Unless a bishop excommunicates a member of the Church, my default position is to assume they are Catholic, and I will defend them against combox bishop wannabes with dimestore bulls of excommunication to my last breath, even if I strenuously disagree with some idea they hold or some sin I believe they are committing. My reason is simple: They may or may not be bad Catholics, theologically, philosophically, morally, or intellectually. But it is certain, at any rate, that I am a bad Catholic, so I have no intention of reading anybody out of the Church, though I’m quite willing to argue with them when I think they are wrong about something…
Indeed, my habit is to extend this principle very far. So I have no problem acknowledging that non-Catholic Christians are in some real (albeit imperfect) union with the Church and will even accept as Christian (in some sense) anybody who names the Name. This includes Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other people who are very far out at the end of the bell curve theologically. Doesn’t mean I have to think they are good Christians either theologically, morally, or intellectually. All it means is that when some confused human being comes staggering down the road of life and is trying to get to Jesus crying, “Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner,” I’m not going to be the one to say, “Get lost!” After all, Jesus didn’t tell me to get lost — and I really was lost and more ignorant of Jesus than a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness. Who am I, then, to grab one of these by the lapels and shout, “Pay me the orthodoxy you owe me”? Best to do like Priscilla and Aquila did with the half-baked Apollos and “expound to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26).
Bottom line: “Everybody is a material heretic,” said a priest I once knew. That is, nobody fully lives or believes the gospel. We’re all a bunch of slobs and losers and incorrigibly average people, including the people who don’t want to be associated with slobs, losers, and average people. And I’m the biggest slob, loser, and average sinner of them all, yet God still loves even me and lets me come to Mass and receive the astounding gift of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus. Why should I tell any other Catholic they aren’t welcome? That’s the bishop’s job, not mine. It’s weeds and wheat till the Last Day.