Now, I don’t care if you’re Catholic or not. I don’t care if you’re an atheist or an animist, a philosopher or a scientist, a mathematician or a musician, a man or a woman, a dog person or a cat person; hell, I don’t care if you call it “soda” or “pop.”
The fact is that you read the word and you pictured something.
Everyone has an idea in their head of what a Catholic is, and it’s likely that none of them are identical. Everyone also has an idea in their head of what soda is called, and some of them are completely wrong.
Okay I admit that was totally unrelated to the point I’m actually trying to make, but I couldn’t help myself. It’s called “soda” and you know it.
I probably just alienated the entire Midwest, so I’ll start over. Everyone has a different idea in his or her own head of what a Catholic is. You may have pictured the pope. You may have instead pictured a bunch of ladies covered in long-sleeved everything with napkins on their heads praying reverently in a pew. Perhaps you imagined a collection of men in a dimly lit room chewing cigars, nursing a scotch, and debating the philosophical inner workings of that leather-bound Chesterton on the shelf behind them. You may have pictured a stay-at-home mom transporting a behemoth minivan of socially inept homeschooled children to a soccer game. Perhaps you instead pictured a millennial wearing one of those tacky “Jesus is my Homeboy” shirts, or a priest holding a transfigured wafer in the air, or a community of oddly dressed individuals who spend their entire lives hidden away in a building on a hill, or Dana Carvey dressed as an elderly woman on Saturday Night Live. You might have also pictured an artist or some average Joe with seemingly no defining qualities whatsoever.
While this shows that there’s a great deal of flexibility when it comes to defining the word, there’s also a great deal of objectivity to the definition. First and foremost, Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium exist as a three-piece authority to guide the Church and Her people in the world. Scripture is the Living Word of our faith inspired by the Holy Spirit and written by human authors, Tradition is the practice of that faith as handed down by the Apostles, and the Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Church, which started with St. Peter and followed an unbroken line down to Pope Francis today. In an incredibly, impossibly tiny nutshell, these three act as “legs of the stool of our faith” in the sense that all three uphold the Catholic faith, and the removal of any one of them would cause it to be incomplete.
Logically speaking, those who genuinely strive to abide by the authority of this bodacious tripod could rightfully be considered Catholic. However, thanks to the diversity of humanity, it’s possible for us all to arrive at a different image in our minds when we hear the word, and it’s therefore impossible to define the Church in a way that is fully, unanimously, and universally understood.
Think of it as an equation: If [human] = [not comprehensively definable] and [The Church] = [bodacious tripod PLUS a bunch of humans] then [The Church] = [not comprehensively definable]. So long as the human race remains some 7.5 billion different personalities, the personality of the Church itself can never be unanimously understood, and that can be a good thing.
I say “can” because, again, the Church is still objectively defined to a degree, so therefore, we as humans do not have the authority to subjectively define it in full. Many rely solely on their perception of what the Church is instead of also relying on that bodacious tripod (they really should come up with a definitive term for that).
Picture instead the word “artist.” We can agree that we are afforded flexibility when it comes to defining the word, considering the many mediums with which an artist can deliver their work. Painters, musicians, writers, woodworkers, signmakers, graphic designers, dancers, photographers, actors, and God Himself might come to mind when we imagine artists. Though there is certainly flexibility, there is also a degree of objectivity in defining what an artist is; an unchanging set of criteria which helps us to determine who can and cannot be labeled by the word. It’s not a free-for-all that allows me to point to Steve, whom I know nothing about, and say, “Steve! You’re an artist!” just because I personally believe that to be the case.
This is because Steve is actually an accountant with two left feet and no right brain. The only brushes Steve knows about keep his teeth clean, and as far as he’s concerned, “art” refers to the guy in the office who makes a bangin’ pot of decaf. Steve has no idea what “bangin’” means.
I digress. The point is, it’s reasonable to arrive at the conclusion that Steve is in fact no artist, no matter how another perceives him. He does not meet the criteria which makes him so, and just the same, we arrive at the conclusion that Kelly is an artist because she does meet the criteria which makes her one. She takes pretty photos, you see. At the same time, Neil is also an artist like Kelly, but he is unlike her in that he makes canoes with his bare hands like a freakin’ boss. Furthermore, no matter how much I might refuse to believe that Kelly and Neil are artists, that won’t change the fact that they are indeed.
For the love of all things wonderful, I love you, so please stay with me on these next two paragraphs.
All of this is not a matter of exclusivity, but rather of reality. It’s not inclusive to say that a strip of bacon is a flower just because it smells good and you often dream about running through fields of them. Just the same, it’s not inclusive to consider somebody Catholic just because they break out their “Jesus is my Homeboy” shirt every once in awhile. This faith is also about a truth we either accept, deny, or are completely oblivious to.
I want it on the record that wearing a tacky shirt in no way disqualifies you from the faith (unfortunately (kidding (sort of))). As much as I might want to throw the contents of my pockets at you for sporting that nonsense, I must restrain myself and allow humanity to be cringy so long as it’s not impeding the advancement of God’s kingdom intentionally or otherwise.
What I mean by all of this is that you - wonderfully unique human being who sucks no more than I do at perfection and might also own that shirt - are unlike anybody else, and you still have the opportunity to be completely Catholic just like the rest of us. You might read Chesterton, or drive a minivan, or throw napkins on your head, or be ordained. You’re nothing like Steve from Accounting, but you’re both made to be different, imperfect, and a part of God’s kingdom.
Not only is “perfection” unattainable, but it’s also undefinable. Uniqueness and the unrepeatability of the human person absolutely shred the idea of a perfect person. In fact, if you plan to be Catholic at all, I don’t think you have any other option but imperfection. What do you think I’ve been doing for the past 26 years? For goodness’ sake, I just suggested that it would ever be okay to throw the contents of my pockets at another person because of the shirt they’re wearing. I suck.
Look, I won’t sit here and pretend that striving to abide by the bodacious tripod’s authority isn’t mandatory, because it truly is. Again, this is a matter of reality, and simply “being a good person” is a matter of moral relativity that we cannot leave to personal judgement. Reality and moral relativity don’t quite mix. They both wore the same outfit to a party once. It was super awkward and things haven’t been the same since.
At the end of the day, I am begging you to not wear the tacky shirt, but the bodacious tripod swears up and down that avoiding it isn’t paramount, so I guess I’ll just have to let that one go.
By the way, don’t even get me started on “Coke.” That’s a brand of soda. Say goodbye to your Southern U.S. readers, Holy Ruckus.
Mark Kaschak is a New Hampshire-based graphic designer, musician, and husband by both day and night. He runs a sweet music blog called Backline and he wants you to check it out.