The job description for my current post at St. Mary’s College of California did not involve “translating Catholic things to everyone,” but in fact that is a major facet of the job. I don’t mind, mostly, because it’s mostly incredibly entertaining. Let me explain.
(1) Do you know every other Catholic?
From the outside, Catholicism is expected to be monolithic and predictable, when in fact it has never been either of those, ever. Here I am not referencing doctrine so much as I am calling to mind various Catholic cultural expressions (have you noticed we’re from everywhere?), both in the past and in the present. Catholicism is inherently plural, by which I mean intrinsically multiple in its lived experiences and even in its doctrinal emphases. This is one of the things that makes Catholicism itself: that it is one thing, but also not one thing.
And yet Catholicism is “one,” especially inasmuch as genuine membership in the community is of prime importance, and that this membership is associated with a particular way of life: following Christ is the way of life and the principle of the community.
Which is why predicting a Catholic is about as easy as playing darts after being concussed and pepper-sprayed, and yet all those crazy people with the burning eyes do have a family resemblance as they argue with one another over who is worse at darts.
My scholarly job is to make sense of the rampant complexities of the Catholic heritage, to lend them sense without imparting violence. It is my behind-the-scenes job to tell a student or colleague why we do not look like what he or she expects, which is more than likely that one thing from the news. Or that specific decade in which he/she grew up as a Catholic. Or that one pope to be much hated or much adored. Or those years of schooling that apparently explained everything there is to know about Catholicism ever.
It’s like fighting to escape a room composed entirely of colored plastic wrap just to have a real conversation. It’s both beautiful and terrible as I suffocate to death from all the assumptions.
(2) Be magical.
I’m not sure if it’s because I’m young or new or nice – or some other adjective I haven’t figured out, smart maybe? – but in any case, I have been immediately tasked with defending the entire Catholic tradition of my institution and all of Catholicism in existence. Explicitly. I’ve been asked via emails and in conversations. And these sorts would prefer if I could do so in some way that does not simultaneously offend the majority of non-Catholics on campus. And Bay Area culture. And – I don’t know – the pope? All the popes? Wait, or bishops? What is the Catholic chess again? Win at that.
Which is just…magic. To be able to do. Sometimes I think I’m being asked to be magic.
And to explain why Catholics don’t believe in the magic thing. It’s… We’re… We’re, like, serious about the rational coherence of faith. That’s like a big thing for us.
I’ve begun to emphasize, in new leadership positions I’ve been offered, how the Catholic intellectual and spiritual task is inherently communal. To stress, that is, that it does us no good to assign a token person or department and move on with our own interests. We, together, go about enriching the Catholic tradition. More than once, I have noted that the very first essential element of this shared task is for all of us to be damn good at our jobs, Catholic or no. The Catholic task involves affirming those who are not (cf. the “rational coherence of faith,” above). And it at the same time involves affirming faith. Speaking of…
(3) I come in peace.
I’m not out to make anyone feel stupid, or wrong, or irrelevant. In fact, when I first say “How are you?” in my sheepish introvert sort of way, I genuinely want to know. Catholic things are not particularly the things on my mind, and definitely I do not have in mind convincing said new acquaintance about Catholic things. Most Catholics do not wander around like that. Hell, we’re way more interested in fighting with each other than in picking fights with new friends.
That’s for later, obviously. When we’re old friends. (Haaaaa.)
Growing up, I definitely loved picking those fights. That was an extended practice in being annoying through most of my adolescence. Which, as you know, adolescents love. My version was just, um, religious-y. Now I’m old or tired or something. In any case, I’m way too busy with far more interesting things. I’d much rather understand where someone is coming from and love them as God does.
Which is to say, no matter what.
Even when you make me a living Catholic Google Search.
And even when you assume all kinds of wrong things about my faith.
You see, Catholics are not pugnacious, uncompromising hooligans who will never forget an offense.
If Californian culture, or whatever culture Catholics find themselves in, is a legitimate space for living and breathing, then Catholics are genuinely interested in interacting with that culture in the goofy ways that make us who we are – ways that end up transfiguring both Catholicism and the culture. Hostility emerges when those spaces become narrow, stultified, or presumptive.
I’m not interested in a giant battle over Catholicism. I just want to live it. So let me. It’s pretty damn fun.
I’m not much for fights these days, but I’d go down fighting for that claim.