I have to confess that I have a tendency to get angry when I hear somebody saying things about the Church or the Faith that are simply not true. You probably face this more often than I do, because people often don’t know you’re a Catholic, and so say things to you they wouldn’t say to me. I do however get some of it on the Internet, on Facebook and Twitter etc, where people often do not realise I’m a priest. It’s one of the reasons why it’s important that we priests are there. I had one the other day. – “Catholics believe creation took 7 days” – “Catholics think God punishes people and make them feel guilty all the time” – “Priests won’t baptise babies of unmarried mothers” – “Catholic priests abuse children” and so on.
What should we do when such things are said? Well the first thing to say is that we shouldn’t get angry or defensive. Yes, we are called “to instruct the ignorant” – the work of mercy that I want us to look at today – but getting angry never won any argument. I was very pleased to see that this is the approach of an organisation called CATHOLIC VOICES that trains ordinary Catholics to appear on radio and TV when topics like this come up. Their book “How to defend the faith without raising your voice” calls it reframing. In other words, do not attack people for what they say, but look outside the frame they have created, for a different way to explain things.
Now I expect you’re thinking at this point that you would rather not say anything at all, because you think you will only make a mess of it. Don’t worry if you feel like this, because you are in good company. The great Moses himself, as we heard in our 1st Reading (Exodus 3:1-15) didn’t want to do it either. Sometimes you just have to pluck up your courage just like he did, and go for it. You might simply say, as politely as you can, that the person who is attacking the faith, hasn’t got the story quite right; or if you know them you might contact them later, when you’ve had a chance to look up in the Catechism what the Church actually believes, and give them a suitable quote.
Let me explain a bit more how this reframing works. If people start going on about how Catholics are against science and evolution, do not attack head on and say “You’re talking nonsense”. Come at it sideways “Well you may be right that some Catholics think that, but none of the Catholics I know do. Did you know that the first person to propose the Big Bang Theory was a Catholic physicist who was a priest?” Or “Did you know that the great Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman had no problem with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution?”
Sometimes reframing means actually agreeing with the critic. You might say “Yes, it’s terrible that some priests have refused to baptise the babies of unmarried mothers, but few would nowadays. Did you know that Pope Francis phoned an Italian woman who was treated like that and offered to come and baptise her baby himself?” And certainly you might agree about the horrors of child abuse, but speak of all the Church is now doing to safeguard children. Do you know who the Safeguarding Officer is in your Church?
Our Gospel today (Luke 13:1-9) sees Jesus dealing with another of these ignorant views – that if bad things happen to people they must have done something bad. It’s certainly a view put forward in many Old Testament passages. Jesus makes clear that this view is wrong. In our Gospel he makes it crystal clear in a rather clever way, by reminding people that we are all sinners and that doesn’t means towers will fall down and kill all of us!, Elsewhere, as you all know, he contradicts other Old Testament views by saying “Love your enemies”. The Catholic Church therefore, following Jesus, does not say that we must believe literally every word in the Bible.
“So”, my man on the Internet said, “If Catholics do not take the Bible literally, they can interpret it any way they like!” Well, by now we were into a sensible discussion, and I was able to explain that the Church has worked out down the centuries how the Bible should be understood, and that is how Catholics use it. I hope it helped him.
One more point. When we are trying to explain the faith, we do not have to try to win the argument. Instructing the ignorant must not be an ego trip where we think we must not fail. Simply sharing politely as best we can, is enough. We may think we have failed, but God does not fail, and sometimes what seems a weak explanation can be more powerful than something very clever. God uses us in ways we can never imagine. Think on that!