Friday, December 30, 2011

Non-Catholic relatives and the "hard stuff"

My fiance and I are both converts to Catholicism. My family is a mix of non-practicing Catholic/Protestant while his is a mix of Protestant and Jewish. In addition, we both have friends on various journeys of faith. As we are both pretty orthodox in thinking and in practice, disbelief about our lifestyle does come up, as well as questions about our opinions on various topics. Because there often is a lack of understanding, sometimes, seemingly innocuous questions come off as endless at best and difficult at worst. How do we face it? Here are some tips.
  1. Don't assume everything is oppositional: Not every question requires a drawn out defense of Catholic teaching and practice. Most of the time, even cradle Catholics don't always understand aspects of Catholic living, especially when it comes to issues of morality. When it comes to living out the Church's teachings on sexuality, for example, people may have an image of the Duggars or another extremely conservative family with many children, a stay-at-home mom who homeschools, where girls aren't encouraged to have a career, etc.* They may not understand that it is possible to live a modern lifestyle while also obeying the Church's teachings.
  2. Be honest about what you don't know: As a convert, I had to do a lot of intense study in order to figure out whether Catholicism was right for me. As such, I often am the "Catholic resource" for both Catholic and non-Catholic family and friends. However, there is still much I don't know. I can't pretend to be an expert on everything and I know that people don't expect me to be. Also, honesty may encourage others to look up different things themselves so that they can better understand.
  3. Laugh it off: While we may know our faith pretty well, some aspects of Catholicism seem downright strange to people. Whether it's our stereotype about "no sex but drink as much as you want"**, taking your temperature every day and analyzing your body to decide when it's OK to have sex, why the old ladies still put Kleenex on their heads, and why, out of all our strict morals, timeliness is not one of them, we seem absolutely crazy. Laughing it off and noting that, "We Catholics can be crazy some times" helps break tension and puts all parties at ease. It also gives us humility: while it's not easy having to explain so much about our faith, it's also not easy to see your otherwise intelligent son/daughter/friend make decisions that drive you batty.
  4. Preach always, use words if necessary: Often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, this quote serves as a reminder to be a good example without getting preachy. No one wants to hear long-winded explanations about the origin of misconceptions and why one has to be stupid to believe them without looking at sources. That's both condescending and arrogant, two things no self-respecting Christian should become. What helps is to live our lives according to the Gospel and to be compassionate and understanding while living with integrity. That impresses people and inspires them. Another way to look at it is that you attract more with honey than with vinegar.
  5. Acknowledge faults: Yes, the child abuse scandal is horrible. Yes, clergy and laity alike have done horrible, horrible things in the name of God/Jesus/the Holy Mother/the Church. Yes, women were oppressed, leaders did endorse slavery of Africans/Native Americans, Muslims/Jews/Protestants/non-believers were burned at the stake on orders from Catholic leaders. No, a torn mother should not have been excommunicated for seeking an abortion for her nine-year-old little girl who was raped by her stepfather and pregnant with twins (if anything, the rapist should have been excommunicated). Yes, the Rwandan Hutu priests who had all their Tutsi parishioners killed during the genocide were in the wrong. We can still believe our Church is true, point out misconceptions and defend our teachings while admitting that those who worked for or otherwise represented our faith have done horrible things. One virtue we stress, even to the point of having a Sacrament for, is accountability. I do not apologize for acts I have not committed personally so, no, it's not my responsibility to atone for those sins. At the same time, I will not pretend the earthly representation of the Church is blameless. It is a sin to lie.
  6. Sometimes, you just can't discuss it: Even if people agree with you on everything else, there are certain issues that are just extremely touchy. Yes, I'm talking about sex again. While I'm willing to discuss my choices if people are simply curious and want some education, I'm not going to answer snide comments or extreme emotion, especially when I have a tendency to get really emotional about certain topics. I understand that I will probably never see eye to eye with my family and friends on most things related to sex and fertility. On those issues, I simply have to do what my fiance and I think is best for ourselves, each other and our relationship with God. Other people may not understand and that's OK.
  7. The choice to convert sets you apart: I'm guessing that, when our parents held us in their arms on the days we were born, neither set dreamed, "Maybe, one day, he/she is going to become a Catholic and do great things for God!" While our families did leave the choice of religious practice up to us, they never imagined that Catholicism would factor in. My dad jokes that it was my "teenage rebellion" whereas others, while they appreciate the significance it has for us, still scratch their heads about it. In our society, religion is still seen as something chosen for you by your parents while the image of liberal, intellectually curious people is seen as tied to secularist beliefs. Especially as I tend to espouse a politically progressive stance and come off as a strident feminist, people often get confused when they find out I espouse traditional Catholic beliefs as well. While, in the eyes of serious, educated Catholics, orthodoxy can go with liberal politics and an egalitarian perspective on gender, they don't seem to blend well in the eyes of others. Again, a lengthy lesson in apologetics is not the answer. People do have misconceptions and may be shocked that you'd choose the faith. Be gentle
  8. Pray, hope, and don't worry: Padre Pio was onto something when he said this. It's natural to want others to share in your faith and the joy that it gives you. However, worrying about your loved ones' salvation, constantly bringing up faith related matters, and trying to get people to agree with you is just not going to work. You believe God is an omnipotent being, right? Leave those concerns to Him. He'll take care of it.
Living the faith is not easy. All you can do is be the best example you can be and pray to God for the rest.

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