Judgey Much? i.e. A Few Thoughts on Works*

*We have promised posts that explain the factors that moved us toward Catholicism,
but this is an issue I feel that I need to address upfront. In fact, I’ll also probably be posting somewhat regularly on issues like these that keep people from seriously considering Catholic practices.

“All those people are going to church just to check the box.” This is the explanation I’ve heard many times regarding the phenomenon of oh, a billion or so Catholics in the world.  Ah, checking the box. The act of performing a task for the sake of the return. Like being nice to the crazy great-uncle in hopes of being included in his will. This is a favorite tactic among some who try to de-fang Catholicism. Poof. They’re all just in it for the swag.

It sure is an easy way to not take  a whole bunch of people seriously.

It’s even an argument I bought into at times, although I didn’t think it was possible that ALL of those people were “checking the box.” The funny thing about it though, is that I never sat in my own church and thought the same thing about the people sitting around me. I never sat there and looked out among the crowd thinking, “Hypocrites. They’re just here to check the box.”  I suppose that’s because, as a good Baptist, I knew that it was all about the grace, so we weren’t at church because it was something we needed to “do.” I can say that I would look around and think, “Boy, that guy is a real slouch. I bet he’s here because his wife is making him go to church. He doesn’t even look excited to be here. Why does he even bother?” Never mind that I probably didn’t look all that happy either and that none of us were radiating the joy we were supposed to be overflowing with out of thankfulness for our salvation. That’s why pastors can admonish their congregations about how saggy and draggy they look and it always gets some laughs: the desired reaction being that a bunch of sheepish congregants are reminded that they forgot to bring their smile to church.  ‘Cause if you’ve got that joy pasted on your face we know you’re saved.

Well, gee, isn’t that checking the box, too?

This is another issue I began to question the further I got into my spiritual journey. Like I mentioned in my first post, legalism was seen as the arch-enemy to our “freedom” from works.  Anything that smacked of obligation was abhorrent…HOWEVER, when you are in praise and worship you had darn well better get that far-off look in your eyes and enjoy singing the same phrase over and over. That guy who is soulfully playing his guitar at the Christian rock concert? He is super-spiritual because his eyes are all squinched up and he’s biting his lower lip really hard, right? If you are at a VBS rally and someone shouts, “Who loves Jesus????!!!!” you had better scream the loudest, and if you are at one of those conferences geared toward women (ech, shivers are going down my spine as I write this and I haven’t even mentioned any by name) you had better join hands and sway with the rest of them. Do I sound like a horribly cynical person? Sorry. I’m really not. I am not saying that worship cannot happen at any of these events, but I do have a problem with the expectation that emotion can be produced on demand, and I must admit that I often found it emotionally draining to try to put on that kind of show just because that’s what “being saved” was supposed to look like to some.

I used to think there was something wrong with me because I never was the kind of person who found it easy to engage in mass hysteria. Then I grew up and realized that hey, I’m just not the kind of person who easily engages in mass hysteria.[1] That kind of behavior doesn’t have anything to do with my relationship with Jesus. I began to realize that my salvation did not depend on how I “felt” or how I appeared to others, and that maybe how I lived my life when nobody was looking was more indicative of my spiritual state. This brand of “spiritual yippiness” (I just made up that term. Trademark pending.) that plagued me is a trap that Protestants can very easily fall into and remain in their whole lives, and if you think about it, the result is the same as the bad, box-checking Catholics they’re pointing their fingers at. Rather than performing actions, they’re producing emotions for the expected return. They’re in it for the swag.

Let’s be honest:  there are people on both sides of the aisle “checking the box.” We all know it’s a problem. I am certain that every religious system has its own form of box-checkery (I know, I just made that one up, too), though it may be more readily apparent in some religions than in others. I will also be so bold as to hazard a guess that there are bad, or even *GASP* non-Christians sitting in the pews of every church (I point that out to say that maybe God gives people like that more of a break than we do sometimes. At least they’re trying…) But who am I to judge a person, whether they are on their knees praying or jumping up and down, especially if I’ve never stepped a foot into their church? It’s the whole wheat and tares thing. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.


[1] If you want to get all Myers-Briggs then I’m about as “I” as a person can possibly
be. I think those of us who are introverted are often left feeling like we’re less than those who feel comfortable wearing their spirituality on their sleeve. And no, I’m not talking about being embarrased about my faith or “hiding my light under a bushel.”

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5 Responses to Judgey Much? i.e. A Few Thoughts on Works*

  1. Sid Schwab says:

    Your point that Protestants are also checking the box is valid, but this doesn’t really answer the same point regarding Catholics. Simply shining the light on Protestant hypocrisy fails to explain your choice to swap one form of hypocrisy for another. That said, as a Protestant I agree with you regarding Protestant judginess. Many (most?) churches I’ve been involved with have equated spiritual maturity with outward emotional displays and flowery public prayers. Better yet is the dramatic conversion story. I have long rejected these outward displays, and because of this I’m sure my very salvation has been questioned by others in my church and in my own family. As you said, there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around, but I don’t think you’ve made the case that the Catholic form is better than the Protestant.

    • Nikki says:

      Hey Sid,
      Thanks for stopping by. As I thought up this post I was somewhat torn about how I was going to present the whole hypocrisy thing. I realized that I wasn’t really going to be presenting a case as to why this issue compelled me toward Catholicism (as noted in the disclaimer at the top). I decided that in the end, I was really more interested in pointing out that Catholics do not have the corner on hypocrisy. I know that might seem obvious to some, but to others, I think they just look at the Catholic Church and instantly discount it because they know people who regularly attend Mass but don’t have a vibrant faith. It frustrates me that in turn, they don’t look at people in their own church and don’t even think to apply the same kind of “judgment”, if you will. My short answer to the whole question is this: metanoia. Unless you have a change of heart and mind and turn toward God, it doesn’t really matter what kind of box you try to check. It ain’t going to work. I think the devil has been masterful at bamboozling people in all camps into thinking that they are okey dokey as long as they can point their finger at someone else and say, “Well look at them, they don’t look like me so they’re not saved.”

      • Sid says:

        Yes, well, I certainly agree with your point on judgment of “the other guy.” It happens everywhere. Perhaps one key difference, and maybe this is the source of your frustration, is that the ones most deceiving themselves in the Protestant churches are often the ones who are most visibly pious and inevitably become church leaders. They are the elders, Sunday school teachers, and others who can put on that Sunday smile, turn on that emotional switch and run off a great prayer, but then are also oh so quick to judge others for their “lesser” faith. Modern day Pharisees. This frustrates me too. The “checking the box” Catholics have no such pretensions.

        BUT, aren’t you being disingenuous when you say “Unless you have a change of heart and mind and turn toward God…” The Catholic doctrine is that Protestants are heretics. Not much wiggle room there. Granted, many Protestant denominations doctrinally believe the Pope is the Anti-Christ. Both can’t be right. Neither is particularly charitable. Two sides are pretty eager to consign the other to Hell.

      • Nikki says:

        I guess to that I would say that although the Catholic Church identifies heresies, that does not mean that it is, as a result, consigning anyone to Hell. To me it seems like there is more hope on the part of the Catholic Church for everyone. Ugh, I have to be careful what I say or else I’m going to be pegged as a universalist (which I’m not…)

        And now I’m going to cut and paste a huge chunk of the Catechism because it states the Church’s position better than I can:
        Wounds to unity

        817 In fact, “in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church – for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame.”269 The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ’s Body – here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy, and schism270 – do not occur without human sin:

        Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies, and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers.271

        818 “However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.”272

        819 “Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth”273 are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.”274 Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him,275 and are in themselves calls to “Catholic unity.”276

        Toward unity

        820 “Christ bestowed unity on his Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time.”277 Christ always gives his Church the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity that Christ wills for her. This is why Jesus himself prayed at the hour of his Passion, and does not cease praying to his Father, for the unity of his disciples: “That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, . . . so that the world may know that you have sent me.”278 The desire to recover the unity of all Christians is a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit.279

        821 Certain things are required in order to respond adequately to this call:

        – a permanent renewal of the Church in greater fidelity to her vocation; such renewal is the driving-force of the movement toward unity;280

        – conversion of heart as the faithful “try to live holier lives according to the Gospel”;281 for it is the unfaithfulness of the members to Christ’s gift which causes divisions;

        – prayer in common, because “change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and merits the name ‘spiritual ecumenism;”‘282

        – fraternal knowledge of each other;283

        – ecumenical formation of the faithful and especially of priests;284

        – dialogue among theologians and meetings among Christians of the different churches and communities;285

        – collaboration among Christians in various areas of service to mankind.286 “Human service” is the idiomatic phrase.

        822 Concern for achieving unity “involves the whole Church, faithful and clergy alike.”287 But we must realize “that this holy objective – the reconciliation of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ – transcends human powers and gifts.” That is why we place all our hope “in the prayer of Christ for the Church, in the love of the Father for us, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.”288

  2. Kala Nila says:

    This is an issue that I dealt with a lot as a Protestant. Like you, I am as “I” as you can get on Myers-Briggs and I often felt less because my faith was not rambunctious and loud.
    That said, this is something that I deal with a lot when I am explaining to family and friends why I’m becoming Catholic. They insist that Catholics just go to church to check it off their to-do list. But that happens everywhere… And that doesn’t determine whether or not the Church’s claims are true.

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