Pamphlets and rosary beads are made available by the St. Paul Street Evangelists to passers-by in Berkeley, Calif. (CNS photo/Michele Jurich, The Catholic Voice)
It's time for Catholics to start arguing. Not with each other. They already do that. With non-Catholics. And not about politics and sports. About religion. About the big questions. About the Catholic faith.
I say this because I have just seen the seen the results of a survey about religion that was published by Pew Research. (I don't know if there is a pun in that name.) One of the questions asked was: “What do you personally think is the best thing to do when someone disagrees with you about religion?”
The choice of answers were:
1) Try to persuade the other person to change their mind.
2) Try to understand the other person's belief and agree to disagree.
3) Avoid discussing religion.
The groups surveyed were Protestant (divided by mainline, Evangelical, and historically black), Catholic, and atheist/agnostic.
The average response was 5 percent for the first choice, 67 percent for the second choice, and 27 percent for the third. In other words, two-thirds of the population is not afraid of discussing religion with someone who disagrees with them, even if the only result is simply to air their differences. Almost one-third avoid the discussion altogether. A small minority of the respondentsonly one in twentyare willing to take a stand for their faith and try to convince the other person that he or she is wrong.
How did Catholics fair in this poll in comparison to the other groups?
In fact, they had the worst showing in all categories. While 10 percent of Evangelicals and historically black denominations were in the first category, only 2 percent of Catholics were willing to try to persuade the other person to change his mind. Twice as many atheists and agnostics were willing to go to the mat. Even the dwindling mainline denominations, known for their lukewarmness about Christian doctrines, hit the average of 5 percent. Catholics? Two percent. Terrible. Pathetic.
At the other end, Catholics had the highest percentage of those who wished to avoid discussing religion: 31 percent. Even atheists and agnostics were more willing to discuss religion despite the fact they don't have one, just as they are more willing to defend their non-faith than Catholics are willing to defend their faith. Evangelicals had the best showing: only 18 percent of them were unwilling to get involved in a religious discussion.
Even the percentage of those falling into that large middle category of being willing to listen to someone else's faith if only to “agree to disagree” provides an indictment of Catholics. Of course we should listen. But we should also talk. If someone else is willing to engage in a religious discussion it is a golden opportunity to share our faith. We should not be afraid of an argument. G.K. Chesterton says the purpose of argument is to disagree in order to agree; the failure of argument is to agree to disagree. In other words, we argue because we believe we are right and we want to convince the other person ultimately to agree with us: disagreeing in order to agree. It's called winning the argument. Caring enough about the truth that we want other people to believe it.
Why believe anything unless we believe we are right? And if we believe it, why aren't we willing to say so? Why aren't we willing to say why we don't believe something else?
At the conclusion of his great book The Everlasting Man, Chesterton talks about the Gospel as the good news that seems too good to be true. “It is nothing less than the assertion that the maker of the world has visited his world in person.” God came in the flesh, he suffered in the flesh, he died a strange and gruesome death, and then he rose from the dead, and history changed utterly. The whole world started over. He embodied the greatest promise ever made: eternal life. His followers who witnessed all of this established an institution that still exists: the Catholic Church. They were entrusted to share that good news that they had been given, and the message has been passed from generation to generation for two thousand years.
Chesterton says the world is divided between those who are bringing the message and those who have not yet heard it or cannot yet believe it.
Think about that. We have the message. The only other people in the world are those who have not yet heard it or cannot yet believe it. Though we certainly live in a post-Christian culture, the fact is, most people are familiar with the basic claims of the Catholic Church. They have heard it. But they do not yet believe it. They know just enough of it to reject it, to disagree with it. Our mission is to help them believe it. That means being willing to argue with them when they disagree, to defend the faith when it is attacked, to affirm it when it is doubted, to demonstrate it when it is dismissed.
And not only do we have the message, we have what the rest of the world wants: joy, peace, clarity, the ultimate answer to the riddle of the universe. Those are the things everyone is looking for. How do we dare keep quiet about it? The world has no chance if only 2 percent of us are willing to speak up.