March 22, 2022 // Perspective

What kind of Christian do others think we are?

When Pope Francis announced that the next world Synod of Bishops would convene on the topic of synodality, a lot of eyebrows were raised. A synod on synodality seemed redundant, a bit of abstract navel gazing when so many more tangible problems beset the Church.

So when the pope asked every diocese and major Catholic institutions to conduct their own listening sessions, and to include the input of those disaffected from the Church as well as those highly committed souls who are the backbone of any parish, some eye rolling followed.

Yet Pope Francis is serious in wanting a church that listens as well teaches. If the church is both “mater” (mother) and “magistra” (teacher), he wants a bit more of the mother at this stage, listening to those who feel left out or excluded.

Listening, especially to one’s critics, is difficult, however. In today’s culture war environment, we feel we have to fight tooth and nail for issues like abortion, conscience protection or an end to the death penalty. Listening feels to some a bit like surrendering.

So leave it to the Episcopalians to do some listening for us.

A survey, released on March 9 and conducted by the Episcopal Church, asked all sorts of Christians what their impression was of other Christians. And it asked nonbelievers what they thought of Christians as well.

Not surprisingly, Christians generally gave themselves high marks as “compassionate,” “loving” and “respectful.” (Interestingly, Catholics graded us a bit lower than Protestants.) However, non-Christians and nones (those without religious affiliation) gave their highest marks for “self-righteous,” “hypocritical” and “judgmental.”

The nones were the harshest of all in their grading of Christians, which is unfortunate, since almost 30% of Americans count themselves as nones.

Other questions asked in the survey suggest that Christians, including Catholics, have a rather selective knowledge of Jesus’ teachings, and that non-Christians and nones think Christians do not do a good job of representing the values and teachings of their founder.

Now all of this can be debated. If Christians don’t know the breadth and depth of the Lord’s teachings, others may know less.

And surely some of those hot-button issues that we’ve been fighting so fiercely about may explain “self-righteous” and “judgmental.” Sex abuse scandals may explain “hypocritical,” but so do other political positions Christians – fairly or unfairly – are identified with.

It would seem, however, that we have a bit of a communications problem. How do we effectively communicate the principles of our faith and our belief in the risen Lord to our own, first of all, and then how do we communicate to the world beyond our Church doors?

Some folks may think we need to jettison the hard stuff. That would certainly be easier in the short term, but that’s not what our faith calls us to do. And it must be noted that many younger Christians and would-be Christians are looking for something firm to hold on to. Wishy-washy never really appeals except to wishy-washy people.

I think the real challenge, the one where unfortunately our communications efforts and our example may be found wanting, is in the Lord’s invitation: “Come and see.” Can other Christians and non-Christians see our faith in how we live and how we love? Are we quicker to judge than invite? Are we quicker to preach than to exemplify?

Every parish has its saints, but we do a pretty good job of hiding our lights under a bushel. Maybe the more practical question is: Do people see those lights shining when they step inside our parishes?

I think Pope Francis wants to know the answer.

Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at [email protected].

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