I know quite a few people who have been taken aback by the way Pope Francis challenges everyday Catholics along with priests, religious, and the hierarchy. It seems unfair when we compare what seem like harsh challenges with the tender way he reaches out to those on the fringes of the Church.
Although it can irritate me sometimes when I feel confronted by Pope Francis’ words, I can also understand why he chooses to speak in this way. Evangelism is front and center of this pope’s pontificate and he is a natural evangelizer. And, like Jesus, he knows how to do it. The people “on the inside,” those who should know better, always receive what seem like harsher critiques from Jesus, while others get gentler treatment. It’s the difference between how a father treats an estranged child and how he treats the child who knows he should listen to his father’s advice.
So, the reason Pope Francis points these things out is first of all, because he cares about our souls. He does not want the Church to be full of “whited sepulchers” walking around looking like they are doing all the right things, but inside full of “dead people’s bones” (Mt 23:27). And second of all, he knows that one of the most powerful antidotes to people leaving the Church is the conversion and holiness of the people in the pews.
Because “whited sepulchers” are really not convincing evangelists.
As a former atheist, I can tell you that God used many holy people to bring me back into the Church. But the devil also used people with traces of “toxic faith” to push me away. And sometimes, those people were one in the same. We are all compromised in our ability to evangelize well because we are sinners. And we all have traces of a toxic faith within us. If the devil can’t get us out of the Church, he tries his best to poison our faith life.
Here are some signs of toxic faith that I have noticed (and to be clear, this is not about pointing fingers but an examination of conscience for us all, including myself):
1. The Joyless Catholic: Are you unable to laugh with others about issues of faith or just let things go? Is your faith persnickety, scrupulous, and nitpicky more than it is generous, joyful, and open? One test is to consider the comments or posts you make on social media about religious topics. Are they generally critical and have a bitter tone? Do you play the role of “Catholic police officer” more than the role of “Catholic evangelizer”? Do you follow people on social media who are evangelizers or police officers? A faith that is not infused with the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit will not attract others to the light of Christ.
2. The Democrat/Republican Catholic: Do you have a hard time talking about faith without bringing up politics? I believe this is something that really pushes young people away from the Church (especially in the United States where neither party adequately represents the Catholic worldview). People who obsess about politics, make villains of political figures, and speak about their ideological opponents in a dehumanizing way do a disservice to their own spiritual life as well as that of others. Politics are important, but when it becomes level with our religious concerns or causes us to act in uncharitable ways, things are out of balance. Healthy detachment from politics (while remaining involved) is a sign of a Christian who believes and trusts in a powerful God.
3. The Pharisaical Catholic: Is faith to you about duty and “doing” more than it is about inner transformation? When you talk about faith do you talk about “outward” things more than about conversion and prayer? This is not necessarily toxic but it can quickly become toxic. When prayer and relationship are not the center of our faith life then the devil will try to make exterior things the focus. Concentration on these outward concerns can quickly make us proud and judgmental which impedes a meaningful relationship with God and charitable interactions with others.
4. The “Us vs. Them” Catholic: Can you have a conversation about faith without mentioning the words “liberal” or “conservative” or one of the many other labels we use to disparage those we deem unfit to be Catholic? Do you regularly talk about the people or groups you consider to be your ideological enemies? If our faith life has become focused on other people who are doing it wrong, then we are doing it wrong. If there is a divisive, critical spirit beneath much of what we do or say in religious circles, then we can be pretty sure this does not come from the Spirit who unifies. Unity is a sign of something greater, something supernatural. When we live in the spirit of unity (while still speaking the truth in charity) it helps people believe in God because it is so contrary to worldly thinking (John 17:20-21).
5. The [Insert Pet Issue Here] Catholic: Do you spend more time thinking about one issue of the faith than your relationship with Jesus? God asks us to work for justice in many different areas. But he does not ask us to make any issue of charity, truth, or justice, no matter how important, the focus of our lives. There is nothing that should have greater focus than our relationship with God. Whether this is true in our lives is apparent in how we live out our passion for the issues God puts on our hearts and in how we treat others, no matter who they are.
Did you recognize yourself in any of these descriptions?
If so, don’t despair (or kill the messenger)!
Take a moment now to pause and ask God for help in this area. Bring these things to confession the next time you go. Ask trusted friends for advice. And finally, trust that God is at work in you, just as he is in each of us, helping to purify our faith so that we can become more like him.
We just need to remain with God, and he’ll do most of the work!