For centuries, the Catholic Church has held to a rather strict doctrine: extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. For non-Latin speakers, “Outside of the Church, there is no salvation.” For Catholics of a certain age, it was a statement that was uttered often and defined the way Catholics related to non-Catholics, treating people of other faiths with respect, but sorrowfully looking upon their souls as lost.

And then all of the sudden, the phrase disappeared from our common language. Now, you would almost never hear such a statement spoken in a mainstream Catholic Church. It just seems so… politically incorrect, right? In a world where everyone is free to choose what to believe and can’t be judged by it, we would never say something so arrogant.

Right?

Well… it might surprise people that the Church has not abandoned this long-held stance. In fact, it has reaffirmed it even after the Second Vatican Council and up through Pope John Paul II’s papacy. If you read the Catechism, you will find this stance, quite literally “on the books.”

And yet, as some in the Church—responding to what they perceive to be a softening of the Church due precisely because of a desire to be politically correct—are bringing back this language in their everyday speech, it is important to know the history of such a phrase and how it doesn’t mean the same thing today as when it was first uttered. As Catholics, we may still hold to the teaching, but the teaching is much more nuanced than what is understood at face value.

The Church’s Moral Standards Are Too High

“They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait
Some say it’s better, but I say it ain’t
I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints
The sinners are much more fun
You know that only the good die young.”

Read any line of Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” and you’ll find the song’s simple message ringing through: The Church’s rules are stuffy and useless, so give in to carnal desires and have fun. By his own admission, “The point of the song wasn’t so much anti-Catholic as pro-lust,” but it’s also hard to see the difference in this case. Joel painted Catholicism (or maybe the Church in general) as an institution disconnected from the world, out of touch with people’s reality, and burdensome to normal living.

But this sentiment is not limited culturally Jewish New Yorkers with a lot of experience living around Catholics. No, this is an argument that even some Christians have made: The Church’s moral standards are too high. Setting up rules and regulations completely disconnected from the lived reality of people today, the Church, some say, expect what is impossible when what it should do is “lower the bar” a bit and set more attainable goals. Why set the ideal as the bar when everyone is going to fall short?

As you can imagine, I am not one of these people. For me, the Church’s moral standards are exactly where they need to be because they point us to exactly where we need to be going: the kingdom of heaven.

When I went to college, I was really excited about my faith. I was proud to be a Catholic and I wanted other people to know about it. There was only one problem: I knew very little about my faith. (Small detail…) Living in South Carolina at the time—a place with fewer Catholics than those who do not like Catholics—I found my faith challenged on a regular basis.

“Why do Catholics worship Mary?”

“Catholics aren’t real Christians.”

“The Pope is a made up power ploy.”

“That’s not in the Bible.”

I needed to learn about my faith. I needed to learn how to defend my faith. Luckily for me, our Church has a long history of defending itself from outside attacks, dating all the way back to the second century with people like Justin Martyr. And even though things didn’t exactly work out for him (…) his work was instrumental in keeping the faith alive at a time when attacks were not only verbal but also violent. Rather than responding with violence, Apologists, as they were called, defended the faith with intellect and charity, allowing the faith that they believed in to speak for itself and stand up against criticism.

These “apologies” continue today, although in varied forms. In its best form—that which I encountered in college—truth and charity work together, sharing what we know to be accurate about our faith without compromising on the life we live, engaging our enemies while also loving them. This form of apologetics defends without being defensive, knowing that if something is true it will stand up to questioning, and more importantly, recognizing that sometimes the most powerful argument we have is not with our mouths or intellect but with the way we treat others.

Unfortunately, this is not the only form of apologetics known to our Church. Sometimes, as sad as it sounds, we find those in the Church that choose truth or charity, picking one without the other. Armed with the truth of our faith, they treat those who do not believe as we do as enemies, dangerous individuals that need to be defeated at all cost. While the content of their speech is (often) accurate, the speech itself fails to live up to the expectations of the Gospel; as we say, what you say is not as important as how we say it, and sometimes apologetics undermines its truth by saying it with hate.

But this is not the only problem we need to be aware of with modern apologetics, which is the subject of this week’s video.

When I went to college, I was given a helpful study tip: study and relax in distinct places and never mix the two. The thinking is that your body becomes accustomed to a certain environment and will train itself for a specific task, i.e. you sleep in bed and so you begin to get tired when you get into bed. When environments are mixed, so too do our habits. Studying in bed will make us more inclined to fall asleep while trying to learn, or worse, less inclined to sleep when we want to. By only sleeping in bed and only working at the desk, keeping tasks in a specific and distinct location, one will be able to focus on each better.

We certainly can and have applied this principle to our prayer lives as well. In places like chapels, cathedrals, and monasteries, we create environments that fosters prayer and contemplation. They are generally quiet but acoustically resonant, beautiful yet tasteful, simple yet thought-provoking, and comfortable yet deliberate. They are not the place to eat lunch or watch television, but places to experience what is holy. Over time, they become places of refuge, sources of inspiration for our faith; places that we celebrate the sacraments, gather for communal prayer, and find peace. In other words, these are the places that we find God. These are holy places.

Ah… an interesting concept. Holy places. What do we mean by that? What does it imply? We are absolutely correct in saying that such places are fountains of God’s love and mercy, that God can be found in these places. We know this to be true. But does that mean that God cannot be found other places? Are there places that God cannot be found?

That is the topic of this week’s reflection, looking at what we would describe as the “sacred” and the “profane.” While there is certainly some benefit to applying our common study tip to our prayer life, we have to be careful not to be so quick to cut off God’s ability to reach us when and where we are.

It is often said that, in our world today, more people than ever are “spiritual but not religious,” that they have a sense of God, want to live in communion with others, and do what is right, but have no interest in conforming to the norms of an institutionalized religion. You probably know quite a few people like this.

But what about those people who are “religious but not spiritual”? Now, admittedly, I’ve never actually met someone who identified as such, but I interact with them on a regular basis. People who are concerned with rules and tradition, who attend prayer services and identify with a particular congregation, but have no sense of the sacred, prayer life, or foundation in Jesus Christ for what they do. You probably know quite a few people like this as well.

In this week’s video, I want to subtly address this issue I encounter far too often in the Catholic Church: people can come to church their entire lives without knowing Jesus. As hard as it is to believe, it is very true. People come to mass each week for many reasons and it’s not always for spirituality or a relationship.

I think that this is a problem worth addressing.

Having posted this video a few days ago, I have had some time to hear some feedback and reflect on my own words, and I’d like to offer a few further thoughts. (Please pause this blog post and watch the video before continuing. I’ll wait.)

In one of my more provocative lines on Breaking In The Habit history, I say, “I would much rather people be in love with Jesus in a Protestant Church than wasting away in a Catholic Church. What matters is Jesus Christ, not your congregational affiliation.”

Yeah, I said those words. And after thinking about it more… I stand by it.

Despite what some have said in the comments, I do not want people to leave the Catholic Church; even less so do I think that all Christian Churches are created equal and that it doesn’t matter what you believe. I am very proud of my Church and believe that it holds the fullness of Truth, that it is the sacrament of salvation. I would love for every person in the world to be a practicing Catholic!

But the reason for this is not so that we can all bear the same name; it’s not because I think the way we worship, our stance on Mary or the saints, or the pope himself are constitutive for our salvation. Those things are great, but they are not why I want everyone to be Catholic. The reason that our Church is amazing—and truly the only reason necessary—is Jesus Christ. Our Church is endowed with the special mission of proclaiming his life, death, and resurrection, of caring on the work of the Kingdom. That is what makes our Church significant.

And so, back to my comment, if people are attending the Catholic Church and not living this mission, and if said people are able to live this mission within the bounds of another Church, growing closer to Jesus in holiness through love and sacrifice… you better believe that I would rather they have the option with Jesus in it. Jesus is what matters, not the congregational affiliation, and we do ourselves a great disservice to the kingdom of God when we think that we are automatically saved by being Catholic or that Jesus is unable to save those unlisted in our baptismal registry. St. John the Baptist admonished the people, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father'” (Mt 3:9). He is speaking to that mentality in us.

Let’s not make the same mistake, okay? Let’s not be like the hypocrites in Jesus’ time who confused what was important:

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If one swears by the temple, it means nothing, but if one swears by the gold of the temple, one is obligated.’ Blind fools, which is greater, the gold, or the temple that made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If one swears by the altar, it means nothing, but if one swears by the gift on the altar, one is obligated.’ You blind ones, which is greater, the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?” (Mt 23: 16-19)

What is more important, the institutional church or Christ who makes the Church holy? Going to mass and receiving the Eucharist without any faith at all, leaving us unchanged, or attending a Protestant service on fire for the Lord in such a way that it causes us to be transformed into different people? Being a Catholic who doesn’t know Jesus or a Protestant who joins him to build up the kingdom?

I honestly hope that the latter choice is always the answer, but more than that, I hope that we Catholics will be unsatisfied with both choices. For those who got upset with my supporting the latter choice—saying that being a Jesus-following Protestant was better than a spiritually dead Catholic—I hope you see my real point in it all: I don’t want either of these things. As a Catholic minister, and without any disrespect to my Protestant and Orthodox brothers/sisters in Christ, I want for everyone to be a Jesus-following, spiritually nourished, on-fire disciples of Jesus Christ… within the Catholic Church. For me, that’s the endgame and nothing less.

I want Jesus, and I want his Church.

But short of that, in a world in which our Church fails to bring Jesus to people, I want people to be where they can find Jesus. Can we do that? Can we be that place? Can we make Jesus our highest priority, our identity as Christian first and foremost, our call to discipleship over our call to parish registration?

I hope so, and that’s my message this week.