Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Come as you are ...

Sorry, this post isn't about Kurt Cobain, but it made a good title!
Today I had an interesting conversation with my mother-in-law, who is visiting for the Christmas holidays and to help take care of our newborn baby.  Seeing a religious pamphlet on the table, I asked if someone had dropped it off at the door, thinking that Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons or another group that participates in door-to-door proselytism had visited (as common here in Mexico as in Canada.)  It turned out that it was the weekly Catholic bulletin which she someone had brought home from mass.

My mother-in-law is a dedicated Catholic, but very non-judgmental of others' beliefs.  The simple question was enough for her to share some of her understandings of religion with me.

"No," she answered when I asked about the pamphlet.  "This is Catholic.  The people who come around to leave pamphlets are from other groups, trying to pick up a new member here and there,"  she explained very calmly and neutrally, as though I might not have known that much.  She went on to tell me that she had heard about some of the groups and even sat down to talk to some of them, but really didn't know anything about them.  She had figured out only two differences.  One was that for most of them, baptism was their only commitment, and after baptism they really didn't do much except go to some meetings. I guess she was probably referring to the contrast between the ongoing nature of Catholic Sacraments and the common Protestant belief that once you are saved by faith no further action is necessary, even if it is beneficial; of course this is an oversimplification, but you get the idea.

(Note: You may have realized that I just jumped from references to Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons to Protestants; I've found it's common that Mexicans, especially Catholics or those who take little interest in the church to confuse and equate main-stream Protestantism with these other groups, although I'm sure that main-stream Protestants usually don't accept this connection, and perhaps not the other groups.  The connection is probably made since in their eyes, all of them are small, new churches breaking away from traditional Catholicism. To them, Presbyterians and Lutherans are as much upstarts or fringe denominations as any other group.)

The other difference my mother-in-law felt she had observed was interesting.  "In the Catholic Church," she explained, "we welcome everyone.  Whether people show up drunk, dirty, or in some other way unfit, they are welcomed to come to Mass.  Or if they're members of another church, they can still come in.  I don't think other churches do.  I think they send them away."

While I'm sure many Protestants would beg to differ, and I've actually seen cases to the contrary (a Presbyterian church in Toronto, for example, where people showed up smoking cigarettes or with their dogs), the idea itself was interesting.  For her, this seemed to be a good point, something which distinguished the Catholic Church in a positive sense.

The idea coincides with my suspicion that much of the criticism of Catholicism from those who convert away in Mexico stems from the fact that almost all Mexicans are "Catholic by default," including drunkards, thieves, and all sorts of unpleasant people.  These same people are openly allowed to attend Mass.  This gives the (false) impression that the Catholic Church condones this behavior.  (Click here for another post on this issue.) I even know Mexican gay couples who seem very dedicated to the Catholic Church, and I know for a fact that the Catholic Church doesn't condone homosexuality. (My mother-in-law made no mention of gay people, this my own observation.)

My mother-in-law gave the other side of the coin.  They do accept the drunks and others openly, and, she explained, they are often Catholic; they were baptized and confirmed.  Perhaps some of them even go to confession.  To her understanding his means they are really Catholics.  Yet they continue to live in unsuitable ways.  But to her it is good thing that they are still permitted to attend mass and count as members of the church.

I cannot comment on how non-Catholic denominations in Mexico would really react to people who show up that are very obviously out-of-line with their doctrine, but one thing I have noticed is that it seems to be a stronger Mexican sentiment that excepting people in whatever state they happen to be is a virtue, and this is possibly aside from the Catholic-Protestant distinction.  Especially when it comes to families, I've seen what might be very awkward gatherings because of people who've fallen out of favour with each other for some reason or another, including ex-couples and their new spouses together during holiday seasons.  The force of having a family together often seems to override conflict.  While it's needless to say that this doesn't mean the people talk to each other, they are together in spaces where they can can't avoid each other 100%. (The Mexican concept of personal space, or lack thereof, is another great topic.)  Even in terms of religion, I've mentioned before that my mother-in-law's family, which has converted entirely to Evangelicalism, accepts her warmly despite the fact that she is the only remaining Catholic.  Of course, not all Mexicans share this feeling of togetherness, but I believe that it's stronger here than in Canada.

Perhaps if this really is seen as a virtue culturally, for this reason it would give my mother-in-law pride that her Church demonstrates this virtue. Maybe Protestants would boast of the same quality of their congregation.  Or, on the other hand, perhaps it really is a distinguishing feature of Catholic practice.  I don't know enough to make any conclusions.

The idea of openly accepting all people as they are, even when you disapprove of their actions, is one which has had some degree of impact on my own life as well; it's an idea that I'll keep watching, and perhaps comment on again in the future.


  1. Hi Jacob! I hope your holiday is going great and that you have plenty of time with the family. A funny little note about my own family and religion... I was raised a Protestant Lutheran so obviously my parents were the same. My mom`s mom, or my maternal grandmother, was also Lutheran but of a different sect or branch than my mom. My grandmother believed that my mom was going to hell along with everyone else in the world who was not in their branch. I was really surprised at how intolerant my grandmother`s church was. Well, just an observation to share. My mom`s church was much more tolerant, but I stopped going when I was 13 so maybe they weren`t and I just don`t remember. My mom and grandmother have long since passed and my dad has made a switch-o-chang-o to a Methodist church of which I know absolutely nothing. He changed after getting remarried at 72. He is now 80. His new bridezilla was a member at this Methodist church so I actually think my dad is faking his Methodistness, In my own opinion, what I remember of my mom`s church and what little I know of my dad`s church, is that they seem snooty; closed to outsiders. Maybe I am mistaken. Well, just an observation. An old one which I have not thought much about in years, but an observation anyway.

  2. Interesting observation about your dad. I think getting re-married is often a motivation to change churches. My neighbors, however, are married as a Catholic and Mormon, and neither seems to have plans to change. Their 12-year-old daughter was explaining the complication, and the fact that she wasn't sure which one she was.

    My wife's grandpa also changed churches at a ripe old age. But his dedication to his Evangelical Church seems fairly authentic and full of zeal. His change wasn't motivated by marriage.

    In terms of those two Churches you mentioned, the question is, are they less tolerant because of their teachings, or because of their location? Is it a question of doctrine or of culture? or both?