Letter to the Chronicle Re: “The Road to Hell”

This is a letter I sent to the student newspaper in response to an editorial it ran last Friday. Due to the newspaper’s space limitations, I could only send the first half of this, but I worked very hard on the whole thing and wanted it to be available somewhere.

I am writing in response to Ms. Boston Cote’s negative portrayal of the Catholic Church in her editorial last Friday (“The Road to Hell,” 03/03/2006). Perhaps her theology teachers taught her incorrectly; perhaps she simply misinterpreted them. Either way, she has perpetuated inaccurate Catholic stereotypes, and I would like to set the record straight for her and for the rest of the Duke community.

Ms. Cote first says that Catholics are a people so buried in silly rules and regulations meant to “guarantee” access to Heaven that they have little regard for the most important aspects of faith. Unfortunately, many people go through this phase at some point in their lives, but I deny that this legalism is an exclusively Catholic problem or that the Church endorses it. Traditions are meant to add depth to one’s faith experience, not to subtract from it, and if properly understood, they should not seem so silly. For instance, the prohibition against meat on Fridays of Lent stems from a long-standing spiritual tradition, shared by many faiths, of fasting to better focus one’s mind on God. These practices are merely suggestions, so if a believer considers them superfluous or negative, then he (or she) should follow his conscience. More often than not, however, Catholic traditions simply serve as a scapegoat, and other worries, such as school, or entertainment, or sloth, are keeping a person from improving his faith. (By the way, there is no set of actions which guarantees access to Heaven; God’s mercy alone saves us.)

The author also claims that Catholics believe all non-Catholics are going to Hell. She contradicts this statement in the very next paragraph, in which she depicts the path to Heaven as a cosmic wristband line: practicing Catholics get in first, then non-practicing ones, then Protestants, then other religious people, and so on and so forth. Neither of her visions is correct. God does not put people into demographic boxes for sorting. He judges each person on the quality of his soul alone. Indeed, the Church teaches that practicing Catholics will have a harder time passing God’s test than the rest of mankind does, because to whom much is given, much is expected.

This takes me to a larger point. Ms. Cote seems mortified of the common Catholic practices of evangelization and religious education. I do not share her sentiments. Her professor who prayed for the conversion of Jewish people did something perfectly natural, as natural as a Jew praying for the conversion of Christians to Judaism or a Muslim praying for the conversion of Hindus to Islam. If you believe that something is true, you will want your brothers and sisters (and sons and daughters) to understand this same truth so they will no longer live in ignorance. They can decide for themselves whether they agree with you, but there is no good reason to stay silent. Nor should parents refrain from teaching religious beliefs to children. It’s no more harmful than “indoctrinating” them with beliefs about anything else, from “Don’t talk to strangers” to “The earth revolves around the sun.” (What could a child do with a systematic proof of either of these edicts? He takes them on faith.)

The author mentions several incidents from her childhood to explain why she is no longer a practicing Catholic. If these are truly the reasons for her separation from the community, she would be well-served to distinguish between the actions of these few Catholics and the Church as a whole. Catholics can be cruel; they can be legalistic, and they can be hypocritical. (I have been all of these things.) Yet, they can also be generous, compassionate, and heroic. Consider the works of the many Catholics who have devoted themselves to the poor and needy, such as Franciscans, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, Catholic Relief Services, and Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Consider the Church’s defense of human rights worldwide. On our own campus, Catholics run mission trips to other countries; serve at elementary schools, nursing homes, and soup kitchens; buy coats and clothing for the poor; help to run 58-hour basketball marathons for charity…the list goes on. Such actions do not spring from nowhere. They are the product of a serious commitment to the demands of faith. Perhaps if Ms. Cote looked at the Church with fresh eyes, she would not be so willing to tear it down.

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