Our high school (grades 9-12) is enormous. Terrifyingly enormous. My kids were home schooled at first, then we transitioned to a small country school. Their 8th grade class had maybe twelve kids in it. But the high school, the only one in the area, is immense. One hall stretches a quarter of a mile. Most of the kids (and there are thousands and thousands of them) don’t even use their lockers, because they’re simply too far away to be useful.
We enrolled our kids at this school because it was our only true choice. All alternatives were just too horrible to contemplate.
Once we got over the initial shock, and once we started talking to other parents, I started to feel better. The school is so very big that it’s really several schools within a school. I thought my kids would be lost, subsumed in a tide of bodies; but actually, the giant population means they have a better chance of meeting people they have something in common with than they did at our tiny school. There, if they didn’t happen to get along well with the few kids and few teachers that were there, they were out of luck, because that’s all there was. In the giant school, there are choices and choices and choices, and you can craft your own experience.
There is, of course, a standard core of classes that all the kids are required to take, and there are some experiences that all the students have in common. But within those universal experiences and obligations, they have found a sort of school-within-a-school for themselves. They agonize over their class selection and strategize with their friends over which clubs to join. They don’t always get all their needs met, and they don’t always like everything they have to do or everyone they have to spend time with; but they have consciously, deliberately set about finding the things and people they do like and need, and this is enough to help them tolerate the less pleasant parts.
The school itself is still enormous, and plenty in it is alien, unsuitable, or just plain cruddy; but their little school-within-a-school is quite good.
It’s not the worst analogy I’ve ever heard for the Catholic Church (although the day I profess my fidelity to the superintendent of schools is the day you can sign me into a psych ward). The Catholic Church is very, very large — universal, in fact. That means that, in it, there is something for everyone; and that means that, along with a core of standards and obligations, it will also contain plenty of things that aren’t suitable or useful for everyone.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t belong.
Our job as Catholics, trying to live out our faith day to day, is to deliberately and consciously seek out the aspects of our faith, and the company of other people, that nourishes us, that helps us grow spiritually, that encourages us to be faithful, and that fulfills our obligations. The Church is huge, simply immense. There are modes of spirituality that are suitable for every single person on earth. There are devotions that stimulate and strengthen some people, while leaving others cold (or even driving them away). There are saints for every possible temperament and talent and tale of woe. There are apparitions that happened all over the globe, and you can believe in all, some, or none of them, your choice.
Some Catholics are drawn to a close study of theology or philosophy; some are called to focus on medical ethics. Some Catholics encounter Christ in the soup kitchen; others find Him alone at adoration; others consistently meet Him in sacred art, in working with students, or in looking through a microscope and thinking about what it means. You can find a Church-within-the-Church, if you make the effort.
To a lesser degree, this is true for actual doctrine, too. I don’t mean that we are allowed to pick and choose which beliefs suit us, and discard the rest. I do mean that we should focus on the doctrine that makes sense to us, nourishes us, draws us closer to the heart of God, and we should cling to them as hard as we can. When we find doctrines that disturb or disconcert or baffle us, we’re not free to ignore them; but we can at least acknowledge that they do belong in the Church, as much as the easier and more intelligible doctrines belong. When we focus on what makes sense to us, it makes the less pleasant parts easier to endure.
Occasionally, we even discover that doctrine that once felt foreign other intolerable is not as strange or difficult as we once thought. That’s the effect of living under one roof with all sorts of ideas: If you get used to the idea of living there, eventually everything else that lives there becomes familiar. I’ve seen this happen time and again, in my own life and in the lives of my friends. You accept what you can, and gradually, more and more becomes acceptable. This is the working of the Holy Spirit. But it can’t happen if you refuse to even set foot inside.
And even if you still look at the Church and think it’s just too overwhelming, too complicated, too wrong about things you care about . . . what is your alternative? Where else are you going to go? The Catholic Church, for all its overwhelming chaos, variety, and weirdness, has the words of everlasting life.