Michael Novak, on page 43 of No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, uses a wonderful analogy:
In an inn in the little village of Bressanone (Brixen) in northern Italy, there is a fresco painted many centuries ago, whose main subject is an elephant, by a painter who had obviously never seen an elephant. Clearly, he was trying to represent on the wall what someone had tried to tell him about elephants. He painted a large, heavy horse with unusually floppy ears, and a nose considerably longer than that of an average horse – but still a horse’s long nose.
We used to smile at that fresco, and similarly the Christian reader will smile at the primitive fresco of Christianity painted by Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris. These atheists miss the real thing by a country mile.
Novak’s insight here is useful in a number of contexts, and I hope you’ll permit me to play with the imagery he conjures for a few discussions more specific to Catholicism.
(1) One of the first things I noted was that it’s helpful in describing the inadequacy of the written and spoken word: the positive need for Tradition, for beauty and art, and for Sacred Liturgy in describing Catholicism. Think about it this way: if you had a list of characteristics of elephants, even a perfectly accurate one, but had never seen an elephant, you’d be as much at a loss as the fresco painter was. Seeing the elephant in action is absolutely necessary to see how the pieces are supposed to fit together. This is, I think, a good refutation of what’s been called Tradition 0, which embraces the Bible completely apart from the Church. Of course it leads to an unlimited number of heresies and false beliefs: they’ve got all of these disassembled pieces of Christianity from the Bible, with no pictures showing what the whole Thing looks like in practice. Taken at “face value” (this is going to be a terrible pun), an elephant’s face can be described as having tusks and a trunk extending from the middle of the face, immediately above the mouth. An athiest reading this might proclaim, “A-ha! A contradiction! Elephants don’t exist!” while a Protestant might develop sola tuska (“tusks alone”) or sola trunka (“trunks alone”), with each side supporting their position by pointing to verses supporting the existence of tusks or trunks, and they can’t both be immediately above the mouth, right? But a Catholic, seeing the elephant in action, can see how it is that the tusks and trunk can coexist as peacably as faith and works, or faith and reason, or Scripture and Tradition, or predestination and free will.
(2) The image is also good for the precise purpose Novak uses it for: refuting the New Atheists. When you understand Catholicism as a set of rules, you misunderstand Her completely. Rather, Catholicism, like all healthy forms of Christianity, must be understood as relationship with God and neighbor. The rules arise only to set the norms for the relationship. Human relationships have rules like, “Obey your mom,” “don’t cheat on me,” “no hitting,” and so forth. You don’t acquire the relationship by following the rules; you acquire the rules by entering the relationship. They’re properly a burden of love.
This sentiment is true not only of athiests’ attempt to understand Christianity in general, but non-Catholics’ attempt to understand Catholicism in particular. If you come from a background with explicit rules and norms, like Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, or Orthodox Judaism, Catholicism seems less imposing, I think, than if you come from a background where you think you’re free of binding rules and norms of behavior, whether that background is atheism/agnosticism, secularized Judaism, or many of the strains of Protestantism.
Of course, even those who fall within this second camp have binding rulse and norms of behavior, they just don’t bother to write them into a list. I recall a scene from the TV show “the Office,” where Michael says to his ex-girlfriend, “You cheated on me when I explicitly asked you not to?” The joke, of course, is that you don’t need to explicitly ask someone you’re exclusively dating not to cheat on you (and, in fact, it’s sort of weird to), and the fact that his anger stemmed from the fact he’d asked it expressly was strangely misplaced. It’s just something both parties implicitly understand to be an unstated rule governing their relationship.
But Catholicism does expicitly ask us not to cheat in our relationship with God. And She goes further, specifying the sort of conduct which would constitute cheating. But as with everything She does, these rules are intended to aid us. We’re required to attend Mass every Sunday. If we understood fully what was happening in the Mass, I wonder if we wouldn’t have to be dragged out of church instead of into it. We’re required to repent and to go to Confession after committing mortal sins, which amounts to being told we aren’t allowed to go to Hell. We can go to Hell, sure, but we have to break the rules to be able to get there. All of these rules may seem like a tangle of red tape to an outsider, but they’re really yellow tape: that “Caution: Keep Out” kind. Or more accurately, they’re the webs which constitute our safety net. But to those not within Catholicism, things don’t always look that way, and I think Novak keys in on one reason why: it’s a flawed fresco they’re seeing.
(3) Finally, it’s helpful to remember that for many non-Catholics, their exposure to Catholicism comes from nominal Catholics and ex-Catholics… and almost all ex-Catholics were nominal Catholics to begin with: that is, I know of a ton of ex-Catholics but none, to my knowledge, who could (a) accurately present the Church’s teachings on a broad range of issues, and (b) believed those teachings, as Catholics. The fresco painted from relying on these people’s descriptions of the elephant Catholicism is nigh upon unrecognizable to those who have seen the real elephant. This should be remembered for two reasons.
If you’re not a Catholic, charity should compel you to prevent passing judgment on the Church until you hear it from the elephant-horse’s mouth: find the Church documents or statements on the issue, talk to Catholics you know to be good Catholics about what it means, etc. Just as you wouldn’t want to be understood entirely by what your exes claimed about you (or those you’d had a falling out with, generally), that’s not a fair view of the Church, either. Hear what Her loving children say of Her.
And if you are a Catholic, charity should compel you to recognize that Catholicism seems strange from outside, and that misstatements about the Church’s teachings or misrepresentations about Her practice are often accidental and well-meaning. Centuries of false claims (both accidental and malicious) can make it very confusing for even the most charitable of non-Catholics seeking to understand what the Church believes. Even those falsehoods begun maliciously aren’t always spread maliciously, and much gossip is unintentional. So be patient and charitable so that they can see the true Catholicism through you.