If I've learned one thing about last week's "responsible and generous parenthood" brouhaha, it's that people really don't like it when their ox is the one being gored.
Not an especially new phenomenon in human behavior, I know. But when the ox is the notion that one type of Catholic family, one style of Catholic family life, is somehow sacrosanct, above even completely abstract discussion if that discussion has the remote possibility of offending the type of family in question, the goring can get pretty--well, gory, for lack of a better word.
Because we all know that large Catholic families are the right sort of Catholic family. We all know that all large Catholic families are holy, the same way that skirt-wearers are holy and veil-donners are holy and homeschoolers are holy and secular Franciscans are holy and daily-Mass-goers are holy and daily-rosary-sayers are holy and soup-kitchen volunteers are holy and students at [fill-in-the-blank] Catholic college are holy and...
You know where this is going, right?
I know some wonderful large Catholic families (and some wonderful smaller ones, too). And one of the things that makes them so wonderful is that if I ever suggested out loud that the circumstances of their lives make them models of holiness they'd slap me down, or at least grumble something about a particular devil taking up the flank position.
Because holiness isn't about externals. It never is. It never was. It never will be.
Some of the things in my list are special calls. Some are things any of us could do, if the circumstances permitted. All of them are ways of living or habits or practices that, if God works with us, may help lead us along in the right direction toward holiness, a goal toward which we should all be striving each day of our lives.
But not one of them is proof of holiness. Not one of them permits us to look at the people in question and say, admiringly, "Wow, you must really be holy." Not one of them absolves the people who are doing or living this way from the duty to work out their salvation in fear and trembling, as we must all do in this earthly vale of tears.
We might be tempted sometimes to think, for instance, that a mom we know who is expecting her twelfth child is really, really holy--but we don't know if she is or not; and if she is trying to reach holiness, the closer she gets, the more she, like all who approach sainthood, will see all her little tiny faults magnified as huge obstacles to Our Lord's presence, and spend more time in prayer and penance the closer she gets to God. The last thing she wants to hear is that we think she's holy, especially that we think so based solely on the number of children she has borne.
We might also be tempted to think that a veil and skirt wearer is holy, or a daily Mass attendee, etc. just because of how they appear to us. But none of those things, good though they may be, is proof of holiness, which is a quality of the interior soul, not the exterior life.
If you read about a young nun, for instance, who followed the rule of her convent but slowly became dissatisfied, wishing for reform, to become part of a movement of reform that was then becoming an ever more prevalent voice sweeping through Christendom, you might almost be tempted in your mental image of this unknown lady to start posing her for holy cards. That is, until you realized that the woman you were reading about was Katharina von Bora, who ran away from her convent and became the wife of the Protestant leader Martin Luther. On externals alone we can't judge; indeed, there's nothing to stop us from praying that both Katharina and her husband drank of God's mercy by the time of their deaths, and that their souls have not been lost. But it's easy to start reading the story of a young nun and automatically supply the halo, gilt border, and prayer on the back, so to speak, before you've even gotten to the third sentence on the page.
The dangerous part is that we tend to think this is a good thing, this premature canonization of all those whose lives meet or display certain external criteria. But it isn't. We don't help each other grow in holiness if we keep insisting that some among us need no further growth in this life, and we don't do people any favors by building little shrines and lighting candles in their general direction instead of joining hands in prayer with them, understanding that they, too, struggle to be good, and ceasing to value the externals of their lives so very disproportionately.
We can admire and respect those who tackle difficult challenges cheerfully, or show by their unfailing charity, example of inoffensive mildness, and unwavering love how we, too, may be. But it's a bit much to set up a camera and start asking them to pose for holy cards; those out there whose holiness would astound us if we knew of it seldom advertise this interior reality to the world.