I have avoided writing about Catholicism lately.
The discussion in Catholic circles has become incredibly divisive. I don’t know if I just woke up one day and stumbled into it or if this is something that has become more of an issue recently or what exactly. Is it because the increased political chatter in Catholic circles related to health care reform? Truly, I don’t know; I’m open to hearing your thoughts.
I struggle with Catholic identity. Not in my own Catholic identity, no, but the forms of Catholic identity as of late. When I embraced my faith at age 12 (baptized Catholic, but unchurched until then), in my little world, there were few adjectives qualifying a person’s Catholicism. You were a practicing Catholic or a cultural Catholic or an unchurched Catholic (literally, Catholic in name only as I was for so long).
When we classify people, we push onto them all of the baggage that we associate with that term, for better or worse. If someone is liberal, no matter if we mean that term in a positive or negative, that person in our minds has all the qualities that we deem to be liberal attached to them. Same for orthodox. Same for progressive. Same for traditional. Same for modern. Same for any.
If a Catholic is a member of Opus Dei, is he liberal? Or traditional? Or what? If a priest is a Jesuit, is he orthodox? Progressive? Is it possible to know based on that information alone? I say no, not alone.
My previous employer and my parish-of-record for eight years was the University Catholic Center. It has a rap for being liberal. During some times in its history, it was pushing or exceeding boundaries. From stories that I’ve heard, I understand why people label it as such. During the years I worked there, we honestly tried to do everything right. When the GIRM changed, we changed. Yes, some in the community refused to, but we didn’t encourage this and conversations were had. I know there were times we failed. Our catechetical program wasn’t the transformative program I wanted it to be. Our campus ministers were experienced, but no one had taken specific training on Theology of the Body, so we weren’t able to effectively develop thought utilizing it. So yes, the ministry wasn’t perfect and there are always areas of growth, but we did our best to help students grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ, set a foundation of faith between them and the Church and build upon that.
Does it make me liberal for working there? For being a member of the community?
I love the liturgy. I want smells and bells. Give me incense. Ring bells at the consecration. Let’s sing Agnus Dei (actually in Latin). I want vested altar servers that have near military precision that are so well-trained and execute so flawlessly that the celebrant is never waiting or wanting for anything all while being nearly invisible to the congregation. Organ all the way. I like to sing and my Latin ain’t great, so let’s do the entrance antiphon in chant led by the choir and then sing a processional hymn. Liturgy is work of the people, but for God. Let’s make liturgy different than the everyday. Let’s lift it to a level of beauty and form that is unparalleled in today’s world.
Does it make me a conservative or a traditionalist for getting a nervous twitch when I hear the style of music being played for some Masses? Or does it make me a liberal that I’m not leading the charge against that music?
It has struck me, as of late, how much energy and time is being dedicated toward defending Catholicism from itself. From a battle of the adjectives. I am not without sin in this and have contributed to the stereotyping.
Not only are we fighting ourselves when the battle for the hearts, minds and souls of those who never darken the door of any religious house of worship is, in my opinion, more critical. Instead of throwing mud at each other, why not focus on spreading, simply, the Good News of Jesus Christ? Mere Christianity, as C.S. Lewis put it.
In some part, the political reality in this country has some part to play in this. We’ve taken a religious zeal and applied it to our political system.
What pushed me over the edge on this issue was a self-described “Note” was published in late October from the Political Council for Justice and Peace. For the purpose of this reflection, it doesn’t matter what the note said or didn’t say. It was, however, “liberal” as described by the much of the press and blogosphere.
To be fair to those I’m about to criticize, secular media got this all wrong. Drudge plastered a “Vatican Calls For Global Bank” headline on the top of his page. Reuters, via writer Philip Pullella, wrote articles “informing” readers of the same. From outside the Catholic world, it read that Pope Benedict was trying to pope-handle the creation of a global central bank.
On one end of the spectrum, Commonweal’s blog praised the document
Fr. Zuhlsdorf, a prolific blogger, immediately tore it to shreds. I wasn’t upset as his very critical stance about what it actually said, but dismissing the document as having no weight as it was published by a small little pontifical council that has no authority to publish anything binding on anyone: “I am reading through the new “white paper” (I won’t dignify it with “document”) from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and trying to keep my blood pressure down.” Although, I don’t quite follow his attempted to belittle the self-described note by referring to it as a “white paper”. To me, a note has less “weight” than a white paper, and while the Church has a document hierarchy, “white paper” doesn’t appear on it as far as I’m aware. Then again, neither does “note from a pontifical congregation”. Even looking at the definition of white paper on our friend, Wikipedia, leads me to think that a white paper would have more weight than a note. Again, I digress.
Another gem from his self-described rant:
Every once in a while the Holy See’s smaller offices, Pontifical Councils and so forth, have to put out a paper to justify their budgets and remind everyone that they take up valuable space. These documents, which do not form part of the Holy Father’s Magisterium, can deal with critical issues like how to be a safe driver [BK note: The document spilled more ink concerning care for women and children “of the street” and for the homeless than for the morality of driving.]. The dicasteries keep busy by hosting seminars on how to play sport and so forth.
He’s right in that it has no binding on anyone. The Catholic faith doesn’t change like that and rarely does the Church (these days at least) issue a definitive application of doctrine to a real-world scenario. The problem the Church faces in modern society is relevance. How can the Church remain relevant? Having priests outright dismiss items published by the Church says that, if those within the Church can find those items irrelevant, society can find the Church irrelevant too. This applies to both ends of the “conservative/liberal” spectrum.
Alright, Fr. Z didn’t throw around too much liberal-this or liberal-that (or at least enough for me to get bothered by it). Thomas Peters, writer of the blog “American Papist”, jumped on the bandwagon behind Fr. Z tearing apart the authority that the note had and launching an attack of “liberal” Catholicism, all while admitting that he hadn’t read the document nor planned to until he got around to it “around [his] many other daily obligations“.
All while we’re perfectly allowed to disagree with it, it shocked me how quickly so many in the Catholic world completely dismissed a document written, discussed and published by a number of cardinals of the Catholic Church. I was taught that if the Church, on any level, did something that I didn’t understand or agree with, I should use it to help me understand the situation at hand.
The specific line Peters used that got to me:
I’ll make this simpler: for any liberal Catholic who claims orthodox Catholics are being “cafeteria Catholics” on questions of economics, they should pledge publicly that they fully, 100% support the Church’s teaching on life, marriage and contraception right now.
There’s so much to unpack in a statement like this. Who are these liberal Catholics? How do you define orthodox? Is Peters implying that if someone disagrees with these orthodox Catholics (e.g. him and those who agree with him) that they’re liberal? Is he implying that all orthodox Catholics are fiscally conservative? Are all fiscally liberal Catholics liberal in terms of Catholicism? Fiscal liberalism equals pro-abortion, pro-contraception and pro-gay-marriage? What does any of this actually mean besides to act as fodder to fire up those who agree with him?
This sentence made me reflect upon my own language in the Catholic world. There are Catholics whose rejection or support of various things make me concerned for them, but attaching a label to them is not right. Labeling them pushes them away from me; makes them “the other”. We’re one family—both the Catholic family and the human family. We’re called to bring those on the fridges of the Catholic society closer to us and those outside inside. Stereotyping, assumptions and labeling will not help us spread the Gospel.