Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Of course there are boundaries, and it is the responsibility of the teaching Church to articulate and clarify them. It is the responsibility of the teaching Church to insure that those who teach in its name are teaching the truth - from bishops to priests to catechists in parishes.

But that's really not the concern that I'm cogitating on here. Let's see if I can clarify.

Like many of you, this has been a concern to me for a long time. Of late, it's interested me more for a couple of reasons. First, because of the more or less constant pressure on me, as a sort-of public Catholic to identify myself as a certain "type" of Catholic, and I just have no interest - none at all - in doing that. Why? Because in doing so, I am implicitly separating myself from other Catholics who may not share my label of choice. Others get into that, and even relish it. They like being a remnant, they like feeling as if they are on leading edge, that they are more enlightened than other Catholics, that they are somehow more faithful than others, but I don't, because it's just not true. People who insist on labeling themselves "orthodox" or "conservative" may take comfort in the fact that they are distinguishing themselves from Bishop Gumbleton. People who claim the mantle of "progressive" may be delighted that in doing so no one will confuse them with Cardinal Ratzinger. I don't want to let that divisive edge into my sense of spiritual identity. I don't want to paper over real problems in regard to Catholic identity, and, as I said, clarification and forceful expression of that identity is an important part of the Church's mission, but at the same time, I decline to put a label on myself because those labels are, in the real world, expressive of certain earthly loyalties, and those are not where my ultimate loyalties lie.

Secondly, this has really bugged me in the weeks since I've read Paul Elie's book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, an examination of the lives and works of Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Flannery O'Connor, and, by extension, the intellectual and spiritual lives of Catholics in the 20th century. I was struck, in the end, how non-political the religious discourse engaged in by these figures was. These were all wildly different people, with different spiritualities and emphases in their religious lives, but there was absolutely no sense that any of them were anything but simply "Catholic." Sure, we all know that Day was controversial, and bore many labels during her time, as did the Worker movement, but when you study the correspondence and article writing that went on, as these figures and others pondered the questions of the day, the fundamental sense of unity is striking. The issues they discussed were not issues of church polity, but of what it means to bring Christ into the world via the Church and via their own gifts. It was almost shocking to compare it to what passes for discourse in Catholic periodicals and literature today. Sure, there are writers who address spiritual questions - many, in fact, but when you think about the primary direction of intellectual energy among Catholic writers and, for lack of a better word, activists today, it is all about clarifying who's really Catholic from who's not. It is absolutely and totally depressing.

So why did this happen? We've been picking this apart, but I am really coming to think that the introduction of seemingly endless options into liturgical life plays a part, in that complex dynamic of lex orandi, lex credendi (or whatever..I'm in a rush, can't look up the right spelling, so correct me.) I also think that in the burst of scholarship and study and more general access to that scholarship in the past forty years, we have been confronted with the reality of doctrinal and pastoral development in the history of the Church, and I think that those who decry "dissent from the Magisterium" really need to take this seriously. You have to understand that while many of those who hold more "progressive" views may do so out of arrogance or a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of Christian faith, some others are actually holding to their views in the context of their understanding of how Church teaching has developed over the centuries. Slavery, once tolerated among Christians (read Philemon), was centuries later condemned as a sin. The Church's understanding and communication of the proper ends of marriage has developed. The Church's sense of the most beneficial ordering of civic life and government has developed. The Church's sense of exactly what it means to say that "outside the Church there is no salvation" has definitely developed over time.

Educated people know these things, even if their education is sometimes incomplete. Even barely catechized folks who lived through the changes of Vatican II saw..well...change. Tremendous change, as things that were of prime importance in 1958 suddenly were ignored in 1968. (For a good look at this from a fictional viewpoint, see David Lodge's Souls and Bodies which was originally titled, in its British release, How Far Can You Go?, a title that refers, not only to the sexual obsessions of its main characters, but to the slow dismantling of Church teaching...how far can you go before the whole thing collapses?)

So given this reality, many people see the Church, no longer as an eternally stable depository of truth that is the same from century to century, but as a human institution that tries to embody and express the will of God in each age, for each age, and what that means changes. I'm not saying they're right. I'm saying that's the way a lot of people think, and their "hopes" for changes in Church structure or teaching are grounded in their understanding of past development and shifts.

But anyway....My point is always, first to understand. That's my interest and fascination..in understanding why things happen, why people think as they do. Some don't like that because it's not as judgmental as they like, but too bad. I can be as judgmental as the next Church Lady, but I'm just as interested in understanding.

Secondly, I don't want the Church to shy away from articulating what it means to follow Christ, what it means to be Catholic. It's there in the Catechism for all to see, and like the rest of you, I want that more, not less, strongly disseminated.

But I also want to work towards focusing more on the Gospel and on what Jesus is calling us to. Oh, it's complicated, and not totally separate from the other issues (how do we know what Jesus wants?) but for me, I have just about had it with the name-calling and the judgment in Catholic public discourse and intellectual life. I want people to start talking about Jesus again. I want us to go to Mass, not to judge the celebrants or the ministers, but to focus on Christ. I want us to start celebrating Mass and leading the music in Mass, not to make ideological points, but to do nothing but point people to Jesus. I want us to sit in the pews - all of us - and see each other with the eyes of Christ.

That doesn't mean we don't hold each other accountable. At all. It doesn't mean anything goes. It means that the spirit of humility and love is at the center of everything we do and everything we say, not fear, not judgment, not labels.

So the question is...you go to Mass, and your favorite bete-noir is sitting next to you. It's Anna Quindlen. It's Madonna. It's Mother Angelica. It's Andrew Sullivan. It's Jennifer Granholm. (gulp) It's Pat Buchanan. Cardinal Ratzinger is celebrating Mass, assisted by Cardinal Mahony.

Do you share the Sign of Peace?

Do you mean it?

And...what does it mean?