Monday, July 7, 2003

Peter Nixon gets us started on Catholic Without Qualifiers

In the end, I think we have to understand that arguments about both the cognitive and practical aspects of Christian faith have been with us since the beginning. We need to find ways of having these arguments without tearing our parishes and the wider Church apart. Sticking labels on ourselves or on others usually a means of cutting off the discussion. It suggests that I don’t really have to listen to what someone else is saying because, after all, they are an EWTN-watching reactionary/a National Catholic Reporter reading dissident.

I agree with Peter on this and on his other points, and I will add a few, disconnected thoughts.

I see the growth of the need to qualifiy our Catholic identity as the result of several factors:

Information technology, and no I don't just mean the internet. I mean the printing press and everything since. Time was, your average Catholic living in your average medieval village didn't know much of what he was "supposed" to believe beyond the basics - even as those basics were hotly debated and evolved in expression over time. Arianism wasn't a divisive, destructive heresy because one Alexandrian cleric preached it. It was what it was because it spread and was passionately held onto by large chunks of folks throughout the Empire.

But despite that, it really was a simpler world with fewer "demands" on believers, if you will. Popes issued statements, councils issued edicts, theologians wrote, and there was always a segment of engaged Christians, ordained, vowed and yes, lay, who were aware and engaged in sorting out faith identity in those terms, but I think it's safe to say that in a way, it was simpler to think of oneself as simply a "Catholic" or a "Christian" in a time in which poor communication and a slower life sharply circumscribed the way most people experienced their faith - and the options within it. What I'm saying (I think) is that I have no doubt that Catholics of 12th century Spain were just as varied in their approaches to their faith as 21st century American Catholics. The difference? No means of communicating that variation to others on a broad scale, probably no concern with doing so, and in general, a sense that there was no reason to do so - a sense of one's small spot in the universe, perhaps?

Secondly, the whole notion of heresy. This is interesting and contentious, but, I think, worth talking about. There has been great diversity within Catholicism over the centuries, but there have also been attendant and regular identifications of certain currents of thought, from Arianism to Jansenism to Gallicanism to Modernism as heretical. I think the absence of any sense of "heresy" in the contemporary Church is fascinating, when you think about it and compare it to past eras, and part of the issue here.

Finally, the decline of religious orders. I'm not saying that religious orders throughout history have been loci of "less-than-Catholic" thinking, but an interesting argument can be made that the Catholic Church has handled the stresses and strains of diversity v. unity, in part, through the multiplicity of religious orders with various charisms and emphases and even competing visions.

(Please remember, I'm not making supportable historical arguments here. I'm musing. With Dora the Explorer on the television, no less.)

But that was then, this is now.

As one commentor snidely commented, are we looking for an "I'm okay-you're okay" style of Catholicism? Not at all. I have no answers, but I have concerns. I just don't like the attachment to the qualifiers instead of the attachment to Christ. Complicated, of course, by the conviction of all parties that they are putting Christ at the center - Christ as the authoritative teacher whose authority rests in the Magisterium, Christ the one who dined with sinners, Christ the judge, Christ the reconciler......

There are, indeed, great differences that separate the parishioners of St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis (Mark's favorite parish) and the seminarians at the traditional seminary in Nebraska, and perhaps the former will, at some point, go the way of Spiritus Christi in Rochester and separate themselves from the Church, but I don't know.

But until then, I am not satisfied with a politicized Catholicism, and I am looking for the moment when all of us can put away our pride and our attachment to our positions and look to Christ as our definer.