Thursday, September 20, 2007

What It Means to Be Catholic

The United Church of Christ has recently launched a fun new outreach campaign in which sixteen reasons are shared for why members love their church.

Reason number one for loving the UCC? “Because it’s sort of like The Wizard of Oz – it’s about having a heart and a brain. And courage!”

What a pity that these words can’t be used to describe the Roman Catholic Church.

Do you think I’m being too harsh? Perhaps. Certainly throughout its history the Roman Catholic Church has done some great and noble things, and has undoubtedly been a light of hope, strength, and guidance for many. I think of the great Catholic “cloud of witnesses,” populated by such inspiring people like St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Bede Griffiths, Mother Teresa, Mychal Judge, to name just a few. All of these Catholic men and women embodied, in numerous and diverse ways, the healing and transforming love of God.

Yet in the area of human sexuality, I think a pretty clear case can be made that,
throughout its history, the institutional component of the Roman Catholic Church has demonstrated a lack of wisdom and compassion, has discouraged people from thinking and raising informed questions, and has dismissed and maligned courageous acts of truth telling.

As a Catholic, I lament this sad and sorry state of affairs. Yet I remain dedicated to working with others so as to bring about reform, renewal, change, and transformation – convinced, as I am, that such work is inspired and led by God’s spirit.

Recently, my friend Mary Beckfeld, a fellow worker in the holy work of renewal and reform, shared with me an article from the May 30, 2005 issue of America Magazine. Written by Fr. James J. DiGiacomo (left) and entitled “Little Gray Cells,” this article begins with DiGiacomo relating an exchange between himself and a parishioner (whom he refers to as “Virginia”) who had expressed shock that DiGiacomo had brought up the possibility of women being called to the priesthood. After all, “Rome has pronounced any discussion of the issue out of bounds.”

As DiGiacomo notes early in his article, “This dispute was not just about women’s ordination but about something much more basic. It goes to the very heart of what it means to be a Catholic, and it sheds light on the divisions that presently trouble the church and threaten to tear it apart.”

Following are excerpts from DiGiacomo’s article – one that with heart, intelligence, and courage attempts to grapple with that crucial question of what it means to be Catholic.


Virginia and I are like two ships passing in the night, and we both have millions of companions on our respective vessels that seem to be drifting farther and farther apart.

It would be well to point out, at the outset, that we are not disagreeing about some article of the Creed or other basic dogma. As in other derivative issues, like artificial birth control, capital punishment, and end-of-life care, the substance of the faith is not at stake. These questions are important but must be kept in perspective. And there should be room for serious adult Catholics to reflect, question and debate such issues without reading one another out of the church. This is not to say that one opinion is as good as another, or that sincerity is all that matters. We’re talking here about a search for truth. The question is, how should we search for the truth?

For Virginia, the answer is simple. Listen to those in authority, especially the pope and those around him, whose judgments are final and not subject to review. The reasons they give for their decisions are irrelevant; the only thing that matters is the source. Her attitude is based on genuine faith in the vicar of Christ, confident that any pronouncement emanating from the Vatican comes from God. Any attempt to question its validity is tantamount to a rejection of the faith.

But for me, and others like me, there is a problem. We have these little gray cells that persist in working even after respected authority speaks. We can’t seem to turn these cells off, and we tend to wonder, to question, to speculate, to evaluate, to criticize. In short, we can’t help thinking; and if those of us who are priests think out loud, Virginia and her friends are scandalized. She thinks our job is to tell people when to stop thinking, instead of giving bad example and continuing to speak when we have all presumably heard the last word.

In the final analysis, it’s all about loyalty. How can you refuse to give unquestioning assent and still call yourself a loyal member of the church? Isn’t the very notion of loyal opposition a contradiction in terms?

It depends. I question the wisdom of some church policies and disagree with some decisions, but I do not leave the church. I work within the community of believers, accepting and obeying regulations and procedures even as I try to do my little bit, preaching and teaching and writing, to change them by appealing to minds and hearts.

I know enough church history to realize that down the centuries, fallible church leaders have made mistakes and pursued misguided policies, many of which have in time been corrected with the help of the Holy Spirit. I am often annoyed, sometimes disappointed and occasionally angry, but I try not to lose patience and I keep the faith. And there are millions more like me.

If these divisions among Catholics were found only in the pews, it would be bad enough. But they go all the way up through the clergy and the episcopacy. Everyone knows that there are litmus tests to be passed before priests can become bishops or bishops become cardinals. And there is a disturbing development going on in the seminaries and among the priests themselves. Many of the younger clergy find their identity in professing unquestioning assent to authority, and they explicitly differentiate themselves from those older priests who have failed to purge themselves of the disease of critical thinking.

There have always been careerists and climbers among the clergy who were willing to stifle individuality for the sake of advancement, but now there is a rising generation of priests who are moved not just by ambition but by a disturbing collectivism that narrows options for service and styles of leadership. These men are interested not in asking questions but in giving answers. Questions make trouble; answers provide assurance. Inquiring minds are not only annoying; they are superfluous. All the answers we need are ready at hand, supplied by documents and pronouncements that are self-justifying and need no validation.

This movement comes at a time when many Catholics are suffering from a loss of nerve. Empty convents and rectories, half-empty churches, closing schools, contracting parishes and sexual abuse scandals eat away at our confidence. There is an understandable hunger for stability, for certainty. Unity is sought through uniformity. Catechetical materials are vigorously scanned and blue-penciled. Stimulating topics and speakers are no longer welcome in parish halls. Adventuresome theologians are not just criticized; they must be silenced. All this amounts to a kind of intellectual circling of the wagons — a skill at which the clergy have often excelled.

. . . [I]n the church today, everything is not all right. There are pressing needs to be addressed, policies to be reviewed, problems to be faced, dogmatisms to be challenged, issues to be taken off back burners and closed questions to be reopened. At such a time, being serene is just another way of being in denial.

At this moment in the life of the church, those who refuse to close their eyes, turn off their minds, and settle for slack-jawed certainty are in for some bad times. They look more and more like blue staters in a red-state church, as the true believers move into positions of power and influence and set out to silence the voices of reason.

We have been down this road before. A hundred years ago, Catholic biblical scholars were being harassed, threatened and discredited for questioning outdated, untenable interpretations of Sacred Scripture. Sixty years later, during the Second Vatican Council, they were vindicated, and their best work was endorsed as official Catholic teaching in the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), the French Jesuit paleontologist and religious thinker, never got to see his impressive body of work in print. He had to die first, so that friends and admirers might see to its publication.

John Courtney Murray, S.J. (1904-67), the U.S. theologian, fared somewhat better. He lived to see his teaching on religious liberty vindicated by the council, but only after enduring years of enforced silence imposed by mediocre minds.

In all these cases the operative force was fear – fear of confusing or disturbing the faithful. Such concern is not improper. What is mistaken is the attempt to maintain clarity by silencing voices and closing minds. In so doing, those who use these tactics create a desert and call it peace.

Today the Catholic Church stands at a crossroads. This is a time fraught with peril and possibility. There is a place for caution and prudence, but also a need for creativity and courage. A jumble of conflicting voices frightens the guardians of order, but we have more to fear from a false impression of unanimity achieved at the price of stifling the most active minds among us. It is a characteristic of many dysfunctional families that their members are unable to bring their differences to the surface and deal with them. Many noisy, quarrelsome households, on the other hand, are actually healthier.


What a great article! It contains such warmth and wisdom, don’t you think? There is nothing shrill, rhetorical, or mean-spirited about DiGiacomo’s style of communicating. Rather, he invites reflection and, certainly for me, inspires commitment to the living God proclaimed and embodied by our brother Jesus.

According to America Magazine, James J. DiGiacomo is the author of a number of books. A quick online search reveals several interesting titles, including Teaching Right From Wrong: The Moral Education of Today’s Youth, So You Do Ministry? (with John J. Walsh), Morality and Youth: Fostering Christian Identity, and Sundays with Jesus: Reflections for the Year of Luke.

Of course, the question of what it means to be Catholic is one I’ve addressed a number of times on the pages of The Wild Reed.

Basically, I’ve come to recognize (believe, I guess you could say) that our rich, diverse, and evolving Catholic tradition tells us that the Catholic endeavor is not about fearful and unquestioning obedience to a monolithic and rigid hierarchy of institutional power – one mired in the “diseased system” of clericalism and the excesses of papalism. Rather, our tradition tells us that the Catholic endeavor is all about trustful openness to God’s transforming presence within and throughout the vast arena of human life and relationships.

Our responses of integrity and love to this presence trumps unquestioning obedience to the institutional Church – the function of which seems to be more about continuing itself in its current crystallized form than about being open to the spirit of God which blows where it wills.

And as Jesus reminds us: the form profits nothing. It’s the spirit that gives life – or, in other words, heart, wisdom, and courage.

Hang on a minute! Heart, wisdom, and courage. Hey, I guess that as Catholics we can say the church is “sort of like The Wizard of Oz” after all! The potential is certainly there. I guess it’s up to us and our willingness to embody the spirit!

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Who Gets to be Called “Catholic” – and Why?
Comprehending the “Fullness of Truth”
The Two-sided Catholic Crisis
Coadjutor Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Learning Curve”: A Suggested Trajectory
Chris McGillion Respnds to the “Exacerbating” Actions of Cardinal Pell
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
It’s Time We Evolved Beyond Theological Imperialism
A Catholic’s Prayer for his Fellow Pilgrim, Benedict XVI
“Uncle Vince” is at it Again
The Old Catholic Church: Catholicism Beyond Rome


Anonymous said...

Am I wrong, or is it the Pope's duty to run the ship as Christ directs via the Holy Spirit, the Magisterium's duty is to think with Christ via the Holy Spirit, it is the presbytery's duty to preach/teach Christ and confer grace of His Sacraments via the Holy Spirit, and it is the laity's duty to conform their will to God as part of Christ's own Body via the Holy Spirit, per obedience to all the above's directives?

That, I think, is a necessary part of what it means to be Catholic. The most necessary part is to remain in a state of grace, that we might receive the Center of all Life-- the Eucharist, panis angelicus, Viaticum...and there's only one way to remain in a state of grace, and that is to conform one's will to God's, and there is only one graceworthy way for us anointed to do that: the Catholic Church.

The Lord and His 13th Apostle told us it wouldn't be easy.. Jesus and all the initial hierarchy knew that His Church was faulty for its very human aspect. Only Judas fumbled worse than did Peter, and there was trouble right from the get-go. We have to trust that Jesus knew what HE was doing.

What it means to be Catholic is to trust that this Ship isn't going down, despite the human error and even if we disagree with some things. We weren't sent to think. We are to know, love and serve God in this life, and to be with Him in the next. That is His desire, His will for us. We cannot serve our will and His, if there is any conflicting points there. His, we can trust.

Anonymous said...


Your heart is in the right place, but some "technicalities." The Bishop of Rome (Pope) is primus inter pares [first among equals]. Primacy, not supremacy! The whole episcopacy, or college of bishops, not any one bishop, marks the Church's apostolicity.

It's catholicity, as defined by the Church, is the Vincentian Canon (434): "That which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all." J. H. Newman devotes his entire Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine examining how doctrine evolves, but may never be a novation. If so, the "Immaculate Conception" proclaimed in 1861 violates the Canon, as it has been repudiated by the likes of Thomas Aquinas, certainly the Church's central theologian.

You rightly identify the Eucharist as the central corporate act of the Christian community, but the Real Presence is not by transubstantiation (terminology from Aristotle, no less), but by the Presence of the Faithful at the Table where the "Risen Lord reveals himself in the breaking of bread" (see, Luke 24:26-35). He is not the merely the Bread of Life (John 6), he is revealed in the breaking of Bread -- in the action -- of the eucharistic community, gathered around its apostolic heir (bishop) and representatives (priest, deacon). See also, 1 Cor 10:14-32 and I Cor 11:17-32. But note, the author claims, "for I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you . . ." (v.23). That's impossible. Paul was not at the Passover Supper! Paul NEVER saw the Incarnate Christ, only the "Risen Christ" in a "vision." He is not one of the TWELVE.

Finally, Jesus chose TWELVE Apostles, and ONLY TWELVE. Not 13. But your comments reveal a PROBLEM. Paul is the "13th apostle," but only by HIS claim. Not by the other apostles. Indeed, the ELEVEN elect Matthias (Acts 1) to replace Judas and reconstitute the TWELVE. So what does that make Paul? Thirteen? Like the Thirteen Tribes of Israel? No. It's TWELVE Tribes of Israel, and TWELVE Apostles. Indeed, "the twelve" is a frequent metonym for "apostles" in the Gospel.

Yes, maybe Jesus knew what he was doing, but how would Paul? The Apostolic Commissions (e.g., Mt 16"13-20, Mt 26:20-35, Mt28:16-20, Acts 1:1-11, etc.) were to TWELVE, or to the ELEVEN. Paul was nowhere near any of the Apostolic Commissions. He could NOT hand down what he received from Jesus, because he never knew the Incarnate Jesus, only a vision of the Risen Christ. If Paul had, he could not write anything as absurd as the "flesh is hostile to God." If true, then Jesus (Php 2:5-11) is hostile to the Father. Somehow, I doubt that "fit" the Catholic sense of things. Paul is riddled with confusions, which you don't get from the "catholic" epistles. No law. Yes law. No sin. Yes all sin. Paul is a loon. That "vision" would put him in an asylum today, but his writings were useful to the Church, but he most definitely is not the 13th Apostle. He not an apostle at all. So he lies.

"Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If I am not an apostle to others, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord." (I Cor 9:1-2). No. Paul is NOT an apostle, and even he has to hedge his claim. Thus, none of Paul's writings has a claim to apostolicity. They are all pastoral, which suggests Paul was ordained an presbyter or a deacon, but we have no record of either. But Paul, whatever else beside a loon, was not an apostle.

The Ecumenical Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) puts Paul where? Not among the Apostles, but among the missionaries. James, the apostle and bishop of Jerusalem, PRESIDES over the Council, not Peter, who, despite being the chief of the apostles, defers to his brother apostle in HIS OWN APOSTOLIC SEE. Even the "chief" is merely a "titular" position, not an "actual" position. The Pope claims supremacy, but no Council has. Councils have declared the Pope is primate of the college, followed by the Bishop of Constantinople. Primacy and supremacy mark another Papal Error. Thus, only the whole episcopacy safeguards the doctrine, not any one bishop.

Anonymous said...

Well, this isn't meant to be about Paul, but let me clarify: Peter is not called One of the Supreme Pontiffs! (And "apostle" -- according to a priest, means "sent.") Paul was most assuredly Sent! I once minded calling him an apostle, thinking it took something away from the others. Peter himself looked to Paul as fellow apostle, tho', per Acts and Letters, so I'll just leave that right there.. except to say if the Holy Spirit didn't want Paul calling himself an apostle, we'd not have seen him do so, and certainly more than once, for all these years..

The Twelve represent the 12 tribes.. but Jesus gave us a new commandment (per His own words! That is divinely His to do), and He (as divinely) can give us a new apostle as well, considering we adoptees would listen best to someone who wasn't only a Jew but a Gentile.

What divides Catholic from Catholic isn't His concern. It is only ours. He was quite clear with Nicodemus and many others, if it's a final clarity any of us needs. "If you do not eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you." Who but the Catholic Church with the greatest deposit of faith (ever, and ever shall be) confects Him per His specs?

One Catholic asked why we don't bow to one another, since we, too, are the Body of Christ. I said that when one of us sinlessly goes to the Cross carrying my sins, then descends to free the imprisoned to date, then rises on the third day, and then ascends into Heaven, having promised the Advocate He will send, after giving me his holy mother, family, and friends as my own and sending me forth, too, I shall consider it further.

We are but dust. He is not. He redeemed that, and we can share in that, but per His thinking, not ours. If we disagree with the Church, we are trying to just that. But His Bride won't suffer as much in this as we will.

Anonymous said...

Apostle does mean "sent." It's central to the Doctrine of Processionism.

Jesus did send TWELVE (eleven). He did not send 13. The Twelve/Apostles and the Tribes even your priest should get. It's in the every CATHOLIC commentary. Matthias replaced Judas, not Paul.

Paul is not an apostle. He himself hedges the claim. He was not "sent," because he saw Jesus in a vision, unlike the Twelve, who received Apostolic Commission (sending). Read the Apostolic Commissions. Where was Paul. He was Saul and nowhere to be found. How could he be "sent?" How could he be an apostle? Who "sent" him? A vision?

Anonymous said...


I disagree with your assesment of G.'s article. I believe that the article is in fact mean-spirited.

G's point is a simple one - you're either for critical thinking, or you're not. He says, in so many words, "If you disagree with my position, you must have a pea brain, akin to those who struggled with J. C. Murray's works - your mind is 'mediocre.'"

Are these not words of arrogance? Isn't it possible that those who hold fast to the teachings of the "institutional Church" on such matters as birth control, sexual ethics, and other controversial matters have actually thought about these issues? Is it really as simple as grey cells vs. christian zombie-dom?

I also don't understand this talk of the division between the "institutional church" and the "real" church. This is a dichotomoy explicitly attacked by the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium. The fact is that the Church, precisely in and through her broken and frail human institutions, mediates the presence of Christ. This, more than the gnostic division of the enlightened and the rest of the herd, is what makes us Catholic - we believe that Christ works in and through the sacraments, visible realities that communicate and effect divine life. The Church, that great instituation that is both divine and oh so human, is just such a sacrament.