Wednesday, April 03, 2002

Labels, Categories, and Catholicism

Following up on things I've alluded to below...

As I've developed my understanding of Catholicism, I've come to the realization that many of the terms people use to identify and situate themselves and others within the Church are woefully inadequate and in many cases more harmful than helpful. Let me explain...

One must begin by recognizing two things about the Catholic Church: 1. The Church sees truth as absolute and timeless; what was true yesterday remains true today, tomorrow, next year, and next millenium; 2. The Church sees herself as being charged by Christ as guardian and teacher of those truths which pertain to religious and moral issues.

What this means is this: to be a Catholic is to hold to these two things (among others, of course), and therefore to be a Catholic is to hold to whatever the Church teaches. Where the Church is silent, we are free to hold a number of opinions (e.g. the relationship between grace and free will; see the 16th-17th century controversy between the Jesuits and Dominicans). We are also free to hold to a number of opinions and work to change (or maintain) the status quo on those things which are not doctrinal in nature, e.g. the language of the liturgy and priestly celibacy.

Where the Church has spoken, however, a Catholic gives assent of the mind and will; this is seen in Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium which in article 14 describes the Catholic faithful this way: "They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops" (emphasis added).

Unfortunately, all too many people today are Cafeteria Catholics: they pick and choose which doctrines they wish to believe and which they don't, and yet appropriate to themselves the label Catholic, although the above quote from Vatican II indicates that to be a Catholic means to accept the entire system of the Church.

The problem comes in at this point: this sort of person considers themselves to be a "liberal Catholic", and refers to those who assent to the Church's teachings as "conservative Catholics", and the latter all too often accept and use the same terms. This conveys the idea that one can willingly and consciously reject doctrines taught by the Church and still be called Catholic, that they hold to one "brand" of Catholicism among others. According to the entire history and teaching of the Church herself (as well as common sense), this simply is not possible.

Lest anyone think that labels are a problem confined to "liberals", though, let me point out the following: people who are self-described as "traditionalist Catholics" or even "true Catholics" (check out this website) are just as guilty of buying from the cafeteria (I am often more frustrated by these sorts than by the opposite, in fact, as they seek to make their own disciplinary preferences normative for all Catholics); to be Catholic requires at a minimum what the previous quote from Lumen Gentium tells us, which includes union with the Pope and bishops.

In other words, any authentically "real" Catholic is an orthodox Catholic: one who holds to all the teachings of the Catholic Church. Let there be no confusion, though: orthodoxy is not a point, but is a range; as stated above, there is room for a number of opinions, on those things which the Church has not settled and on disciplinary matters.

All of this is spelled out in a way much better than mine in Cardinal Francis George's article "How Liberalism Falls the Church" in the Nov. 19, 1999 issue of Commonweal After pointing out the inadequacies of "liberal" and "conservative" Catholicism, he argues for what he aptly terms "simply Catholicism". I highly recommend that anyone who has made it to this point in my ramblings read the Cardinal's article, or at least the "cliff notes" version provided by Fr. Bevil Bramwell.

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