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Posted July 17, 2007

Struggle to reassert traditional
Catholic identity scores two wins

All Things Catholic
by John L. Allen, Jr.

In the forty-plus years since the close of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), two schools of thought have circled one another in Catholicism about how to interpret what the council meant. For lack of a better vocabulary, what we might call the "change" school sees Vatican II as a significant innovation in Catholic life, ushering in a new period of reform in liturgy, doctrine, and pastoral practice. The "continuity" school instead stresses a smooth continuum between Vatican II and previous councils.

In early July, the continuity school notched up two big wins.

On July 7, Pope Benedict XVI released his long-awaited motu proprio liberalizing permission for the pre-Vatican II Mass, insisting that the council never meant to suppress the earlier rite. On July 10, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith put out an interpretation of the famous Vatican II statement that the church of Christ "subsists in" the Catholic church, rather than simply "is" the Catholic church. Ecumenists had long taken this phrasing as a recognition that no existing church, including Catholicism, can claim to be the one true church, but the congregation rejected that reading. Instead, the congregation said, the phrase was intended to show that all the elements instituted by Christ endure in the Catholic church.

In addition to Catholics troubled by the resuscitation of the Tridentine Mass, many Jews were offended by the fact that a prayer for the conversion of Jews was not deleted from the Good Friday liturgy. Meanwhile, many Protestants have called the declaration on the "true" church hurtful, though Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, who heads the Department for External church Relations of the Russian Orthodox church, welcomed it: "For an honest theological dialogue to happen, one should have a clear view of the position of the other side," he said. Kirill said he prefers its blunt tone to "so-called church diplomacy."

The logical question many reporters and ordinary Catholics alike are asking is, "Why now?" What's prompting the Vatican to re-open such sensitive questions?

My answer is that these moves cannot be seen in isolation. They are part of what I have identified as one of the ten "Mega-Trends" in Catholicism today, which is the reassertion of a strong sense of traditional Catholic identity.

In light of this week's events, it seemed a good time to share a selection from the chapter of my upcoming book, Mega-Trends in Catholicism, devoted to Catholic identity. I hope it provides some context to understand what's happening.

* * *

Anyone who regards the statement, "I'm a card-carrying Catholic" as a mere metaphor clearly has never met Marian Mulhall.

An advertising and communications executive in Dublin, Ireland, Mulhall decided in 2005 to combine her professional skills with her commitment to the church. Her aim is to develop programs to support priests, but first she had to come up with a product that would generate revenue. Thus she began pitching what she calls the "Catholic Identity Card." For $44 individually, or $173 for a "family pack" of five, a Catholic can obtain a credit-card sized piece of plastic bearing the holder's name, a picture of Pope Benedict XVI, a holographic icon showing the hands of a priest breaking the Eucharistic host, and a phrase in bold letters stating: "I am a Catholic. In the event of an accident or emergency, please contact a priest."

Mulhall explains the appeal this way: "It should be carried with you always. In doing so it makes a clear statement that you are a Catholic, that you make no apologies for being a Catholic, and that in fact you are proud to be a Catholic."

Historically speaking, it says a great deal about social change in contemporary Ireland that it would occur to anyone that a card might be necessary to identify the bearer as a member of the Catholic church. Even a generation ago, Ireland was still a largely homogenous Catholic culture, with rates of weekly Mass attendance in excess of 80 percent. The mere fact someone was moving about generally was sufficient to fix their religious affiliation. Marketing a card to remind people they're Catholic would have been akin to selling them a card to remind them that they're Irish, and since the British would never let them forget it, one cannot imagine the sales potential would have been terribly strong.

Mulhall's brainstorm is among the paradoxes of secularization in today's Europe, where there's money to be made selling people tokens of an identity that their peers, or their parents, chucked away for nothing.

Whatever its fate on the open market, the Catholic Identity Card is one of the most literal expressions of the powerful "Catholic identity" movement coursing through the global church, particularly in the affluent North. External symbols of Catholic belonging, the more distinctive the better, are in vogue. Sociologists say that groups assert their identity in this manner when they can no longer take it for granted. The Catholic identity movement is therefore an effect, of which runaway secularization in the global North, especially Europe, is the immediate cause.

Post-Vatican II, any teaching or behavior that made Catholics seem alien was frowned upon, and a good bit of it was cast aside. In 1967, for example, the bishops of England and Wales eliminated the requirement of abstaining from meat on Fridays with this explanation: "Non-Catholics know and accept that we do not eat meat on Fridays, but often they do not understand why we do not, and in consequence regard us as odd." Given the temper of the times, this was understood as an argument against the practice. Today, the winds are blowing the other way. A perception of Catholic singularity has become an argument in favor of doing things, such as wearing religious habits and saying the Mass in Latin.

It's little mystery why practicing Catholics, or for that matter religious believers of any sort, feel compelled to affirm their identity in today's Europe. The ethos of secular European opinion found its epigrammatic expression in 2003, when journalist David Margolick interviewed then-Prime Minister Tony Blair of England for a piece in Vanity Fair magazine, and asked Blair about the impact of his Christian faith on his politics. Blair's spin doctor at the time, Alistair Campbell, cut the conversation short: "I'm sorry," he said, "but we don't do God."

Sociological data lends credence to Campbell's assertion. Today, just 21 percent of Europeans say religion is "very important" to them, according to the most recent European Values Study. According to the same study, while attendance at religious services varies across the continent, overall just 15 percent of Europeans attend church at least once a week, as opposed to 44 percent of Americans. The most extreme example is France, where only five percent say they attend religious services regularly, and a whopping 60 percent said "never or almost never."

The impact of secularization can also be located in steep declines in vocations to the priesthood and religious life, as well as the vanishing public influence of the church across Europe and in other parts of the developed world. Cultural elites in Europe and elsewhere are increasingly hostile to what they perceive the Catholic church to represent.

In 21st century Europe, Catholicism perceives itself as an embattled minority. The same sensation obtains to varying degrees in other parts of the developed world, such as Australia and New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. In response, Catholicism in these zones is doing what embattled minorities always do, practicing what sociologists call the "politics of identity" -- aggressively reinforcing traditional markers of thought, language, dress, and behavior, in order to resist assimilation to what Benedict XVI calls this "dictatorship of relativism."

New translations of the rites and rituals of the Catholic church which are closer to Roman patterns, and dusting off the pre-Vatican II Mass, illustrate the trend, along with a growing emphasis on individual confession and Eucharistic adoration. Marian devotion is also staging a strong comeback, measured in part by the success of pilgrimage sites such as Lourdes, Fatima and Medjugorje. In the priesthood and religious life, one finds a return to habits and Roman collars, especially among younger priests, deacons, brothers, and sisters. Debates in Catholic universities and hospitals about what makes them "Catholic," as well as efforts to tighten up on admissions and curricula in Catholic seminaries, are also part of this picture. Bishops insisting that Catholic politicians cannot defy church teaching and still wear the label "Catholic" likewise expresses the identity impulse.

The idea that defense of Catholic identity constitutes a core force in the church is not mere journalistic extrapolation. In March 2007, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's Secretary of State and hence the number two official in the church after the pope himself, addressed the Ethics and Finance Association in the city of Milan. Speaking just ahead of the second anniversary of the election of Benedict XVI to the papacy, Bertone offered this formula to characterize the "main objective" of Benedict's pontificate: "To recover the authentic Christian identity and to explain and confirm the intelligibility of the faith in the context of widespread secularism."

A more classic expression of the Roman Catholic "politics of identity" is difficult to imagine.

To employ an inter-faith metaphor that captures the spirit of what I'm describing, Catholicism today is engaged in the same project that gripped Judaism after the destruction of the Temple and the dispersal of the Jewish people into a worldwide diaspora -- that is, "building a fence around the Law." The idea is that by making the external markers of one's religious identity clear and absolute, those who observe them will also preserve the deep spiritual values those markers are meant to embody, even when there's little support for doing so in the surrounding cultural universe.

In the language of sociologist Rodney Stark, it is an option for a "high tension" form of religion, deliberately set apart from the values of the larger society. Whatever one makes of its merits or prospects for success, the construction of this fence is driving policy in virtually every area of Catholic life, above all in the global North, and will continue to do so throughout the 21st century.

There are, I should note, at least two possible objections to this way of surveying the lay of the land.

Some will complain that what I'm calling "Catholic identity" is really only one form of Catholic identity, and a fairly narrow one at that, perhaps held only by the hierarchy and a small cluster of traditionalists. At the grass roots, they say, Catholic identity is worked out by the laity in a variety of ways, drawing upon church teaching and tradition, but also their life experience and common sense.

In 2005, American Catholic sociologist Dean Hoge published an extensive survey about how American Catholics define what it means to be Catholic. At the top of their list was belief in the resurrection of Jesus, the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and helping the poor. Other traditional markers of identity were sidelined -- only 29 percent said a celibate male clergy was important, and just 42 percent said that about the teaching authority of the Vatican. Seventy-six percent said one could be a good Catholic without going to Mass on Sunday, and 75 percent said the same about following church teaching on birth control. Looking at those results, some would conclude that Catholic identity can't be imposed from on high, and that the church ought to listen more to what its people are saying.

As Hoge put it, "Boundaries that make no sense to young adults cannot be maintained over the long haul."

Others will be happy to concede that what I'm calling "Catholic identity" is the real deal, but will complain that I'm making it sound like a purely defensive reaction against the threat of secularism, when historically it's the other way around -- secularism is a modern defection from the vision of human life taught by the Catholic church, one which is progressively running out of gas.

Reaffirmation of traditional aspects of church life and practice is not just nostalgia or fear, these Catholics insist, but the fruit of deep reflection on how Catholicism should engage modernity that goes back at least as far as Pope Leo XIII in the late 19th century. That project may have gone off the rails a bit following the Second Vatican Council, they say, but what happened under Pope John Paul II and now under Benedict XVI is the resumption of a historical process with a compelling logic of its own, not an irrational stampede set off by panic that the French aren't going to church, or that the Italians aren't having babies.

Let me be clear: either, or both, of these arguments may be absolutely correct. My aim is not to settle the normative question of what Catholic identity ought to be, but rather to describe the version of Catholic identity that is currently driving policy.

Neither am I trying to analyze the intellectual history out of which this understanding of Catholic identity emerged. Of course it's not purely random; if all the identity movement were about is ensuring that Catholics are different, we might as well wear kilts and speak Esperanto. Rather, I'm trying to explain why the church is emphasizing traditional expressions of its identity now with a greater intensity than 30 or 40 years ago. To say that the Catholic identity movement is a reaction to secularization is not to assert that it doesn't have deeper intellectual and spiritual roots.

Because of the ideological and political freight it carries, the "Catholic identity" mega-trend uniquely inspires prescriptive debate: "Is this the way we ought to go, or not?" While that's a worthwhile matter to ponder, it's not what this chapter is about, which aims instead to outline what's happening and to anticipate some of its consequences. I do so in the spirit of Nelson Mandela, who once said that debating the desirability of globalization is a bit like debating winter -- whether you like it or not, it's coming. Today's press for Catholic identity is a lot like that.

The latest win for the

Submitted by Shirley Finch on July 15, 2007 - 1:23pm.

The latest win for the Vatican seems to be a loss for evolving Christianity. Since at least the 4th century the Church has suppressed the feminine in all forms and until the Sacred Feminine is recognized and honored, which is not against the Scriptures and certainly not against Jesus' teachings and example, no true indentity can be established. This document shows the Church receding into the black hole of patriarchy and closing it's intellectual field. Can light penetrate a black hole? That is the question all serious Christians, male and female, must ask the Spirit.

I've finally figured out why

Submitted by colkoch on July 15, 2007 - 7:21am.

I've finally figured out why this whole Catholic Identity thing gives me the willies. It's because I detest the Steinbrenner Yankees. I'm a baseball fan who grew up in Detroit while my dad worked for the Tigers. Hating the Yankees in my youth was a direct result of coming in second to the Mantle/Maris Yankees year after year. But the Steinbrenner Yankees are different. I hate that whole Yankee tradition thing as declared by Pope George. According to his holiness, no other team has any claim to any valid tradition when it comes to baseball. It's the Holy pinstripes, and the Holy Yankee stadium, and the Yankee way, and anything other than Yankee is second class baseball. New York recieves media saturation for baseball the way Rome does religion.

In the Steinbrenner reality of baseball, I'm a Detroit protestant. I still relish last year's playoffs. I could have cared less what the Tigers did after they knocked out the Yankees. Losing the World Series didn't phase me one little bit.

I can indulge myself as a baseball fan and Yankee hater, because it hurts no one and no one takes me seriously, but when Catholicism feels it must take the Steinbrenner road, that hurts a lot of people. Faith is not a sport, but when it's lived with a need to claim it's rightful place as 'numero uno' amongst the world's spiritual traditions, something close to pride has replaced Jesus's call to service. When Benedict feels the need to repeatedly state that Catholicism is THE ONE, he reminds me of Steinbrenner ranting on about the Yankees. Talk is cheap, prove it on the field of play.

Is not our core as

Submitted by Cobalt on July 14, 2007 - 6:03pm.

Is not our core as Catholics, our basic identity, that of belonging to Christ? It is. If we fulfill His commands to us, He will call us His faithful ones and our work well done.

scores two wins" ~ Is

Submitted by Dennis on July 14, 2007 - 5:39pm.

"...scores two wins" ~ Is that what you call it? A "team" sets itself up in a league, defines itself so that it is the only team and will play with the non-teams only by its rules (one of which is that it has to win)and reissues the rule book. Well so much for win number one.

Win number two - The coach, who is also team manager, promoter and star (only) player also league president and spokesperson declares, after a long period of non-consultation, that a select group of alumni who have been pouting in a corner can now wear their old jerseys whenever they want. That's a streak of two "wins"?

It seems to me that there is

Submitted by HopingvsHope on July 14, 2007 - 8:13am.

It seems to me that there is a very different way to frame the question of reasserting Catholic identity at this point in history. One way to frame the question--Pope Benedict's and Mr. Allen's--is to see Catholic identity being eroded by the forces of secularism.

This approach implicitly suggests that there is a battle going on, in which Catholics are constantly expected to concede valuable pieces of the true faith to godless secular culture. This interpretation of Vatican II has been strong in some Catholic circles from the moment the council ended, right to the present. It is an interpretation that fundamentally resists and distorts the central insights of the council.

The godless secularism thesis misunderstands what Vatican II was about, and frames the opportunity/call of the contemporary church in terms of a false dichotomy. Vatican II was about the challenge of reasserting, in terms that make sense to a rapidly changing modern/postmodern culture, historic affirmations of the church. Vatican II was about making the church not less meaningful to contemporary secular culture, but more meaningful: more sacramental.

Vatican II was not about abandoning the central affirmations of the church or conceding them to godless secularism. It was about recognizing that the God who is Truth and Mystery bounding and transcending the church inspirits all of creation, including all cultures. Vatican II was about reaffirming the most central thrust of Catholic Christianity--the sacramental belief that the entire world can speak to us of God, that the church does not have a unique, singular ownership of God, but can learn from as well as speak redemptively to culture.

This belief requires us not to condemn or combat the world, but to be in dialogue with it, as we together seek the God who is the horizon of every journey.

When I read the preceding commentary, or when I read Benedict, I come away with the impression that one can have proclamation without prophecy. I think that this is simply not possible in the Judaeo-Christian tradition or in a church that is at its very core sacramental. Prophecy is what makes proclamation alive and real in the world. Without prophecy to test its truth claims, proclamation hangs in mid-air, meaning nothing at all--nothing real, nothing that truly affects and transforms real, everyday lives.

One of the most insightful theological observations I have read re: the new proclamation of the Catholic church's exclusive ownership of church is a comment by layperson Alejandro Cantu. Cantu is interviewed in an article in the June 12 edition of the Hidalgo, TX, Monitor, entitled "Mixed Feelings about Pope's Comments." The article is by Julian Cavazos. Cantu states, “The religion I would favor would be doing something good for someone else. All religions are true if they do good for mankind—if they protect the elderly, if they go into research benefiting mankind—that’s what I would say. Let your actions speak for themselves.”

Profound theological insight....Proclamation without prophecy is empty gesture-making, absurd stick-shaking at an imaginary bogeyman called secularism.

In my view, we are being asked now to reassert Catholic identity when questions that demand prophetic utterance remain open and unresolved--questions that undercut the reassertion of Catholic identity and expose it as meaningless show. These questions include what to do and say in a world in which 8 millions Jewish people were butchered in Christian countries in the mid-20th century. They include questions about the meaning of sacral liturgical action and sacral priesthood--not to mention pastoral authority in the church--now that we know a high percentage of our prelates have protected and promoted priests who abuse minors. They include questions about the debasing of the feminine in church and world, and the devaluing of human lives because of gender and sexual orientation.

These aren't questions arising from a godless secularism that seeks to destroy the church. These (and other pressing questions) are questions arising from the heart of the church, from many Catholics who want to see at least minimal correlation between what our church does and what it proclaims. To have meaning, proclamation has to be backed by action that utters the words in a guise we can touch, taste, hold close to our hearts. The correlation of proclamation and prophecy is what the sacramental principle is all about.

William D. Lindsey

I look forward to your

Submitted by clydec on July 14, 2007 - 4:13am.

I look forward to your book.

What do you say about the universality of this "identity" concern?

I picture the human race as a caterpillar. Of whatever religion or culture, we have some sense of why we are here. As long as we belong to a community of the like minded in this regard, we have a certain level of comfort. From time to time, we become concerned that the larger community is drifting away from the likeness of mind, and we are no longer comfortable with our identity. What we are really seeking is to become a butterfly, but in our separate communities we wake up from this struggle with identity and are still a caterpillar.

O, darn. Where have we gone wrong? Where is the butterfly?

If this is the thrust of Benedict's concern about secularization, we can always hope for a successful metamorphosis. Or perhaps metanoia is the more apt term. Christ provides us with an opportunity to "turn around." Not metanoia in the individual sense, but metanoia in the collecive sense. To all appearances, we are divided into any number of caterpillar communities. Somehow, a successful metamorphosis will transform all into one butterfly.

That will take more imagination than our collective consciousness can muster at the moment. I'm not holding my breath. It is a hopeful sign that at least one of these communities preserves the concept that we are all one butterfly in the end, but looking backward to an older "one true Church" notion misses the opportunity for metanoia. The underlying concern is universal and not the monopoly of any particular community.

At least that's how I would prefer to read "subsists in". It would take more conceptual blockbusting than the Catholic laity (or any laity) may be able to accommodate at the present moment to shed the familiar caterpillar.

But who knows. Maybe the so-called "secularism" is a chrysalis in disguise. We could do worse than invest secular life with love. If Benedict can help pull this off and leave the caterpillar behind he's a genius.

Clyde Christofferson

It seems like there are two

Submitted by SFischer on July 13, 2007 - 8:59pm.

It seems like there are two kinds of Catholics: those who consider themselves Catholic by self-definition; and those who consider themselves Catholic because they follow a given set of rules and practices. The first kind of Catholic allows anyone who wants to to call themselves Catholic; the second kind allows only those who follow the same rules and practices that they do to call themselves Catholic. I guess ultimately God will sort us all out. In the mean time I'd prefer to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Who am I to say how God is calling someone to live out their faith?

SFischer, MDiv

MaryPaul If that's the Holy

Submitted by mpostellon on July 13, 2007 - 8:03pm.


If that's the Holy father's idea of Catholic identity, what happens to people like me -- adult converts who would never have had anything to do with the identity he's promoting? I don't just "go to Mass," I participate actively, as a cantor and an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist; and I regard my Catholic faith as the source of instruction about how I am to treat other people. Active participation is precluded by the very format of the Tridentime Mass. I would be utterly astonished if there are really any priests in the United States, other than power-mad reactionaries, who actually want to preside at a Tridentine Mass; but if this sort of thing catches on, Benedict XVI would succeed, not in "rweviving" me, but in driving me out against my strong with to remain in the Church.

I guess you might say the Tridentine Mass is against my religion.

Maybe a "Catholic identity"

Submitted by Peter Halle on July 13, 2007 - 5:21pm.

Maybe a "Catholic identity" is coming. I sincerely hope so. There have been not many good sermons from the altar for quite a while - probably because of the controversy over social issues and edicts handed dwon from above.

At any rate, if aan identity does assert itself, what will it be like? Will there be an evolution of doctrine more in line with reality or will it be, as usual, imposed?


The thought of carrying a

Submitted by cashelguy on July 13, 2007 - 12:58pm.

The thought of carrying a Catholic Identity Card complete with a hologram to “prove” one’s Catholicism is Catholic Kitsch gone wild. (Still, I don’t doubt they will sell. Someone made a pile off of pet rocks and mood rings back in the 1970’s.) The rush back to the symbols of 1950’s Catholicism, if not 1550’s Catholicism, in a misguided attempt to hold off modernity would be laughable if it weren’t so pathetic. No doubt it will be as successful as Pio Nono’s attempt to hold on to Medieval society in the face of the oncoming Industrial Age. Instead of pre-Vatican II habits, starched collars, and Wally Cleaver haircuts, how about spreading the Gospel and living the Beatitudes? Maybe then we will be real Catholics.

Fr. Juan Romero Palm

Submitted by juanrvi on July 13, 2007 - 12:40pm.

Fr. Juan Romero
Palm Springs
By Fr. Juan Romero


On Saturday July 7, 2007, there were a record number of weddings and visits to Casinos in Las Vegas and throughout this country and the world where the number seven is considered lucky. On this day, Pope Benedict XVI issued a letter in various vernaculars to Bishops throughout the world to allay potential concerns regarding his immediately prior Motu Proprio affirming the use of Latin in contemporary liturgical celebrations. Was it the Church’s “lucky day”?

Yesterday was the feastday of Pope Benedict XVI whose namesake St. Benedict, whom Benedictines call “Holy Father Benedict,” is practically synonymous with the best of Catholic liturgical tradition and practice. Secular headlines and radio-tv sound bites trumpeted what sounded like Catholic back-to-the-future. Today, Friday the 13th, John Allen offered his astute and perceptive take on the meaning of the Holy Father’s recent missives within the “megatrend” of preserving Catholic identity within a secularized world (oxymoron?). I agree with John’s analysis, and offer my own comments.

When, shortly before the Second Vatican Council got into full swing, Pope John XXIII issued Veterum Sapiencia (Wisdom of the Ancients—a document insisting upon Latin as the official language of the Church, to be used in the teaching of theology), a wave of dismay swept over many seminarians. Some who had hoped for an opening to vernacular in the liturgy figured that might not be in “the cards,” and others feared the fate of having to struggle through lectures in Latin (and to recite Latin in class!). The text books were already in Latin, but only a minority of students had studied the language for six years in the minor seminary. However, “the prophets of doom” (the phrase of Pope John at his opening address to the Council Fathers) were not to hold sway. Latin was certainly retained as the official language of the church and her liturgy, but there was a rich openness to dynamic translation s of vernacular languages.

A great change in the church took place with the Council, but rooted in continuity with tradition. Maybe, perhaps, after the liturgical shifts that Pope Benedict offers as options, there may be some great changes afoot. One might be an opening to ordain to the priesthood so-called “permanent” deacons of the Latin rite, married or not, who in the course of their ministry have a most excellent track record of ecclesiastical service to God and His people.

I did find it somewhat ironic that while the Motu Proprio was issued only in Latin, and immediately accessible as such both on the Vatican website and on that of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Pope’s letter and commentary to his “Brother Bishops” was immediately accessible in the various vernaculars of the world. In any case, I believe that the Holy Father’s motivation for his encouragement for the wider use of Latin is to be taken at face value: “It is a matter of coming to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church.” A subsequent phrase exhorts, “Let us generously open our hearts and MAKE ROOM FOR EVERYTHING that the faith itself allows.” [My emphasis.] This not only cuts “both” ways, but all ways and always.