MTS Candidate, History of Christianity, University of Notre Dame
A recent survey asked 1,016 of the some 81 million self-identified U.S. Catholics about what is “essential” to their personal sense of “being Catholic.” According to Deseret News:
* 68 percent cited “having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” as essential. * 67 percent: Belief in Jesus’ actual resurrection from the dead. * 62 percent: Working to help the poor and needy. * 54 percent: Devotion to Mary as the virgin Mother of God. * 54 percent: Receiving the sacraments. * 42 percent: Being part of a Catholic parish. * 41 percent: Being open to having children. * 34 percent: Celebrating feast days or festivals that are part of your national or ethnic heritage. * 33 percent: Opposing abortion. * 29 percent: Working to address climate change.
As noted in the above study, 67 percent of Catholics identified “belief in Jesus’ actual resurrection from the dead” as essential to Catholic identity. 62 percent cited “working to help the poor and needy.” 54 percent regarded “devotion to Mary as the virgin Mother of God” a crucial indicator of Catholic-ness, while 54 percent upheld “receiving the sacraments” and 42 percent “being part of a Catholic parish.”This struggle with the question of identity is not a new phenomenon – at least not in American life. Are Catholics to be identified by ritual, namely, going to Mass on Sunday and praying certain “official” prayers? Are they united by ideology and belief, such as their positions on abortion, birth control, gay marriage, and the teachings of the Magisterium? Are Catholics bound institutionally, through cooperation with the visible, hierarchical Church: the pope, bishops, priests, etc.?
Consensus on how to define a “Catholic” cannot even be found among historians of American Catholicism, who often disagree in how to conceptually define “Catholics” and “Catholicism.” This has resulted in studies that diverge quite sharply in their criteria as to who and what should be included in fundamental definitions of “Catholicism.”
We are invited to consider this question again in the midst of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States. Perhaps more than any of his predecessors, this Holy Father seems to consistently elude our usual categories when we try to measure his words and actions against typical markers of Catholic-ness: Is he “too Catholic,” insisting on the preservation of the sanctity of marriage and the protection of persecuted Christians in the Middle East? Or is he “not Catholic enough,” in the attention he draws to environmental issues and the need to create asylums for the homeless and the refugee?
We can debate and split hairs ad nauseam over which doctrines, practices and beliefs are most essential to Catholic identity, or which political adherences most fundamentally align with being “Catholic.” We can even discuss to what extent there may be varying degrees of “Catholic.” But I am struck that in all of this discussion one crucial, fundamental requirement seems to be consistently left unexamined: namely, being a Christian. When was the last time we have stopped pointing fingers and appraising the actions of others long enough to pause and ask ourselves: what does it mean to be a Christian?
For Blessed Basil Moreau, the answer is simple:
“to be called a Christian is to be called a faithful follower of Jesus Christ” (Basil Moreau, Essential Writings, Gawrych and Grove, C.S.C. (eds.), 216).
“Unless you imitate Jesus Christ,” Moreau writes in his Spiritual Exercises, “you cannot truly be a Christian” (ibid.). This imitation, a human response to a divine invitation, is a fundamental obligation of the Christian and the purpose of the Incarnation:
“Was that not his reason for wanting to go through all stages of human life: to be born, to live, to suffer, and to die just like all the children of Adam?” (ibid., 215-216)
You may be reading this thinking, “Yes, obviously Catholics are Christians and as a Christian I am called to be like Christ.” Wrong. To be Christ-like is not enough. We are to be Christ: to become transfigured into him. This is what St. Paul means, as Father Moreau points out, when he writes that through Baptism we are transformed into Jesus Christ and become one with him (Romans 6.3-5; 1 Corinthians 12.12-13). Or as Moreau puts it, “The holiness of the head needs to radiate also from all the members of the body” (Essential Writings, 217). How often does this theological distinction enter public discourse?
Before anything else, the goal of a Christian – and therefore of a Catholic – is to be Christ no less than the way that both branches and trunk form one and the same tree: to be “kept in place by the same roots,” and “nourished by the same sap.”
So what, more than anything else, describes what it means to be a Catholic? Being Catholic means to be Christ: to clothe ourselves in his virtues and to labor every day in our chosen vocations to be able to say to the Evil One: “What are you looking for here, cruel beast? You will find nothing in me that belongs to you!” (Essential Writings, 220) The term “Catholic” is not a political category, but a metaphysical reality. It is an identity and calling that transcends checking off boxes.
Finally, such an obligation necessitates a reevaluation of our own lives in light of what we have now articulated to be the cornerstone of Catholic identity. Here, again, Moreau’s words are worth hearing, as they frame the discussion in its proper context:
Are your eyes as pure as his, your ears as chaste as his, your mouth as discreet as his, your gait as modest and unpretentious as his? Alas, what a contrast, perhaps, between the life of Jesus Christ and your own. What a great difference between his humility and your ambition, his warm love and your cold indifference, his courage and your weakness, his calmness and your outbursts of emotion, his virginal innocence and your unruly passions, his recollection and your distractions, the wisdom of his words and your excessive babbling! (218)
Inevitably, debates over Catholic identity will fly this week (and indeed have already begun to do so, as Elizabeth Scalia points out). But perhaps before immediately defaulting to polarization and the usual ‘tug-of-war’ over who’s really Catholic and who’s not, we can first take a page out of Moreau’s book and ask ourselves: am I another Christ? Is my life a living copy of this divine exemplar? Such an examen is the only real starting point for articulating what it means to be called “Catholic.”
If nothing else, perhaps those of us in the United States can learn from our Holy Father this week that our identity as Catholics is not reducible to checking boxes on a survey; rather, the most important marker of Catholic identity is a striving to imitate Christ at every juncture of our lives.