Quodlibets: A Form of Infidelity of the Day

Talking on the phone with a woman whose name is one of those that dangle from my family tree, I asked her how she spelled it. The answer was an orthographic surprise, but there was an explanation. Her husband’s family changed the spelling when they left the Church so they wouldn’t be confused with their benighted relatives who still believed.

I have gotten to the point where I almost want to applaud those who know they have ceased to be Catholics. It is getting harder and harder to do, and our theologians do not help.

In a recent column, my colleague Father Richard McBrien says a few words on behalf of “cultural Catholics” who, he feels, will be unaffected by the Compendium of Catholic Doctrine that a commission headed by Cardinal Ratzinger is preparing. This may seem churlish coming from the author of a two-volume effort called Catholicism, but it is even more surprising to see Father McBrien following Thomas Sheehan’s advice and substituting orthopraxy for orthodoxy.

Cultural Catholics, McBrien writes, believe that people should be kind to one another, help those in need, respect others as they would be respected. Why call themselves Catholics at all?, McBrien thinks such guidelines are “close to the heart of Jesus’ message — closer by far than many of the things Catholics quarrel about today.” His suggestion is that Cardinal Ratzinger keep such cultural Catholics in mind as he works on his doctrinal compendium.

Doubtless I am missing something here. If I believed only what cultural Catholics believe, I would know I had ceased being a Catholic. But then if I were in the state of mind described by Thomas Sheehan in his notorious essay on “the liberal consensus” in the New York Review of Books last year, I would see myself as an apostate. Why is it that people who reject the basic tenets of Catholicism — the Resurrection, the divinity of Christ, the distinctiveness of the sacramental priesthood — insist on calling themselves Catholics?

And not just s stripped-down Catholics, minimal Catholics, even cultural Catholics, but Catholics of a new and improved and super-sophisticated sort. It is a form of infidelity Cardinal Newman thought of as proper to the medieval period and not his own. He saw considerable danger of “the subtle, silent, unconscious perversion and corruption of Catholic intellects,” but felt it had become far less of a threat in his time. In the medieval period “since Catholicism was then the sole religion recognized in Christendom, unbelief necessarily made its advances under the language and guise of faith.” Those who now assail “Scripture or Tradition, the Fathers or the ‘Sense of the Faithful’ ” throw off the mask and declare themselves unbelievers. Ah, Newman, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

Sometimes I think that those who want to be Catholics while discarding dogma are motivated by the desire to make it in the wider society, to really belong. These are not wholly ignoble ambitions in themselves, but shuffling off the faith is far too high a price to pay for success. And, ironically, I think such “Catholicism” rightly earns contempt rather than a welcome.

C. S. Lewis said long ago that the way to promote ecumenism is not to seek the least common denominator, but to be straightforwardly what one is. The Catholics who made their mark on American society did not apologize for their faith. They did not assure their fellow citizens that it really did not matter that they were Catholics. They were unequivocally Catholic and welcomed as such.

In much the same way, we admire Jews who are Jews, proud of their identity, insistent on the bond that binds them to Jews not only in Israel but also in the Soviet Union, in Ethiopia, anywhere. So too Catholicism links us with Africa and China, with Latin America and Eastern Europe. How sad it is to see this magnificent universalism, with its center in the papacy, traded for an exiguous, provincial worldliness.

No doubt it was with such thoughts in mind that the fathers of the second Extraordinary Synod suggested to Pope John Paul II the universal compendium of Catholic doctrine on which Cardinal Ratzinger and his commission are working.

  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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