It's not uncommon to hear people say, "I was born Catholic." A century ago, such a phrase was intended as an obvious and not infrequently humorous hyperbole, a way to stress the strictness of the Catholic observance of one's own family and upbringing. It was hyperbolic because everyone knew that it was not to be taken literally, as, properly speaking, no one is born Catholic.
Today, when people say "I was born Catholic," many mean it more or less literally, as though it is part of their genetic inheritance - like Grampa Luigi's crooked nose or Aunt Sally's wide hips. It's simply part of who they are, and they accept it without much consideration or reflection. Their Catholicism has everything to do with personal and collective identity and nothing to do with whether they go to Mass on Sundays, whether they keep the Lenten fast, or whether they believe what the Catholic Church teaches. If Nana demands that everyone shows up for Easter Mass, then everyone shows up for Easter Mass. After all, why not? Maybe somebody from the old St. Albans gang will be there. What's it been, 10 years? And what ever happened to Sister Mary Ignatius? Oh, man, I still have nightmares about her....
Sam Singer, the media relations heavyweight brought in by parents and teachers fighting Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone's recent proposal on moral guidelines for teachers in Catholic schools in San Francisco, knows this to be the case and has already made it clear that he knows how to use it to his advantage. As he stated in an interview to SF Weekly, "I'm half Catholic, half Jewish." A ridiculous but nonetheless well-calculated statement on Singer's part, as it not only endears him to the people he represents while simultaneously insulating him from the potential charge of being anti-Catholic, but it also serves to confirm the false assumption upon which this entire conflict is ultimately based: that Catholicism is primarily and essentially an ethno-cultural phenomenon, and not a religious one.
This assumption is the hidden dynamo at the center of numerous "progressive" movements in the western Church today: regardless of whether it's women's ordination or divorce and remarriage or gay marriage or contraception, such movements generally attract people who view their own Catholicism as an unassailable given. If there's a conflict with so-called "official" Church teaching, so what? We are the Church. If there's a dispute with the Vatican, that just proves that the Vatican is outdated and needs to change. Who are they to tell us what is and what isn't Catholic? How dare they question us Catholics?
While I generally take poll results cum grano salis, the 2008 study conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University revealed what everyone already knew: while 77% of those surveyed agreed with the statement, "I am proud to be Catholic," only 18% strongly agreed with the statement, "In deciding what is morally acceptable, I look to the teachings of the Catholic Church to form my conscience." Any way you cut it, that's a huge number of self-identifying Catholics who simply don't care what the Magisterium of the Church has to say.
And this, in your humble writer's opinion, is precisely where Archbishop Cordileone - as well as the faithful prelature of the entire western hemisphere - needs to place the archimedean lever in order to dislodge the many forces within the Church which oppose Church teaching. However, while I have nothing but the utmost respect for the good Archbishop, I am also a realist. Indeed, we have seen some courageous prelates publicly defend the teachings of the faith in the face of sometimes fierce criticism, and Archbishop Cordileone is one of them. But what we haven't seen - and what desperately needs to happen - is for such prelates to draw the necessary conclusion and confront those who oppose them with a clear choice: either you accept Church teaching, or you're not Catholic. Full stop.
The problem is not that people are confused or don't know what the Catholic Church teaches. The problem is that they simply don't care. While some of the blame for this miserable situation can be laid at the feet of wayward bishops and priests, it's unfair to make them collectively responsible for all of it. At some point, everyone needs to recognize that the people these good bishops are so paternally trying to reach are fully grown adults who carry the responsibility for their free choices. It's time for Church leaders to stop coddling them and get down to brass tacks: either stand with Christ's Church, or leave.
And lest someone over at Crux accuse me of waxing "jeremaic": I'm not saying that the Church is doomed and that the world is coming to an end. I'm saying we should man up, cut off the ballast and get on the course plotted by Professor Joseph Ratzinger in his 1969 work, Faith and the Future:
The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes [...] she will lose many of her social privileges. [...] As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members. [...] It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. [...] The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution - when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain. [...] But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church.
It's austere, but it's a plan with promise. It's time we acted on it.