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Cardinal George on Catholic Identity PDF Print E-mail
Written by Michael Fones   
Tuesday, 09 October 2007 10:57
John Allen was in Chicago recently and had an interview with Francis Cardinal George. In it, he asked the Cardinal about Catholic identity and culture - something that has been discussed in comments on this blog. I thought it might be helpful to quote the interview at some length and offer a few comments.

Allen: In March, Cardinal Bertone gave an address to the Ethics and Finance Association in the city of Milan. Asked to express the "main objective" of Benedict's pontificate, he offered this formula: "To recover authentic Christian identity and to explain and confirm the intelligibility of the faith in the context of widespread secularism." Why the concern with identity?

Cardinal George: I think there are two sides to that. One is what John Paul II often said, that there are whole cultures that used to be shaped by the faith but that aren't shaped by the faith any longer. The culture the present Holy Father, Benedict XVI, is most concerned about is that of Western Europe and its cultural colonies, like our own country. In that particular culture, individualism is so embedded that the loss of a collective identity is rampant. Each one feels not only free but obliged to determine his or her own religious identity, so we have a plethora of understandings of what it means to be Catholic as well as what it means to be human and what it means to be anything else. It's hard to bring that all together, because the culture doesn't foster any kind of collective identity … Depending upon whether you're left or right, as we define those terms in the culture today, you have trouble with one [element of Catholic identity] or the other. The right would say, 'I accept all the faith, but I can't stand the bishop,' while on the other hand the left says, 'The faith is goofy, but my bishop's not a bad guy.'

Allen: On the subject of religious identity, sociologists Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge talk about the distinction between "high tension" and "low tension" religion, arguing that over time low tension groups tend to dissolve into secularism.

Cardinal George: That's right. In the '60s, it was very important to show you could be American and Catholic. Whole magazines were devoted to that. There was a collective sigh of relief at the Second Vatican Council, with human freedom being so much in the forefront of the conciliar concerns, that the tension wasn't there anymore. I think some of the moves of the church in that period now seem sociologically naïve, in their long-term consequences.

Allen: What do you have in mind?

Cardinal George: Catholicism as a distinctive way of life was defined by eating habits and fasting, and by days especially set aside that weren't part of the general secular calendar. They were reminders that the church is our mediator in our relationship to God, and can enter into the horarium [calendar] that we keep, into the foods that we eat, into all the aspects of daily life, into sexual life. Once you say that all those things can be done individually, as you choose to do penance, for example, you reduce the collective presence of the church in somebody's consciousness. At that point, the church as mediator becomes more an idea for many people. Even if they accept it, it's not a practice. So then when the church turns around and says 'You have to do this,' then resistance is there to say, 'How can you tell me that? I'm deciding on my life for myself, and you even told me I could!'

Allen: So what's the answer? Is it rebuilding a subculture?

Cardinal George: I suppose it is, though not in a way that's divorced from the culture that we have now, which is ours - what else are we? … Ordinary lay people are to consecrate the world from within the world, as their world, not to be separate from it. If there is a subculture, it would have to be developed naturally in relationship to today's crisis, as earlier institutions were at one point. You can't go back, I think, and imagine that we're in the 19th century, just taking those solutions, good though they were then, to be ours now.

Allen: Can you point to something that offers an example of a viable contemporary Catholic subculture not excessively cut off from the broader society?

Do I see evidence of life in the church? Yes, and I think it’s primarily in the parishes. In Protestant ecclesiology, the church is what we would call a parish — this is my church. The church in Catholic ecclesiology is a diocese which has parishes, and then the universal church. Parishes are very strong in this kind of culture, and without being Protestants, we organize ourselves more or less along those lines. A lot of effort goes into the parishes, and some of the parishes are extremely good. They create a world, a subculture, as people get involved in their parish, which is sufficient very often for people to pursue in the world. Maybe there are other things too, but the parish is very important.

My comments:
1) The interview began with a quote from Cardinal Bertone on Pope Benedict XVI's interest in recovering an authentic Christian identity that can communicate effectively with a secular culture. Cardinal George later speaks of how Catholicism as a way of life was distinctive in terms of fasting, holy days, and other practices that marked the whole of the Christian's life. However, these practices weren't distinctive (theoretically) in Christendom, where presumably most everyone was Catholic. Some of the Catholic distinctives became distinctive after the Reformation, and in the U.S., Catholic practices, e.g. particular devotions, processions, abstaining from meat on Fridays, etc., distinguished Catholics (especially persecuted Catholic immigrants) from a Protestant culture and gave a better sense of community and identity.

The danger comes when these practices, which are all meant to deepen our relationship with Christ and his people, become ends in themselves, as I mentioned in an earlier post this morning. Perhaps our traditional Catholic devotions were discarded so widely after the Council not only because we wanted to "fit in" to our culture, but also because they had become unmoored from their goal: greater union with Jesus. For this reason we couldn't see their value; their value had become identified with, "this is what makes me different from those Protestants."

2) The Cardinal wisely points out that any distinctive Catholic subculture that develops today must somehow "explain and confirm the intelligibility of the faith" (to use Bertone's words) to the dominant culture, which is marked by post-modern secularism. It would be good for us, as we fast, pray, give alms (for example), to be conscious of why we are doing so in two regards.

First of all, how do I intend this practice to bring me closer to Christ, and secondly, in what way does it address and challenge an aspect of contemporary culture that is contrary to the fullness of human life? These two are intimately related, because, as the Cardinal points out, we are all products of the secular culture in which we are immersed from birth. That means my drawing closer to Christ requires me to (among many other things) consciously recognize and reject aspects of my culture like individualism and relativism that have formed me and that are inimical to the Gospel.

Unless I'm mistaken, the Cardinal may also be encouraging the development of new devotional practices that arise from an analysis of and a response to contemporary secularism. That's a creative challenge!

3) Cardinal George identifies the parish as a Catholic institution in the U.S. that is sufficiently "dense" enough to stand up to contemporary secularism, while at the same time allowing for interaction with and the transformation of secular culture from within. This is precisely why the Institute has consciously chosen to work primarily with parishes. That, and the fact that most Catholics encounter the larger Church and Christ through their parish.

But just as our devotions will be vibrant and effective if they draw us to Christ and lead us to service of others, so, too, our parishes. The vibrant parishes Cardinal George mentions must be those that both draw people to Christ through the liturgy, devotions, proclamation and catechesis, and form them as apostles who are sent into the world as leaven, light, salt and clever little lambs in the midst of wolves.

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