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Catholic Sense and Sensibility PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Wednesday, 26 September 2007 14:40
Bishop Jeffrey Bishop Steenson of the Diocese of Rio Grande send a notice to his clergy last week that he had decided to be received into the Catholic Church. This has produced much debate around the blogosphere but especially over at Commonweal.

A long, most interesting, thoughtful discussion ensued. (A pleasant surprise for me since my previous, limited exposure to Commonweal led me to the conclusion that such discussions were unlikely to occur at Commonweal.) I won't attempt to recapitulate the arguments here but I wanted to highlight two fascinating sub-topics that emerged:

1) The issue of "Catholic sensibility": A few relevant comments:

Lawrence Cunningham observed:

Getting ecclesiology right has powerful ramifications on everything from who gets baptized to who presides at the altar. Being faithful to the Way of Jesus has profound ecclesiological undertones. Often people become Catholics precisely because it is there that they can best nourish their discipleship. Being faithful to the Way of Jesus has profound ecclesiological undertones. Often people become Catholics precisely because it is there that they can best nourish their discipleship.

To which Mark Jameson responded:

Ah, but is that really Catholic? Or is it the result of the layering of Catholic dogmatism onto an American-Protestant-Evangelical sensibility?

Cathleen Kaveney:

I think having a Catholic sensibility is something that takes a while to develop--and it's not the same thing as a Lutheran or Episcopal sensibility that rejects a defined set of progressive changes in their current polity.

Joseph Gannon:
I wonder if there is such a thing as a Catholic sensibility tout court, I suspect there are quite a few varieties. On the few occasions when I have watched EWTN I have found the sensibility exhibited quite different from mine.


As used in the discussion above, "Catholic sensibility seems to be remarkably similar to what is sometimes called the "Catholic imagination" or "Catholic culture". I notice that "sensibility" and "imagination" are used more frequently by those on the liberal end of the aisle while "Catholic culture" seems to be a favorite term for those on the more conservative end.

As used in Catholic circles, "sensibility" seems to be a kind of intuitive sense of the faith that exists in considerable independence of the actual teaching of the Church: the Catholic "tune" for which dogma provides the lyrics. (A la the famous Mark Twain quip about his wife's attempts to use profanity: "you know the words but you don't know the tune.")

There is discussion of whether or not there are a variety of "Catholic sensibilities" but the term is used in the singular most of the time, the common assumption seems to be that there is one common sensibility that all true Catholics share. All seem to agree that this "sensibility" is one that you are socialized into gradually - ideally by being raised Catholic or having been Catholic for a long time and exposed to the right (truly Catholic) influences.

The fascinating things is that,as we have seen on this blog and elsewhere, the users of all three terms on opposite ends of the spectrum agree: the concept of "discipleship" is not in keeping with Catholic sensibility and is essentially foreign. I have yet to encounter a single person who asserts that evangelization or explicit discipleship is in keeping with "Catholic sensibility". Catholics who are advocating evangelization or discipleship appeal to Scripture and the teaching of the Church, not to "catholic" sensibility, imagination, or culture. When one appeals to Church teaching, the response is often a variation on "you don't know the tune so why should I take you seriously?"

Which puts us in the very odd position of having something which the magisterium has been declared to be the primary mission of the Church and yet is simultaneously felt to be contrary to the deepest, most "Catholic" instincts of the majority of the baptized.


I'll address topic number two in a second post.

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