Far Better To Be Ourselves

The problem with classifying people into understandable concepts — whether “gay,” “conservative,” or any of the rest — is that people are ferociously not concepts.

Labels “know” the person by reducing him to a series of understandable traits, grinding away his distinctions and forcing him to stand in an abstracted community of liberals, gays, reactionaries, or atheists, no matter how unique he may be to the liberal or atheist he brushes abstract-shoulders with.

Labels provide unity amongst people only in the mind of the labeler. By applying to the real person that which only exists in the mind, we degrade him. Sometimes this is obvious — as when we discount a man’s emotion, reasoning, and personal justification for existence on the basis of him being an “atheist” — and sometimes this is subtle — as when we hold with all our teeth and nails to the label “conservative” in a desperate attempt to distinguish ourselves from “those others,” finding in that abstraction an easy identity which enables us to avoid dealing with our particular selves, facing death on this particular planet.

The individual resists labels because labels are tools for grouping, and the individual is not the group. This inherent antagonism between the two means that the attempt to establish community and hold hands over a label ends in one of four ways:

1. You outgrow the label. The label you so eagerly accepted in high-school becomes a choking restriction by college, and the labels fondled in college become embarrassing by adulthood, and the labels gripped like life-preservers in adulthood become meaningless on your deathbed, the all-encompassing label of “secular humanist” fairly irrelevant when there’s a knife in your throat.

2. The label outgrows you. The Republican party is in the grand old process of selling its soul for a socially liberal agenda, outgrowing many of those who claim the modifier “Republican” as their own. We wake, find that the 8th graders on r/atheism are posting hardcore Satanist memes, and realize it’s time to make some distinctions regarding that well-worn label, “Atheist”. So it goes.

3. Your label is forcefully changed. This happens when a label gets a bad name, and so an agreement is made to change the label, as “pro-abortion” was sweetened into “pro-choice”, and “pro-choice” is now floundering through the process of becoming God knows what. (It occurs to me that our ability to change a label without changing our behavior should be evidence enough of the inherent wackness of applying these watery, shifting labels to the human person.)

4. You are successfully subsumed into a label for the entirety of your existence. At this point, you have all the credentials necessary for hosting a political talk-show. Your label has entirely ceased to be a description. It is a culture. You live it. You own the t-shirt. You attend the rallies. Your only lack is a soul, which is a small price to pay for total security in being.

If a label is going to unify people, it cannot do so by ceasing to describe them personally, as “liberal” and “conservative” have long since ceased to describe people, and have taken to listing a number of ever-shifting “issues,” agreement with which constitutes a human being more or less “liberal” or “conservative.” A label that actually establishes community must describe each and every person living under its title, not grinding away their distinctions, but maintaining them.

A label that isn’t an offense to human dignity cannot exist as a thought-construct applied to people we know nothing about, as the label “primitive” allows me to refer to millions of unique human beings in a single sweep. It must exist in the fact, in reality, not as a mental tool useful for grouping, but as something existing outside of the mind. 

Such a label could not arise from a mental reduction of individuals into “gays,” nor from a group of individuals willfully reducing themselves into a thought-conglomerate for the sake of convenience, belonging and membership on internet forums. No, if any word will pull multitudes under a single mantle, it must be an expression of true community, in which every man who takes up the label is actually and substantially united to every man who does the same.

And so we press our noses up against the stained glass of the Catholic Church, that absurd, tenacious relic we can’t seem to shake from the modern world.

The word “Catholic” is not just an exception to the antagonism between the label and the individual, it is communion which all labels fail to achieve, the rock dropped in the pond to which all labels are but ripples, running from and pointing to. In the Church we find the “abstraction blooded,” the “celestial possible,” a mental-construct threaded with veins and thickened with fat.

The man who precedes his existence with the modifier “Catholic” certainly takes on a label. He may be subsumed into the “Catholic vote,” have “Catholic guilt,” and otherwise be manipulated as a labeled product, advertised to by McDonald’s for Fish-o-fillets during Lent. But the Church does not only exist in the mind as the grouped sum of baptized Catholics. The Church is the Body of Christ, and Christ is a living, tangible fact. That which exists as a concept in the mind also exists in the singular, particular person of Christ.

I don’t find this idea easily explainable, though I’m bursting with the desire to unite you to it. Consider Holy Communion. Holy Communion is a symbol of community, a shared supper, the Supper of the Lamb, the breaking of the bread and the passing of the cup. But if that’s all Holy Communion is, then there is no real distinction between Holy Communion and Hell, for community has been reduced to the idea of community. That we have received “holy communion” has a similar meaning to having received the label “gay” or “conservative.” We are united under a sign of community, a sign which doesn’t necessarily refer to the fact of community. I may hate my brother and yet be united to him under the sign of a mystical supper. We both ate the bread and drank the wine, voila, communion, in the same way two people who oppose abortion are enjoined in communion by the sign “pro-life,” regardless of whether one disrespects life in a myriad of other ways. The label unites in the idea, but there remains deep, deep division in the fact.

But the Catholic Church does not consider Holy Communion a symbol, but a sacrament, and a sacrament makes present that which it signifies. So I engage in the sign of communion, and by this sign I am actually in communion with the entire Church. It is not a reminder, it is not an expression — it is real.

The Church teaches what St. Paul teaches:

“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.”  (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)

If the eucharistic loaf is a symbol, our unity is symbolic. But because the bread and wine really, truly, and substantially become the body and blood of Christ — his words, not mine (John 6) — our unity is real, true, and substantial. Our label has flesh. I eat Christ and am consumed, my neighbor eats Christ and is consumed, and thus our unity is given breath and weight, for Christ is one, and by mutual communion with the One, my neighbor and I are in real communion with each other, as by mutual communion with a mother, my brothers and I live in true, substantial, fraternity.

Is it fun to exist in substantial community with Grace Kelly? Yes. Yes it is. Though when I contemplate the fact, I am struck that she loses her fame in the contemplating, becoming who she is — my sister.

As with Holy Communion, so with the word “Catholic.” It is a sign, yes, and a modifier, yes, and as such appears as just another label — but it is more! For the word refers to communion with the Church, and “the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race,” (Lumen Gentium I) a sign and an instrument of communion. The Church effects what it signifies, and thus the community contained in the word “Catholic” is radically different from the community contained in all other the labels, for labels signify but do not actualize that which they signify.

The word “Catholic” does not level distinctions as labels level distinctions. In speaking of liberals, environmentalists, metrosexuals, capitalists, conservatives, and all the rest, we easily develop a type. This is because labels refer to an abstract idea — which crushes all distinctions — and not an individual — who is beautifully distinct.

It is difficult to typify the Catholic, to find a stereotypical character which unites Flannery O’Connor and Jack Kerouac, Mark Wahlberg and Cardinal Arinze, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, Mother Theresa and St. Nicholas, Salvador Dali and Nightcrawler. If we can find a “type,” it is usually because we are consciously or unconsciously adding labels to the word “Catholic.” Thus our whisper of “Dark Age” before “Catholic” allows us to fool ourselves into typifying Catholics as members of the Spanish Inquisition, “liberal” allows us to establish a false community between Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton-esque types to the ignorance of all others, and “traditional” allows to wallow in illustrations from the Baltimore Catechism, imagining a true Catholic looks like a 1950′s Westerner eating good portion sizes:

Good on you Jimmy.

The difficulty of pigeonholing the Catholic comes from the fact that being “Catholic” does not refer to mere conformity to an abstract idea. The Church preserves the individual. By baptism, he is not subsumed into a type. He is baptized, and his baptism and life in Christ are synonymous with his unique, unrepeatable existence.

The Saints are radically different from each other because to be a Saint is to be precisely the self that you are, that self and none other. Padre Pio and and Blessed John Paul II are not revered because they hold Typical Catholic Qualities in common. Their mutual holiness is not the result of a similarity in spirituality, nor of an interior life that conforms to some Platonic form of “a good interior life.” Their mutual holiness blossoms from the fact that they both strived to be the unique, unrepeatable selves that they are. They are honored for becoming who God made them to be, not for growing in similarity to each other and to a general idea of Sainthood. They are united by their life in Christ, and their lives in Christ are wonderfully distinct. The Catholic lives and kneels in the communion of Saints, not the communion of conservative Catholics, for his unity is with and amidst persons, splendrous in all their unrepeatability. “If therefore in the Church everyone does not proceed by the same path, nevertheless all are called to sanctity and have received an equal privilege of faith through the justice of God” (Lumen Gentium IV, 32).

The word Catholic does not cease to describe the individual. In saying “Catholic” you refer to the Greek katholikos – from the phrase kath’ holou, which means “on the whole,” or “about the whole” — usually translated as meaning “universal.” In predicating myself with the word Catholic, I refer to my whole self. To speak about Catholic-Jane is to speak “about the whole” Jane. To be a Catholic is to be “universal,” the universal me, that is, the only me in the Cosmos. This the incredible potency of the word. When predicating the Church it refers to the unification of all people, the true, substantial community of believers, and ultimately the unity of the entire world. When predicating the person it simultaneously places him in that community and elevates him to his true status: The only him in existence.

The word “Catholic” is less of a label and more of a sacred tautology, calling all people one in themselves and one in Christ, containing in its simplicity both the individual and the community, doing damage to neither, divinizing each. I believe it wise to ditch all other labels that have no substance outside of the mind, establish no unity amongst persons, and create false communities by falsifying the individual. Far better to be ourselves, that is, Catholic.

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  • beth turner

    “I don’t find this idea easily explainable, though I’m bursting with the desire unite you to it.” (I think you need another ‘to’ in there). Thanks for trying! This is a wonderful meditation on both the Eucharist and the difficulty of navigating labels in the world.

    • beth turner

      Also, “though-construct” should probably be “thought-construct”.

    • Bob

      There shouldn’t be a period after the parentheses in your post.

  • Kevin Roerty

    It is nice to hear fellow Catholics joining in on the critique of labels, Marc. Too often is this discussion dominated by the Modern agenda of “you don’t know me, you could never know me, don’t judge!” But, like most issues today, there are two extremes; yes these Modern self-esteemers are right in distrusting labels, but their understanding of label is to labeled with overarching ideologies, as you have pointed out.

    This topic reminds me of a sociological concept of status. Every person has a “master status” that they are first and foremost known by. As Catholics, I think we should strive to make Catholicism our master status, at least to the secular world–it is hard to believe any Saint would have been known for something–say their obsession with water polo–other than Christ who dwells in them.


  • Neal

    Great article…question: Certainly only the Catholic Church has an efficacious sign of union: The Holy Eucharist, but about Catholics being hard to classify and typify. Could this not be said of other religions? For the sake of argument, lets say Buddhists. Keep in mind I’m talking about real, salt of the earth Buddhists, not white-people listen-to-the-Beatles spiritual-not-religious caricatures of Buddhists.

  • Teresa

    I’d like you (Marc) to write a story where no one uses any labels at all. Just for fun.

  • Dale

    I haven’t been in college for many years, but I think labels have much to do with identifying who is in-group and who is out-group. Persons who are in-group are similar to one another in some important way(s.) Persons who are out-group do not share in those important similarities, whether they are values, practices, beliefs etc.

    The difference between in-group and out-group can be important to those who identify with a label. Members of the out-group are not only different from “us”, but they may even be unsympathetic or hostile to what unifies the group. A person who identifies as pro-life is likely to be wary of an organization or politician who supports access to abortion.

    Maintaining the boundaries of in-group can be difficult, even controversial. Is Nancy Pelosi really Catholic or is she “Catholic,” a CINO? What does it mean to be a man, in contrast to being a woman? Is it simply about genitals or chromosomes or does it involve other things such as clothing, attitudes, essential nature?

    I think labels are important, even vital, to reducing stress and possibly danger. If a new neighbor had been convicted as a sexual predator, and you have young children, who you treat him in the same manner as every other neighbor? Would you caution your children about him?

    • Robby

      I think you bring up an excellent point here, exposing another inconsistency of those who “reject labels,” and yet still refer to people as men or women. We know that men come in all shapes and sizes, have varying talents and abilities, and see the world each through his own prism sculpted by his life experiences. The same, of course, is true of women. And yet, we Catholics do not feel that calling men “men” and women “women” is an insult upon their humanity and individuality.

  • cowalker

    Um, yes, I think we can safely label life as “complicated.”

  • John Doman

    Why all this hating on the very IDEA of labels? You’re taking it too far, Marc. Yes, it’s wrong to reduce people to a set of labels. NOBODY DISAGREES WITH THIS. But all the word “label” is a more negative synonym for “word”. It’s simply a definition. A symbol. A sound we make with our mouths or a pattern of ink on paper or pixels on a computer screen to refer to some concrete or abstract thing. A true world of “no labels” would involve a lot more pointing and grunting, and a lot less thought.
    As far as politics go – it’s impossible to talk about politics without using labels, just like it’s impossible to talk about mathematics without using quantity – large and small.

    • badcatholic

      As far as a label is a description, an indicator of characteristic, it is fine. When it gains a life beyond that, it is evil. I believe the majority of the time we delight in labeling ourselves — especially in the religious/political/sexual sphere — our use of adjectives goes beyond description and moves into definition. And even when it doesn’t, descriptive adjectives are used by others in order to negate us. I’m hardly anti-adjective if that’s what you’re suggesting. But a label is an adjective larger than the noun it modifies.

    • Ely Addison

      Recent epiphany: When I look at another person, I see a self-portrait of the Living God. Anything else I could say about that person’s identity is so stupidly irrelevant in comparison that it’s almost a lie. Almost, because as you just pointed out, it’s handy to keep a rough and ever-flexible mental blueprint of a person’s perspective and preferences– it helps me not to piss them off quite as frequently.

  • aaa

    I love this – I’ve been thinking about it for a while. We should refuse to be labeled, because every person, in their uniqueness and individuality, is so much greater than any word we can use to condense and define their identity.

    I refuse to tell people I don’t know well what my political beliefs are. As soon as they find out I’m Catholic or see the “Don’t Tread On Me” bumper sticker on my car, they’ve got me pigeonholed. And wrongly, because political beliefs are so much deeper than one vapid slogan (which I love for its historical connotations). There’s so much more to a person than anything we can label, and it’s pointless to do so if we want any kind of understanding of those around us.

  • Nathaniel Winer

    So in other words, all labels are bad, except for Catholicism, because its a Godly label.

    Cool story bro.

    • Kevin

      You need to reread the post.

      “I believe it wise to ditch all other labels that have no substance outside of the mind, establish no unity amongst persons, and create false communities by falsifying the individual. ”

      Does that encompass everything but Catholicism? No. Labels that have concrete manifestations in reality are OK, according to Marc. If a plumber is someone who fixes sinks for a living, and I fix sinks for a living, then I am a plumber. Nothing abstract about that.

      • Robby

        Then why can’t a man who is attracted to other men be referred to as a gay man? Same idea. Just as the plumber is not DEFINED by his plumbing, a gay man is not DEFINED by his homosexuality. Still, we can use this as a term to describe an aspect of his being.

        To me, people who play this game are simply making arbitrary distinctions to hide the fact that they really are just not comfortable with some factions of humanity. (LGBT people, Pro-choice people, etc.)

  • JRP

    Jesus used labels to collect together people who believed the same ideology. “Woe to you Pharisees”. “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sad’ducees.” “Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” “Dogs”. “You are of your father, the devil.” “Generation of vipers”.

    In that sense, he “judged not by appearances, but with right judgment”.

    And, we are to do the same. Let “the measure by which we measure be poured for us” for our measure is Jesus on the cross, nothing less is enough.

    • Maestro’s Apprentice

      Agreed. It’s impossible to not attach modifiers to ourselves and to group ourselves; in all reality, describing PARTS of our being is perfectly fine (e.g. using labels like pro-life to describe what we believe in). The problem, as the author stated, comes in when we say that certain people who share some characteristics share all characteristics (like saying that all people with a homosexual attraction are, in essence [insert other adjective here]).

      This article basically says that each individual is unique, sharing some characteristics with some people and not with others, and that when we make sweeping generalizations about ourselves and about others when a label is applied, we sin by not recognizing the distinct individuality of each person as God created them to be.

  • tedseeber

    I’m still bothered by this title after two days.

    Here’s why. In my experience, which I’ll admit up front in faulty- being oneself is strongly connected to Original Sin, where being Catholic is strongly connected to good behavior.

    My true self isn’t Catholic. My true self is a hedonist logical positivist atheist. But by playing the role of a Catholic, I can be a much better person.

    • LovesherFaith

      Yes it is true that without God and our Catholic faith we would struggle so much. Everyday I thank God for the gift of my faith, for that is what it is, a beautiful gift!

      Our true self is ultimately to be whom God created us to be. God did not create us to sin, the reason that we all sin (including all the saints) is because of our fallen nature. The closer you come to God and the further you move from sin, the more you become who He created you to be, an irreplaceable child of God.

      Being a Catholic means that you have been given a gift to receive Our Lord and live as a member of the Body of Christ. We do not play the role of being a Catholic. Being a Catholic is truly who we are, as Marc points out.

      • tedseeber

        I want to believe that. I really do. But the full story of my life, if it be known, is that I’ve only come to that rather recently- despite being a cradle Catholic for 42 years, I can only say 12 of them have I even achieved playing the role of a good Catholic. And that is doing far better than most.

  • http://theres-always-next-year.tumblr.com/ Cristine Tancredi

    If you were on tumblr, I would reblog you on the daily.

  • Dave G.

    And yet, Catholic is also a label. Just as Christian is. Labels can be divisive, bad, and cause much harm. But they also remind us that we are all part of things bigger than ourselves As much as I’m an individual, I’m also a social being. Label remind us that the universe isn’t the universe and then me, with the universe being the universe and then you, and so on. But we are often part of groups that also define us. Good pointing out the problems of labels, but don’t go too far and end up tossing baby with bathwater.

    • John Doman

      Catholic isn’t a label. It’s a way of life. Unlike political labels, Catholic is a vocation that should totally consume you.

  • The Other Weirdo

    This is so cute. Labels are bad(various reasons stated), except for your personal label. Another way, a more succinct way, of saying this entire post: Everyone not Catholic is bad. This is just like when Francis came out and said, “Even Atheists were redeemed by Christ.” Then the other guy came out and said, with more sexual imagery than necessary, “Nope, they’re still going to hell.”

  • julianmalcolm

    Great job on this one Marc. Helpful critique you’re providing in parsing through the difference between using reductionionist labels and describing sacramental realities.

  • fajamike

    Aside from the MANY excellent points in this blog…I cannot tell you how appreciative I am that you referenced Nightcrawler as a Catholic. Seamlessly.