Diary of A Wimp (Who is Catholic)?

In a recent South Park episode, an anti-statist milita group decides to strike a blow at the federal government, so its members arm themselves and seize a Federal Express store. The gag works because it’s plausible — some intelligent adults are just literal-minded enough to make a mistake like that.

I belong in the Amelia Bedelia club as much as anyone. When I first joined the Church, I thought National Catholic Reporter was the official organ, or any rate an official organ, of the Catholic Church in the United States. That everyone wrote so grumpily about the hierarchy made perfect sense; the brass was obviously keeping the paper on a low budget.

It’s with this awareness of my own barely-vincible ignorance that I sympathize with the Archdiocese of Detroit in its campaign to get RealCatholicTV to rename itself. Knowing I’ll never be mistaken for Michael Voris is one of the few luxuries I take for granted. Having to fight for it seems as unfair as having to carry water from some village well or hew firewood to boil it.

On his blog, In the Light of the Law, Ed Peters offers a For Dummies summary of the legal issues involved. He argues that Canon 216, by stating “no undertaking is to claim the name ‘Catholic’ without the consent of competent ecclesiastical authority,” makes the self-description “Catholic” a privilege to be sought, not a right to be claimed. I don’t pretend to know whether he’s right, but if he turns out to be, and if competent ecclesiastical bodies do start restricting use of the company logo, it might not be the end of the world.

This morning, while making a random, non-exhaustive list of media entities and personalities who write as members of the Catholic Church, I was struck by how many don’t use the name “Catholic.” Elizabeth Scalia is the Anchoress. Katrina Fernandez calls her blog the Crescat. Te Deum Laudamus is Te Deum Laudamus. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus named his magazine First Things; L. Brent Bozell, Jr. named his Triumph (evoking, whether he meant to or not, the make of sports car my dad used to drive). Once, when in Dean Wormer mode, Cardinal Spellman ordered Dorothy Day to rename the Catholic Worker. If he hadn’t rescinded the order — if Day had replaced the name with, say, Ora et Labora — I doubt either movement or newspaper would have suffered.

Names that refer obliquely to Catholicism while making no claim to represent the Magisterium reflect a vital paradox: the Body of Christ is made up of individual members that are capable of acting independently. (And, in some cases, acting like, you know, members.) There is an institutional hierarchy, and there should be one. But the reality is that huge amounts of creative activity that go on the Church’s account come from people acting on their own initiatives and according to their own consciences. Restricting the label “Catholic” to the institution gives both it and these people their proper dignity. It straightens the record, and distributes credit and discredit fairly.

In Phoenix, we saw a line drawn when Bishop Olmsted revoked his endorsement from St. Joseph’s Hospital. Founded in 1895 by the Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic religious order, St. Joseph’s forfeited its claim to the label “Catholic,” in the bishop’s judgment, when doctors performed an abortion on a woman suffering hyperpulmonary tension. Along with the bishop’s endorsement, the hospital lost the rights to house the Blessed Sacrament and to have Masses celebrated on its grounds. On the other hand, it continues to operate under its old name. The Church retained her integrity; the hospital, its autonomy. Both paid a price, and both will have plenty of time to reflect on whether the transaction was beneficial.

In Kerry Kennedy’s book Being Catholic Now, various prominent Americans talk seriously about the Church’s influence on their lives. Some, like Angela’s Ashes author Frank McCourt, no longer identify as Catholic. Others, like James Carroll and Sr. Laurie Brink, O.P. do, but challenge certain Magisterial teachings. None of them, however, simply shrugs and says of the Church, “Oh, it’s okay, I guess.” Their lives represent long, complex dialogues with their Catholic upbringings. Not even those who are formally out of the Church can say the Church is wholly out of them. By outlining its boundaries clearly, the institutional Church can give herself and the people who make up the Ecclesia sufficient distance to take exactly this kind of long, hard look at one another.

The Church can’t control what people think. For the most part, she can’t control what people do. As rights go, guarding her name looks like a pretty modest one to stand on. If Bishop Olmsted decides he’s ashamed of my shenanigans, then with perfect assent of intellect and will, I’ll start calling this place Grotto of the Anchorite.

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