What does it mean to be Catholic? My own thoughts

What does it mean to be Catholic? My own thoughts August 3, 2009

As promised in the previous post in this short trilogy, I want to offer some thoughts of my own on the question I posed after reflecting on the variety of replies (A through T) that were given. I also feel terribly uncomfortable doing so since I failed to anticipate how exceptional—taking the word literally—this would become: bloviating blogger asks for input and then reveals the final, serious answer to the question. It’s all so high and mighty, yuck.

So, please allow me offer an apology in advance and say that if I had the foresight to see what I was getting myself into I would have done this differently. However, the really insightful reader also knows that this apology is itself misleading. It obfuscates from the intent of this series: My own attempt to offer, even if by committee, a non-trivial reply to a non-trivial question. A question, I want to argue, that is at the very center of the (over)heated disagreements that plague the Catholic blogosphere.

Now that I have confused myself, let me return, warts and all, to the question at hand: What does it mean to be Catholic?

The most straightforward answer would be something like the following: To be Catholic is to be a real Catholic, to truly be Catholic. This is also what is implied in other additions people might advocate for; such as to be a good or practicing Catholic.

In other words, embedded in the question is a passive assumption that in order to “be” Catholic—that is to say, to exist as a Catholic—one must be something that is true/real.

Here, I think, lies a potential mistake: Confusing being a true/real Catholic, with being a verifiable Catholic.

To be a true/real Catholic is to be Catholic in the most serious of ways, but to move that need for truth/reality into a matter of verifiability is to become a positivist (see, for example, A.J. Ayer on this point), not a Catholic. Yes, I want to say as-a-matter-of-fact that positivism and Catholicism are antithetical to each other.

So here is a more specific version of my question: What does it mean to be a true/real Catholic without confusing that truth/reality with vulgar, positivist verifiability?

Here is my answer: To truly and really be Catholic is to embrace the Cross, which will require a repeated rejection of “catholicism”—catholicism-for-me. This “rejection” is not cynical or wasteful in the usual sense of the word, but deep, fecund, and alive.

To reject catholicism in order to truly/really be Catholic is to deny that the Church is accountable to some human, epistemological standard of verifiability in order to be real and true. It is to cling to the mystery of our faith by the means of abandonment to the sheer (im)possibility of God.

I know that some will accuse me of going on a wild, postmodern goose chase on this one. But there is a very straightforward concern that I want to address. I want to say that “to be Catholic” is not, primarily, a matter of preserving a fixed and sterile identity or a creed—or even Jesus (as if the Son of God is in need of actual preservation). In fact, I think that it is exactly the opposite. “To be Catholic” is to find the true and the real in the overflowing, dynamic nature of our faith that flows directly from the excessive source: the truth/reality of God, not god-for-me.

To be Catholic, then, is to enter into the mystery of the overflow of Grace without clinging defensively to the portion that is left in our cup as some kind of solitary thing in itself. To be Catholic is precisely to not be catholic in the way that says that to be something you must be able to verify that thing using science-like—human, in other words—things. To be Catholic is to die as God dies. In that divine death we find a life that is not the life we know or can expect, but a true, real and therefore new life.

To restlessly seek new life, is the life of death that our faith requires, again and again, I think. Another (better) word for new life is this: Love.

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