I set out some possible premises for discussion in my first, abbreviated post on the subject of our Catholic identity. In this part, I develop one of those premises, regarding the criteria on which our identity as Catholics rest.
Some of you may have been following last month’s “controversy” between His Excellency, the Most Reverend Thomas J. Tobin, Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island, and one of the United States Congressmen from that state, Patrick Kennedy (one of, yes, THOSE Kennedys). Representative Kennedy publicized a private discussion between the bishop and him regarding the Congressman’s support of abortion rights, making the following statement:
The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.
Bishop Tobin’s responded to this public statement in an open letter to Representative Kennedy, published in the Rhode Island Catholic, in which the bishop effectively makes the point, “Well, in fact, Congressman, in a way it does.” The bishop’s letter continues with a reflection on the question, “What does it mean to be a Catholic?”:
Well, in simple terms – and here I refer only to those more visible, structural elements of Church membership – being a Catholic means that you’re part of a faith community that possesses a clearly defined authority and doctrine, obligations and expectations. It means that you believe and accept the teachings of the Church, especially on essential matters of faith and morals; that you belong to a local Catholic community, a parish; that you attend Mass on Sundays and receive the sacraments regularly; that you support the Church, personally, publicly, spiritually and financially.
In my reading, Bishop Tobin’s letter proposes a minimum definition of Catholic identity as 1) recognition and acceptance of the teaching authority of the Church, and 2) open participation in our common rites and sacraments.
The bishop’s first prong above means our Catholic identity hinges on a key understanding—the understanding that there is one exclusive TRUTH in the world God made, that applies to EVERY SINGLE PERSON IN THE WORLD, even if we can’t grasp that Truth in its entirety at any one time (i.e., relativism is NOT an option). This Truth by its nature is unitary and whole, and it has been passed down through time from Christ Himself through His Church, the teaching Church that Christ founded personally.
As Truth is unitary and whole, our Catholic identity also requires recognizing we are NOT just the same as other faiths, Christian and non-Christian. We must stand up and proclaim that the Catholic Church IS the fullest—the complete—expression of the Church Jesus said he would build upon the Rock of Peter. We do this through our participation in the visible structures of the Church—Mass (with full interior and exterior participation), sacraments (especially the Eucharist and Confession), devotions (such as the Rosary)—which represents the second prong of the bishop’s analysis.
Clearly, rejection of the Church’s teaching authority or self-recusal from sacramental participation puts one outside the bounds of true Catholic identity, but I think there is more to our identity than self-subjugation to the Magisterium and Mass attendance—one particular, important, essential item. I’ll cover that in my next post.