The recent installation of New York's 59-year-old Archbishop Timothy Dolan stopped the Big Apple dead in its cynical, sophisticated tracks. Archbishop Dolan articulates a happy, unapologetic and positive approach to our 2,000-year-old faith, despite lingering anguish over the clerical sex abuse scandal.
"One would hope that through education and through the joy that we give by our lives that people will begin to see that these fears and this skepticism we have about the Church are unwarranted," he told a reporter. "The Church as a whole still calls out to what is noble in us."
This vision of an educated, joyful, unified Church may prove a little difficult to imagine right now, in light of recent tempests over Catholic identity at two of our nation's most prominent Catholic universities.
First came the University of Notre Dame's decision to honor President Barack Obama, despite his strong abortion-rights record, by making him commencement speaker and recipient of an honorary law degree. Some 40 bishops have criticized the decision. Then, engendering further outrage, came Georgetown University's acquiescence to a White House request to cover up a gold-lettered "IHS" (a Greek abbreviation of Jesus' name that is a common identifier of Jesuit endeavors) behind the president's podium before he delivered a major address on the economy there. And then Georgetown's law school announced it would bestow an award on Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic who supports abortion rights.
For the universities, the stated goal is engagement with the political process and ensuring Catholic social teaching has a voice in the future direction of our country. For their critics, the decisions are a capitulation to secularism and failure to be strong enough witnesses to the sine qua non of Catholic social teaching, namely respect for the dignity of every human life.
Ideological polarization has been an issue for more than a generation in the Catholic Church. This is expressing itself increasingly in the language of identity. This battle often suffers from a shallowness of terms and criteria on both the left and the right that suggests a poor catechesis in the faith.
Both extremes tend toward legalism -- focusing on the obligations and requirements of being authentic followers of Christ. This attitude translates into: "How little can (or how much must) I do to still be a good Catholic?"
That being a good Catholic requires a good-faith following of what sometimes can seem like arbitrary rules -- fasting one hour before Communion, etc. -- is certain. But to reduce our faith to that is to become the "whitened sepulchers" Jesus warns us against.
Worse is the idea, unfortunately pervasive among many Catholic Americans, that our faith-informed beliefs on issues like abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage -- or, for that matter, on divorce, the execution of criminals, torture or the exercise of military force -- can or should be left at home or rejected out of hand. These beliefs are not exclusively religious positions, but are formed by the best of modern science and the rich millennial-long tradition of practical Catholic ethics.
Archbishop Dolan suggests a different approach. Unapologetically and joyfully Catholic. Meekly aware of our own faults. Humbly willing to open ourselves to the richness of Catholic tradition and its sacraments and be transformed by Christ's love. This is how American Catholics will turn this crisis of Catholic identity into a 21st-century success story.
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