Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What is a “Catholic Identity”?

Currently some Catholics chant the slogan, “Catholic Identity”.  This is a non-descript term but some Church leaders like Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix use it to declare certain people or institutions unqualified to bear the moniker “Catholic”.  Much like a marketing executive suing to protect a brand image, they declare something or someone “non-Catholic” who fails to meet their standards for “Catholic Identity”.   Some Catholic laity, emboldened by church leaders like Bishop Olmsted, also spout vitriolic pronouncements declaring who is or isn’t “Catholic”.  The result is a sickening disharmony and disunity.

Chanters of “Catholic Identity” and supporters of declaring people and things “non-Catholic” seem to be church history buffs who believe church history began in 1545 A.D. at the Council of Trent.  They derisively label as “liberal” people who remember the church’s rich history dating all the way back to shortly after Jesus’ time when there were no Catholic schools, Catholic universities, Catholic hospitals, Catholic Catechisms, papal encyclicals, or infallibility doctrines.  But there were Catholics and a Catholic Church. 

The earliest recorded use of the term “Catholic Church” was by St. Ignatius of Antioch in 106 A.D.   Ignatius wrote, “Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church”.  Thus, if we embrace the earliest history of “Catholic Identity”, it’s a pretty simple definition: the presence of Jesus Christ.

In this same document, St. Ignatius instructed Catholics to follow the bishops, “as Jesus Christ does the Father”.  This is a powerful statement aligning the laity with Jesus Christ.  Thus, according to St. Ignatius, where there are laypeople, there is Jesus, and there is the Catholic Church. 

By the way, his instruction to follow the bishops spoke to the bishops’ authority to decide who could baptize and lead the “love-feast” (the Eucharistic celebration).  He wrote about one heresy: believing Jesus’ crucifixion was only an illusion.  He indicated people holding such a belief had excluded themselves from the Eucharist because they did not want it; the Body of Christ taken in Eucharist was meaningless to people who believed Christ’s Passion was simply a mirage.  He instructed Catholics to pray for these people and explicitly declined mentioning their names…a far cry from today’s political abuse of the term “Catholic” as some sort of endorsement or denouncement of public figures and issues.    

By the way, Jesus didn’t kick anyone out of his group, not even Judas who profited by handing him over to be killed.  The closest he came to ostracizing anyone was when he told Peter (the first pope), “Get behind me Satan” (MT 16:23).  But he did not kick Peter out of the “club”. 

Maybe that’s because Jesus repeatedly, untiringly preached and offered forgiveness.  He focused on holding one’s self accountable more than one’s peers.  In doing so, we realize our many flaws needing forgiveness and hopefully are inspired to undertake radical measures extending forgiveness to others.

So what is a “Catholic Identity” other than belief in Jesus Christ?  If we return to Ignatius’ definition of “Catholic Church”, isn’t every baptized Christian a member?    If Jesus never kicked anyone out of the group, why should we now?  Why have church leaders seen fit to complicate “Catholic Identity” and use these complications to divide the one church?  Does forgiveness or condemnation better embody the presence of Christ, the earliest “Catholic Identity”?

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