There’s an intriguing phenomena going on in the culture these days. Over the past several weeks, I’ve read a variety of articles by “Catholics” who to want to define, for themselves, what the word “Catholic” means.
Most recently, writer Charles Pierce, takes this topic up in his lengthy Boston Globe article, “What I Believe.”
“The institutional Catholic Church, for me, has no concrete form, no physical structure, no hierarchy except that of ideas,” Pierce states in the article. He continues, “Even my attendance at Mass is largely contemplative, the priest presiding in a supervisory capacity, his authority dependent wholly on the primacy of my individual conscience.”
In other words, for Pierce, the Church has no authority other than that which he himself deems to give it.
In the article, Pierce goes on to quote Catholics such as Garry Willis and Father Richard McBrien in support of his idea that the hierarchical Church is dead and “irrelevant.”
He quotes McBrien as saying that, ‘the hierarchy is largely irrelevant to any intelligent, educated Catholic.’ That’s curious, given that as a priest of Christ’s Church, Father McBrien himself is part of the hierarchy. Using logic, one could conclude that if Father McBrien were correct, then he himself is irrelevant.
Pierce says that the most fundamental rule of his “Catholicism” is that, “nobody gets to tell me that I’m not a Catholic” - no priest, no bishop, not even the Pope.
He even goes on to say that while he’s still a practicing Catholic, that he’s grown up to become “an anti-Catholic Catholic.”
Perhaps because the Catholic Church is something Pierce was born into, he feels he has the freedom to define for himself what it means to be “Catholic.” As a Catholic convert, I know differently. It wasn’t until I was able to say that I believed everything that the Church taught and believed, and was thinking with the Church, that I was permitted to join her. I’d like to think that anyone claiming to be an “anti-Catholic Catholic” is actually Protestant.
Coming into the Church meant believing that which Christ and His Church proposes to teach and believe. It meant being humble enough to admit that I do not have all the answers, but being willing to submit to a higher authority. It meant being part of a community, a vast communion made up of that great cloud of witnesses who have gone on before, the Saints and angels, the Holy Father and the magisterial Church, the College of Cardinals, bishops, priests and deacons that surround him.
Reading Pierce’s definition it’s difficult to imagine anyone - an apostle or saint - laying down their life for the kind of Church he describes.
Pierce wants a Church without a hierarchy. He doesn’t believe that there’s an authority, outside of himself, that can tell him what he can or cannot do. He wants Christ without His Church, which really isn’t possible.
The key thing that Pierce is protesting is buried midway through the article. There, he speaks of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae.
“Catholics discovered that they could ignore the pope in good conscience and remain Catholics, not matter how many people told them they couldn’t,” writes Pierce.
Reading that, I was reminded of Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin’s wonderful letter to Representative Patrick Kennedy of last year. It’s worth quoting from at length.
In that letter, Bishop Tobin takes the time to define what it means to be Catholic.
Quoting from Kennedy, Bishop Tobin writes: ‘The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.’
“Well, in fact, Congressman, in a way it does,” responds Bishop Tobin. “Although I wouldn’t choose those particular words, when someone rejects the teachings of the Church, especially on a grave matter, a life-and-death issue like abortion, it certainly does diminish their ecclesial communion, their unity with the Church.”
Bishop Tobin points out that it isn’t just one’s baptism, one’s family ties, or one’s cultural heritage that makes one Catholic.
“Being a Catholic means that you’re part of a faith community that possesses a clearly defined authority and doctrine, obligations and expectations,” Bishop Tobin writes. “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.”
It’s a great definition. And one that’s worth repeating, over and over and over again.