A matter of identity

In a recent post re-proposing “fish friday,” I implied that I disagree with the 1966 decisions of Paul VI and the NCCB (USCCB’s forerunner) to make fish friday optional, but set aside that discussion until today.

One of the things that worries me is Catholic identity; I would call it waning but that seems a generation too late. In a recent post on celibacy, his excellency Bp. Christopher Coyne (by God’s grace my apostolic administrator) notes the sexuality-based identity so prevalent in the modern world:

Sadly, we live in a culture driven by the sexual definition and understanding of the human person as the primary one. The starting point for most people is the sexual label: ‘I’m gay, I’m straight, I’m lesbian, I’m bi, I’m transgender, etc.’

And so it is. But I wonder if perhaps the Church can learn something from the gay community.

My impression is that a large percentage of that community organize their lives around their “gay identity.” There is a gay media, which they read; there are gay clubs and bars, to which they go; there are gay social organizations, to which they belong; there are gay-themed recreational activities such as gay cruises, which they enjoy, and so on. They have gay think tanks to advocate gay-friendly social policy. Most of my gay friends and acquaintances, it seems to me, see everything through the prism of this identity; you remember the old saw that the New York Times‘ headline when the apocalypse comes will be “world ends, women and children hardest hit”? Well, for them, it can often feel to an outsider, it isn’t news until the Advocate runs it, until the Pink Press has come up with a gay-related angle. Simply put, to the extent this impression is correct, gays get identity.

Do Catholics, still?

Catholicism isn’t a solitary religion; it isn’t just about a vertical and personal relationship between the individual believer and God. We recognize that our adoption into the Holy Family requires a horizontal relationship with a community of believers. See, e.g., McBrien, Catholicism 12-14 (2d ed. 1994). We recognize and support each other, mutual piety reinforcing mutual piety. Identity helps recognize one another and so helps ad intra; it also helps ad extra: “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words!” In the last few decades, however, the “grout” of shared Catholic identity seems to have decayed. Small wonder that the tiles are falling out!

Just to take one example, if one walked into a restaurant on a Friday a few generations ago, picking out the Catholics was easy: They’d be the ones crossing themselves to say grace over a nice slice of fish. There are reasonable arguments for making “fish Friday” optional, and my previous post mentioned some of them, but in focusing solely on in terms of the vertical, the bishops of 1966 failed to take into account its place in the horizontal. A norm whence substitutions are allowed isn’t implausible, because, for example, abstinence qua penance is small potatoes for vegetarians! The problem, however, is this: Although the bishops expressly assumed in the 1966 Pastoral Statement (see my previous post for details) that abstinence would remain the norm, in practice, the move was not perceived by the first generation as allowing substitutions but rather as license to do nothing (making something optional will typically have that effect), and the second and successive generations, not having learned from the example of their parents, are not even aware of the issue. The thing is, children learn by watching their parents and those around them in the community; if one generation stops doing something,successive generations are unlikely to recover it because it will simply not occur to them. A thing must be conceived before it can be considered.

Thus, after the generation to which Pastoral Statement was given abandoned friday abstinence, their children had no models from whom to learn; the children had no idea that that was something that Catholics did (a situation that worsens if they didn’t hear contrary voices from the pulpit, and in the 1970s, preaching Catholic praxis was decidedly “out” in favor of a stripped-down and diluted catholicism). And so, where their parents simply didn’t do it, the children didn’t even know that there was something to do that they were neglecting. And their children, in turn, are even less likely to be exposed to the notion of abstention and thus even less likely to do it. Like communion on the tongue, they have no idea that it is even an issue, save only the occasional contemptuous  reference by a trendy liturgist to the supposed horrors of the preconciliar Church.

Examples could be multiplied; I recently read a blog post discussing the collapse of attendance on Holy Days of Obligation. The child of parents who diligently attend Church on days of obligation may or may not continue to do so herself, but at least she knows that that’s what Catholics do; the child of parents who never bother is unlikely to be exposed to the idea that attendance on such days is obligatory, and is likely to reject it as contrary to his experience if he should be exposed to it. Cf. Longenecker, Can you be good without God? (Apr. 24, 2012).

We have a crisis of identity; people are leaving the Church, and, worse yet, some of them don’t even know they’ve done so. (How many times have you heard “I don’t think I have to attend Mass or agree with the Church on X, Y, and Z in order to be a good Catholic”?) To begin addressing this, should we not start by reclaiming our shared identity as a communion of the faithful?

So, what can be done? In the short term, the bishops would do well to reissue and publicize the Pastoral Statement, admonishing the flock that Fridays are penitential days (not optional), that some kind of penance is required (not optional), and that the default penance is abstinence (not optional, but susceptible to substitutions for those for whom abstention is not penitential). The Holy Father has used the term “re-propose,” and it has been adopted in other contexts: I suggest that just as we should re-propose faith ad extra, we should re-propose orthodoxy and tradition ad intra. If we could start by getting back to how things were immediately after the Pastoral Statement was issued, if we could trim the subsequent rot back to the healthy plant, that would be a good start; it would help foster our sense of Catholic Identity. And we should do so with alarm and speed, because right now we are to a great extent living on the inertia and memories of an aging generation who was brought up before the grout was stripped out; at risk of sounding morbid, we really only have until they die to get the grout back in place.

I might go further. A public reintroduction of the Pastoral Statement should, ideally, be prelude to episcopal reconsideration of the Pastoral Statement. Well-intentioned though it was, it has proved to be a poisonous bequeathment. It should be abandoned. The American bishops should revoke it and follow their British brethren in returning abstinence to normative status—there is no reason why the afore-mentioned vegetarians cannot add an additional and appropriate penance—and pastors should catechize and encourage their flocks to return to the practice. We cannot assume any more that Catholics will absorb the grout of Catholic praxis—the grout list and more—from their parents; pastors must guide their flocks, and communities must strengthen one another in elements of communal praxis such as public grace and “fish friday.” It is good for us as individuals; it is good for us as a community; it is good for us as a Church.