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Catholic Identity - A Tale of Two Cultures:Vatican and American


Doug Rodel


I wish to discuss how two very distinct identities I carry – American citizen and Roman Catholic believer – coexist, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in tension.



If we go back to the early 1960’s when I, like many of you, came of age in both traditions – American and Catholic - we remember two charismatic Johns: President John F. Kennedy and Pope John XXIII. And we remember it was a great time to be an American Catholic. The United States elected its first Catholic president. Our Catholic schools were flourishing. And the 800 private Catholic hospitals were among our nation’s finest healthcare facilities.



What accounted for these robust Catholic institutions in America? For more than a century, Catholics had worried that their immigrant faith would be lost in this new land of freedom and opportunity. To safeguard the faith, the American bishops recommended minimal cooperation with non-Catholics, and they created a powerful parallel culture of Catholic institutions, namely, schools, hospitals and social service agencies such as Catholic Charities, to provide for the temporal needs of their immigrant communities.



But as early as the 1930’s, and especially after World War II, political forces that would change this face of American Catholicism began coalescing.John Kennedy campaigned and won election by eloquently taking the nation to the edge of what he called The New Frontier with its challenges of “unfulfilled hopes and dreams.” Many of these hopes and dreams became reality upon Kennedy’s death when President Johnson channeled the nation’s grief into implementing The Great Society triumphs – civil rights, the war on poverty, education reform, Medicare and Medicaid,as well as consumer and environmental protections. These Great Society programs were a natural outgrowth of FDR’s New Deal, and both embody many tenets of Catholic social justice teachings established in the writings of the popes, American Catholic intellectuals and American bishops.



But why am I talking aboutRoosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society?  Because they represented significant external forces that caused the American church to change.As a consequence of these historic programs, American government accepted more and more responsibility for the temporal needs of its citizens. From this time onward we saw the movement away from the parallel Catholic institutions.For example, Catholic social service agencies now became collaborators with the government. Henceforth, the new challenge for the American Catholic church was to figure out how it would become a penetrating presence in American culture as its parallel presence receded.



We may very well find our answer in Rome where Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council saying, “…(T)asks of immense gravity and scope await the church….It is a question…of bringing the modern world into contact with the life giving…energies of the Gospel…”



John XXIII, just like John F Kennedy, took us to the edge of a new frontier when speaking of the unfulfilled hopes and dreams for the 20th century church. He said it is past time to open the windows and let some fresh air into a stale institution. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, the Council Fathers got to work creating documents that rang out with the words “freedom” and “liberty.” It becomes evident Vatican II is about optimism and hope for all mankind.



Here it is time to introduce another American Catholic. His face appeared on the cover of Time magazine,December 12, 1960, shortly after JFK’s election. And he is our third John, John Courtney Murray, a Jesuit priest. His lifelong subject of study was the interaction ofAmericaand Catholicism. He told us Catholics that we must become more intellectually aware of our “coexistence” in a pluralistic, heavily Protestant society. Time magazine recognized and reinforcedMurray’s scholarly claims thatAmerica’s public philosophy necessarily rests on a set of natural law principles - principles nurtured and sustained to a large extent by the Catholic tradition. Therefore, Catholicism was not just compatible with the American Experiment, but essential to it.



But John Courtney Murray’s work on religious freedom had angered many in the Vatican and he was virtually silenced by Pope Pius XII. So despite his fame and scholarshipMurraywas not even asked to participate in the discussions leading up to the First Session of Vatican II. However, very fortunately for us Americans, and for our church, archconservative Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York saw to it that Murray was present as an expert at the Second Session.  And the rest is history.



The “Declaration on Religious Freedom,” written and rewritten five times by Murray in the midst of contentious Council debate, is the distinctive contribution of theUnited Statesto Vatican II. It reaffirmed the most basic principle of Catholic social justice teaching, the dignity of the person. Here belatedly in human history, the bishops affirmed religious freedom as an inalienable right. Remember, the church had condemned religious freedom in the 19thcentury! Opponents of the declaration did not want to admit that the church had been wrong. Her previous position was that “truth has all the rights and error has no rights.” In practice this meant that because non-Catholics were following an erroneous religion, they had no right to religious freedom, and at best could be tolerated. But, as one Council observer remarked, “This is nonsense. Truth is an abstract concept. People have rights.” The Declaration on Religious Freedom opened the way toward new confidence in ecumenical relationships, and a new straight forwardness in the relationships between the church and the modern world.



This is the good part of the Roman church I can firmly buy into. I can say yes to this church because I believe I am a participating member of the Roman communion, sharing a history and a theology, which recognizes the pope, the bishop ofRome, as the leader of the global church. I believe the papacy is the symbol of unity for this worldwide church. I can understand it is the papacy, both as an office and as a symbol, very similar to our American presidency, that prevents the splintering movement of local churches, spinning off and away from unity with the larger church. In the documents of Vatican II I read that the papacy and the Eucharist together are the twin anchors of Catholic unity.We Catholic Christians are a sacramental people who gather as a community because of Eucharist and for Eucharist. Without the Eucharist, there is no church. Without the papacy, there is only the local church.



My acceptance of some things Roman gets more complicated when we bring a fourth John into this presentation – Pope John Paul II. So much of what he did in relation to the outside world was progressive. He sided with religious tolerance, democracy and human rights. And now some historians are even writing that John Paul, more than any other world leader, was responsible for the fall of theSoviet Union. But paradoxically, his insistence on democracy outside the church did not translate to democracy inside the church. Instead, much of what he did inside the church was stifling, for example,Vaticancentralization, obsessive secrecy, strict orthodoxy, minimizing the role of women, and the repeated condemnations of theologians. I find myself angered by aVaticanculture that is modeled on assumptions drawn not from the Bible, but rather from human cultural preferences that are clearly imperialistic, despotic, and paternalistic.



The single outstanding feature of American Catholics is that we expect to have a say in the shape of our church. We no longer believe that our faith is something simply given from above. Those of us who identify ourselves as active, involved and more progressive Catholics say it’s all about our culture, our history and our style. It is the style of our American culture and history to be intensely democratic and fiercely participatory.Therefore as progressive American Catholics we openly call for more democracy in the day-to-day activities of our church, a greater say for all the faithful in the selection of our bishops and pastors, and lay control over financial matters. We have a wide range of expertise which for historical reasons is reserved in church life to the clergy by an outdated Code of Canon Law.



Fifty years ago I bought into the dreams of JFK’s Camelot, and the irrepressible optimism of an Italian pope. An assassin’s bullet killed our President John, but we learned his dream lives on in the historic legislation that helped change the institutional structures of the American church. Today there are those who strive to kill Pope John XXIII’s dream for Vatican II.



So I ask you, are we ready as resolute Americans, and committed Catholics, to step up, to identify actions, and to work for reforms in the spirit of Vatican II that will once again change the institutional structures of our American Catholic church?



I used three primary sources:


Hehir, J. Bryan, Th.D. Notes from his lecture “Catholic Identity: The Roots, the Relevance and the Realization of the Idea.” Third Annual Lecture and Award, Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity Series, April 23, 2009, College of St Catherine.


Dionne, E.J., Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right,PrincetonUniversity Press, 2008.


Lakeland, Paul, Church: Living Communion, Liturgical Press, 2009.