Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

identity crisis

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Sep 14, 2003

Remember Bill Clinton's decision to take his cabinet on a secular "retreat" midway through his first term in order to "discover our core values"? One might well wonder whether any man who had reached the age of 50 without awareness of his own principles would be likely to discover them through a guided meditation exercise. An even more radical incongruity runs through a laudatory review of Peter Steinfels' recently published book A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America:

Steinfels argues that discerning a meaningful Catholic identity does not occur either from a return to pre-Vatican Council II certainties or from "vague affirmations of good intentions from which anything distinctively Catholic has been drained." He quotes Georgetown theologian Monika K. Hellwig's comment regarding Catholic higher education as applying to other institutions: Catholic identity "is not a matter of something we have lost and must retrieve. It is a matter of discovering how we do something we have never done before." ...

Steinfels' hero is the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Chicago who died in 1996. Bernardin's ill-fated initiative to overcome polarization between liberal and conservative, clerical and lay, by finding "Common Ground" for all Catholics is the correct strategy, he argues.

Got that? We Catholics have to huddle together and forge a consensus, Bernardin-style, as to what our identity is -- what our "core values" are. Those who believe that the only meaningful common ground has already been given us once-for-all by Christ are patronizingly dismissed as hankering after "a return to pre-Vatican Council II certainties."

Well lads, if Catholic identity is something yet to be achieved, "something we have never done before," then how can we connect ourselves with the Catholicism that Newman and Ignatius Loyola and Aquinas and Augustine thought they had in common with the fathers of Nicaea and with original Apostles themselves? Either the doctors of the Church are wrong, or Steinfels and Hellwig are (for a preview of the Pope's take on the subject, go here). Moreover, even if the Common Ground crew succeed in achieving a (synchronic) consensus, by their own principles this consensus couldn't connect with Catholics of the future, including the immediate future, since new Catholics and new experiences would necessarily make the earlier treaty obsolete. The kind of unity sought by Steinfels is a perpetually moving target, and, as Chesterton remarked, you can't step into the same stream once.

To make the same point in another way: if you take up the documents of Vatican II, and study the footnotes, isn't it clear beyond doubt that these documents ground themselves in every respect on "pre-Vatican Council II certainties"?

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