Politics & Policy

The Catholic Identity Crisis

What the Georgetown and Notre Dame controversies reveal.

In his speech this week at Georgetown University, President Obama made an interesting comment about economics. “We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand,” he said. “We must build our house upon a rock.”

I doubt that anyone would accuse him of plagiarism, but what he was quoting came from Jesus’s parable. The man who built his house on sand paid a price when the winds took it down, while the man who built his house on stone saw it withstand the storm.

It is quite appropriate that a parable was quoted at a Catholic university founded by Jesuits. The entire campus is filled with religious symbolism. Crucifixes, statues of Mary, and other religious items are everywhere, revealing the rich tradition here.

Oddly, however, although the president didn’t mind quoting Jesus without credit, his advance team insisted that all religious symbols be covered in the place in which he was speaking. Incredibly, Georgetown officials complied. At the request of the White House, officials at the university placed cover over the letters IHS — the Greek abbreviation for the name of Jesus.

This incident followed the uproar over Obama’s planned speech at Notre Dame, at which he will be given an honorary doctorate. The Notre Dame development department reports widespread anger at the decision to invite him.

Now, if I were a conspiratorial sort of thinker, which I am not, I might suspect that Obama is deliberately trying to divide Catholics. But this is not a conspiracy. Obama is merely capitalizing on a cultural shift that has been in process for a long time. Over the last half century or so, Catholics have undergone a kind of psychological development, moving from the embattled and impoverished immigrant class, unsure of their own status in a hostile culture, to founding their own institutions, serving their country, and becoming as successful as any WASP capitalist in getting their share of the American Dream.

So complete has been this assimilation that on almost any matter of public-policy or lifestyle choices, Catholics are indistinguishable from other Americans. Until, that is, one looks at those who regularly practice their faith as compared with those who have a nominal commitment that amounts to showing up to say hello or goodbye at baptisms and funerals, as Jacqueline Kennedy once put it.

If this thesis is correct, then it is not far-fetched to assert that nominal Catholics are in the midst of an identity crisis. They are embarrassed by the distinctiveness of their more faithful brethren who observe fast days, don’t approve of abortion, think marriage is what their grandparents thought it was, and hold conservative views on the other hot-button issues that Catholics in public life frequently get asked about by reporters.

Of course, nominal Catholics would deny such an identity crisis. We simply believe in a pluralistic and tolerant society, they would insist. But if the Georgetown episode doesn’t reflect an identity crisis — the religious family that was once the Church’s leading defender blots out their name (Jesuit) and their historic inspiration (Jesus) — then what does?

Think of it: A Catholic university was willing to cover up the name of Jesus, hide it from the cameras, because the president of the United States was coming and asked them to do so. The fact alone gives me chills.

At the root of tolerance is the notion that one is permissive, not about one’s own beliefs, but about the beliefs of those with whom one disagrees. If you do not know who you are and what you hold to be true, you cannot be tolerant.

We have come to the point that the most significant contribution Georgetown or Notre Dame could make to society’s diversity would be to become, once again, Catholic — and not be embarrassed about it. The Church in general and the Jesuits in particular have in their own history heroic examples of martyrs refusing to submit to secular authority and dying for the faith (such as Edmund Campion, S.J., at the hands of Elizabeth I). The least these campus authorities can do is not take active measures to undermine their own identity.

– Father Robert A. Sirico is president and co-founder of the Acton Institute.

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