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Does Catholic identity matter?

  • 31 March 2011

In a recent speech given to Australian Catholic students titled 'The Fall of the Christian West', American Cardinal Raymond Burke was concerned with Catholic identity. This issue has also preoccupied Catholic thinkers, institutions, religious congregations and other groups.

Although the topic touches important issues, it is generally unhelpful to make identity the starting point of conversation.

Cardinal Burke defined true Catholic identity by its opposition to secularist societies. These were portrayed negatively by their acceptance of abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, pornography,  contraception and restrictions on religious expression, and defined by their consistent philosophies.

So when Catholics are influenced by their societies their Catholic identity is eroded. To be a Catholic is defined in terms of beliefs, dispositions and practices that are self consciously orthodox. This will inevitably lead to opposition, to martyrdom of opposition.

The difficulty with preoccupation with Catholic identity is that it stands in such conflict with the central movement of the Gospel expressed, for example, in the story of the Good Samaritan.

In the story, a Jew asks Jesus, 'Who is my neighbour?' His question is about identity, about who belongs to his group. He invites Jesus to mark out the boundaries of faith and practice that separate this group from other groups.

In response Jesus tells a story about a Samaritan, a member of a group from which all Jews would separate themselves. The Samaritan tends to an injured Jew whom Jews with some status in the community pass by, presumably because contact with the bloodied man would have made them ritually impure.

After telling the story, Jesus rephrases the question, asking his questioner who proved a neighbour to the injured man.

The story suggests that the question we begin with should not be about identity but about how we meet the needs of the people who present themselves to us. Identity questions fix our attention on the group to which we belong. The question Jesus asks invites us to look through the eyes of strangers. Only from that perspective can we safely reflect on our group.

This story, which encapsulates Jesus' ethic, suggests that groups inspired by a Christian motivation should always begin by looking outwards to ask who in their world are in need of healing, freedom and love, and asking how we can reach them.

That starting point leads to a different logic than the logic of identity. The conversation will go in three directions. It will lead people to ask how they can