Monday, April 14, 2008

Does the Papal Visit Matter?

Yesterday's New York Times featured a lengthy op-ed piece entitled "The View from My Pew" by Dan Barry. Barry is, thanks be to God, not one of those 10% of the US population who are fallen-away Catholics, but his Catholicism is emotionally and perhaps intellectually indifferent to the papacy. Barry looks on the upcoming Papal visit as something that has very little to do with him. Barry defines his Catholicism almost exclusively in terms of his parish, his family, his "pew" in what one Chicagoan (a Knight of Malta) identified (rightly, I think) as a form of incipient Congregationalism that is not altogether rare among American Catholics. Barry doesn't project his perspective on others, but he is rather firmly ensconced in it, in an attitude that has become typical of our relativistic culture: "This is MY truth; your truth is just fine for you. And ne'er the twain shall meet."
The problem is, he is writing about Catholicism, and even etymologically that precludes "mine" and "yours": the word itself means "universal" or "according to the whole." That isn't something I can claim for "my" pew. The view from "my" pew is too restricted to be Catholic. In fact, that is one of the gifts the papacy offers Catholics: the bigger picture of Christianity and of its claims on us.
Too often, I suspect, the "view from my pew" turns into a perch from which I can look with detachment upon the madding crowd. It allows me to forget what St. John Chrysostom wrote in the 4th century: "He who lives in Rome knows that those in the Indies are his members." It may be quite comfortable in "my pew", but if I stay there, I am missing out on an essential feature, the essential feature, of Catholicism: its universality, which is served, maintained and symbolized in the papacy (which is also our visible link to the apostolic Church and its origins in Jesus).
If a practicing Catholic finds that the papal visit doesn't seem to matter one way or the other, it's time for a self-examination: how "catholic" is my Catholicism?


Anonymous said...

Hi Sister,

I'm facilitating an online course at Notre Dame right now on American Catholicism.

Would you mind my posting your commentary on the article on the site as a point / counterpoint?

I think you bring up some great points, of course. I'd like to open it up to the discussion of the class.

(Not to sweeten the pot or anything, but I've included your class on Paul in our Sunday bulletin. I'm at St. Alphonsus in Lakeview, btw.)

Cathy Crino

Anonymous said...

Very well said Sister. That sort of detachment also makes us forget we are our brothers keepers.

xaipe said...

Cathy, I'd be honored to be part of the ND conversation--and thanks a million for the bulletin announcement!

Lisa said...

Very powerful reflection! This notion of universality with a focus on we has historically been difficult for U.S. Americans in general.

Anonymous said...

"No man is an Island" even in his own pew.

Katie Pacyna said...

Hi Sister Anne,
(I'm in choir with you...just by the by). I'm fascinated by this situation here. I went back and read his article and I agree with your response. At times I found his tone actually quite juvenile; I especially bristled at the part where he suggested certain cities find it "uncool" to be Catholic. Please.

Having said that, I think if we're going to claim universality, then at the same time we consider his apathetic reaction to the papal visit, we have to consider our communal reaction to him. While we say self-examination and reflection is the mode to see the truth, I'm not sure that we can expect someone who's obviously questioning the institution to realize the importance and reality of universality through individual self-assessment. It seems to me that we, as a community of believers (the whole) have to give him more to work with than "you go think about it and come back to us when you're ready." In my mind, we gotta go, as a community, and get him back. And that means giving him the benefit of the doubt that he's doing what he can to keep that line of faith open despite his doubts(as you said, he hasn't fallen away yet) and providing the gentle reminders of the importance of events and symbols that shape and renew our faith.

The bottom line for me is this: on any given day, I could be this guy. There have been real days when I've been this guy and I keep coming back not because of self-reflection (I'm not that strong) but because somebody who is walking with me in this whole sees my struggle, gives me their hand and guides me back. While I can reflect on those experiences after the fact and hopefully see where and how I dropped the ball, in the midst of my doubt quelled from "my pew" where relativism can become so easy and convincing, I sometimes just need for someone to say, "Um, Katie...we're going this way...and you're coming with us." And if I ask question them they're patient enough to sit with me until I'm convinced.

I absolutely agree that the "my pew" version of faith for this Church cannot work. That's a religion of one and we're not that. But as I see it, our challenge then becomes much greater; when we're a whole, we're responsible for and to the whole...even those of us who question our very importance by writing off a papal visit.

Thanks for this give me great things to think about. And I hope the spirit of this comment conveys the respect and admiration with which it was written!

xaipe said...

Thanks, Katie! In the old spirituality books, what you are talking about was called "fraternal correction." We are accountable to each other in this Church. Unfortunately, the power of the New York Times magnifies only one voice in what ought to be a conversation.

Katie Pacyna said...


You're absolutely right. We don't need one voice. I hope everyday for conversations.

Thanks again.