Recently Cardinal Donald Wuerl wrote a pastoral letter to the Archdiocese of Washington setting forth the need to be clear on our Catholic identity. It is entitled Catholic Identity in an Age of Challenge.
His essential message is that in an age of conflict and challenge we must be clearly and comfortably Catholic. In the introduction, he states that he does not refer to a merely superficial identity, but rather to an identity that is essential, enduring, and true. We must talk about the identity we receive in Baptism. It cannot be taken away from us.
For indeed there are many who would pressure us to be less than fully Catholic, or bid us to seek our identity in other sources. We cannot do so if we are to remain faithful to the call we have received.
In the context of the pastoral letter, Cardinal Wuerl concisely describes a number of cultural factors today that make our task of living, witnessing, and re-proposing the Gospel more difficult. Naming these factors and coming to know their shape and “moves” helps us to be clear, sober, and strategic as we live in and speak to an increasingly secular world.
In what follows, I list the Cardinal’s descriptions of these challenging factors, though not necessarily in the same order that he presents them (he interweaves the factors creatively with other themes). The summary statements (in bold, black text) are largely mine. The italicized texts are direct quotes from the Cardinal’s pastoral letter. The numbers referenced are the page and paragraph within the document. Because the Cardinal’s purpose was not to fully develop these challenges (but more to list them), I have included a few of my own contextual remarks in plain, red text.
I would encourage you to read the full document, which is available by clicking on the title in the first paragraph above.
Let’s consider the cultural challenges that Cardinal Wuerl lists:
I. Freedom is understood as absolute autonomy
Human freedom—or as sometimes framed in contemporary discourse, “freedom of choice”—when fully and rightly understood, does not mean absolute autonomy to do whatever you want to do. We encounter limits to freedom, some of which are natural and proper, and some of which are wrong. It is in truth, Jesus said, that we are set free (John 8:32). If we do not know or recognize what is true and what is false, then we cannot make an informed and intelligent choice, that is, a free choice. “Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery” (Fides et ratio, 90). If we live a lie, we are not free. Thus, we are free not to do whatever we want to do, but what we ought to do, that is, to do what is true to who we are as God made us to be. Freedom is not exercised in a vacuum. We coexist with others, and so freedom is necessarily a shared freedom. Invariably there will be conflicts of interest and belief (17.4-17.6). Autonomy convinces us that fidelity to faith only restricts us (22.1).
II. Disagreement is equated with discrimination
Disagreement simply cannot be denounced as discrimination. Some commentators see this situation as a uniquely American way to live both freedom and diversity. It rests upon the understanding that diversity is real and disagreement is not discrimination. Such freedom cannot be negated by a newly created definition of discrimination (18.1; 23.2-23.3). Clearly this is a huge problem today. Many expect and even demand approval for behaviors and lifestyles, taking any disagreement with them personally. It is a kind of identity politics wherein some draw their entire identity from a narrow range of behaviors (often related to sexuality). Having done this, they take disagreement very personally, taking offense where none was intended. They then go further to equate disagreement with unjust discrimination that might even demand legal punishment.
Indifference, de-Christianization, and atheism are found in their most widespread form in secularism. Two generations of secularization have fashioned this time when some do not even know the foundational prayers, or understand the most basic of Catholic devotions. Still others do not sense a value in Mass attendance, fail to avail themselves of the Sacrament of Penance, and have often lost a sense of mystery (21.2).
The Cardinal lists this but does not develop it. Basically, materialism is inordinate concern with that which is physical and material, while that which is spiritual is labeled unreal or even non-existent. It is also related to scientism (the notion that the physical sciences alone are able to account for every reality) (cf. 21.2).
Individualism demands that we rely on no one but ourselves and our personal needs always take first place (21.2). Individualism is also at the root of relativism, wherein many claim the right to define the world merely as they see it. This view posits that what I think or feel is a sufficient basis for my argument to hold true (at least for me).
Consumerism suggests that our worth is found in the things we accumulate (21.4).
Our society prefers to listen in sound bites, rather than in semesters. Slogans replace thoughtful explanations (20.3).
Here, too, the Cardinal lists this but does develop it. Indifferentism is a kind of false egalitarianism, which sees one thing as no better than another. It is a notion by which one either refuses to distinguish that which is best from that which is merely good, or even equates that which is bad with that which is good. But if everything is true then nothing is true; if everything is good then nothing is ultimately good (cf 22.1).
IX. Skepticism (Scientism)
Skepticism pressures us to trust only what we can observe and measure, and purports to destroy the classical and time-tested relationship between faith and reason and threatens to reject the basic right to religious liberty and freedom of conscience (21.4).
X. The Sexual Revolution
Sexuality recast as casual and recreational—the attempt to recast human sexuality as casual and entirely recreational has led to an untold weakening of and continued assault on marriage and family life (21.4).
The popular absorption with constant activity leads us to believe that unless we are always busy and hectic we are behind schedule. In this setting it becomes commonplace to treat the human person as an object to be used and to focus almost exclusively on material gain (22.1).
XII. Entertainment and Popular Culture
The swift decline in standards of entertainment has exposed our youngest children to repeated displays of intense violence (22.1). There is also the tragic robbery of their innocence through pornography and inappropriate sexual content. Added to this are distorted notions of family life and the ridicule of authority and tradition.
XIII. Growing legal pressures to comply
Historically, people have faced many challenges to freely live their religious identity. In many parts of the world, Christians and people of other faith communities simply are not free. For example, in the Middle East, Nigeria, India and elsewhere, churches are being destroyed and Christians are murdered simply because they are Christian. Closer to home, religious freedom is also violated by laws, policies, and practices which seek to restrict us in the exercise of our Catholic ministries. Here in the United States, for example, priests, professors and others on college campuses have already been threatened with disciplinary action for expressing Catholic teaching. Other forms of infringement of religious liberty include government or social demands that we act contrary to our faith (18.3 – 19.1).
XIV. Expansive (intrusive) Government
These contemporary views of life discussed here often seek to bleach out recognition of God and marginalize the Church and limit her freedom and ability to function and live out her Gospel mandate. Added to this are the challenges of direct government interference as well as in some parts of the world, social violence, and persecution (22.2).
XV. Internal Ecclesiological Concerns
When I was a young priest in the 1960s and 1970s, there was much experimentation and confusion in the Church. Teachers and clergy were encouraged by some to communicate an experience of God’s love, but to do it without reference to the Creed, the sacraments, or Church tradition. It did not work very well. Catholics grew up with the impression that their heritage was little more than warm, vaguely positive feelings about God. Those years of experimentation left many Catholics weak, spiritually and intellectually, and unable to withstand the tsunami of secularism that came in recent decades. We lost many people because we failed to teach them about right and wrong, about the common good, about the nature of the human person. This left many no longer able to admit that we are sinners who need Jesus because many no longer know what sin is. This lived experience of people not being fully or correctly presented the truth of the faith illustrates why we are called to the New Evangelization. It also demonstrates why it is so crucial that we reassert and strengthen our Catholic identity, and that our freedom to do so be respected in society and in law (16.1-16.3).
This is a lengthy and vigorous list to be sure, but it is immensely helpful. Our task remains the same, but it is clearer and more necessary than ever before: Teach, preach, and evangelize. Be Catholic—identifiably, authentically, consistently, and comfortably Catholic.
St. Paul gives this charge:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the Word; be prepared to do so in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound doctrine, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. But as for you: always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
Cardinal Wuerl describes our charge:
We have received something in the Church that is not ours; it is the Lord’s. As his faithful stewards, we are accountable to the Lord, not to the contrary demands of the culture. We need to remain connected to Christ and be true to the mission he has entrusted to us. “Since faith is one, it must be professed in all its purity and integrity. Precisely because all the articles of faith are interconnected, to deny one of them, even of those that seem least important, is tantamount to distorting the whole,” explains Pope Francis. “Indeed, inasmuch as the unity of faith is the unity of the Church, to subtract something from the faith is to subtract something from the veracity of communion” (16.4-16.5).
Be Catholic—wholly, entirely, and integrally. Proclaim the faith Christ has given us. Proclaim it in its entirety, charitably, but without compromise. The world may change, but our charge remains the same: Be Catholic—identifiably, authentically, and completely Catholic.