A century ago, if you had asked the random person on the street whether a man who occasionally referenced his rosary or was said by his representative to attend Mass “most Sundays” was “very Catholic,” you’d have been laughed at. After all, didn’t Irish-Americans come off the assembly lines with the beads already in their pockets? Was it so unusual to find one who might occasionally mention them? Not to attend Mass every Sunday, well that was the height of irreverence, even in the nascent cultural Catholicism of those early Micks* on our American shores.
By contrast, if you asked those same folks on the street whether American bishops — certainly many of them also Irish — were “very Catholic,” the answer you got would have been quite different. They dressed the part, didn’t they? Prayed the beads and even wore them, put crucifixes around their necks and paraded through the streets with statues and monstrances in fancy robes? Why, what else would they be, if not “very Catholic?”
The Know-Nothings of the mid-1800s knew who was “very Catholic.” They certainly had no problem identifying them. They passed word of that profile on to their kids and spread it about the country. Long after the collapse of the political movement, Know-Nothing attitudes toward Catholic immigrants and their descendants continued well into the 20th century, arguably declining just as JFK was elected.
How is it, then, that yesterday’s tweet from the Washington Post got everything so backward?
Look, far be it from me to deny Biden’s Catholic identity — the theology and the law of the Church both make clear that he is a Catholic. Nevertheless, can he rightly be called “very Catholic?”
Perhaps that’s not fair of me to judge, though I should think the answer obvious. Let me come at it a different way: Can Joe Biden be called “very Catholic” in the same breath that the American bishops are described merely as “right-wing?” Isn’t it their insistence on Catholic doctrine that earns them the label “right-wing?” It certainly seems so. Wouldn’t that insistence make them more Catholic than the “very Catholic” Joe Biden? After all, Biden is described as “very Catholic” and a supporter of “abortion rights,” the very thing bringing him into conflict with these so-called “right-wing” bishops. Are we to believe that the very thing that makes *bishops* lesser Catholics than Biden is that they accept Catholic doctrine he rejects?
This is as farcical a claim as anything put out by the Babylon Bee. Perhaps in a day and age where journalism has come to resemble the satire that mocks it, we shouldn’t be surprised that we can’t tell the difference in catholicity between the men of the cloth tasked with running the Church and a man of the world obsessed with opposing her. Perhaps, indeed, some bishops would do well to contrast themselves more sharply from worldly politicians.
Who can we blame?
If no one recognizes a Catholic these days, that’s the fault of Catholics these days. It’s our job to be recognizable. American Catholicism a century ago — as popularly practiced, anyway — was about survival, about fitting in and getting by, about assimilating with the culture while still being distinctly Catholic. We took root undetected, we spread far and wide, we built universities and hospitals and infiltrated Congress and the Supreme Court. Good for us! Catholics everywhere!
But what kind of Catholics? Of what quality? Of what character? Of what virtue? We kept our heads down to get through life and it helped us, but we also lost our faith. For generations now, we’ve been hiding who we were. Those old patterns have become too deeply engrained on our Catholic subconscious. We are the light of the world, cowering under a bushel basket!
No More Basket Cases!
Thinking about it a different way, we’re almost like Catholic sleeper cells. Except we really fell asleep! We need to wake up! We need to come alive again in our faith.
You and I need to throw off that basket. We need to shine our Catholic faith out for the world to see. Talk about your faith. Find ways to relate to neighbors and coworkers the simple truths of the gospel. Let people know you’re Catholic and then *act like it.* It’s nerve-racking at first. Every fiber of your being will shout at you to stop being the socially awkward weirdo talking about Jesus or Mary or the fact that it’s really fascinating how St. Benedict had a pet raven and then St. Meinrad, a Benedictine Monk, had his murder avenged by a flock of ravens. (Actually, people love those weird Catholic stories, even the macabre ones. Use it.)
Nervous about sharing your faith? Ask someone how you can pray for them. Pretty much everyone opens up to that question.
Afraid to wear your Catholicism on your sleeve? Wear it on your chest! (Shameless plug, sorry.)
This is our time, Catholics. We do have a “very Catholic” president, after all.
Come out of the shadows, convert your friends and neighbors. It’s time for the Catholic revolution. Who knows, it might even reach the White House.
*Take no offense; so Irish-American is the author’s family that his father’s name is officially “Mick” by common law.