An appeal to orthodoxy

Catholics have grown fond of adjectives, sifting through labels like “conservative” and “liberal,” “charismatic” and “traditional” to find a way to self-describe doctrinal leaning and liturgical preferences.

The danger of these adjectives—helpful though they may be for characterizing broad movements within the Christian community—arises from the ease with which these labels become permanent descriptors, leading to a hyphenation of religious identity. It can become all too easy for Catholics to define personal belief in opposition to a different part of the Body of Christ, to identify as a traditional-Catholic in order to separate oneself from the connotations of liberal-Catholicism, or vice versa. The appeal of comfortable ideology overrides the Church’s vocation of authentic unity.

But why aren’t Catholics comfortable just being “Catholic?”

Perhaps the gravitation towards adjectives occurs because of an impoverished sense of what it means to be Catholic, so the credal definition must be bolstered by additional descriptors. Though this solves the immediate problem of categorizing individual preferences, the use of descriptors fails to address the root of the conversational problem: “Catholic” can be hard to define.

Is someone Catholic if she loves God but publicly dissents from the Church’s teachings about marriage? Or if he prays daily and serves the poor but denies the real presence? Is a politician Catholic if he attends Mass but openly supports abortion? Where is the line? At what point does departure from Church teaching delegitimize someone’s claim to the identity of “Catholic?”

I cannot, should not, and will not answer these questions. They are not accusations, but are instead invitations to consider the nature of Catholic identity.

But the label of “Catholic” causes confusion when it is self-applied by individuals who adhere to only certain aspects of Catholicism or openly dissent from the Church’s teachings. To speak coherently about Catholic identity, then, one must distinguish between that which accords with the Church and that which does not.

Certain beliefs that can sometimes be associated with liberal-Catholicism—such as the possibility of the sacramental validity of same-sex unions or the use of contraception—are not Catholic beliefs. On the other hand, a rejection of the post-Vatican II Church, as might arise in traditional-Catholic circles, is not a Catholic position. The level of assessment matters: rather than passing unilateral judgment on the legitimacy of a liberal-Catholicism or a traditional-Catholicism, clarity of language can be cultivated by identifying the Catholicity of a particular aspect of one’s belief.

On March 29, the Congregation for Catholic Education promulgated “The Identity of the Catholic School for a Culture of Dialogue.” The document addresses the “divergent interpretations of the term ‘Catholic,’” born of its equivocal use to describe stances of varying orthodoxy. “Catholic” is a “complex word that is not easily expressed by means of exclusively legal, formal and doctrinal criteria.” Yet, despite the complexity of articulating a positive vision of “Catholic,” the Congregation articulates what it is not.

A school’s Catholic identity cannot be reductive. The Congregation argues that a school’s “Catholicity cannot be attributed only to certain spheres or to certain persons, such as liturgical, spiritual or social occasions.” A school cannot claim Catholic identity while excluding faith from the central work of education and timidly relegating it to an extracurricular or ornamental role. Or, to borrow the metaphor of Notre Dame’s own professor emeritus of philosophy, Alfred Freddoso, an institution cannot be a “public school in a Catholic neighborhood” and retain its authentic claim to Catholic identity. The reliance on a Catholic veneer is a reductive vision because it fails to fully understand the mission of Catholic education, which is not only the formation of students, but also the salvation of souls.

On the other hand, the Congregation also argues against a “narrow interpretation” of a school’s Catholic identity that “contradicts the vision of an ‘open’ Catholic school that intends to apply to the educational sphere the model of a ‘Church which goes forth’ in dialogue with everyone.” In an exclusionary interpretation of Catholic identity, “there is no room for those who are not ‘totally’ Catholic.” While advocating for the centrality of Catholic identity, the Congregation cautions against the temptation to insularity and self-referentiality. The work of Catholic education entails both the spiritual formation of the faithful and the active introduction of non-Catholics to the truth, beauty, and tradition of the faith.

And so, the definition of “Catholic” need not remain nebulous. A rigorous and precise understanding of Catholic identity matters because, as Pope Francis has said, “We cannot create a culture of dialogue if we do not have identity.” The mission of evangelization—a work that demands genuine personal encounter and a sincere engagement with the questions posed by the world—demands a robust conception of this identity, both on a personal and an institutional level.

It is here that we can turn our attention to our beloved Notre Dame. My time as a student draws quickly to a close, but the conversation regarding Notre Dame’s Catholic identity continues. This conversation can be clarified by the recovery of a true understanding of Catholicity. To be Catholic is to be in accordance with the Church—not to pick and choose teachings, not to neglect the truth so as to garner secular prestige. To be Catholic is to rejoice in the life of Christ, his loving work of salvation, and the properly-understood diversity of the universal Church—not to foment dissent and confusion.

As an institution and as individuals, we are challenged by the Church to leave behind the ease of hyphenated religious identity and appeal to orthodoxy rather than ideology when assessing Catholicity. We are challenged to be intellectually honest, to name things as they are, and to reject the application of “Catholic” to that which strays from orthodoxy.

It is my hope that students, faculty, and staff will take up the mantle of Catholic identity. Particularly, as Professor McGreevy prepares to begin his tenure as provost, it is my hope that he will guide the university towards an authentic embodiment of Catholicity that tolerates no dissent under its name, but rather participates fully and dynamically in the Church’s work of lovingly drawing souls to Christ.

Mary Frances Myler is a senior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies with minors in theology and constitutional studies. She has spent most of the past year contemplating the university’s Catholic identity, and while she will graduate in a few short weeks, she’s not likely to give up the good fight anytime soon. Share your thoughts about the state of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity with her at

Featured image: The Latin seal of the University of Notre Dame, which is in the public domain.