The Catholic Studies Reader

By James T. Fisher; Margaret M. McGuinness | Go to book overview

6
A Definition of Catholic:
Toward a Cosmopolitan Vision

JEANNINE HILL FLETCHER

Catholic Studies emerges in the North American context precisely at a time when the boundaries for identifying “Catholic” are contested. Under conditions of globalization when persons shift in and out of a variety of local and transnational affiliations, the identifier is not as clear as perhaps it once was. In earlier periods, in so-called Catholic countries, the category “Catholic” encompassed the whole of society and the definition was bound up with national and ethnic identities. In non-Catholic Christian contexts, such as in the United States, where identity was constructed “over-against” the dominant ethos, the category “Catholic” was identifiable in contrast to the largely Protestant society. Yet, as one set of researchers conclude regarding the present North American context:

Today Catholics no longer feel so distinct, and they don’t need to
defend themselves against the outside. Now they feel freer, more
allowed to make their own choices—whether to be a loyal church-
going Catholic, an ethnic Catholic, a private Catholic, a Catholic in
name only, or none at all. Now the boundary between Catholic and
non-Catholic is fuzzy, and the social environment provides little
“identity from outside.”1

As the field of Catholic Studies emerges when the lines between Catholic and non-Catholic are blurred, providing a definition of “Catholic” that might guide Catholic Studies is an exercise in self-reflexivity. As feminist theorist Elizabeth Spelman writes, “Since people can be classified and catalogued in any number of ways, overlapping ways, how we catalog them, in particular how we sort out the overlapping distinctions, will depend on our purposes and our sense of what the similarities and differences among them are and how they should be

-129-

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