It's Time to Explore Depths, Diversity Hidden in American Catholic Identity

Article excerpt

In recent months I have had the opportunity of lecturing at several Catholic colleges: Georgetown University in Washington; St. Norbert's College in DePere, Wis.; Dayton University in Ohio. I also gave an address at Loyola University in Chicago to the second meeting of the National Association for Women in Catholic Higher Education, a network founded in 1929 to address the particular problems of women faculty and administrators in Catholic colleges and universities.

In all these gatherings, participants told of a new emphasis on Catholic identity in their institutions. A prominent line was that Catholic institutions of higher education had lost their Catholic identity and needed to reclaim what was distinctively Catholic about their educational mission. Those with whom I spoke did not welcome this new emphasis on Catholic identity, primarily because what the spokespersons seemed to mean by "Catholic identity" was a re-emphasis on papal authority.

Catholic identity seemed to involve a narrow checklist of moral and doctrinal teachings, with matters such as the indiscussability of abortion or women's ordination high on the list. Catholic identity, in the minds of such persons, seemed to have more to do with silencing discussion than with the quest for knowledge and understanding, hardly an inspiring approach for institutions of higher learning. This is what I would call "Roman" identity rather than Catholic identity.

Rather than fall silent before such constructions of Catholic identity, perhaps those seeking more open institutions might start their own discussions of a more authentic Catholic identity, having to do, first of all, with the prophetic mandate of the gospel and also with the riches of Catholicism's two millennia of social, cultural and intellectual heritage, namely, American Catholicism's multicultural reality.

Catholicism, from its beginnings in North America to its latest immigrant groups, has represented a vast range of cultural and racial diversity. America has gathered into one nation, the United States, the multicultural face of global Catholicism. Although in Catholic countries in Europe or Latin America the Catholic church tried to maintain a hegemonic church, in the United States Catholicism represented the first line of challenge to Anglo-Saxon Protestant hegemony, forcing the United States to accept a more pluralistic self-understanding.

The earliest European explorers were Spanish Catholics coming up from Mexico and French Catholics from New France working their way down the Northwest Territory to New Orleans, founded in 1718. …