Surely she had never asked God for anything except that He should let her have her will. And every time she had been granted what she asked for – for the most part. Now here she sat with a contrite heart – not because she had sinned against God but because she was unhappy that she had been allowed to follow her will to the road’s end.
-Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter
So, as many of you are probably aware, in the aftermath of Donald Trump winning the U.S. Presidential Election, there was much discussion about the “liberal bubble,” the boundary beyond which some people who hold certain progressive tenets, consume media espousing those tenets, and interact with like-minded people, have difficulty understanding or even perceiving people who subscribe to different ideologies.
While from some quarters there was much condemnation of people who could do something so outrageous as vote for Trump, there have been a few progressive voices, at least in my Facebook feed, which I can confidently assume to be universally representative, asking how they might come to understand these voters whom they disregarded at their own peril. They’ve made something of an effort to read other perspectives and stories, and to burst that bubble in their own lives.
As has been said elsewhere, this is, in some ways, an application of identity politics to a new set of people. Mark Lilla describes in the New York Times how stereotypical identity politics involve, say, the interests of a particular ethnic minority, describing the experience of that group, and so on, and one result of a major emphasis on these minorities’ experiences has been to encourage “white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored.” Groups typically thought of as constituting the majority can now be looked at through the lens of “identity liberalism,” as Lilla calls it. So, one of the things at which these progressives trying to understand the Other should be looking is religion, especially American Christianity; not just economics, jobs, dying communities, or tribalism.
Catholic Identity Politics
Now, after having raced recklessly through all that context, for my point: it seems odd to think of identity liberalism and being a member of the Catholic Church as really being on the same wavelength. Yes, if I hold certain beliefs, it is logical to expect that I live out those beliefs, and that a group of people holding similar beliefs will live out those beliefs comparably, and that therefore these ways of living out one’s beliefs can be identified and portrayed in some general way. It is logical to think that, if I see a depiction of the ways in which belonging to a certain community influence a person’s life, and entail certain struggles, I might come to better understand that person’s concerns.
The Church certainly emphasizes this belonging: through the belief that her members are in communion with each other, or St. Paul’s declaration that we are all members of the same body, and in many other ways. There’s certainly much you can discover by portraying how this membership directs one’s life and one’s priorities. It is, at least to a certain extent, possible to describe some aspects of Catholic identity.
The Paradox of Catholic Identity
The problem is the fundamental paradox that is membership in the Church: that one’s personality is not necessarily one’s truest identity. Think of St. Paul in Galatians, saying that “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” Or St. John the Baptist saying that “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Or St. Teresa of Avila’s comment that “Christ has no body but yours.” Or Blessed John Henry Newman’s prayer asking that “my life may only be a radiance of Yours.” How exactly does “identity politics” capture this paradox? As Gerard Manley Hopkins says in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,”
I say more, the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Even though Christ plays in the faces that are not His, those faces are still unique. God’s creativity reveals itself in these endlessly unique variations, but these variations remain their own. On one hand, we strip ourselves of our former ways and desires to let God be radiated though us, so that when others see us they might see Him; but on the other hand, our letting God shine through us does not mean that our own personhood is diminished. That is the paradox with which “identity politics” will have to come terms, if anyone is to apply it to Catholic life, so that the subjective experience of the faith, and not just an external description of it, might be communicated and partly understood.
Ideally, in describing the lives of Catholics, one describes Christ in the world. However, it is uncontroversial to say that some Catholics throughout history have occasionally been known to come up short in this respect. Entering into the Church does not mean that temptation or the ability to fall to temptation disappear, unfortunately. And as much as many people distinguish between “saints” and “sinners,” the saints are simply sinners who were not ultimately consumed by their sin.
Pope Francis notes that “that the practice of mercy is waning in the wider culture. In some cases the word seems to have dropped out of use. However, without a witness to mercy, life becomes fruitless and sterile, as if sequestered in a barren desert.” He calls Catholics to be witnesses to the Father’s mercy, that sin need not be final, and that repentance and conversion are always possible. By being witnesses, Catholics make the Father’s mercy present in the world. By being Catholic, Catholics make present someone other than themselves: God.
More shockingly, there is still in many places the possibility of giving up one’s life. In martyrdom, one bears witness to the principle that one’s identity, comfort, and life are not the most important goods. They can be sacrificed for a greater good: love of God and trust in Him.
On a less dramatic level, vocations are the means by which people are called to sacrifice their whims for the sake of serving others in specific ways. As Msg. Charles Pope says, discussing vocations, “we are made for others.” Indeed, he argues that there is no vocation “to the single life per se” because of this. Vocations direct the ways in which we live our lives for others.
In Holy Orders, the priest gives up the good of family to make himself available to the rest of the Church, ordering his life to bind “himself eternally to God,” as Patricia Snow puts it. He bears a sort of eschatological witness to union with God, and at the Mass, he acts in persona Christi, not as himself.
Similarly, spouses give themselves up for and to each other. Marriage is not banal “self-fulfillment,” but a commitment to love oneself to another person. As Francis says,
Narcissism makes people incapable of looking beyond themselves, beyond their own desires and needs. Yet sooner or later, those who use others end up being used them-selves, manipulated and discarded by that same mind-set. It is also worth noting that breakups often occur among older adults who seek a kind of “independence” and reject the ideal of growing old together, looking after and supporting one another.
Therefore, a spouse cannot be selfishly focused on his or her own desire, lest the marriage flounder. Instead, the two become one flesh, and spouses sacrifice certain freedoms and desires for the sake of the other.
All Faces of the Same Man
There’s not just one Catholic identity, obviously. “Here comes everybody,” as Joyce said. There are as many as there are Catholics, and that’s even before acknowledging the different rites within the Church, or the different concerns Chinese Catholics might have as opposed to the French, or the patently ghastly labels of “conservative” and “liberal,” or even terms such as “lapsed Catholic” (and I would be remiss to omit one of my favourites, “bad Catholic”).
But at the same time, all of the ways in which people live out their vocations (not their labels – a label is not a vocation), even if they are somehow individualized, are also the face of the one God acting in the world. These vocations are still ways in which people efface themselves. In living out vocations, Catholics say that they must decrease, while God and those they serve must increase.