Archbishop Dolan of New York has suggested that it would be a good thing to restore distinctive Catholic religious practices. He praises the bishops of England who have reintroduced meatless Fridays, a penitential practice which once set Catholics apart from other groups. The argument is made that distinctive external markers of church membership will produce vibrant religious communities.
Well yes and no. It is a certain truth that embodied socially interconnected human beings have their beliefs, character and emotions shaped by their behavioral actions. We become what we do, we incorporate our practices into our selves. Catholics have long understood the importance of acts of communal worship in sacred spaces filled with beautiful art and music. Recounting the story and enacting the sacraments proclaim, form and enkindle our faith.
In the same way Catholics proclaim that the love of God and neighbor must be demonstrated by behavioral actions of justice, mercy and righteousness. Saying “Lord, Lord” or mentally assenting without actually doing God’s will doesn’t count as Christianity. Behavioral actions are the core of the Christian life.
But I am not so sure that maintaining external markers of a specific Roman Catholic identity matters much to the essential core actions of Christian life. Do they support the main act? Can’t adopting a distinct RC external marker for its own sake have its own dangers? Jesus gave a message to his followers when he castigated the tassels, trumpets and external markers of the scribes and Pharisees. There are also a lot of Gospel texts praising humble, hidden, private, even secret deeds done by the left hand for the love of God.
We remember too that early Christians the external markers of circumcision and food tabus were given up in order to affirm God’s inclusive love of all. The giving of God’s Spirit is found to overflow all status boundaries and identities.
So yes let Catholics be different in their essential universal behavioral commitment to worship, prayer, truth, love and righteousness. This is the light that can shine before all. The specific external markers can come or go according to time and place. Who misses those mantillas once required for Catholic women? If external markers are now going, (along with racial categories on the census,) it may reflect a lessening need for defensive tribal groupings in developed countries.
Today we can concentrate on seeking deeper bonding with others, not separation. Catholics are not a sect but a church, ‘a world wide and world old church dedicated to changing the world.’ God’s call is open to everyone, always and everywhere. Mark it well.