More External Markers for Catholics?

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.         

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Eileen Sadasiv
7 years 5 months ago
John Barbieri
7 years 5 months ago
Whatever the hierarchy can do to roll-back Vatican II !
ed gleason
7 years 5 months ago
'we will know them by their love'
7 years 5 months ago
I can't help but feel as though the author is speaking out of both sides of his/her mouth.  In one sentence, affirming the need for external markers, but then next referring to individual practices in a dismissive tone, as part of a "need for defensive tribal groupings."  Yes, Jesus castigated the Pharisees; but not for the individual practices, but the attitude they brought to those practices (indeed Jesus, as a good Jew, perhaps participated in many of those same practices).  Furthermore, it could be said that many Catholics committed to the "universal behavioral commitments" she mentions exhibit haughty attitudes towards others.

I was formed in a Catholicism largely devoid of many of the external markings associated with Catholicism; there were no exhibitions of piety such as May crownings, our school liturgies seemed to be wholly designed to avoid any semblance of a traditional Catholic mass in the belief that young people are only captivated by what is "new", and things like Eucharistic devotion were denigrated as "pre-Vatican II."  Instead, I was taught that 'adult" Catholics show commitment to faith by their acts of social justice alone.  Yet I also recall reading the memoirs of Dorothy Day & Thomas Merton (not to mention the writings of Walker Percy, Graham Greene) who related their faith through many of these "pre-Vatican II" practices and experiences.  I remember Day talking about the silence in the Church at the moment of consecration and what a converting moment it was.  And of course, I love the image of Karl Rahner silently fingering his Rosary beads while his lectures were read for him because he did not speak English. 

So I think we have lost a certain aspect, and I see dangers in the opposite direction than the author.  This was brought home to me recently when an Ivy League educated Jewish colleague of mine who purchased a new house made a special trip to his old house because he had forgotten his Mezuzah.  I thought "Wow, that is interesting."
Paul Heimann
7 years 5 months ago
"Do [external markers of a specific Roman Catholic identity] support the main act?"

Yes.  Yes, they do.   
Anne Chapman
7 years 5 months ago
Jeff, unlike you, I grew up with all of those old external markers - and it is not a bad thing that many have disappeared.  Your Jewish friend is not mandated under threat of eternal damnation in hell to display the Mezuzah - he displays it out of love, not fear.  I know - I have many Jewish friends and neighbors. Some have a Mezuzah at the front door and some do not - nobody has told any of them that they will go to hell for all eternity if they don't display a Mezuzah - or even if they don't keep a kosher kitchen!  Those who choose the traditional practices do so out of freedom, not guilt or fear.

 The big difference post-Vatican II  was freedom - so much of what was a ''marker'' of being Catholic before Vatican II was rooted in negatives like threats, in instilling fear - such practices as no meat on Friday, carrying with it the threat of eternal damnation if you had a hamburger with your friends after the football game and got hit by a car on the way home have nothing at all to do with Jesus's message and with how we should be living our lives. But that's what the church taught (ditto for missing mass - yet Jesus never said that mass on Sunday was obligatory under pain of eternal damnation! In fact, Jesus never went to mass on Sunday in his whole life).

Teaching about why certain practices, such as abstinence from meat or whatever, may help spiritual growth - great. Voluntary abstinence - great. During the most recent Lent I abstained from meat for the whole 40 days - I did it out of choice, not because I was threatened by some ecclesial police force who sometimes overstep their boundaries and literally think that they are God.  Those who find the rosary a beneficial form of prayer should say the rosary. Those that find it a mindless, boring, rote exercise should  seek prayer forms that will bring them closer to God - there are many choices, ranging from charismatic prayer to centering prayer. It should not be one size fits all, nor should any of these kinds of things be mandated under the threat of pain of the flames of hell for all eternity. 

There is nothing wrong with teaching about the reasons for considering abstinence as a spiritual practice, or introducing people to different ways of praying - but mandating them and enforcing with psychological threats intended to instill guilt and fear is not the way to go. Nor is superstition - go to mass the first Friday of every month and you get X amount of time off your post-earthly prison sentence.  And that was the main reason most Catholics who went to first Friday masses did so - they were buying off time.  Many go to mass out of fear instead of out of love even today - some call this paying their fire insurance premiums.

And frankly, those who think that outward piety and pious practices make up for not following what Jesus said have totally missed the point of Jesus's life and teachings. Jesus was never too crazy about the rules stuff - he broke them regularly, and he was downright vehement about some things - such as the practice of ''sacrifices'' and said ''no more'' and also chastised those whose faith was so weak that they forever expected miracle after miracle after miracle...). What did Jesus say (far more important than what Dolan says) - Jesus said to love God, to love neighbor, to care for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned. That's what Jesus said to do - the emphasis you received was the more important one - so look inward and say ''Thank God'' (or Deo Gratias, if you prefer - Latin is fine, as long as it is not mandated!) that you were formed in a context of religion that stresses the heart and soul, spirit and love, rather than a man-made rulebook.
7 years 5 months ago
I thought the post was excellent.
The point was not that devption or penance etc. are bad.
The point is the continuing buildup of a "dustinctive Catholicsm" that harks back to a time ago that, while some may see it nostalgicly,  a good many others see as a returm to accretions that are hatrdly essential and not to be imposed.
This difference is rooted in how one sees VII and the reforms it brought - a divide widespread within the church.
The Abp.  is part of that "distinctive" approach, which some well love and others will just be turned off by.
Personally, I think he needs to improve on being the Abp. of all New York Catholics.
Anne Chapman
7 years 5 months ago
Ed, thank you so much for posting that video  - Christ is there - not in the stained glass and soaring ceilings, not in the statues and rich decor - Christ is there, sleeping in the pews with the poor, the hungry, the sick.  That is what being a follower of Christ is all about. If abstaining from meat and sitting for hours in front of a monstrance and saying the rosary doesn't lead to sleeping alongside those shown in those pews, it is all for nothing.
Anne Chapman
7 years 5 months ago
I assume that the unnamed, "noted" Jesuit theologian is Father John Harden, SJ! 
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 5 months ago
I LOVE your external marker, Ed (#7).  Now that's a Church!!!  Wish I could find one like that near me in Pittsburgh.
ed gleason
7 years 5 months ago
Yes Beth I have often been asked where can you find a church/parish like that? Serves the poor with a dry/quiet  sleeping place from 6AM till 12;15 Mass weekdays. Two paid monitors and volunteers to  help clean up.[Wiping down pews with disinfectant.] Serves 3000-4000 meals around the corner each day.

Now A/B Dolan has 409 parishes.. and homeless . I'll go for a no meat marker if he'd go for just one parish like St Bonaface in SF.. hint... try a Franciscan place first.  
7 years 5 months ago
Anne -

The only people who seem to "mandated" piety to avoid "hell & damnation" are those who object to external piety.  I don't participate in many of the "pre-Vatican II" pious practices myself; but I'd like to have the option to.  THe thing that impressed me about my Jewish friend was that, althuogh not overly religious, he still had this VOLUNTARY connection to his faith that I do not see among many Catholic friends of mine who had similar experiences as me.  It is not about being mandated or about hell; it is about an experience.  I see no difference between being told "pray the Rosary or go to hell" and "don't be so naive, the Rosary is for old women."  Catholicism is about a both/and.  As you correctly say, the underlying attitude is what is most important.  But I do think that a "felt connection" to Catholicism is distinctive; we are, after all, a Church that proclaims the sacramentality of the world.
Anne Chapman
7 years 5 months ago
Well, Jeff, we don't disagree then - as long as there is no ''mandate.''  I haven't researched the new mandate in England and Wales to see if the bishops are reattaching the mortal sin penalty to eating meat on Friday as part of their new imposition of mandatory Friday abstinence. They call it ''obligatory'' but I don't know if they are saying it's a ''sin'' if one does not oblige. Nor am I clear on whether Dolan would like to do the same thing.

As long as there is no mandate (obligatory = mandate) and threat of hellfire, I have no disagreements.  Choosing a penitential act is an individual thing - it should be made by the individual, in freedom, rooted in love. It should not be mandated by clerics.

Right now there is nothing stopping any Catholic from abstaining from meat on Friday (or any other day), nor from saying the rosary, wearing a crucifix on a chain, going to mass the first Friday of each month (as long as you don't think it's going to buy off some of your ''temporal punishment''), sitting in front of the eucharist, saying the rosary, etc.  If some Catholics do not choose to do these things they should not be criticized by those who do choose them any more than the reverse.

 The problem arises when bishops make what should be individual choices into ''obligations.'' As previously noted, Jesus frequently warned against the public displays of piety, the clothing and tassels etc of the pharisees, the standing in the street and beating one's breast publicly. Jesus told us to go into our rooms to pray, where nobody can see us.  Jesus didn't seem to be a big fan of ''external markers''.  He wanted his followers to show  love for God and others by how they lived their lives.

Nobody needs a bishop to tell them to do any of these things - it's all there for those who find these practices and devotions are helpful to the spiritual life. But it's far better that it be a free choice of individuals than imposed from the top.
Jim McCrea
7 years 5 months ago
It's not the mantillas I miss; it's the kleenex held on the head with bobby pins!  Not that was really awe-inspiring!

Or how about the people in Texas who sneaked across the Mexican border on Fridays so they could eat meat (there was no fast from meat in Mexico - or for those of us in the military, whether we were in Texas or not.)  I guess today we'd chalk that up to "prudential" behavior.
Jack Barry
7 years 5 months ago
The penitential aspect of meatless Fridays escaped me while growing up a few miles from the Mass. coast, where countless types of still-wet-from-the-ocean sea food were always available.  I finally understood when I went to New Mexico, ordered fresh fish to be compliant with the ''Hell-for-a-Hamburg'' rule, and was given a rectangular, square-cornered block of undefinable tissue.   Disciplines which are meaningless except for the obedience required seem to me to be of limited value for both the one obliged and the others observing.   The Kleenex issue, much discussed at the time, fit into a similar category, not serving the commendable intended purpose while debate raged over what was minimally acceptable to God in church.    
Liam Richardson
7 years 5 months ago
I would support this move, on one very very important condition:
That it be expressly made *not* grave matter (since preceptual obligations are conventionally considered grave matter unless otherwise indicated).
It was the conversion of moral regime of abstinence to a primarily a matter of legalism that made it so brittle and vulnerable. The Eastern churches have shown that it is far better to keep legal concepts away from the issue of fasting and abstinence.
To return to the former discipline without this important reform would be to repeat the prior error.
7 years 5 months ago
#6 Ed Gleason:   Thank you for sharing the video.   It was very touching.  In my book, anything you do for others for the right reasons, i,e. always for the greater glory of God is a Catholic marker.  
Juan Lino
7 years 5 months ago
Mr. Callahan’s post is about distinctive external markers (and I agree with Maria that he seems to distort the subtlety of Archbishop Dolan’s original post) and I will be the “heretic” by arguing that turning a Church into a quasi social service agency is NOT a distinctive marker.  E.g., once a month, I go to the South Bronx to work with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, is that what makes me “Catholic”? Do I have to be Catholic to do that?  If I didn’t participate in THIS charitable activity does that make me less Catholic?  Is my parish less Catholic because they don’t allow homeless people to sleep in the pews?
Lastly, I find it ironic that those that go on and on about “decision making from the top” issue dogmatic statements like: if one doesn’t sleep alongside those in the pews they are not a follower of Christ.  After all, aren’t people free to choose whatever means they find appropriate to express their love of the Triune God and/or love of neighbor? (N.B., that’s not an excuse to go to Sunday Mass whenever one feels like it because deliberately missing Mass is, as all know, a mortal sin.) 
Yes, the social doctrine of the Church is not well known and/or put into practice (and Pope Benedict XVI touches on this in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est) but I believe that “papal primacy” is a much more distinctive Catholic marker than homeless shelters.
Juan L.
Juan Lino
7 years 5 months ago
Oops, I have a major typo - Sidney Callahan is a woman not a man and so my first sentence should read: Ms. Callahan’s post is about distinctive external markers (and I agree with Maria that she seems to distort the subtlety of Archbishop Dolan’s original post)...

My apologies to Ms. Callahan.
Juan Lino
7 years 5 months ago
Anne, silly me, I took the title of the post – More External Markers for Catholics? – as a starting point!  Putting aside your underlying premise that one can have Christ without His Church, or your myopic reading of the Gospels, I thought that Christ spoke about two great commandments and that the order wasn’t arbitrary – am I mistaken?  (OK, end of sarcasm!) 

At root, I believe we share the same concern (that the relationship with Christ must be based on love not fear) but we seem to differ in what should or should not be emphasized – as is often the case when we dialogue.  So yes, the works of mercy are important for all Christians but one does not have to be a Christian to feed the homeless, etc.  But, loving God first must be first, otherwise we can create a “Christianity without Christ” as most of the West has done.  

Getting back to the point, it’s my understanding that it was a well-known “marker” that Catholics did not eat on Friday (as it is a well-known marker that religious Jews observe Shabbat, etc.) and I think it is a good thing to have a clear marker once again.  Perhaps it should be something as simple as posting an automatic reply on one’s e-mail account that says: “To celebrate the immense gift of Christ’s love for me and the whole world, I don’t check e-mail on Friday’s.  So, I will respond to your e-mail on the weekend.”

BTW, I enjoy our spirited exchanges - thanks.
Juan Lino
7 years 5 months ago
The pointed humor in parts of your last paragraph (...I'm sure the bishops would be happy to set him right; ...unless your reading is a bit, hmmm, myopic?) made me laugh so much Anne (in a good way) allow me to say a hearty touche!

I have to go out now so I'll reply on the weekend.  Peace.
7 years 5 months ago
Yesterday's weekly John Allen column at NCR talked about the Vatican stressing more evangelical Catholicism (more distinctive catholicism) that puts a premium on adehering to traditional belief and emphasizing markers like various devotions.
As I said earleir, and I think all agree, noone wants to put down antone practicing one of the various devotions.
It is the emphasis on traditional devotions  that emphasizes also the divide in the Church -that is the problematic.
That divide is evident in the posts here and elsewhere in this blog.
Emphasizing "markers" and "brands" in my opinion is not a valuable tool in the trool kit of proclaiming the good news.
Juan Lino
7 years 5 months ago
Anne – sorry for the delay but the discussion in the other post derailed me. 

Well, you wrote: Juan, my only objection is that the bishops in England and Wales are imposing - making 'obigatory' - what should be a voluntary, individual decision.  But don’t the Bishops have the right and authority to issue binding mandates?  Shouldn’t they exercise that authority? 

So, what I am objecting to is a kind of censorship that I perceive behind your position.  By that I mean that you, in some sense, are willing to prevent the bishops from utilizing the authority they’ve received from the Apostles, who received it from Christ Himself. 

Now, does that mean that you or I have to become the robots that I hear many people complain about?  Well…NO because we too have freedom and we can use it to disobey – no problem there.  But if we choose to do that, it’s only reasonable that there may be spiritual or temporal consequences when disobey a legitimate, legal, and morally good mandate. 
You also say: “Imposing from above does nothing to help individuals grow in their spiritual life.” I disagree because it can help one determine what their true criterion for judgment is and how much it is or is not informed by teachings of Christ as mediated to us through His Church.   

Lastly, about my remark about a myopic reading of Scripture.  Yes, I can suffer from it too, sometimes more and sometimes less.  But, again, it seems as if you are unwittingly promoting the heterodox theory that one can follow Christ without the Church – i.e., “the Christ without the Church theory”.  So, you seem inclined to highlight the parts of the Gospels that stress the social doctrine of the Church (which I fully believe in, especially as Pope Benedict discusses it in the second half of Deus Caritas Est) and thus appear to be downplaying the parts of the Gospel where Christ says things like this to the Apostles: “He who hears you, hears me”; and “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven”, etc.

You then say: “So, please, do take the time to point out where Jesus asks his followers to adopt 'external markers'.”  Well, since I was not there I think it’s best to look at the writings of the original followers and their disciples to get an idea of how they understood Christ’s wishes.  Since you’re well-read there’s no need for me to give a complete and so I’ll just mention the NT, the Didache, St. Polycarp, St. Ireneaus, etc., etc.

I hope you are having a good day today my friend.    
Anne Chapman
7 years 5 months ago
Juan, are you more concerned about being recogized as ''Catholic'' than about being recognized as ''Christian'?  Jesus pretty much scorned ''religious markers' - a term I never heard before, but, we learn new things every day.  Why the focus on public display of ''markers'' - when Jesus never said anything about that and, in fact, warned against it.

 But, Jesus was quite explicit about, for example, giving shelter to the homeless. It seems that having his followers act as a ''social service'' agency is precisely what Jesus said he wanted his followers to do. It's all there in the gospels, Juan. 

Practices such as abstaining from meat on Fridays can carry a risk of easy religion,  of empty piety, with a pronounced focus on self instead of God and other - but the practice can be more than simply a self-conscience effort to ''feel'' more ''holy: - if it leads an individual to the real focus - living the life Jesus asked us to live (sort of supporting a quasi social service agency, actually) - and he never said a word about the focus being on following his own religion's  (Jesus wasn't Catholic, after all) food laws as being important.  The RCC should follow  (I think - would have to check)  the practice in the Orthodox church - suggest abstinence from meat on certain days (my Greek Orthodox friend abstains from meat on Wed and Fri, but only a few very close friends know this - she does not try to draw attention to herself), but leave it up to the individual to decide if abstaining from meat is a practice that brings them closer to God and to living the life Jesus asked us to live - and no threats of hellfire if someone chooses otherwise.

Anne Chapman
7 years 5 months ago
Juan, my only objection is that the bishops in England and Wales are imposing - making ''obigatory'' - what should be a voluntary, individual decision.

  As one who very clearly remembers the meatless Fridays era (and the kleenexes bobby-pinned to the hair era), I know that many of the ''external markers'' meant to be public demonstrations of 'Catholic identity'' (Hey, look at me - I am SO holy! I am Catholic and we Catholic are way better Christians than the rest of you) were based on instilling fear in the people and playing on superstition (indulgences for the nine First Fridays, for example).  Breaking a man-made rule (such as abstinence from meat on Friday) was taught as a ''mortal'' sin!  Mortal sin!   And we dumb but obedient, pious, unthinking, unquestioning Catholics in the pews (I was a kid) went along with this nonsense, immersed in guilt and terror if we had a hot dog after the football game - What if I'm hit by a car going home and haven't gone to confession?  I will spend all of eternity in hell! Vatican II got rid of a lot of this kind of thinking - and that is a blessing that those of you who are too young to remember the pre-Vatican II period that you so naively romanticize should give thanks for.

It's all in the teaching - when something is imposed from above, made an ''obligation'', it is at high risk of losing whatever value it might have had if chosen freely. Teaching about the various kinds of devotions or prayer practices or pentitential actions one might take and how they can sustain a spiritual life is needed. Imposing from above does nothing to help individuals grow in their spiritual life.

By the way, what is ''myopic'' about my reading of the Gospels?  Please be specific. I see nothing in the gospels that mandates meatless Fridays or ''external markers'' - perhaps you could direct me to where Jesus told his followers to do this. I do see a whole lot in the gospels about followers of Christ being ''mandated'' by Jesus himself to perform the kind of works some here prefer to delegate to non-Catholic ''social agencies.''  In fact, in Matthew 25, Jesus is pretty clear that all will be judged on how they treated him by caring for ''the least of these.''  I guess Jesus just didn't understand rightly what is important, but I'm sure the bishops would be happy to set him right.  So, please, do take the time to point out where Jesus asks his followers to adopt ''external markers''.  It's not hard to locate passages where Jesus asked his followers to care for others - do ''social service agency'' work -unless your reading is a bit, hmmm, myopic?

Anne Chapman
7 years 5 months ago

Juan, one reason I generally enjoy sparring with you is that you do have a sense of humor and you pick up on that of others. Have a good weekend.


The latest from america

In cities across the country, local activists marched in support of a progressive agenda centered on economic justice, racial justice and immigrant rights.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 20, 2019
Screengrab from a viral video showcasing a confrontation between a Native American drummer and a group of Catholic high school students in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 18, 2019. Screenshot via YouTube.
Several clips of the encounter circulating on social media show a small group of Native American drummers, who were in Washington for the Indigenous People’s March, being surrounded by a much larger band of teenagers.
Pope Francis has suppressed the Ecclesia Dei Commission, a significant decision with consequences for the Holy See’s relations with the priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 19, 2019
Photo: IMDB
A new Netflix miniseries brings out the story’s aspects of adventure and conflict, with occasionally pulse-pounding results.
Rob Weinert-KendtJanuary 19, 2019