Dissenting in Place

Catholic Identityby Michele DillonCambridge Univ. Press, 1999. 289p $19.95 (paper)

Catholic Identity is a sociological study of activist pro-change Catholics. It focuses mainly on three groups: Dignity (which contests the hierarchy’s teaching on the morality of homogenital activity); Women’s Ordination ConferenceW.O.C.(committed to the ordination of women) and Catholics for a Free ChoiceC.F.F.C.which contends, against the bishops, that abortions are morally permissible on Catholic grounds.

What questions might one bring to a study of activist Catholics so at odds with the hierarchy’s authority or its frequently stated positions? One question might be: Why do they continue to stay (and be bonded) to a church that thwarts their agenda? Another query might be: Just how Catholic are they anyway? Are they rooted in the tradition of Catholicism, or do they take their lead from a secular liberal "rights-agenda"? To get at this, the sociologist might ask the pro-change respondents to list elements at the core of their Catholic identity.


Michele Dillon asks each of these questions and weaves her data into a text that challenges much received wisdom in contemporary sociology of religion. Dillon, associate professor of sociology at Yale University, is the author of a highly praised book, Divorce: MoralConflict in Ireland. Born in Ireland, she is naturally closely attuned to issues of religious identity, religious communalism and the rhetorics of contestation and inclusion.

I want to say three things about Catholic Identitybesides the throw-away lines that it is well-written, theoretically rich, competently researched and contains a well of observations for anyone interested in pastoral strategies for a pluralist church. First, I want to state the book’s main thesis. Second, I will highlight some of the salient data on which the argument is based. Finally, I will broach the question of an alternative reading of her data.

Three citations from the text get at its main theses. First: "Producing Catholicism is a critical, reflexive and collectively contested activity whereby the plurality of symbols and traditions within Catholicism are appropriated and reinterpreted in multiple ways." Don’t be thrown off by that neologism: "producing" Catholicism. This is sociological code language for the assertion that Catholicism is as much a lived culture as it is a set of doctrinal truths. People live out of its rich communal and symbolic resources and use these regularly to negotiate and construct their identities. Catholicism is passed on to new generations and reinterpreted to meet new cultural phenomena.

The much lamented "pick and choose" Catholicism looks vastly different if it means that people love and adhere to their Catholic identities all the more because they personally broker them to forge meaning in their everyday life. The Rev. Andrew Greeley has long claimed that, while most American Catholics disagree with elements of "official" teaching, they nevertheless choose to remain Catholic because they love the Catholic sacramental imagination and communal identity. What Greeley teased out of his national survey data, Dillon shows us phenomenologicallyand that is what this bounded diversity feels like. As one Dignity respondent put it: "So the church is the place that I’m incredibly committed to and incredibly frightened of and that is a hard tension to hold."

Next: "The church hierarchy is not the sole or primary producer of Catholicism." What Cardinal Newman once said about the laity"the church would look pretty silly without them"is especially true of the church as a cultural system. Its symbols and commitments are passed on primarily by parents, spouses, siblings, peers, friends, fellow parishioners and in family gatherings more than by official church programs. An ancient truth of interpretation-theory reads: Rich symbols call for personal appropriation and reinterpretation. They are self-involving. So, whatever the high theological arguments about a magisterium, if Catholicism is to flourish and become internalized as a vibrant culture, its interpretive authority must be widely participative.

And the third: "Pro-change Catholics and many theologians contest the boundaries of Catholic identity delineated by the Vatican and reconstruct what it means for individuals, collectivities and the church to be Catholic." Dillon etches for us carefully what it means for members of Dignity, W.O.C. and C.F.F.C. to be Catholic and how they squareon explicitly Catholic termstheir dissent. Dillon objects to those who think that all politics of identity must undercut more universalist claims and allegiances. She appeals, from her data, to a notion of bounded diversity where contestation can be integrated with core and deeply held Catholic identities.

In some sense, the book is more generally about the complexity of religious identity as a meaning system in late modernity. From her data sources, Dillon demonstrates that pro-change Catholics are not a monolith. Members of W.O.C., for example, are closer to church teaching on abortion. All three groups (like most ordinary American Catholics) want a more inclusive and participative church. Their list of core Catholic elements contains the following: 1) the sacramental imagination, especially the Eucharist; 2) the redemptive and incarnate meanings of Jesus’ life; 3) the church’s social justice tradition; 4) Catholic communal identity (many of her respondents speak of it as being like a gene-thing,’ a birthright); 5) the global dimension of Catholicism; and 6) the pope as a symbol of a socially responsive moral leadership.

In a select (non-random) interview sample of theologians located in Berkeley and Boston, Dillon finds some resonance for a reinterpreted Catholicism. These theologians provide some fodder for the dissidents’ Catholic claims. In a somewhat intriguing move, Dillon compares her pro-change Catholics to a sample from the more conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. She shows overlap between the conservative and pro-change Catholics on many core Catholic symbols and suggests, perhaps overly optimistically, that there may be more common ground than is assumed. Importantly, the pro-change Catholics root their cases not in liberal "rights" or "expressive self-fulfillment" language. They appeal to Catholic doctrine to critique the hierarchy whose positions on disputed questions are dismissed as being: 1) unreasonable (based, for example, on claims that rest primarily on natural law); 2) unfaithful to the inclusive Christ (or the full social justice teaching); or 3) grounded in a narrow protection of the clerics’ institutional power.

A possible rejoinder to this impressive and subtle weaving of theory about Catholic identity and data? It might go something like this. Yes, but Catholicism, although indubitably a cultural system, is not just a culture. It is also a set of beliefs and doctrines (based on scripture and the creeds). However inclusive, Catholicism has a long history of rejecting as inimical to the received faith many groups who, in point of fact, overlapped broadly on many core elements but rejected key others. More orthodox Christianseven centrist Catholicsmay not be content with flexible boundaries where the hierarchy (surely central to the Catholic imagination) is almost always seen through the lens of a hermeneutic of suspicion and projected as mainly protecting their power rather than the received faith of the apostles. Even in a more participative church with a more open dialogic structure, more would be claimed, if it were orthodox in its Catholicity, for the role of bishops and pope than that they were merely nice symbols of communal and international identities. In a sense, Dillon’s powerful argument for seeing Catholicism as a potent cultural system runs against the limits of any purely cultural view of a doctrinal religion.

Most of Dillon’s groups have an aging constituency for whom the received Catholic identity remains strong. Younger cohorts may have less trouble with the option of exit. It remains to be seen whether communal Catholicism can weather a wider cultural sea-change in identity formation, one that downplays long-term commitments and communal bondedness (as presented in the impressive work of the sociologist Anthony Giddens). Dillon’s reading of the Catholicity of C.F.F.C. seems more benign than the data warrants.

But even advocates for "orthodoxy" (in the broad Chestertonian sense) could learn from this study some common grounds out of which a more interesting and vital conversation might be engaged than the one now found in the church. And they might come to appreciate that in any vibrant church, the symbols must allow broad personal appropriation and negotiation of religious identities. Catholicism may not be only a culture, but (even in its doctrinal components, which are clearly, as Dillon alleges, culturally "produced") it is, thank God, also a culture.

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