External Markers of Our Faith
It caused somewhat of a stir . . .
A few months back, you might have heard, the bishops of England reintroduced the discipline of abstinence from meat on Fridays.
Every Catholic mid-fifties and older can recall how abstinence from meat on all Fridays was a constant of our lives. In 1967, Pope Paul VI relaxed this discipline, decreeing it no longer obligatory, but voluntary, while highly encouraged, on Fridays (except during Lent, when it remained binding).
This modification–the pros and cons still being debated–almost became the symbol of “change” in the post-Vatican II Church.
Whether one agrees with that decision or not, all must admit that penance and mortification–essentials of Christian discipleship, according to Jesus Himself–have sadly diminished as a trait of Catholic life. Such was hardly the intent of Pope Paul VI, as is clear from his 1967 teaching, but, it is a somber fact.
That’s one of the reasons the bishops of Great Britain have reintroduced the discipline, calling their brothers and sisters, faithful to the Gospel, back to external acts of penance, so necessary to fight the reign of sin so evident in our personal lives, in the world, and even within the Church.
Another reason that usually surfaces in any discussion of this issue is the value of what are called external markers enhancing our religious identity.
Scholars of religion–all religions, not just Catholic–tell us that an essential of a vibrant, sustained, attractive, meaningful life of faith in a given creed is external markers.
The essence of faith, of course, is the interior, the inside life of the soul. Jesus, for instance, always reminds us that it’s what’s inside that counts.
However, genuine interior religion then gives rise to external traits, especially acts of charity and virtue.
Among these exterior characteristics are these markers that the scholars talk about.
For some religions, it might be dress; others are noted for feastdays, seasons, calendars, music, ritual, customs, special devotions, and binding moral obligations.
Islam, for example, is renowned for Ramadan, the holy season now upon them; dress; required prayer three times daily; and obligatory pilgrimage.
Orthodox Jews are obvious, for instance, for their skull caps, for the seriousness of the Sabbath, and for feastdays.
What about us Catholics? For God’s sake, I trust we are recognized for our faith, worship, charity, and lives of virtue.
But, what are the external markers that make us stand out?
Lord knows, there used to be tons of them: Friday abstinence from meat was one of them, but we recall so many others: seriousness about Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation; fasting on the Ember Days; saints names for children; confession at least annually; loyal membership in the local parish; fasting for three hours before Holy Communion, just to name a few.
But, almost all of these external markers are now gone. Some applaud this; some mourn it. I guess some were helpful, while others were not. Besides the black smudge on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, is there any way we Catholics “stand out” as distinctive?
Debate it you may. But, the scholars tell us that, without such identifiable characteristics, any religion risks becoming listless, bland, and unattractive. Even the sociologist Father Andrew Greeley, hardly some nostalgic conservative, concluded that the dropping of Friday abstinence was a loss to Catholic identity.
And that’s another reason many welcomed the initiative of the bishops of England as a step in the right direction: restoring a sense of belonging, an exterior sign of membership, to a Church at times adrift.
Is it fair and timely to ask if we “threw out the baby with the bathwater” when we got rid of so many distinctive, identifying marks of Catholic life five decades ago?
I’m not saying we should re-introduce any or all of these markers. The toothpaste is probably out of the tube. I’m just suggesting that this is a conversation well-worth having.
Perhaps the pivotal question is: what makes us different as a Catholic?
A balance is good: if all the emphasis is on these external markers, the danger is hypocrisy and scrupulous observance of man-made laws.
But, if all the emphasis is on the interior, with no exterior sign of identity, the risk is a loss of a sense of belonging and communal solidarity.
We sure need both.
So, I ask again: what makes us different as Catholics? Are the bishops of England on to something?