Good Catholics

More Than Just Respectable and Nice?

Are you a good Catholic?

As we begin 2003, we are surrounded by war and rumors of war. What do you think of the Bush administration’s threats to declare war on Iraq?

Last weekend, outgoing Illinois Governor George
Ryan granted clemency to all death row inmates. Four of those inmates were convicted on the basis of now-recanted confessions which had been tortured out of them by Chicago police. Those four were pardoned and released from prison. Another 164 people will remain in prison for the rest of their lives, but will not be put to death by the state. on the death penalty?

We’ve just gotten through the Christmas season. As usual, it was full of gift-giving and celebration. Where did you do your shopping this year? Did you know that Wal-Mart , the world’s largest retailer, is also a notorious union-buster? Do you believe that workers have a right to organize? To a living wage?

Religion and spirituality is one of the only segments of the publishing industry that is growing these days. Are you part of the reason for its growth? What was the last book about prayer or spirituality that you read? Do you have a regular spiritual practice? Or a time reserved in your daily life for prayer ?

There’s lots of talk and even some research about the spiritual sensibilities of Catholics in Generation X and the Millennial Generation. People (especially older people) often say of a particular young person, “Oh, he or she’s a good Catholic.”

When examining that remark closely, though, it appears at once loaded with and devoid of meaning. Speaking frankly, my experience with mothers who say, “He’s a good Catholic,” is that they really mean, “He’s Irish, has a good job, and doesn’t live with his girlfriend.” When the Greatest Generation refers to my friends as “good Catholic girls,” they usually aren’t talking about our rich prayer life, or human rights activism, or even degrees in theology. Usually they mean, “She’s pretty, helps with the dishes, and goes to church on Sunday.”

I think its time to ask the questions: when and why did our culture start equating “good Catholic” with “polite, middle-class American”?

Certainly Jesus was none of those things, except good. He was Jewish. He was unsettling in his speech and undaunted by convention. He lived in a society with virtually no middle class. He was born in a stable, and died by execution. He was a resident of occupied Israel, a member of an oppressed nation, not a citizen of his world’s superpower. So, is there any connection at all between the gospel and our image of a “good Catholic”?

What about the relationship between the teaching of the Catholic leadership and the label “good Catholic”? Even the Catholic bishops, when they use their teaching voice as one, usually stand (with the pope) in opposition to the prevailing values of white, middle-class America—opposing a war with Iraq, finding the death penalty immoral, affirming workers’ right to organize and to a living wage.

How is it, then, that we’ve allowed our faith to be trivialized so dramatically? How have we allowed the prophetic message of Jesus to be tamed into a sort of Miss Manners for the descendants of European immigrants? Is the trendy search for a meaningful spiritual practice enough to lead our generation to a different vision of goodness and Catholic life?

Perhaps by the time we’re asking our kids if their friends and dates are “good Catholics,” we’ll have something else in mind.