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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Secular Catholics

Terry Mattingly
    In an article published by The Elkhart Truth, Terry Mattingly, director of the Journalism Center for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C., and Baylor graduate, is bringing forward the concept of the “secular” Catholic – a proposed entity not unlike that of the ethnic Mennonite that has been brought forward by secular Russländer Mennonites of the Canadian persuasion (including the Brüderthaler).
    Mattingly quotes Fordham’s Tom Beaudoin in defining secular Catholics as, “’… people who were baptized as Catholics, but they find it impossible to make Catholicism the center of (their) lives, by which I mean Catholicism as defined by the official teachings of the church’ … [f]or these believers, there are ‘things that they learned about faith from Catholicism.  Then there are things they learned from their jobs, from school experiences, from their music and from their favorite movies. … They are hybrid believers and their faith comes from all over the place,’” (Mattingly, ibid).
    Culturally, this is an interesting idea, not in its novelty – cultural Mennonites have been defining themselves out of a spiritual self-identity since the early 1960s – but rather in its reflection on “identity.” 
    Generally, Catholic identity might be thought of a bit differently than is Mennonite identity.  Most Catholics identify with primary cultural and ethnic groups that may or may not be defined by their traditional adherence to the historic Roman Catholic Church, such as Poles, Irish, Spaniards, Italians, Mexicans or Argentines.  For the most part, the majority of these persons and persons who immigrate outside of these cultures but retain significant identity ties to the ethnic rather than host culture, identity with a national cultural ethnicity that encapsulates a certain relationship to Roman Catholicism as the dominant faith of that culture.  This relationship might be positive or negative, but is normally a complicated mixture of the two.
    Unlike Mennonites, who have been persecuted and defined by their singular adherence to a unique faith rather than for their nationality or ethnic origins (or perhaps similar to Mormons in the United States, and the Jewish Diaspora), most cultural Catholic persons would tend to self-identify not as Catholics, but as Poles, Irish, Mexican, etc.  (Purely coincidental is the printing of Mattingly’s article on St Patrick’s Day, a well-known and popular Roman Catholic holiday closely identified with the Irish culture and heritage.)
Dr. Tom Beaudoin, courtesy of Fordham University
    Theoretically, the dissenting or disinterested former Roman Catholic Poles, Irish, Italians or Mexicans would be free to self-identify with more secular aspects of their ethnic culture while choosing to participate or not within that culture’s dominant religion.  They would be less constrained to be identified with and required to define their identity via the terms of their ethno-religion as do Jewish and Menno folk.  Still the continued relationships or ties between secular Catholics and the dominant religion of their ethnic group are an interesting phenomenon.
    Mattingly indicates that some secular Catholics attend Mass while others do not – they seemingly feel freer to define Catholicism and its requirements to fit their own individual experience.  Importantly, Mattingly also indicates that such Catholics are increasingly the local majority while “traditional, dogmatic” Catholics more-and-more represent a minority.
    There’s a lesson for all in Mattingly’s conversation with Beaudoin – the need for mutual respect and tolerance between traditional, dogmatic Catholics and their secular kin, “… it’s important to believe that this trend is ‘not the result of lethargy, laziness, relativism, heresy or apostasy. … There will be Catholics who insist on saying that these secular Catholics are falling away from traditional Catholic norms. But I think it would be more helpful to talk about them not as having fallen away from the Catholic faith, but as having created new, evolving spiritual lives for themselves’,” (Mattingly, ibid).
    Mennonite and Amish, take note.
Terry Mattingly, “’Secular Catholics’ feed faith changes,” The Elkhart Truth:  On Religion, Elkhart, IN, 17 Mar 2012, Sec D, p 1, 4).

Check out Mattingly’s original piece and others at

Note:  After a Catholic mass in Elkhart, a number of conversations in the foyer focused on their frustration with Mattingly's article and the concept of a 'secular' Catholic.   Some found the concept to be ridiculous in that you were either Catholic or not, you either bought into the church's teachings or did not -- there is no middle ground.  Others were more pragmatic -- at least there are still more real Catholics than secular ones -- 43% is less than half.  Over-all, there was a consensus that the article was just the latest in a long string of anti-Catholic articles and a dismissal of the idea that you could call yourself Catholic if you did not accept the full teachings and authority of the Church.  Call yourself whatever you want, but you are not Catholic.  There were also linkages with Mattingly's article and recent 'anti-Catholic' reports on CNN -- though the CNN reports were not strictly identified.  Finally, Mattingly was referred to by a least a couple of individuals who called him "that woman" or "some woman from..."  In as much as the paper published a photo of Mattingly with the article, it would seem that "she" is in fact "he."  Why the wrong assumptions?

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