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What keeps me Catholic? American Catholicism

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May 25, 2011

By Michael Daley

 I must have been around seven or eight. Our family had been invited to my Uncle Mickey and Aunt Helene’s for a Jewish holiday celebration. Arriving at their apartment, there were many new names and faces.


In the course of introducing ourselves, after some casual conversation, one person asked me, “What are you?” Thinking it a strange question, I still promptly answered, “I’m an American.” He smiled and said, “No, I was asking if you’re Jewish or not.”


I was reminded of that story because two recent events raised the question about what it means to be an American.


The first one involved Superman. In Action Comics No. 900, he renounced (not denounced) his American citizenship. Showing up at a protest rally in Tehran, Superman caused an international incident. The peaceful protesters met him with both cheer and fear, while the Iranian government saw it as an act of war by America.


Confronted by the president’s national security advisor, Superman responded, “Truth, justice, and the American way — it’s not enough anymore. The world’s too small. Too connected.”    


The other event involved the killing of Osama bin Laden. I heard the announcement on the radio late in the evening and breathed a sigh of relief.  He would no longer be able to terrorize the world and murder innocent people with his fundamentalist beliefs.


Later at home, I turned on the television and was taken aback by people celebrating outside the White House chanting “U.S.A. U.S.A.” One person even carried a sign that read, “Ding, Dong. Bin Laden is dead.”


This stood in stark contrast to the statement that the Vatican released the following day. It read in part: “In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.”


By the grace of geography I was born an American. By the grace of baptism I became a Catholic. I discover more and more over the years that the tension between them is also a gift.


Centuries in the making, American Catholicism is an amazing success story. Generations of Catholic immigrants embraced the American values of democracy, toleration, individual and religious freedom, entrepreneurship and patriotism.


Likewise, though not without periods of persecution and discrimination, America came to appreciate Catholicism’s emphasis on tradition, ritual, sacraments, the value of institution, and community.


The challenge that faces me and countless other Catholics today is how we continue to participate fully in American life without being co-opted by values —materialism, racism, individualism, sexism, militarism — which in the end destroy both our Catholic and American commitments.


Superman hinted at it: how can American Catholicism be truly “catholic” or universal? Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, says that Catholicism “means that the church and the Gospel cannot be made a prisoner of a particular language, culture, or race or nation.”


As a Catholic in America I want to participate but not be co-opted; I want to be active civically but not become totally assimilated. This sentiment is captured in Jesus’ own words: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”


I hope when all is said and done, with a head still on my shoulders, I can voice the final words of St. Thomas More: “I die the king’s faithful servant, but God’s first.”


What keeps me Catholic? My American Catholicism.

Daley is a freelance writer and teacher at St. Xavier High School

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