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David Gibson - Who Is a Real Catholic?

These activists have also exploited -- or worked with -- bishops whose views match their own. And they can get away with it because the do-it-yourself trend in Catholicism is also infecting the hierarchy, with bishops openly contradicting each other on such fundamental issues as one's suitability to receive Communion, in terms that might have once been reserved for the church's archenemies.

And this is perhaps the greatest irony: Conservative Catholics are proving to be the greatest assimilationists, with their efforts to decertify fellow Catholics mimicking a sectarian and divisive culture that classic Catholicism has always rejected.

A recent courageous editorial in the national Jesuit weekly America (which has at times felt the wrath of Rome) cited the dangers that the Notre Dame furor has revealed: "For today's sectarians, it is not adherence to the church's doctrine on the evil of abortion that counts for orthodoxy, but adherence to a particular political program . . . They scorn Augustine's inclusive, forgiving, big-church Catholics . . . [and] threaten the unity of the Catholic Church in the United States."

This priority on unity is the principle that most American Catholics still live by, and it makes them accept Father CutiƩ, girlfriend and all, and welcome Obama to the iconic campus in South Bend. As the conservative Catholic legal scholar and Reagan administration lawyer Douglas Kmiec put it in Slate earlier this year, "Beyond life issues, an audaciously hope-filled Democrat like Obama is a Catholic natural."

When he speaks at Notre Dame, Barack Obama -- an African-American Protestant with a Muslim father -- may enunciate a vision that resonates more genuinely with American Catholics than the pronouncements of the church's high-decibel spokesmen. This state of affairs can emerge only in a church that is compromising its historic self-definition as the biggest of tents.

A century ago, the church was deeply divided over Pope Pius X's campaign against "Modernism," which was a catchall for anything Rome deemed suspicious. When Pius died, the conclave of 1914 elected Benedict XV, who immediately issued an encyclical calling on Catholics "to appease dissension and strife" so that "no one should consider himself entitled to affix on those who merely do not agree with his ideas the stigma of disloyalty to faith."

"There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism," Benedict XV concluded. "It is quite enough for each one to proclaim 'Christian is my name and Catholic my surname.'"

If the Catholic Church had a bumper sticker, that could be it. And it means that the real dilemma for American Catholics today is not whether Notre Dame is Catholic, but whether we are.

David Gibson is author of "The Coming Catholic Church: How the Faithful are Shaping a New American Catholicism" and "The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World."

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