Outlook: Who Is a Real Catholic?

David Gibson
Catholic Author and Journalist
Monday, May 18, 2009 11:00 AM

Catholic author and journalist David Gibson, was online Monday, May 18, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article, about Catholic doctrine and current politics in light of President Obama's commencement speech at Notre Dame University.

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."


David Gibson: Greetings all: Thanks for checking in here with your questions regarding my "Outlook" piece, "Who is a real Catholic." I'll be spending the next hour or so fielding your questions and reactions, so feel free to weigh in. David.


Ann Arbor, Mich.: What does the Catholic church say is required in order to be Catholic?

David Gibson: This is a good place to start--and "membership" (to use a term more apropos of clubs than the church) in the Catholic Church starts with baptism. That is the foundational sacrament, but of course there are duties and obligations beyond that. Once you are baptized the Church won't really let go of you, short of formal apostasy. And even then...

That can probably be frustrating to some "ex-Catholics." And to some "orthodox" Catholics. But membership and church rolls is not really a Catholic "category." BTW, Andrew Greeley is very good on this.

One of the obligations or at least challenges beyond baptism is belief, and the baseline there is the Creed, the Nicene or the even earlier and simple Apostles Creed.

This also gets to another issue, which is belief and behavior. There is a presumption that one must act in accord with Catholic beliefs, but if you don't that doesn't mean you are an un-Catholic.


Takoma, D.C.: I attended Catholic schools in the 1970s and 1980s. We learned great lessons about social justice, community service, tolerance and how to love our neighbors. The music in church was even spirited and good back then -- guitars, flutes and drums. What has happened? The church has been reduced to several highly politicized issues, and the music stinks! The message in Catholic schools seems to have turned to "worship" rather than "service." What caused this tide to change, and how can we bring back the "good 'ole days"?

David Gibson: Well, Takoma, your "good ole days" would be another Catholics "bad ole days"! In fact, a prevailing trend is to go back further still, to before the Second Vatican Council and the reforms that critics say unleashed all that social justice "kumaya" Catholicism.

You are in many respects--as are we all--caught up in something of a backlash against the post Council reform. It is what Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, calls "the reform of the reform." That does often mean a priority on "high church" worship and what is called a more "cultic" view of the priest (vertical) as opposed to the more horizontal and communitarian view of the "priesthood of all believers" and the servant-leader model of priesthood.

These two are necessarily in tension--the vertical and horizontal make a cross, after all--but the focus on "right belief" (orthodoxy) seems to be winning out over the earlier emphasis on "right action" (orthopraxy).


washingtonpost.com: Who Is a Real Catholic? (Post, May 17)


What about the Death Penalty?: Why don't leaders of Catholicism become as angry when a proponent of the death penalty speaks at a Catholic school?

Is being anti-abortion more important than being anti-death penalty?

David Gibson: In short, yes--though it's a close call. You start to get into prudential judgments, weighing what is of greater import, abortion or death row. The Catechism is clear that the death penalty is for all practical purposes not justified today, and in places like Texas under then-Gov. Bush Catholics would say the practiced went way too far.

So in this case most Republicans are on shaky ground, though Obama and other Democrats are not a lot better, in the church's view.

The issue at stake today, however, is not whether abortion or the death penalty is a greater or lesser evil, but how society can contain or reduce that evil. Outlawing the death penalty will stop the death penalty. Outlawing abortion (to whatever extent that means) will not stop abortions, and indeed may cause a political backlash that could result in the passage of even more liberal abortion laws.

So these are prudential, political judgments if you will. And many bishops and other lay leaders aren't making the savviest political moves.


Nappanee, Ind.: Vatican II opened up the church to the real beliefs of Christ. It has been the conservative bishops like Bishop Darcy and Bishop Doran that have tried to close the church again. They are losing members because they are not understanding the real nature of the church. President Obama touched the real issues that need to be addressed. It is not the act of abortions that is the real issue. It is preventing the need for abortions. There is no one that really treats abortion lightly. It is a hard decision that can be prevented but way before the need for the decision. Let's talk about the real problems of life with the same fervor that we are talking about the results.

David Gibson: Dear Nappanee: You make a very strong point, and one that finds a great deal of agreement in the wider society. I think it is about understanding the real nature of our society as much as the real nature of the church that is critical to this work, as well.


Niles, Michigan near South Bend (across state line): Notre Dame is not "liberal Catholic" territory -- it will soon host any number of events for conservative Catholics as well as provide space in its mega-parking for Auto-Dealer expanded clearance sales; the showdown between Fr. John Jenkins and the 74-year-old soon to retire Bishop D'Arcy is certainly one more of generational gap than of Ideology -- isn't it true that given the presidential election results, such an invitation goes out to a new POTUS regularly?

David Gibson: Yes, Notre Dame has invited presidents since Eisenhower, and six in all have come (and received honorary degrees).

Obviously the invitation has grown more contentious since Roe v Wade and the advent of the culture wars and the religious right.

But George W. Bush was invited when he was first elected, and came to Notre Dame and used the platform to present his faith-based proposals. It is a good platform for that kind of faith-based policy talk. And Bush was invited despite his wide divergence with church teaching already, but it's important to note that he was invited to deliver the commencement address at St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania last spring--long after his policies went far wide of the Catholic mark on almost every issue. Yet there was nary a peep from conservatives.


Harrisonburg, Va.: Do you think this controversy might lead Notre Dame's administration to rethink their process in choosing commencement speakers, especially in consideration of their position on Catholic Church principals (on such things as capital punishment and aggressive warfare, not only abortion)?

David Gibson: No, I don't. I think this episode really clarified that Notre Dame (and other Catholic universities, like Xavier in New Orleans, that was boycotted by the archbishop for honoring Donna Brazile) are going to resist pressures to get an imprimatur on every speaker, or especially a president.

Notre Dame really felt bullied by what was a minority, albeit vocal, of bishops, and they won't let them call the shots. Even the chairman of the ND board of trustees--a strong Republican donor--expressed full support for Fr. John Jenkins, who is in the fourth of a five-year term. If he is re-upped, as a I suspect, that will be your answer.

In the meantime, I expect this does presage a strong debate within the bishops conference, most likely at their spring meeting next month.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I don't understand. If we Catholics are supposed to believe in the bishops, why didn't Benedict rail against Obama at ND; why didn't EVERY bishop scream against him? How can we believe 'authority' when authority is not consistent?

David Gibson: Catholic believe in God through Jesus Christ, and bishops are teachers, but not God. But in terms of ecclesiology--the political dynamic of the church--it is also important to understand the sources and expressions of authority. Bishops are the chief teacher in a diocese. Notre Dame is in one diocese with one bishop (D'Arcy, who boycotted Obama).

Bishops can be very inconsistent, as they were in this case. And that requires lay Catholics to inform themselves and make good decisions as best they can. The bishop's opinion isn't just another opinion, but neither is it gospel, especially on political issue.


Arlington, Va.: Wonderful essay. A two-part question. How have other denominations in the U.S. dealt with modernity and theologically brought back into the fold individuals who have "defected in place?"

Secondly, if there is no effort to broaden the tent, will American Catholicism start to resemble American Judaism, in which followers remain loyal for ethnic and tradition, but not theological reasons?

Thank you.

David Gibson: Great questions. Brief answers:

The one thing Catholics must keep in mind as they lament (from right or left) the state of the church is that every other church and religious community is going through he same travails. Modernity is not easy. We are in the era of what Peter Berger called "the heretical imperative," with everyone choosing their religion rather than taking it for granted. That's not so bad, though as the recent Pew survey on affiliation showed, it does cause lots of upheavals.

The survey also shows that Catholicism does have greater "brand loyalty" than other denominations, especially Protestantism, which has a certain ethos of switching or breaking away. But many also dissent in place there, too.

The Jewish model is I think almost more analogous to Catholicism than Protestantism is, but not because Judaism drives Jews away, but because they remain Jews at some level all their lives.


Maryland: At times the article comes close to presenting those problems faced by American Catholicism as the preeminent problems faced by the Church at large. American Catholics make up something like 6 percent of the worldwide Catholic population. If history is any indicator, our concerns and standards as Americans will fade away long before our concerns and standards as Catholics. As one converting to Catholicism, that helps me keep things in perspective. American Catholics do have some soul searching to do, and that has more to do with the fact that we're Americans than that we're Catholics.

David Gibson: David Gibson: I agree that it is always important to view our travails in the context of the wider church--as one who cut his teeth covering the church by covering the Vatican (and subsequently converted, if you can believe it), I am a great champion of the bird's eye, or pope's eye, view of the church, a truly universal communion.

But what happens in the US church is an important indicator of what is happening in other cultures, both in Europe and Latin America, for example. I was writing in the American context, and that is largely our audience here. But there are lessons that go more broadly--America is in many respect an anomaly, as a very religious and very modern (post-modern?) society.

There is a good chance that other societies will follow in our footsteps in some fashion, and if we can continue to be both modern and religious, that would be no small achievement.


Sonoma, Calif.: Why cannot the Catholic Church accept the use of birth control, especially in Africa where millions are dying of disease and overpopulation is a big problem? This would also reduce the need of abortions.

David Gibson: This is a real difficulty for most people, Catholic and non-Catholic, but official church teaching is that you cannot do evil to do good--in other words, you can't commit the "evil" of artificial birth control to prevent the evil of abortion. Not many people are buying that--even so-called orthodox Catholics, who use birth control. And on the ground in the developing world, Catholic health care workers have to ignore the structures all the time.


Washington, D.C.: What is the value of the term "real Catholic?" It seems to be bandied about as a term of exclusion rather than inclusion. Is it a religious term or a political term? Is it a clam that authorizes one's own opinions over another's? Is it used as self-description or in labeling an opponent. Who can truly say in all humility that he or she is a "real Catholic"? Whatever happened to the maxim, "Once you're a Catholic you're always a Catholic?

David Gibson: It's like the term "good" and "Bad" Catholic. It has no real meaning, except as a means of attacking.

As I like to say, we are all bad Catholics, most certainly I am. Let's start from there, then we can talk.


Ohio: Re: the answer on abortion and the death penalty -- the Church teaches that abortion is inherently evil. The death penalty is not. Bishops, etc., are not thinking of 'savvy' political moves when talking about this issue. They are talking about something that the Church has defined as truly evil, and never a licit practice. Politics does not enter into the Magesterium's thinking here.

David Gibson: Yes, abortion is "intrinsically" evil, as the teaching says. But so is lying. Always and everywhere. So how do you stop it?

People know what the church teaching is. It's a question of whether the church leadership can, or wants to, move from a prophetic role of denunciation to one of affecting policies to change the situation--and perhaps change hearts and minds.


Section 506 at Nationals Park: Clearly I need a little faith these days.

Do you find that most of the controversy comes from a highly politicized, very tiny minority, or that this really is a great schism?

David Gibson: Yes, I think it's important to realize that this is a minority, both of bishops and activists, and not a schism. But the ugly conflict and politicizing of the conflict is tearing the church up AND driving people away who are in effect "collateral damage" in this war of extremes. So don't lose faith.

Another point is that however angry or unfair some voice may be, they are voicing a view of abortion that is fairly widely shared--most Americans want to see abortion reduced if not made less available. People are not "pro-abortion." So if Obama wants to help stop this argument he'll have to make good on some of the campaign pledges and those he made yesterday at Notre Dame.


Rockville, Md.: I'm a cradle Catholic who is constantly struggling with my faith, thanks to the bashers both inside and outside the Church who tell me that if I'm not a judgmental right-winger I must be doing it wrong. As a faithful Catholic I would never have an abortion myself or recommend it to any girl or woman I cared about, but I fail to see why the Church's prohibition should be a matter of law. It feels as though certain people on the right, including conservative converts from Protestant denominations, are trying to hijack the Church hierarchy for their own political purposes.

I can't understand how the anti-Vatican II backlashers can claim the Pope is always infallible, not just when speaking ex cathedra, unless he happened to be John XXIII. Can you shed any light on this, please?

David Gibson: Well, as I tried to say in the Outlook piece, we are all cafeteria Catholics now--conservative or liberal. And perhaps we have been since the late William F. Buckley thumbed his nose at John XXIII over Pacem in Terris.

I hope this discussion brings us all to think about what makes a Catholic and where the locus of authority is and how it is best deployed. I'd recommend reading Richard Gaillardetz on this topic.

Another part of the answer is a "creeping infallibilism" and a creeping "papalism" that identifies the pope with all things Catholic. That's a not Catholicism historically, and it'd be a challenge to conservatives if some social justice Latin American cardinal becomes pope next time. Will they leave or dissent in place, like Buckley?

In any case, you are part of the generally silent majority in the church.


Columbus, Ohio: John Paul II's letter Ex Corde Ecclessia talks about the proper platform for Catholic universities, and what they should be teaching and supporting. Inviting the most pro-choice politician to ever hold the office of the presidency does not jive with Notre Dame's mission as a Catholic University. They should not be honoring someone who blatantly rejects one of the core principles of Christianity -- thou shalt not kill. The Catholic Church has a just war policy. John Paul II and Benedict XVI may not have approved of the actions in Iraq, but that was something they left to individual consciences. Abortion is a grave evil. Always.

David Gibson: An important point is that JPII and B16 did not just disagree with the Iraq invasion etc, but they (and the vast majority of other Christian leaders and thinkers) said it was most definitely wrong. There was no wiggle room.

Moreover, we're not talking only about whether abortion is wrong, but about how to reduce or stop abortion in the U.S. That's a policy question with a political answer.


Possible to be Catholic and American?: I am one of those self-identified "former" Catholics. When the Church said you had to be Republican to be Catholic, I found other things to do on Sunday morning. I don't want to be another kind of Christian, but I'm clearly not welcome in the politicized Church, so now I'm an agnostic.

I found some of the faithful's discussion about Mr. Obama's Notre Dame appearance profoundly disturbing. There was almost no recognition that what makes Mr. Obama different from such previously-controversial speakers as Anna Quindlen is that he is the legitimately-elected president of the United States.

It appears that the bishops' position really is that unless a judge or politician bases their decisions on Catholic doctrine, Catholics should disrespect them. In other words, Catholic doctrine trumps the Constitution and trumps the will of the American people as expressed by elections. That seems to be a particularly untenable position for Catholics in the military who apparently are supposed to disdain their Commander- in-Chief because he isn't sufficiently Catholic. It seems to me that the bishops want exactly what John Kennedy said we wouldn't have -- a government that answers to Rome first.

David Gibson: I'd reiterate that Catholics strongly backed Obama's Notre Dame appearance, and overwhelmingly so at Notre Dame itself, as they are comfortably being American AND Catholic. So a few voices are not determinant for everyone.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: David, my question to you is "Are you Catholic"? I doubt it very much -- "you know nothing about the way a Roman Catholic believes". I don't know if you even have a faith -- but if you do write about your faith.

David Gibson: Well, yes, I am Catholic. A "practicing" Catholic, as we say, and always hoping and praying to do better. Sorry, but you can't get rid of me that easily--nor I, you!


Fargo, N.D.: Why was there no objection to the Obama speech just a few weeks ago at Georgetown;? Isn't that a Catholic school?

David Gibson: Dear Fargo: There was a dust-up generated over the covering up of a religious symbol during that appearance. it was a red herring, in my view and that of most people, because it was just to make the set look generic, and it was clear he was at Georgetown. Also, that was for a policy speech on economics, not an "honor" or an address on abortion e.g. So there was not a real "violation" of the bishops document.


Baltimore, Md.: If orthodoxy is driving people from the Church how do you explain the larger number of vocations within conservative/orthodox Catholic dioceses? Also how do you explain the fact that there are a larger number of ex-Jesuits, than Jesuits which is an order known for their liberalism (sorry I hate to use political terms)?

David Gibson: I think "orthodoxy" (however that is defined) is drawing a number of people to the church. But that is also because they are finding a very friendly environment for them, where as liberals or progressives are not welcome, quite often. The conservatives may be a minority, but they also hold the reins of power, and have for three decades, and like attracts like.

Also, when the church is portrayed as a fortress under siege, you'll naturally draw the most patriotic enlistees.

Finally, it's important to note that many of these orthodox vocations are going to a few places by drawing from across the country and the world. So you'll have a contraction ins some places.

That said, there is nothing wrong or misguided about these vocations, as anyone else's.


Arlington, Va.: I found your first answer very interesting. I am a "former Catholic" who now identifies as an atheist and Humanist. But are you saying that since I was baptized the church still considers me a member somehow? Is there a giant roll at the Vatican?

David Gibson: No, just a "giant" roll at your original parish!


Silver Spring, Md.: As a teenager, I attended an extremely conservative Catholic high school that was run by Opus Dei. For awhile, I did fervently believe in everything I was taught there. Now I see the danger in the very rigid "us vs. them" mentality I was taught, and the lack of compassion and respect for fellow human beings.

Today I still consider myself Catholic (although I'm not really practicing), but I find myself disagreeing with the church on many key issues. I think many Catholics today find themselves in a similar situation as myself.

David Gibson: That's true, and I think that represents the danger of any one-sided upbringing. It's great that you remain Catholic in some way, as the temptation for many is to 'convert' from one extreme to another.


New York, NY: In 2006, Condoleezza Rice delivered the commencement address at Boston College. She was granted an honorary degree. She, like President Obama, is pro-choice. She is also pro-torture and was a strong supporter of the Iraq war, both of which the Catholic Church opposes. Why then were there no protests of her speech?

David Gibson: There were in fact some protests of Rice's speech, but nothing like the Notre Dame event. That's because "liberals" aren't as organized as conservatives on such things, or as motivated, perhaps. And certainly not in 2006.

That said, anyone who says Obama should speak at Notre Dame must also allow that Rice could speak at BC. I'm for allow if in doubt--and bring on the protests.


Washington, D.C.: I have never clearly understood the linkage between the Catholic Church's view on abortion and the current position on making it illegal. Shouldn't the focus be on reducing the number of abortions rather than simply punishing sinners? Abortion used to be illegal, unsafe, generally available and largely ignored by the church. In the weighing of sins how does the church justify it's position on contraceptives knowing human weakness and the gravity of consequences. I have never really seen the Catholic Church's position a moral one but an exercise in authority.

David Gibson: The church would say that if something is a grave evil, it should be against the law. For example, slavery. Or assaulting someone. There are moral questions I think we do agree should be outlawed. But a small minority of Americans (12-15 percent) think abortion should be outlawed, and then even allow for rape and incest exceptions, which church teaching does not.

And the law itself is wobbly here--if your car slams into a car driven by a pregnant woman and the woman and fetus die, you can be charged with two counts of murder in some places.

But again, abortion is different than slavery or the death penalty in that it has a private dimension that no one can control, and most Americans do not want to control absolutely.


Formal Apostasy?: No offense intended, but can I apply for this and how? I'm gay, haven't attended Mass in over a decade, and married my partner last year. Does that make it automatic? I consider myself agnostic and prefer the church no longer consider me a member.

David Gibson: Sorry, but you're probably still considered on of the baptized. And we're more than happy to keep you--I know many gay Catholics who, admirably, continue to practice.


Montgomery Village, Md.: David Thanks for your excellent insights, even though they caused the priest at our church yesterday to go off into the zones about the Catholic Church DEMANDING "obedience " and "fidelity." I wish he would have actually READ the gospel yesterday and listened to President Obama's speech at ND. In any event can you clarify "papal infallibility"? It is one of the most loosely misinterpreted and mis-stated of Catholic "beliefs." I seem to recall that it is a relatively NEW doctrine and only officially invoked on one occasion -- the Assumption of Mary into heaven. Correct?

David Gibson: First off, thanks for mentioning the readings from yesterday. They could not be more apropos of the article and our discussion.

Here's a link to them, BTW:


A taste:


Jn 15:9-17

Jesus said to his disciples:

"As the Father loves me, so I also love you.

Remain in my love.

If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love,

just as I have kept my Father's commandments

and remain in his love.

As for infallibility, again there are many great resources out there, and many have decried what is a kind of "galloping infallibilism," imputing the very restricted notion of infallibility to the pope's pronouncements on almost anything. Well, anything they agree with.

And yes, infallibility was not solemnly defined until the First Vatican Council in 1870, and with much disputation. And it is also interesting that infallibility in the modern era has been applied to two teaching, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the BVM. Those are beliefs, not political positions or Supreme Court decisions.

In any case, there are many good resources out there. Try Richard McBrien's Encyclopedia of Catholicism.


Bush at Notre Dame?: Did Notre Dame ever invite President Bush, a noted proponent of the school's alleged respect for life in all forms, to speak for its commencement? Or did standard academic liberalism and/or star chasing outweigh religious doctrine?

David Gibson: Yes, President Bush was invited right after his election, and did speak, in 2001. I'm not sure what that does for your theory...


re: Formal Apostasy?: I'll be writing to my former parish to inform them. I absolutely do not want to be on the rolls. Thanks for the info.

David Gibson: I must say in all seriousness that while I respect any serious religious decision, I have the greatest admiration for women and gays who remain in the church despite the grief they get from the official church.

I am a convert, at the age of 30, and as I like to say that as a straight white male the Catholic Church is a natural fit for me. I could even grow up to be pope!

(Kidding. Get up off the floor.)


Hyattsville, Md.: First I'm not sure it's fair to say 60 bishops "denounced the school and its president...in the harshest terms." A few may have, but others simply said they had concerns. What I haven't seen is much discussion on the distinction between giving an honor (ref. the 2004 bishops' statement on political life; seems reasonable for any organization) and having a discussion (Obama at Georgetown on economics). Also, I haven't seen much in the coverage about the role of bishops within the church to identify core teachings (locally, Archbishop Wuerl wrote on this in his column) and especially on the role of the LOCAL bishop within his diocese. Could you comment on (1) the distinction between honor and dialogue and (2) the role of the local bishop when something like this comes up (vs. this expectation everyone weigh in)? Thank you.

David Gibson: This is a very astute observation--I wish I had more time to go into it.

For one thing, you are right to note that not all the 60-70 protesting bishops were as harsh as a few. And many of then were exploited quite badly by interest groups.

I would also recommend Archbp Wuerl's column on Notre Dame, and his column a few weeks ago (I'll try to find the link) on civility in the church, and the problem of polarization.

The role of the ordinary, the local bishop, is paramount, and that is both a problem and a possible virtue regarding politics. For example, one could argue that all the bishops publicly protesting Obama's appearance are trampling on the prerogatives of Bishop D'Arcy of South bend. Similarly, Archbp Wuerl of Washington cannot be the "communion cop" for the rest of the nation's bishops when it comes to politicians who live in DC.


Washington, D.C.: Dear David,

Thank you for your thoughtful article. I am a cradle Catholic, who for a while wrestled strongly with my faith. I found, however, that Catholic teaching on the major issues of contention (premarital sex, abortion, divorce, contraception) is much better understood after careful study of the millennia theology on the issues. Going back and reading St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, the Catchecism and encyclicals gave me a much deeper and intellectually convincing understanding than just 'it's bad and real Catholics don't do X, Y or Z. Some Bishops and priests do a better job at the fundamental reasons (God loves you) for certain doctrines than others.

David Gibson: Thanks for this comment, and I commend you for your deeper study, and recommend such a deeper purist of a "mature" Catholicism to all of us. if the sexual abuse crisis taught us one thing, it is that the laity needs to re-catechize and educate ourselves about the church, which is what I hope to do, however imperfectly.

History is a comfort in this regard. And faith is fragile when is it so ill-informed that a scandal or the pronouncements of a few clerics can drive us away. There are plenty of others reasons some might leave, all to be respected. But I am biased toward serious engagement first.


David Gibson: I'm afraid I have to sign off now. It's been a very vigorous and engaging discussion. Many thanks to all of you, and keep it coming elsewhere, in the combox for the story or elsewhere online.

Peace. David


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