One of the primary goals of this school is to equip its students and graduates to foster a meaningful dialogue between the wisdom and teachings of the Church on the one hand and our culture at large on the other. There is a dual goal that we will both engage in deep Catholic learning and that we will express what we have learned to the culture in ways that are meaningful and relevant. This is an admirable goal, but I confess that I often find it rather far-fetched. How am I supposed to accomplish this goal?
In the first place, I am weird. I am a strange person. Think of what I have done with my life. Here I am, married for eleven years, with three young children, and what have I chosen to do with my life? I have worked very hard, spent money and time, worry and research, taken incredibly dull tests all so that I could gain acceptance to a program like this one, all so that I could come here and spend enormous sums of money for the privilege of contemplating the meaning of a single word or sentence for months on end. I am a strange person! Who does this?
When I tell people that I am a student, that I am working towards a master’s in theology, I am usually greeted with a confused, blank stare, and then, “What is that?” When I try to explain, I might hear, “Oh, so it’s, like, Religion?” “Well, yes, sort of…” Typically, then, the conversation winds itself to an awkward end. What we do here is rather odd, and the culture generally does not understand it, and does not understand us for wanting to do it. It takes an unusual temperament and disposition to want to spend the years we have spent here engaged in these academic activities.
I am awkward and introverted; I have a deep dislike of casual social situations; I am hard to get to know. I love to understand and organize the things I work with, and my tendency to think and plan down to the finest detail often isolates me from my co-workers, who do not see what I see. I am a musician at heart, and my own writing flows forth from the rhythm and cadence of sounds and music that I hear in my mind. But others do not hear what I hear, and I often find myself at a loss to communicate it to them. I am a strange person.
So it seems I am starting at a deficit. Simply to be who I am and simply to study here, it seems, is to make myself irrelevant to the culture. It is easy for those around me to brush to the side a strange person like me.
What is more, the Church, in her day-to-day activities, does not present anything like a clear voice to the culture. For at this level the Church is fractured and divided — this is a serious problem with which we must contend.
When we consider the nature of the Church, we are confronted almost with two different realities, or rather, with two very different aspects of the one and the same thing.
On the one hand, the Church is a human, historical institution and tradition, and viewed in this way, the history and activity of the Church is sometimes magnificently wonderful, at other times devastatingly horrible, and most often somewhere in between. And when we consider this aspect of the Church at a local level, the point of immediate contact between the Church and the culture, we notice a deep fracturing. Setting aside for a moment the obvious problem of the fracturing with Christianity more broadly, we may note that within the Roman Catholic Church today, the primary cohesive societies and communities are built not around the catholic life and faith as it is lived out at in our communities, but rather around ideologies. The different types of Catholics have banded together and are constantly fighting the other types for influence and attention, engaging in a political tug-of-war.
At the parish level there is nothing like a local robust community in which we all play a part. The Catholic life and voice in our communities has little alternative to offer the culture, for in our divisions and isolation from one another, we are no different than the culture as a whole.
Allow me to be a little more personal. To be a parent and to raise young children in our culture today is extremely difficult. Jobs are too few and pay too little, housing and health care are too costly. In our communities and neighborhoods we are isolated from each other, and we suffer tremendous loneliness and discouragement. The negative influences of the culture are ever-present, and to find a compromise between what is acceptable for my children and what is not is an incredibly challenging affair. The culture does not make it easy for me to have a young family.
And the Church is doing nothing to help the situation. As I experience it, there are not supportive communities, there is almost no sense of hospitality and welcome to new families. The Church simply mirrors the problems of the culture.
What then, is the Catholic voice, as it is presented to the culture? From the perspective of the culture, why bother with the Church? Why listen to her voice?
It seems to me that if we are to foster dialogue between the Church and the culture, the first place to orient our attention and our voices is within the Church herself, calling her to reform and renewal. The here-and-now life of the Church is in need of our voices and our perspectives, calling her to be more and more herself, to live out her unique and sacramental identity. For when the Church can offer a viable alternative to the life of the society, then the culture will have something worth listening to.
But there is a second aspect of the Church; that is, her sacramental identity as the body of Christ. This reality transcends the mere human institution, and in order to fully understand the Church, we must hold both of these aspects together in a dialectical tension.
And when we consider the sacramental identity of the Church, we see that under and behind all the surface-level fracturing and difficulties, there is yet a legitimate and powerful teaching authority that the Church possesses—a clear, unique voice that can be reduced to no single faction or ideology. To my mind, the Catechism is a good and clear expression of this voice. Another excellent expression is Catholic Social Teaching. In this teaching Church provides a unique and powerful perspective that cannot be identified with any political ideology, and which presents extremely relevant teachings and applications to the culture.
Whether the issue is corruption and greed, oppression and degradation of the poor, the general structure of society, our treatment of mothers and their unborn, warfare and torture, or the needs of immigrants, the Catholic Social Teaching offers a clear, unique, relevant, and powerful perspective.
So when we consider the Church from this second perspective, our only question is: are we bold enough to make use of the Church’s voice? Do we have enough courage to speak on behalf of the Church? As we stand now, there are far too few people who have chosen to do this, and so these rich resources of the Church are largely hidden from our culture. A voice that could be so helpful and instructive to the culture is muffled and unknown. But the Church does have a real voice, and we can really make use of it.
So this, it seems to me, is the dual challenge that lies before us. On the one hand, we direct our voice and our activity toward the Church in order to renew and correct, in order to deepen and develop our communities and to bring the Church back to herself and her own unique identity. And on the other hand, we direct our voice and activity toward the culture, expressing the clarity of the Church’s teachings and using our voice to stand for and to channel the voice of the Church.
And now the question arises in my mind: Is mine a voice worth listening to? It often seems like there is so little that I can do, that my contribution is so insignificant as to be completely irrelevant. But here I must remind myself that my own contribution is only one small part in Christ’s work and activity on this earth, and that I cannot know its significance except in hindsight. Here, I think, it is important for us all to remember that we each have unique value and unique gifts—that the unity we seek is not one which tramples individuality, but rather one which celebrates it and is built upon it. No one is just like any other. We each have our own passions and gifts, interests and perspectives. We each have our own voice.
We need more people to be themselves, to be unique, to express the truth in their own words and offer the unique perspectives of their own reason and experiences, through their own quirks and dialects. We need to break out of the idea that there are a limited number of ideologies, and that one “group” is right and the others are wrong. Instead, we should practice compassion, patience, understanding, and sympathy toward those with whom we disagree. To value the distinctiveness in each other is not simply being nice, it is our best hope of finding and maintaining what is true. Since each perspective is limited, we will make mistakes and those mistakes can only be mitigated and corrected if we allow others with different perspectives to contribute with us and to call us on our errors. We need to be each ourselves, and we need to value and seek out that which is different than us. These differences are critical.
And here we may come to realize that the quality which most isolates us and discourages us, which makes us seem so out of touch and irrelevant, is, in fact, the very gift which can help us do the most good for the Church and for the culture. We here in this room are not cookie-cutter people, we are not doing what everyone else does—we are unique and distinctive.
And our training here at this school, while looking very strange from the outside, is actually among the most relevant, valuable training we can receive. For in this time, while we spent so long pouring over the details of and examining all the perspectives on our subject matter, we were learning the very skills of patience, compassion, sympathy for other viewpoints that we all so desperately need. And as we have been pressed to consider and analyze, to speak and write, we have slowly come to uncover and make use of our own distinctive voices.
We here are uniquely prepared to contribute both to the renewal of the Church and to the well-being and justice of the culture. This is so not only because of our philosophical and theological knowledge, but, more importantly, because we have slowly learned what our own identity is, what our own voice sounds like. Our gift is simply that we have learned, in some measure, to be ourselves, to use our own voice, and to value the voices of others.
My encouragement to all of us, then, is simple. Find your voice. There is nothing in the world quite like it. It has a beauty and a power that is unique and astounding. Find your voice, and when you have found it, do not be afraid to use it.