Liam has never liked tags. From toddlerhood on, I have been snipping off the labels of his clothing. Carter’s, size 3T; Healthtex, size 5; Gap, size 8 — they all end up in the trash basket.
When Liam first started asking to have his labels cut off, I resisted.
“Itchy!” he would say, his pudgy hand pulling on the back of his shirt. “Make go away!” But I hesitated. How would I know what size the clothes were, without labels? What about the friends to whom I passed the clothes when Liam outgrew them? They would have no idea of the brand or the size.
“It’s not so bad,” I tried to explain to two-year-old Liam. “You’ll get used to it.”
But Liam held firm, and eventually I cut the labels off — as much to curtail the whining as to stop the itching.
In the past six months, Liam’s demands for tag-cutting have slowed, but I’m thinking about labels once again. I’m noticing that within the Catholic Church, people are labeling themselves.
“I’m an orthodox Catholic,” a new acquaintance recently told me.
“That parish is known to be really liberal,” another friend explained.
“I’ve heard that parish is more conservative than Rome.”
“I’m a progressive Catholic.”
“They’re cafeteria Catholics. They take what they like and leave the rest.”
Interestingly, Jacob’s godmother would classify herself as a progressive or liberal Catholic, while Liam’s godmother would shudder at that label— and would say she leans conservative. And I would trust both these women with my sons’ lives — both physically and spiritually.
From where I sit, with close friends on all points of the Catholic spectrum, I see a lot of Catholic beauty, manifested in different ways. Conservative or orthodox Catholics really know their Church. They have an incredible appreciation of the sacraments. I know one mother of four who takes all the kids to Reconciliation weekly. “It’s so good for all of us,” she says. These Catholics understand the value in Eucharistic Adoration — of sitting or kneeling quietly in the Real Presence of Jesus. Most families who consider themselves orthodox Catholics have taken the brave step of raising children outside of mainstream American culture. These Catholics tend to look for — and find — other families with similar values. They build community with these other families through home schooling or potluck get-togethers. While their kids may not be able to sing even one lyric of a pop song, many would have no problem rattling off the mysteries of the Rosary. I love that.
The Catholics I know who would consider themselves liberal or progressive are all about living the Gospel. They show up at meal programs with their kids, ready to serve. They take Catholic social teaching to heart and will often be found at voter registration drives, in prison ministry and building houses with Habitat for Humanity. Like their orthodox sisters and brothers, these Catholics also are raising children outside of the mainstream. They have kids who not only know the lyrics to a U2 song, but could also explain to you why Bono is lobbying for African AIDS funding and debt relief. The progressive Catholics I know bristle at the term “Cafeteria Catholic.” While they may not be in lockstep with Rome on every issue, they take seriously the Church’s teaching on primacy of conscience and look to Jesus’ example of not allowing religious tradition to stand in the way of what God requires. In their presence, you can feel the passion of the Holy Spirit. I love that.
But while I love these people, I dislike the labels. To me, the label “orthodox Catholic” implies that the person with the label is somehow “more Catholic” than the person in next pew. Orthodox Catholics might argue that they more closely follow “all” the teachings of the Church, but who among us can judge how we’re following the teachings compared to our neighbor? Perhaps an orthodox couple follows Pope Paul VI’s teaching on not using artificial means of birth control, but struggles with the teaching by Pope John XXIII on doing their part to work for economic justice. Perhaps an “orthodox” Catholic is so focused on political issues surrounding protection of the unborn that he or she misses other issues that are equally “Catholic”— issues surrounding education, poverty and immigration where the church’s stance is similarly unequivocal.
The label “progressive” can be just as divisive. While “orthodox” implies that perhaps others don’t follow the rules, “progressive” implies that the Catholic in the next pew may not be progressing at all. “Progressive” suggests that others are staying static or even going backward and too often includes a disdain for the traditional. Progressive Catholics are sometimes smug in their certainty that they are correct — that they’ve figured out where the church needs to go in the future. Quick to serve the poor and work for justice, they can be reluctant to slow down enough for the church traditions and sacraments that may give them the nourishment they need to do their work even better.
The problem with the labels is that they make it too easy for us to dismiss a whole category of people. When it comes down to it, while each of us may lean a bit more to one side or the other, we’re all muddling through life, as best we can, trying to follow the teachings of Jesus. There is so much we can learn from one another. How about a rosary in the car, on the way to the meal program? Twenty minutes of Eucharistic Adoration before a rally for better educational opportunities for the poor? Stopping for the Sacrament of Reconcilation on Monday, then helping with a job-training program on Tuesday. Certainly, there are those among us who do all these things. There are those among us who live out so many aspects of what it means to be Catholic that they are hard to categorize. Orthodox, conservative, progressive, liberal — no label really fits right now.
Later, though, we’ll call them saints.