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Response to "How American Catholics Think About The Church"
From the 2009 Philip J. Murnion Lecture

by Amy Hoey
as prepared

Friday, June 26, 2009

Pryzbyla University Center
The Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C.


In an essay written for the centennial issue of America, Timothy Radcliff uses the image of a growing tree to reflect on the shape of the Church to come, noting that the tree exists in itself, of course, but is only alive in multiple interactions with what is not itself, and comments that the “church faces the same dilemma that has shaped Judaism over the centuries”: assimilation on the one hand which leads to its disappearance; and on the other hand, the ghetto, another form of death.1

The comprehensive analysis that Dr. Davidson has presented us tonight reinforces and extends the metaphor Father Radcliff develops. Many of the distinctions between culture I and culture II proceed not from theology in and of itself, but from the world within which that theology is developed and lived. I grew up in the 30’s and 40’s of the last century, believing that the Church had always been the way I was experiencing it and that it was that way all over the globe. (I do remember, though, that my mother had a calendar from the Propagation of the Faith hanging near the kitchen sink and each month there was a Madonna from a different part of the world that fascinated me. – an early and rudimentary introduction to multiculturalism.) As an undergraduate I was introduced to the writing of Cardinal Newman and his work on the development of dogma. I’m not sure that even then I understood the full implications of ecclesia semper reformanda.

My first answer to Dr. Davidson’s first question is that we should be grateful for the shifts that Kennedy described – they are signs that the church is alive; it has not stagnated, it is not fossilized, it is vibrant with new life. New life always brings challenges. Not everything that is new or every form of new life is worth retaining, but Jesus cautioned his disciples about premature judgments, encouraging them to let all grow until the harvest.

My difficulty with a schema such as Kennedy’s is that it leads us to think in extremes. Most of us, most of the time, find ourselves in the middle and I am grateful that Dr. Davidson pointed that out: There are elements of both cultures to be found in most Catholics. Thinking in extremes leads to stereotyping that makes serious dialogue and genuine mutual respect almost impossible.

That leads me to Dr. Davidson’s fourth question which I would amend. I don’t believe that the reemergence of culture I is to be found just among our more recently ordained priests. It may well be that more recently ordained priests come from a culture I type of background and perspective than from culture II, but that is a separate issue. If there is a growing gap between the two cultures, it is incumbent on all of us to be wary of those habits of thought, speech, and action that exacerbate the gap. It is all too easy to belittle or dismiss, even demonize those who are different from us. It is too easy to make or laugh at the facile joke about those who are, after all, our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Cultivating an attitude of respect and appreciation demands constant vigilance, but without it we can never hope to be – or be seen as – those Christians who love one another.

I find generational research fascinating, but I also find it troubling because it, of necessity, also highlights the differences among us. That is why the Common Ground Project is so important and so needed. As a church we need to emphasize and celebrate what we hold in common. We need to start all our endeavors from there, not from our differences.

President Obama during his speech in Cairo earlier this month said “as long as our relationship, is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those that promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all our people achieve justice and prosperity.” What is true in the geo-political world should be even more true in the Church.

I’ll admit I watched the entire Notre Dame Commencement a few weeks ago. The two speeches that stayed with me the longest are not the ones you might think, but the ones given by the two students who earned that honor – both of them women, by the way. The first young woman who was to give the opening prayer stepped up to the microphone and began “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Apart from the Liturgy or Our Mercy Morning and Evening Prayer, it’s been a long time since I began a quasi-public prayer that way –. I usually lower my head, close my eyes, try to silence my mind and heart and call on God in words that are gender- free.. I have a long standing and, I like to believe a well-grounded, resistance to prayer language that is exclusively male, but as I watched that commencement prayer, that woman inspired me to re-examine my practices. She, younger even than the youngest panelist here, and I share a belief in the Trinity and in the mystery of the Cross that transcends language and spans several generations. It is that which makes me grateful and hopeful for our Church.