Who Is a Real Catholic?

All you need to know to diagnose the state of the Catholic Church in America today is that Pope Benedict XVI -- who has a knack for ticking off Muslims and Jews -- spent the past week wandering the Middle East, yet Catholics here barely noticed. They were too busy fighting over Barack Obama's appearance as commencement speaker at Notre Dame or arguing about the fate of a popular Miami priest known as "Father Oprah," who was caught on camera sharing a seaside embrace with his girlfriend.

Is this what Catholicism in America has come to? Bickering about whether Notre Dame is really Catholic, or whether a priest can make out on the beach with his gal pal? Well, yes. And that should come as no surprise.

Since the emergence of Catholicism in the 19th century as a counterweight to the United States's reigning Protestant culture, American Catholics have struggled to balance their desire to assimilate into society with the fear of losing their faith in the nation's melting pot. These new controversies show that, in the Catholic saga, assimilation is winning.

That is because American Catholics -- and there are upwards of 65 million of us -- are going their own way on many matters of faith and especially on issues ranging from priestly celibacy to political candidates, and there seems to be little the bishops can do about it. If there is a true swing vote in the U.S. electorate today, it is the Catholic bloc. This disturbs conservative members of the faith, the self-styled "orthodox" who often dismiss such fickle folks as "cafeteria Catholics." In the vacuum left by the disappearing Catholic subculture, conservatives have made politics the eighth sacrament, with one's position on abortion and gay marriage becoming the litmus test of whether one is a "good Catholic," or a Catholic at all.

This civil war, as the Catholic writer Peter Steinfels recently called it, between hard-liners and those seeking greater engagement, is one the church cannot win. A recent Pew survey showed that despite a generally greater "brand loyalty" than most faiths, Catholicism in America is bleeding out, to the point that nearly one in 10 Americans identifies as a former Catholic. For every one convert, four Catholics are leaving the church -- half of them to traditions like evangelicalism that they find more spiritually fulfilling. Without the inflow of millions of Latino immigrants in recent decades, American Catholicism would be in decline, and even still the church is shrinking in many areas.

The conflicting identities of American Catholics have deep roots. Beginning in the 1800s, American Catholics insulated themselves by building an alternate universe of schools to educate their children, hospitals to care for their sick, and cemeteries to bury their dead. They were forbidden to marry outside the fold, and stepping inside a Protestant church was considered hazardous to the soul's health. On the other hand, just as Catholics wanted to show Rome they could be every bit as Catholic as the pope, they also wanted to prove to their fellow citizens that they could be as red, white, and blue as any Connecticut Yankee. They fought in the nation's wars, labored in the country's factories, and turned out generations of college graduates who took their place among America's elite. And after the presidential candidacy of Al Smith was thwarted in 1928 thanks in part to anti-Catholic canards, the faithful helped power John F. Kennedy to the White House in 1960.

Of course, just as Catholics finally arrived, they almost immediately set to fighting among themselves with a bitterness that would make even the most fractious Baptists blush. The Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s brought contested reforms that coincided with the social upheavals of that decade, and in 1968, as women were rejoicing in the liberation of The Pill, Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae reaffirming the ban on artificial contraception. Some Catholics stormed off but others simply defected in place, feeling free to stay and disregard papal teaching. Then came Roe v. Wade, drawing Catholicism into the culture wars with a fury that seemed to peak during the 2008 election.

But it didn't end on November 4. In March, when the University of Notre Dame invited President Obama to deliver its commencement address -- as it has done for presidents going back to Eisenhower -- conservative Catholics and a growing number of bishops (about 60 at last count, though still a minority of the nearly 290 active bishops in the United States) denounced the school and its president, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, in the harshest terms. Bishop Thomas G. Doran of Rockford, Ill., had perhaps the sharpest (and most insider) of jabs, calling Jenkins's invitation "truly obscene" and suggesting that he rename the school "Northwestern Indiana Humanist University."

As such purple rhetoric was flying about on the Notre Dame affair, American Catholics suddenly faced a more sordid one: A tabloid published shots of popular Cuban American priest Alberto Cutié -- a multimedia star among U.S. Hispanics -- in risqué poses on the beach with a woman who turns out to be his girlfriend of two years. Nothing draws media flies like a sex scandal, especially one involving a man of the cloth, but a funny thing happened on the way to Father Cutié's disgrace: He did not slink away in shame but instead proclaimed, with Luther-like dignity, that he wasn't worried what the hierarchy thought. "What worries me most is how God views me. The institution, the church, is something else."

Cutié is now reportedly considering whether to marry his girlfriend, and has said he thinks priestly celibacy should be optional. What's more, 78 percent of Miami-area Catholics said they had a favorable impression of him, and 81 percent backed his call for a married priesthood, according to a Miami Herald poll.

That willingness of American Catholics to break ranks with such long-held tenets is evident in surveys on a number of issues, including church teachings regarding celibacy and birth control. But for conservative Catholics, "opposition to abortion is the signpost at the intersection of Catholicism and American public life," as Jody Bottum, who recently succeeded the late Father Richard John Neuhaus as editor of the theocon journal First Things, wrote recently in the Weekly Standard. To Bottum, Notre Dame's president and others who could engage a pro-abortion rights politician like Obama "lack the cultural marker that would make them Catholic in the minds of other Catholics."

While those "other Catholics" are a distinct minority, they have adopted the tactics of hard-line activists. For example, when Obama visited Georgetown University last month to deliver a major economic policy speech, his set-up crew covered up a religious symbol behind the podium to make the setting conform to a non-religious standard. The move was immediately cited as proof that Obama was anti-Catholic -- the speech's references to the Sermon on the Mount notwithstanding.

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 Cutié, 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, 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.