Catholic Identity

Identity as a Catholic: Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine (Ed: Russell Shaw. Our Sunday Visitor, 1997)
When we speak of some people being "very human", or others as "lacking in humanity", what we mean is that they are fulfilling - or falling away from - the models or standards befitting human nature. "Human nature" or "what it means to be human" is not something each one decides for himself or that can be changed at will. It has an objective content: one given by God when he made man "in his own image" (Gen 1:27).
That is why man is not a self-defining being. He has not the right or power to define humanity. All he can do is to achieve true human identity, to fulfil his potential to be human - or to frustrate it. Human nature, from which alone can flow true human identity, is something given by God. What keeps man in God's image or increases that image in him, accords with human nature, giving him greater identity as a man. What lessens, disfigures or spoils that image, contradicts human nature and identity, and can in the end make a person unidentifiable as truly human.
Christian identity, similarly, has an objective rather than a subjective content. The requirements for achieving true christian identity are clearly indicated in the Scriptures. To be a Christian means to follow and imitate Jesus Christ. As Jesus himself says, this involves being ready to bear the Cross in a spirit of self-denial: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Mt 16:24-25); "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn 3:30); "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20).
This gives us the key to christian identity. It is achieved in the measure of one's interior identification with Christ, a paradoxical process by which one in fact becomes more distinctively oneself. Just as the Saints were all one with Christ, approaching him from different angles, and are so different among themselves.
The norm and condition of christian living, of acquiring the true identity of a Christian is just the opposite therefore of self-affirmation or self-seeking. The human person only "realizes" himself in giving himself. "Man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself" (GS 24). That also means that the surest way to frustrate one's true identity is self-seeking in its various forms: pride, vanity, envy, impurity, greed... Much of modern education and professional psychological counselling is imbued with the cult of "self". Therefore if one wishes to acquire real christian identity, one must distance oneself from the philosophy of the "I-generation" "Self-identification" or "self-definition " are formulas of individualism. As a recipe for life, they lead to frustration and loneliness. Real christian identity has to be fought for, and can at any moment be lost under the influence of self-seeking. The wilfully self-centered person is unrecognizable as a Christian.
This applies to all Christians, to all those who by Baptism are made members of the Body of Christ and of the People of God. If all Christians are members of the People of God, what is the specific difference in being a Catholic? Does Catholic identity mean something more definite or definable that simple christian identity? Are there external and objective standards by which Catholic "identity" can be determined? There are. Catholic identity is in fact even more specific and also has its own particular demands.
With words taken directly from Lumen Gentium (31 and 14), the 1983 Code of Canon Law, in the opening canons of Book II on "The People of God", distinguishes between christian and Catholic identity. Christian identity comes from Baptism by which one is "incorporated into Christ" (c. 204) and so, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, receives "the life that originates in the Father and is offered to us in the Son" (CCC 683). Catholic identity is possessed by "those baptized [who] are fully in communion with the Catholic Church on this earth", being "joined with Christ in its visible structure by the bonds of profession of faith, of the sacraments and of ecclesiastical governance" (c. 205).
What gives a person a Catholic identity therefore, as distinguished from an identity which is simply christian, is clear; it consists in being in full communion with the Catholic Church - in its visible structure as it appears on this earth - accepting and enjoying bonds (which link us more specially still to Jesus Christ) that are defined as the profession of the same doctrine, the share and worship in the same sacraments, and the acceptance of ecclesiastical authority and discipline.
Catholic identity is not something static. It should grow; it can be lost. Growth in Catholic identity means an ever fuller and more intimate bonding and union with Jesus Christ, through the faith proposed by his Church, through the sacraments she administers, and through obedience to the dispositions of governance behind which one discovers his will (Lk 10:16).
Instead of growing as a Catholic, of course the opposite can happen and one can gradually suffer a loss of Catholic identity. This can occur if a person lacks the faith to appreciate the special union with Christ effected by full and wholehearted communion with the visible Church: if he or she begins to chaff against these ecclesial bonds that join us to Christ, resenting or resisting the demands which they make on our mind and will; "picking and choosing" in the faith one professes, so that it is no longer the Faith of the Church; neglecting the sacraments (especially Penance and the Eucharist) or receiving or administering them unworthily, or participating in or celebrating the Sacred Liturgy without due reverence; ignoring legitimate church authority or finding one's "way round" dispositions of government, especially of the Holy See.
No teacher or theologian has the right to appropriate the term "catholic" for his views, or to present them to the people as "catholic". It is the people who have the right to know whether a theologian's views are within the broad stream of Catholic thinking, or outside. It is the Church, and not the individual thinker, who is entitled to decide whether his or her views qualify to be identified and termed Catholic or not.
The Church cannot lose her identity. Despite the defects of her members, she will always be the Holy Church. This is something that Jesus Christ himself has guaranteed. But each Catholic can acquire more and more solidly, or gradually lose, his or her identity as a Catholic. This application of this point goes beyond the case just of individual persons.
The Church is made up of things human and divine. The divine things - the Sacraments, Revelation, Scripture, the Magisterium - never lose their sacred identity, even if misused by men. The Eucharistic Sacrifice always remains the Holy Mass, even if celebrated (with due intention) by a priest in a state of serious sin.
But many things in the Church are of purely human foundation: Catholic schools and other teaching institutions, chairs of theology, hospitals, publishing houses, newspapers, bookshops, etc. They can lose their Catholic identity, even while continuing to use the name "Catholic". In judging whether a particular institution is retaining its Catholic identity, the same tests which are offered by c. 205 and which we noted above, should be applied: union with Christ through acceptance of the Church's faith, sacraments and ecclesiastical governance. If it happens that a particular institution shows a lack of union with Christ by failing to transmit the faith that he has passed down to us through his Church over the centuries, or if it does not heed his voice speaking through indications of church government ("he who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me": Lk 10:16), then it is undoubtedly losing or has already lost its Catholic identity. A Catholic name or a Catholic past are not sufficient to guarantee a present Catholic identity. This is something to be borne in mind in choosing books for doctrinal or spiritual reading, institutions where to send one's children, or to attend oneself for further studies.
Being true to one's Catholic identity requires special courage in a world which tends more and more to look for and even demand identification with secular principles as a passport or a qualification for citizenship, or for the free exercise of what it chooses to define as civic rights. It is not from the media or opinion polls, not from Congresses, Parliaments, or Supreme Court decisions, that Catholics must take their standards and their stand. It is from the Gospel. "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).
There is no conflict between being true to one's Catholic identity and having the fullest respect for the human rights of others. On the contrary; it is precisely Catholics who keep faithful to Christ and to the identity - the principles and practice - that he calls for in his followers, who can alert their fellow-citizens to the threat posed to their human identity - to the freedom and dignity of every single person - by many of the principles and legislative practices being proposed by modern states.