Kind readers that you are, I had a number of encouraging letters about the recent column ‘The Meaning of Meaning’ which featured the Guardian-style word-play in the name ‘Affirming Catholicism’.
More than one correspondent pointed out what I had missed – that, in this punning formula, ‘Catholicism’ itself is also something of a joke.
Properly speaking, of course, it means ‘according to the whole’. The Vincentian Canon defines it neatly: semper, ubique et ab omnibus (what has been believed always, everywhere and by all). The Catholic Faith is that Faith which was delivered by the Lord to the Apostles, which the martyrs vindicated by their blood, and which the careful hands of each generation have striven to preserve in its purity and integrity.
But in the rich Empsonian* ambiguity of this engaging name for a theological game ‘catholicism’ means something else. It means openness, tolerance, inclusivity – the ‘pluriformity’ of which Frank Griswold so often speaks. To be Catholic in this sense is to have ‘catholic tastes’, to be all-embracing. As you might say (but Vincent most certainly would not), quotiens, quacumque et ab aliquibus: that which has been believed whenever, wherever and by whomsoever.
The Catholicism which is being affirmed is thus by definition, varied, pluralist and multiform. It can as well include Richard Holloway, who is struggling to understand whether he is still a Christian at all, and Rowan Williams, whom Christina Rees recently described as ‘incredibly orthodox’ (inadvertently, thereby, demonstrating how incredible orthodoxy is to Mrs Rees).
What ‘Affirming Catholics’ have in common, it seems, is not the Catholic Faith but the ‘catholicism’ of their faiths. And of course a taste for a certain churchy ethos. Roman Catholics described Anglo-Catholicism in its ritualist hey-day (not altogether inaccurately) as ‘private judgement in gorgeous raiment’. ‘Affirming Catholicism’ could as well be described as scepticism in a dim religious light.
It is, in truth, ‘Catholicism-Through-the-Looking-Glass’ where everything is turned inside out. In the crisis of Christianity in the darkest days of the twentieth century, Dietrich Bonnhoeffer called for ‘religionless Christianity’. At the turn of the century came the ‘Affirming Catholic’ response to that existential crie-de-coeur: christianityless Religion.
*Readers will remember that William Empson catalogued ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’; something of a challenge!
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