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Have you come across the phrase ‘Affirmative Orthodoxy’ yet? I’ve just read John Allen’s latest book, A People of Hope, which is basically a long interview with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York. (Dolan has been in the press a lot recently, because of his non-partisan presence at both the Republican and Democrat conventions to say the official prayers.)

Allen says in the Introduction that one of his main reasons for putting time into the book was not just to present a portrayal of Dolan himself, but to make better sense of where the Church in the States is going. Dolan, for Allen, is a figure who represents some of the new-found confidence within the American Catholic Church; and the fact that he has was appointed to New York, and that he increasingly takes centre stage when religion comes into the public square, is a sign that his brand of confident Catholicism is on the rise.

It fits with Pope Benedict’s programme for renewal. Allen writes:

Some time back, I coined the phrase ‘Affirmative Orthodoxy’ to describe the distinctive character of Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching. Both parts of the formula are important. Benedict is certainly ‘orthodox’ in the sense of tenaciously defending the core elements of classic Catholic thought, speech, and practice.

Yet he’s also ‘affirmative’ in the sense of being determined to present the building blocks of orthodoxy in a positive key. The emphasis is on what Catholicism embraces and affirms, what it says ‘yes’ to, rather than what it opposes and condemns.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan is Affirmative Orthodoxy on steroids. He is, to adapt the marketing slogan for the sugar and caffeine-rich Jolt Cola, ‘all the orthodoxy and twice the affirmative!’ [xxi]

And later in the book Allen comes back to this theme.

By any reasonable standard Benedict is a conservative, but his main concern seems to be to systematically reintroduce the building blocks of orthodoxy, trying to dust off centuries of controversy and legalistic gloss in order to lift up the positive ideas at their core.

For Benedict, this commitment to affirmative orthodoxy flows from his diagnosis of the cultural situation in the West, which is that in Europe particularly, too many people think they know what Christianity is all about – a rigidly legalistic system of rules and restrictions, intended to shore up the crumbling authority of the Church’s clerical caste.

In that context, Benedict believes the only way to get a new hearing is to stress the deep Catholic yes beneath the familiar litany of things of which the Church disapproves.

For Dolan, affirmative orthodoxy seems more a matter of personal instincts and temperament. In other words, he doesn’t have to think about it, because his own life experience has disposed him to see Catholicism primarily in terms of adventure, romance, and fellowship, and it almost requires an act of will to think of it in any other way. [128]

Dolan himself says:

The Catholic Church affirms, strengthens, expands what’s most noble, most beautiful, most sacred, in the human project. I like to quote a line from Father Robert Barron, that the Church only says no to another no, and two no’s make a yes. It’s only when the yes of humanity is threatened that the Church will say no, to protect the yes. [129]

I’m not sure I like these phrases being used too often, because there is the danger they help create factions within the Church, in-crowds and out-crowds. But to the extent that ‘affirmative orthodoxy’ means ‘happy to be Catholic’ or ‘it does actually make sense’ or ‘it is actually worth sharing’, then that is fine by me!

I sort-of met Dolan twice. In the mid-90s I was ‘common room man’ at the English College in Rome, which meant I ran the bar. Dolan was a guest of the College for Sunday lunch, when he was Rector at the North American College in Rome. It would be indiscreet of me to blog about his choice of Sunday aperitif; so let’s just say that whatever it was, I poured it for him.

And then for World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005, the Westminster group stayed outside the main city in the town of Solingen. Dolan gave the English catechesis one morning. The priests didn’t get to hear much, as we were sitting round the edge of the church hearing confessions; but the feedback was very positive.

(By the way – what is Jolt Cola?!)

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