I recently came across two articles at The National Catholic Reporter that caused me to think again about the faith I was raised in.
Since 9/11 I have watched and listened as Christians of all stripes pound on our Islamic cousins. I certainly have serious questions about that faith and wonder how much of what we see is genuine Islam or a corruption of earlier pagan beliefs to fit an Islamic world-view. Catholics certainly have done that with the birth of Jesus. So I was very interested in John Allen's essay (based on a talk he gave in Cleveland, OH at Notre Dame College) about Islam and why it is an important partner in interfaith dialogue. If we insist on treating our Islamic cousins as people to be suspicious of then we lose opportunities for a meeting of the minds on shared interests. Based on Allen's observations it seems a secular government can be a good thing after all in providing space for that dialogue to occur. But Christians must step up and set an example of tolerance and listening. The Vatican has stepped up, but I know of Catholics who are not interested.
Since 1999 I have also followed the struggle to define what is "church" and its purpose. Vatican II proposed that the people have a large role in shaping the answer, however the hierarchy, starting with John Paul II's reign, appears to disagree. The sex abuse scandal has highlighted clericalism's worst tendencies and there now appears to be an ongoing retrenchment to a pre-Vatican II Church. But not everywhere. In Chicago we have a well known priest, Father Michael Pfleger. This book review discusses Father Pfleger in terms that relate very well to the larger struggle within the Church. You can disagree with this priest but you cannot ignore him or the challenge he puts on the table for all Christians. Father Pfleger's approach is an expression of one answer to the question about what is "church" and its purpose - to radically live the meaning of Jesus' life.
Early believers in Jesus lived his message as best they could. Modern Christians are all over the map in their beliefs. Many use biblical text and assessments of Jesus' life to justify exclusivity of membership and primacy for their faith tradition. Others look for ways to live as Jesus might if he were alive today, including reaching out to the marginalized among us. Early Christians were killed for living lives that challenged the social conventions of their time. Yet their fundamental integrity attracted new believers even as they died. Modern Christians whose lives reflect that same integrity garner our admiration too, even if we cannot see ourselves walking those particular paths. Thomas Merton, Thomas Berry, Joan Chittister, Dorothy Day, Miriam McGillis all come to mind.
Being a living witness to the world of God's love is what it means to be Catholic, at least to me. Radical inclusivity (easy to say but hard to live) seems more in line with the life of the Teacher from Galilee who built no house of worship, wrote no books, had no job, relied on his friends for everything, embraced the social outcasts of his day, and gave up his life with the conviction that he was of, and one with, God. He lived his life with integrity and expected no less of those who followed him. Including us.