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That’s not right. That’s not even wrong.

According to Fr. James Martin, although the Church teaches that “LGBT people must be celibate their entire lives” this expectation “has not been received”, by lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and/or transgender people, and therefore it has failed to become “authoritative” in their regard.

I am reminded of a furrowed-brow comment a friend once made upon hearing some speaker bungle several ecclesiastical terms: “That’s not right,” he said. “That’s not even wrong. I don’t know what that is.” So, as when Martin misconstrued the significance of his book having an “Imprimi potest”, I pause to untangle these concepts for those who would like to understand and apply them more accurately.

First, there is no Church law or teaching that lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and/or transgender people “must be celibate their entire lives”. None.

While lots of people, for lots of reasons, are single, celibacy is the willed state of not marrying. Martin, for example, is not simply single, he is celibate because he chose, as a cleric (1983 CIC1087) and as a religious (1983 CIC 1089), to be bound by two impediments against marriage and to share thereby in the “special gift of God” (1983 CIC 277 § 1) that celibacy is. Other impediments whereby one is prevented from marrying can arise not by one’s personal choice but by conditions of life, such as being too young (nonage, 1983 CIC 1083) or being too closely related to another person (consanguinity, 1983 CIC 1091). Clearly some marriage impediments last only for a time or apply only in regard to certain potential spouses while others are permanent and universal.

But, getting back to Martin’s claim, the list of impediments by which one is prevented from marrying in the Church is taxatively presented in the Code of Canon Law (1983 CIC 1075) and, search that Code from start to finish, one will not find any of Martin’s subjects (lesbians, gays, bi-sexuals, and/or transgenders) listed as being impeded from marriage. In no wise, whether by incurrence of an impediment by choice or by imposition, does Church law or teaching require such persons to be celibate at all, let alone for their entire lives.

Second—and this is a guess born not simply of Martin’s own words earlier in the clip linked above, but of my seeing people muff these distinctions for many decades—Martin might be confusing “celibacy” (the choice not to marry) with “continence” (the choice to refrain from sexual relations) and, assuming his acceptance of settled Church teaching that sexual relations are only for married couples, Martin might be trying to say that Church teaching on the “continence” to which all non-married persons are called has not been “received” by at least some of the groups Martin has in mind and that they do not feel bound to observe it.

Martin’s causal invocation of “reception”, however, in regard to the moral teachings belies the actual concept of “reception” which (in the few instances that it is discussed at all) is almost always treated in regard to one community’s acceptance of another’s creedal assertions or juridic determinations. In other words, “reception”, a concept mostly of academic interest for the last millennium, is not a category by which the nature of moral teachings are typically assessed in ecclesiastical life. One can, of course, talk usefully about whether some moral teaching is being ‘complied with’ or is being ‘violated by’ individuals or groups, but not whether it has been “received” by some person or group.

Finally, Martin might regret that, in virtue of Canon 1055 (which presents the nature of marriage itself), two lesbians cannot marry each other, nor can two homosexuals, but, if that is what underlies Martin’s complaints about celibacy supposedly being imposed on such persons, he needs to take it up with the infallible Magisterium of the Church.

Meanwhile we need to be clear: if, say, a woman who experiences same-sex attraction is canonically free to marry, and she attempts marriage with a man who is also free to marry, their wedding enjoys the same presumption of validity that every other marriage enjoys—unless and until it is proven null for reasons other than a non-existent impediment to marriage allegedly known as ‘lesbianism’. Because no such impediment exists.

The Church does not minimize the difficulties that people with same-sex attraction can encounter in marriage. But those difficulties do not include being required by Church teaching or law to remain celibate at all, let alone for life, and ministers engaged in outreach to such persons should not imply otherwise.


Notes for Australian Catholics re the ‘same-sex marriage’ postal vote

Even in a free country it is very unusual for a government to ask, plainly and directly, its people for their opinion on a specific proposed policy; but it is nigh-on unheard of that any question concerning a proposed policy would have one, and only one, correct answer. Yet that is exactly what is happening Down Under for the next few weeks as the Australian government, considering legislation to recognize “same-sex marriage”, is asking its people a single, straight-forward question: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?

Although I and others argue that “same-sex marriage” can be considered, though rejected, on purely philosophical, specifically natural law, grounds (meaning that one need not be a Christian or even a believer to follow these arguments or to understand why “same-sex marriage” cannot exist), here I specifically address the responsibility of Australian Catholics qua Catholics to answer their government’s simple question with a simple “No”—remarks that seem necessary given the shallowness of some recent comments offered by some Australian prelates, those, despite the crystal clarity of the answer that (as a matter, I suggest, of pastoral duty under Canons 213, 386, 747 § 2, and 760) should be given to Catholic faithful.

So, Catholicus Catholicis, here we go.

Jesus expects all of us to be good citizens and summarizes our political obligations with his famous remark “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” In nations blessed with the ballot, being a good citizen implies, among other things, the obligation to inform ourselves about issues and to vote in furtherance of the common good. See Catechism of the Catholic Church 1915 and 2238-2240.

To be sure, the great majority of issues coming before political leaders are practical in nature (cf. Aristotle on politics being the art of the practical) and so do not have obvious yes-or-no answers. Thus, even though some faith-based analysis might help illuminate this political point or that, in general, we Catholics are free to disagree among ourselves about most political issues and, in consequence, we must “avoid setting forth [our] own opinions as the doctrine of the Church.” 1983 CIC 227. But, in those rare instances where “doctrine of the Church” is precisely what is at issue in a governmental policy, different norms apply.

Canon 209 § 1 states that the “Christian faithful, even in their own manner of acting, are always obliged to maintain communion with the Church.” Note the canon says always, not always except in the voting booth, but always.

Canon 1055 § 1 states that marriage exists between a man and a woman. Never in the history of the Church (again, I could say never in human history, but this post is directed to Catholics and not to the world in general) has marriage ever been recognized as anything other than the union of a man and a woman. Never. Ever. Which leads us to the next point.

The Church’s multi-millennial treatment of marriage as uniting a man and woman is so constant and so consistent that one must conclude that Church teaching on this point is definitive and has been proclaimed infallibly by the ordinary Magisterium. See 1983 CIC 749 § 2. Now, the fact that an assertion is proclaimed by the Church with infallible certainty has canonical implications for us as Catholics, including, that a Catholic who rejects such an assertion “is opposed to the doctrine of the Catholic Church.” 1983 CIC 750 § 2. And what can happen to Catholics who reject the doctrine of the Church? Per Canon 1371 n. 1 they can be subjected to a “just penalty”.

But the stakes for us as Catholics are likely higher still.

It is, in my view, settled that the Church’s teaching on marriage (as something possible only between a man and woman) is not simply asserted infallibly, as noted above, but is also revealed by God as an “object of belief”. If this is correct (and I know of no credible argument to the contrary), rejection of this point of Church teaching on marriage is heresy per Canon 750, heresy that can render a Catholic liable to excommunication and, if that Catholic is a cleric, to dismissal from the clerical state. 1983 CIC 1364.

Let’s draw these points together.

Although it would be impossible to prove canonically how a given Catholic voted in this marriage plebiscite, a fact that moots the prosecution of a charge under Canon 1364 or 1371 based only one’s vote—though not necessarily of a charge based on one’s public support for the proposal per Canon 1369, or even on one’s negligent failure to oppose it per Canon 1389—this forensic impossibility of proof regarding a ballot does not exempt Catholics from the obligation in conscience “to maintain communion with the Church” (c. 209), does not excuse Catholics from acknowledging what is beyond question “the doctrine of the Church” (c. 227), and does not justify a Catholic taking an action that is probably tantamount to heresy (c. 751).

Insofar as good citizenship is, as noted above, a moral duty for all Catholics, our conduct as citizens, including our casting a ballot, has moral implications; we are accountable to God, who sees everything, for every morally significant choice we make, including casting a ballot.

So I end these remarks where I began, by underscoring how very unusual it is for a government to ask its people a straight-forward question such as “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” and by wondering how often is a Catholic asked to vote on an issue that is directly and authoritatively answered for Catholics by the Church? Yet Australian Catholics are precisely in that position, they are being asked to vote on a matter of grave public concern on which the Church has an unalterable position. How, in the meantime, some Australian ecclesiastics can think that this question, as it is actually posed to voters, is somehow complicated, or can suggest that there is any room for disagreement among Catholics concerning the answer, or shrug off the prospects of Australia passing a “same-sex marriage” law as ‘not being the end of the world’ (as if anything besides the end of the world itself could ever be the end of the world), escapes me.

Speaking of recognizing inter-faith marriages

The welcome news that Tunisia has lifted its civil ban on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men (the ban seems to have worked only against women’s freedom) occasions some thoughts on Roman canon law of inter-faith marriages.

First, in this matter, western canon law does not discriminate based on sex; whatever applies to males applies to females, and vice versa.

Second, in regard to Catholics marrying baptized non-Catholics (e.g., Protestants), while ecclesiastical “permission” for a “mixed marriage” is required (1983 CIC 1124-1128), such permission is routinely granted and, even if it were somehow overlooked during wedding preparations, the failure to obtain “permission” for a Catholic-Protestant marriage does not impact the validity of the marriage or its sacramentality.

But third, in regard to Catholics marrying non-baptized persons (e.g., Jews, Muslims, Hindi, etc.), that is, so-called “disparity of cult” situations, things are more complicated.

Not “permission” but rather a “dispensation” (from the impediment of “disparity of cult” set out in Canon 1086) is required for such marriages; the failure, even if accidental, to obtain said dispensation results in the canonical invalidity of the marriage; moreover, if a dispensation is granted, the marriage, though valid under canon law, is still not regarded as sacramental (even for the Catholic spouse), unless and until the non-Catholic spouse is baptized.

This lack of sacramentality in a Catholic marriage to a non-baptized person, plus the cultural difficulties that can accompany such marriages (see, e.g. Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, instr. Erga migrantes (3 mai 2004), esp. nn. 65-68), pastorally supports the negative view that canon law takes toward weddings between Catholics and non-baptized persons, but—and besides the fact that this negative canonical view does not impact the recognition that American civil law accords these marriages—the canonical impediment of “disparity of cult” is, in practice, routinely dispensed, almost as routinely as “permission” for a Catholic to marry a baptized non-Catholic is granted. 

One might question the prudence of keeping on the books such a grave obstacle to matrimonial validity as “disparity of cult” if almost the only time it ever impacts a marriage is when dispensation from it is accidentally overlooked, but that question is for another day. I can think of good arguments pro and con; doubtless others could, too. But for now, let’s just be glad that one more unjust civil discrimination against women has been lifted somewhere, while keeping in mind that the Church’s concern for marriage, though it includes encouraging the just civil recognition owed to marriage itself and the spouses therein, runs more deeply yet.

About Fr. Martin’s book

Defending his book, Building a Bridge (2017), Jesuit Father James Martin claims that its consistency with Church teaching is attested to by (A) his own good standing as a priest, and (B) the canonical approval the book received from his Jesuit superior.

Martin’s first claim, that he is a priest in good standing, is neither contested nor relevant to the question of whether his book is doctrinally sound or pastorally trustworthy.

Martin’s second claim, that his book enjoys canonical approval, requires some context before one can appreciate what that means—and doesn’t mean.

The Roman Catholic Church’s canonical discipline on publishing materials related to faith and morals is found chiefly in Canons 822-832 and focuses on two well-known markers of doctrinal orthodoxy and pastoral suitability, namely, the “nihil obstat” (a theologian’s certification that nothing obstructs faith or morals per 1983 CIC 830 § 2) and the “imprimatur” (a local ordinary’s determination that the writings may be responsibly published per 1983 CIC 830 § 3). The nihil obstat does not imply that everything in a text is stated correctly, but rather, is concerned with whether anything is stated wrongly; the imprimatur does not imply that a book is actually good or helpful, but rather, asks whether it is a bad idea to publish it. Throughout the process, authors and their works are generally, and understandably, viewed benignly (e.g., 1983 CIC 212).

Martin’s book, though falling within the categories for which a nihil obstat and an imprimatur are expressly recommended (1983 CIC 827 § 3), does not, in my opinion, require such certifications and he is within the law to have published it without them. Of course, the lack of these common certifications is hardly evidence of the soundness of his work.

Martin’s book does have what it is required to have, namely, a religious superior’s “permission to publish” (imprimi potest), a clearance all members of institutes of consecrated life must obtain prior to publishing these sorts of materials. Instructions issued in 1992 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith expect religious superiors, prior to issuing their permission for publication, to consult with at least one trustworthy theologian about whether anything in a book such as Martin’s is harmful to the faith or morals. Martin himself might or might not know whether this prior theological review was actually carried out but Fr. John Cercero, sj, the superior who granted permission for Martin to publish his book, would certainly know.

But let’s assume that a qualified censor cleared the content of Martin’s book whereupon his superior concluded for its general prudence. Does that mean that Martin’s opinions and views are, as he seems to claim, necessarily acceptable in the Church?


First, there are notorious examples of quite unworthy books boasting ecclesiastical approval until the faithful’s consternation over such aberrations finally gets someone’s attention somewhere and the approvals are withdrawn. The decade-and-a-half argument over Wilhelm’s Christ Among Us (1968), which lost its imprimatur in 1984 after Roman intervention, lingers in Catholic conscientiousness to this day.

Second, and more importantly, and notwithstanding some “hyperbole” (CLSA New Comm. at 984) in the CDF instruction about ecclesiastical approval constituting a “juridical and moral guarantee”, the nihil obstat, the imprimatur, and the imprimi potest are, in the end, judgment calls made by ecclesiastical officers about how authors have presented their views on important (and often complex) Church teachings and practices, and are not themselves infallible exercises of the Church’s teaching office. One would like to think, of course, that all Church officers are qualified for and committed to performing their duties in this area but, even without reaching the extreme cases recalled above, differing analytic approaches can be followed and old-fashioned mistakes can and do happen in the course of such reviews.

So, Martin’s book apparently does not have a standard nihil obstat or imprimatur; it might or might not have a Jesuit theologian’s in-house certification of its avoidance of doctrinal error; it does have a Jesuit superior’s indication that, in his view, the book can be prudently published.

Thus, in short, to tout a religious superior’s imprimi potest as proof of one’s personal or authorial orthodoxy is to misconstrue what that certification is and what it means.

Update (same day): Martin’s superiors have just released a statement indicating that his book did go through a theological analysis. They do not identify who performed that assessment, but then, the new law does not require disclosure of that name, as was generally required under the old law. The canonical commentary I offered above applies as I indicated.

Are we reading the same Code?

Mary McAleese, a former president of Ireland who, like many Catholic politicians these days, seems to maintain a rambunctious relationship with Church, recently gave a speech alleging hypocrisy by the Holy See concerning its commitment to the rights of children. I have not read the Vatican statements that attracted McAleese’s ire, but I am acquainted with the 1983 Code of Canon Law, including its canons on “legitimacy” (in regard to children born in or out of wedlock), on which canons McAleese commented. I fear, though, that McAleese, who claims credentials in canon law herself, misrepresented Church law in this area during her remarks.

Although from this report it is not clear what McAleese actually said about whatever the Vatican actually said, if the Vatican claimed that the word “illegitimate” does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Vatican would have been correct (yawn); if the Vatican claimed that the word “illegitimate” does not appear in the 1983 Code, any high-schooler with internet access could have disproven the claim—making me think that someone, somewhere does not have this part of the story straight.

But whatever might be the case about that point, McAleese’s bald claim that “canon law does not acknowledge the equality of legitimate and illegitimate children” arrests my attention. How can a legally astute, former president of an important country, equipped with a graduate degree in canon law, make such a completely wrong claim about canon law?

More than thirty years ago the Johanno-Pauline Code removed all, repeat all, of the canonical disabilities that being born out of wedlock had carried under the 1917 Code—things such as restrictions on entering seminary or being named a religious superior or bishop. Today, codified canon law, which does indeed reference legitimacy and illegitimacy in a few canons, imposes no restrictions whatsoever on those born out of wedlock. The splendid canonical commentary prepared by the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland expressly makes this point (Letter & Spirit, 1985, p. 641). McAleese surely knows this work, so how did she arrive at exactly the opposite conclusion? 

One could, I suppose, ask why “legitimacy” is even mentioned in modern canon law; indeed, the whole topic was nearly dropped from the revised law.

But I would suggest that various considerations might well warrant the Code giving some directions to pastors about, say, entering names in baptismal registers when the children being christened were not born to married parents (as does, e.g., 1983 CIC 877). Moreover, other canonical commentaries (e.g., the American text of 2001 at p. 1358) note that some states might, perhaps in virtue of concordats with the Holy See, accord civil consequences to canonical marriage law and so such questions issues needed to be addressed somewhere. But in such cases, would not the example of the equal treatment accorded by canon law to all children, whether born inside or outside of wedlock, redound to their civil benefit as well?

But perhaps McAleese’s main point is that illegitimacy is an opprobrious term and that children should be spared as much as possible the negative consequences of their parents’ actions. If so, fine. That’s what I said in my book, Annulments and the Catholic Church, a dozen years ago at pp. 90-91 and I am hardly a revolutionary for making that point. But then, neither is McAleese.

In short, someone decrying discrimination against children based on the circumstances of their birth is making a good point, but he or she cannot plausibly accuse modern canon law of fomenting said discrimination.

Not when exactly the opposite is true.

‘Same-sex marriage’ and ‘same-sex unions’ are not the same things…

… and I think Pope Francis was right to make that observation, which in turn means, yes, I think that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith muffed the distinction between “unions” and “marriage” back in 2003 when it published its otherwise insightful “Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons”{1}. I argued that ‘same-sex marriage’ and ‘same-sex unions’ were distinguishable phenomena, and that CDF was wrong to require Catholics to oppose legal recognition of ‘same-sex unions’ with the same non-negotiable vigor as Catholics must reject legal recognition of ‘same-sex marriage’, in an essay penned more than two years ago but which, along with essays by many others, is still making its slow way through the world of printed book production. Grrr.

Anyway, in light of the pope’s too short but substantively sound observation—and even though political events since 2003, not to mention legal events such as Obergefell in 2015, might have mooted the question—it seems useful to set out why, in my view, CDF’s 2003 statement unintentionally blunted some arguments that Catholics could have, just maybe, used to deflect some of the social and cultural problems arising in the wake of “same-sex marriage”. Condensing some ideas from that unpublished essay and expanding others, I argue thus:

In the course of faithfully setting out Church teaching (indeed, infallible Church teaching, likely divinely revealed infallible Church teaching) that marriage can only exist between one man and one woman, CDF, probably to underscore rhetorically the utter impossibility of marriage existing between two persons of the same sex, never uses the term “same-sex marriage” (even in quotation marks, as is my convention) to describe such unions and instead refers exclusively to “homosexual unions”, or close paraphrases, as something to be resolutely opposed by Catholics. That’s precisely the problem for, while every marriage is a union, not every union is a marriage.

We need to make several points.

1. Human beings exist in or enter into an infinite variety of unions, some biologically determined such as parent-child or siblings, some casual such as friendship or tennis teammates, some legally-sanctioned such as co-owners of businesses or co-signers for loans, some legally-regulated such as physician-patient or teacher-student, and so on and so on, including, in this vast array of unions between people, one and only one union that is motivated by friendship, based on biology, and sanctioned-by and regulated-by law (customary, civil, and/or canonical), namely, that union called marriage. In other words, “union” means a million things but “marriage” means only one, and, in defending “marriage” in particular, it is dangerous to make certain assertions about unions in general.

Virtually every union entered into by human beings can be abused: a lawyer might take on a client not so as to advise the client toward legality but so as to hide his own crimes behind an immunity; a young woman might marry an elderly man not so as to aid him in his declining years but so as to grab a slice of his fortune away from his children; two homosexual men might form a business partnership not so as to serve the community with better car repairs but so as to market sex toys, but in none of these cases does abuse of the union result in a cry that attorney-client privilege should be abolished, or that weddings between gold-diggers and old fools should not be recognized, or that business contracts between homosexual men should be void at law. Moral theology has much to say about such activities, but law has much, much less to say about them.

2. If the state were considering whether, under a proposed “Significant Other” law, one citizen could designate another citizen as his or her “significant other”, allowing those two people to share their earnings, have access to each other’s personal records, be covered under each other’s insurance, inherit a preferential portion of the other’s estate, and so on, such a bill should be debated on the same grounds as would any other bill, mostly, on the degree to which it advances the common good. The disadvantages of such a bill might well outweigh the advantages, whereupon it would be amended or scrapped.

But for ecclesiastical authority to say that, because such legislation would indeed make possible, among other things, civil recognition and protection of same-sex couples in terms perhaps identical to the civil recognition and protection accorded married couples, such bills must be opposed by Catholics without exception, is to read “significant other” as a “spouse” and to assume civilly-contractually-related people are connubially-contractually-related people. Which they are not.

3. Everyone would agree, I trust, that what we label things sometimes makes no difference, but that other times what we call them makes a huge difference.

For example, whether we call the deliberate killing of pre-born baby a “saline acid feticide” or the “constitutionally protected termination of an unwanted pregnancy” does not change the reality that a pre-born human baby is being deliberately killed. The label does not change the reality. But sometimes changing the words associated with an action does make a difference, thusly:

Ancient Christians, offered the choice between burning incense to honor the divine Augustus or dying a slow painful death, had to choose the slow painful death if they wanted to remain faithful to the true God. But suppose, instead of burning incense to honor Caesar as a god, ancient Christians could have burned incense to honor him as an emperor. Christians could have burned incense in such cases, as casually as we set ablaze waxen wicks atop a frosted cake to honor a man’s birthday, without fear of scandalizing others. No one thinks the birthday boy is God, and only if some authority begins implying that so-and-so really is a god (think North Korea), and that burning candles in his honor is to acknowledge him as a god, does the matter take on additional meaning. Here, the labels attached to the action do make a huge difference.

Likewise, saying that two persons of the same sex are in a legally-recognized union, whatever else one says about that relationship, is not tantamount to saying that those two persons are married for the simple reason that not every union—even long-term, consensual, sexually-active, economically stable, unions—is a marriage civilly or canonically.

Bringing these points together.

The rejection of “same-sex unions” that CDF set out expressly and repeatedly in 2003 was phrased in the same absolute terms with which “same-sex marriage” should be, and must be (and I think, in CDF’s mind, was being), rejected by conscientious Catholics, implying that the opposition of faithful Catholics to the civil recognition of “same-sex unions” is categorically, and thus morally, indistinguishable from the opposition that they should offer to the civil recognition of “same-sex marriage“. I think this was a logical and a political mistake. One can imagine many civil proposals to accord legal protections to same-sex couples qua couples that, even without claiming for such couples the designation of “spouses”, a Catholic would be bound to oppose. But such opposition could be grounded only in factors made evident upon reading the specific proposal, and not simply because the proposal protected couples of the same sex. It is quite possible, logically and morally, that such a proposal could pass moral muster (but fail in prudence, and so need rejecting), or that it could pass moral muster and suffice as a prudential matter, and so warrant support by, or at least indifference from, Catholics. CDF should not have written otherwise and Francis is right, in my view, to make his point.

That said, to be clear, no proposal whatsoever whereby a Catholic is legally required to recognize as married two persons of the same sex can ever be acceptable, and an individual Catholic’s endorsement of “same-sex marriage” must be avoided as being, among other things, a violation of Church teaching (1983 CIC 750 § 2 and 1371 n. 1) and probably as a heresy strictly speaking (1983 CIC 750 § 1, 751, and 1364).

Again, I suspect that’s what CDF meant; but that’s not what CDF said. And that’s a problem.

+ + +

{1} Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, doc. “Diverse questioni” [Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons] (31 iul. 2003), Communicationes 35 (2003) 214-223, Eng. trans. Origins 33/11 (14 aug 2003) 177, 179-182. Additional background in this area is available in Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, doc. “Recentemente” [Some considerations concerning the response to legislative proposals on the non-discrimination of homosexual persons] (23 iul 1992), Enchiridion Vaticanum 13 (1995) 992-997, Eng. trans. Origins 22/10 (6 aug 1992) 173, 175-177.

On ‘Christians’ and the ‘greatest Christians’

When Cdl. Cupich of Chicago says “some of the greatest Christians I know are people who don’t actually have a faith system that they believe in”, I kinda sorta get what he means.

Raised as we were by an active Catholic mother and a nominally Methodist father, I had many opportunities to compare religious observances over the years. My mom did what was expected of Catholic moms through those years, God bless her, and I scarcely noticed it. But my dad’s religious conduct (or better, his conduct related to religion) caught my attention.

He willingly paid for Catholic schools when there were free public schools just a few blocks away. His Friday dinner was always fish although he would have loved a hamburger. And from time to time, he was the parent who actually made sure we kids got to Mass on Sunday. Thus, when my mother remarked, as she did more than once, that “Your father is the best Catholic in this house”, I knew what she meant.

But I also knew what she didn’t mean.

She did not mean that dad enjoyed the graces that came with Confirmation, the Eucharist, and Confession (being baptized, he and mom shared in the graces of Matrimony). She certainly did not mean that Catholicism was simply one more option among various belief systems, or none. And she never parlayed my dad’s Christian sensibilities into an ersatz Catholic identity cooked up in gratitude for his support in raising the children Catholic. Why not? If for no other reason, because words meant something in our house. Dad saw to that.

These thoughts came to mind when I read Cupich’s remarks about some of the “greatest Christians” being people who believe in nothing—or at any rate in nothing related to Christ. I can, in a way, appreciate his point for, obviously, people need not have a “faith system” in order to be mature, responsible, loving members of society.

But, unless both Cupich and his listeners know the personal examples he has in mind (in the way that my mom and I both knew much about my dad), I think it is confusing, in a world where words seem pretty much to mean whatever a speaker wants them to mean, for a prelate of the Catholic Church to refer to people “who don’t actually have a faith system that they believe in” as counting among the greatest Christians, of all things. Greatest people? Sure. Greatest humanitarians? Quite possible. But greatest Christians? Is that not to treat the word “Christian” as devoid of some specific, belief-oriented, content?

Consider a related point: Canon 205, rooted in Lumen gentium 14, sets out three criteria whereby baptized persons are found fully in communion with the Catholic Church, beginning with the profession of faith, and including also participation in sacraments and cooperation with ecclesiastical governance. Those who have, therefore, no “faith system that they believe in”, and who thus cannot claim full communion with the Church, are to be respected, of course, but also prayed for—not held up as role models for Catholics qua Catholics. Indeed, if one’s lack of “a faith system” is the result of an actual repudiation of the Christian faith (suggesting apostasy per Canon 751) one’s need for prayer and an invitation out of disbelief is all the more urgent, these, being among the pastoral points for bishops included in, say, Canon 383.

Likewise, I suggest, being “Christian” has something to do with, among other things, professing faith in Jesus Christ; being a “great Christian” has something to do with, among other things, proclaiming him boldly; and thus, holding out persons with no discernible beliefs as examples of the “greatest Christians” is not helpful especially in days of so much confusion about the meaning of, and the importance of being, Christian.