The Practice of Catholicism and Modern Identity

We are products of our zeitgeist more than we sometimes understand or admit. The Gospel of Jesus Christ transcends time and place, but Catholics themselves are not immune from the influences of the period in which they are born. Simply by virtue of living in the contemporary age, modern Catholics are presented with a set of peculiar difficulties that either explicitly or implicitly affect the practice of their faith.

One of the greatest challenges pressing believers today is what Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism.”[1] A prevalent part of our worldview is certainly the idea that no objective moral truths exist or that all moral truths are historically conditioned. But relativism is not the only trial modernity presents and further difficulties arise in the response to the relativist mindset. This essay is an attempt to understand one such challenge: a type of intellectualism that I find common among Catholics who come or return to the faith after a period of searching. That is, for many persons who come to the Church to escape the modern predicament, the only criterion against which they can evaluate the answers the Church offers to modern existential questions is their own autonomous judgment.

Philosopher Charles Taylor provides a helpful apparatus for understanding the problem. Taylor, of course, has written extensively on modernity. I am only interested here in his preliminary considerations for understanding the modern world rather than his conclusions. It is not the purpose of this essay merely to point out flaws or to criticize what might be better. Rather, it is an exercise in understanding Catholic practice in a modern world of which I am very much a part.

In the first chapter of his magisterial book, Sources of the Self, Taylor identifies a paradox of the modern age. On the one hand, moral thought and action takes place within “inescapable frameworks.” We unavoidably rely on unarticulated ontological claims—assumptions about what is real—to ground our moral intuitions.[2] We cannot avoid ultimately making qualitative judgments about the value of certain goods over others when engaging in moral action. On the other hand, anxious doubt about the meaning of life—or whether there can be such meaning—often makes these traditional frameworks problematic. Modern concerns about meaning not only call into question the plausibility of the traditional accounts regarding reality and the order of the cosmos, but also render improbable the very possibility of a universal framework that conveys such meaning.[3]

Taylor’s presentation of this paradox has particular significance for Catholics. While all modern people are bound up in the struggles Taylor describes, the Church provides a continuous and universal framework not only for moral thinking, but also for more generally guiding human persons to God. The Church assumes ultimate reality is accessible to human thought and desire. Yet, although the Church stands in all ages as a sacrament of communion with God and of unity among persons, those who are raised in the faith are not immune from the challenges of this age. They are not immune from our modern anxiety over the meaning of life, or from the tendency of that anxiety to call into question traditional frameworks that provide that meaning.

“Cradle Catholics” who seriously entertain modern existential questions are almost always also subject to modern anxieties. Other Catholics, many of my generation, return to the practice of the faith after a period of questioning and searching. This is to say nothing of the many converts who come to the faith each year after embarking on a similar quest for meaning and direction. And while one might rightly claim that such searches have always been the lot of many who come to embrace the Church—Augustine stands as the most striking example—I agree with Taylor that there is something distinctive about the modern search.

While questions about existential meaning occur in all times and places, in previous epochs such questions were asked against a stable framework: a pagan honor tradition, the Christian tradition, or a rationalist conception of the universe.[4] These frameworks gave objective criteria for weighing potential answers. The modern search usually does not offer or provide any such foundations.

The nature of this modern search for meaning raises a potential set of problems for the contemporary revert or convert to the faith. With the decline of traditional assumptions about reality in the modern world, young people, especially, find themselves moving along like rudderless ships in turbulent waters. Human beings desire meaning and purpose, but there is a dearth of coherent proposals today in which they can stake their claim. The Church provides one such option—in fact, those of us who embrace her recognize the Church as more than simply an option, but as the Church founded by Christ, and the possessor of the Truths of Revelation.

But for so many persons who come to the Church to escape the modern predicament, the only criterion against which they can evaluate the answers the Church offers to their existential questions is their own autonomous judgment. This judgment stands in a different plane than the judgments of Augustine or Newman, which were exercised within an intellectual framework that was not completely autonomous. That our embrace today normally occurs in a vacuum devoid of a tradition creates a problem: it often leads to an intellectualism where doctrine shapes the Christian life as opposed to the older dispensation by which the Christian life as a whole shaped doctrine.

For many contemporary Catholics, in other words, the doctrinal teachings of the Church and her creedal statements provide stability and security in the midst of the storm; but the manner in which the embrace of these teachings occurs often leads to an intellectualism, a rationalistic dependence on ideas, that mistakes the character and end of the Christian life with conformity to a set of doctrines.

As essential as the Church’s doctrinal teaching is to the life of faith, the end of the Christian life is union with Christ. That this union, a share in the life of God, constitutes the true goal of human beings is not something that the intellectualist tendency overtly denies. But we see problems surface when we reflect that for so many who fall under the intellectualist category, orthodoxy, rather than baptism and Eucharistic participation, becomes the criterion for their Christian identity. Christian life becomes a written set of ideas.

As in modern analytic philosophy, clarity becomes the starting principle for theological discussion, while ambiguity becomes increasingly difficult to embrace, because it is reminiscent of one’s earlier state of searching before one’s discovery of the new framework of faith. While a reductionist historicism is an error always to be resisted, there is a tendency to let belief in God become ahistorical so as to avoid the nuances that historical study adds to a one-sided systematic theological approach.

That one would fall prey to one of these tendencies is understandable given the culture’s relativistic presuppositions and the desire of the Christian to articulate the truths of the faith, but these tendencies remain pitfalls that may ultimately harm the very articulation of the faith the believer wishes to make.

The problem also becomes plain in the way people today appropriate signs. Signs are extraordinarily important in the Catholic tradition. Sacraments are at the center of the Christian life and affirm that Christ communicates grace in a mode proper to embodied human beings. Sacraments, sacramentals, and others signs that are a part of the Catholic tradition appeal to the human senses, engage our memories and desires, and through them raise our gaze to transcendent realities. In this sense, signs in the Catholic tradition are an important antidote to rationalism because they concretize the abstract and prevent us from over-theorizing.

Ironically, in the intellectualist mode, the signs of Christian life actually become an extension of rationalism. Here, I am no longer talking about the sacraments proper, but rather sacramentals and other symbols that are part of Catholic practice. The modern Catholic may be tempted to freight signs with a particular meaning making them merely outward signals that are intended to label oneself and show that one adheres to the proper doctrinal structure.

In the pre-modern dispensation, the signs were an organic part of the traditional framework that constituted the faith. In the modern dispensation, where one adopts the doctrinal framework against no other background but the autonomous judgement of the individual; signs are no longer part of this organic world. They may still serve the same purpose and hold some of the same meaning that they held previously, but they are now largely commandeered by an individual to signal orthodoxy.

Examples of this are especially prevalent in the priesthood and religious life where particular kinds of clerical garb and liturgical vestments begin to be freighted with a meaning that they were not originally intended to have. The style of alb one wears becomes a signal of how closely one adheres to a supposed doctrinal framework. Receiving communion on the tongue and kneeling to receive the host—time-honored acts of reverence for Our Lord—could become radical statements of being counter-cultural. The signs and symbols that have always been a part of Catholic practice often now become signs of political and ideological division.

They form a brand of Catholic identity politics.

The Cartesian split between mind and body becomes deeply ingrained in those who outwardly offer the harshest resistance to modernity. This situation becomes even more complex when the appropriation of signs is paired with a romanticization of a mythological past age where it is believed that the Church held a more central position in society. This is a temptation to which Taylor is attuned and one which he finds problematic since such a romanticization fails to adequately recognize the gap between the City of God and the city of man.[5] In each case, the commandeering of signs is motivated at least in part by a drive to create the security of a stable world that no longer exists.

How does knowledge of this particularly modern predicament influence our work of evangelization? We might begin by rejecting the increasingly common dichotomy drawn between Catholics who would comfortably accommodate modernity against those who see the practice of the faith as completely incompatible with the thought and symbols of our age.

Even though Christianity cannot completely accommodate itself to any age, the preceding considerations show that in fact all of us are unavoidably creatures of modernity. This is nowhere more evident than in the way many of us come to embrace the practice of faith for ourselves in the modern world.

Perhaps such a realization will also lead to an increase in charity during our disputes with one another. We are all moderns of one sort or another. We are more similar to each other than we are different—and this is to say nothing of our common identity in baptism.

Our faith is not just a set of ideas. It is a relationship with God, who in his very reality is relational, and who has held out a new relationship with us through Jesus. Human beings find meaning and purpose in developing personal relationships with God, Jesus, and each other. While this seems obvious on its face, these relationships can be difficult to realize in the modern predicament. Fear is major impediment to developing such relationships, when encumbered by the intellectualism of the modern age.

The kinds of existential questions to which modernity gives rise can be confusing and disorienting. When the searcher comes to the faith and the security it provides, he or she may discover an interior fear and unwillingness to return to the state of searching, or to any state of uncertainty or ambiguity that is reminiscent of that state. The modern predicament and its intellectualist “solution” then leads to a certain kind of dualism.

We may separate ourselves from the real questions and aspirations that we harbor within by imposing, in an overly intellectualist way, a set of answers that do not truly address our modern questions or that only address the questions of another age. In this case, we may avoid addressing our particular questions head on. Insofar as we ignore our particularly modern questions about existence, meaning, and identity by imposing an intellectualist structure on ourselves, we are creating impediments to genuine relationships because we put on a false identity.

After embracing the truth and beauty of the faith, we must not be afraid to return to the ambiguities that are part of our modern makeup. Grace builds on nature. We have to come to face our true nature with the confidence that God’s grace heals all, including our particularly modern wounds. As Hölderlin wrote, “But where the danger threatens/that which saves from it also grows.”[6] This confidence and courage is necessary for all of our interpersonal relationships. Courage in the face of modern questions helps to create a healthy sense of identity that affords us the freedom to enter into authentic relationships, rather than to worry about creating acceptable public images for popular consumption on social media or other fora.

Of course, we must remember that our relationship with God through Jesus is always realized, for the Christian disciple, in a historical community of concretely related humans. That is, our relationship with God is realized in the mystical Body of Christ, the Church. Here we see the importance of orthodox belief: our acceptance of the faith historically presented to us through the Church, signals our willful assent to God the revealer.[7]

However, in the Catholic understanding, the Church is not just the aggregate of “saved,” believing, committed individuals. It is a structure and Body with a developing life of its own, with symbols and signs that nourish and sustain us as they draw us closer together and unite us to the Father through Christ. If, as I suggest, courageously facing the particularly modern questions that are in the heart of the contemporary believer is necessary for developing our relationships with God and each other, then there are implications for the way we view and inhabit the Church.

First, as I have already intimated, we should exercise greater charity towards one another, given the understanding that we are all more similar to each other than we are different. We should avoid as strenuously as possible creating those same binary dividing lines of theory and language in the Church that exist in American politics. As my analysis above implies, many of those who call for Catholic discourse to transcend political binaries still fall into the trap of searching for neat categories. Our similarities stem primarily from our common baptism in Christ. Secondarily, we are all children of our age. All of us have similar questions, and are seeking answers to problems that are particular to our time and place. Although our embrace of the faith may occur as a result of what we call reasoned judgment, my analysis shows that our embrace also involves other human needs, specifically our needs of security and stability. Thus, while intellectualists like to situate discourse in the realm of the objective, the subjective always exercises a strong influence, whether we admit it or not. This recognition should make us more open to honest dialogue with others who may have different perspectives than our own.

Second, we must be willing to welcome new expressions and signs of the faith as well as maintaining and reviving the old. For example, so many of the traditional devotions of the Church: the rosary, the Sacred Heart, Novenas to St. Joseph, among many others arose as responses to pastoral concerns of the times of their origins. While we should promote and support traditional devotions, we should also welcome the creative expression of new devotions that also address the felt needs of contemporary believers. We should not fear new expressions of the apostolic faith. Furthermore, we cannot be afraid to recognize that the absence of the traditional structures that marked a different age of the Church need not imply a lack of integrity of faith. Conversely, we need never assume that the presence of such traditional structures implies such integrity. As a matter of evangelization, we should recognize that signs and symbols need to be interpreted according to a hermeneutic, or a mode of interpretation. Messages are received according to the mode of the receiver. We live in a world that mostly does not interpret signs and symbols in a Christian way. We should be mindful therefore that signs we think provide a witness to the Gospel may be interpreted in a completely different way in the secular order, and not always in the service of evangelization.

If the practice of Catholicism in the contemporary world is to avoid a kind of dualism that seeks to evade modern questions through the imposition of an intellectualized structure, then it cannot merely resemble the practices of past ages. The practice of Catholicism should be recognizable in all ages, but it should also directly address the questions, needs, and concerns of the people of this age. The existential questions posed by modernity and the attendant breakdown of traditional frameworks of meaning mark our contemporary situation. These challenges can lead to profound confusion as well as to an earnest search for meaning. But the search cannot resign itself to answering questions by ultimately avoiding them. Rather, we must turn and face the challenges that characterize us as modern persons. In the process, we have to exhibit courage in the face of fear and imperfection. Ultimately, we must embrace our imperfections. The Church is a collection of imperfect people, sinners who stand in need of mercy. But it is precisely through the cracks of our holy community that light penetrates. We live in dangerous times, like all those Christians who lived before us, but in the midst of the danger, there is the grace and strength of Jesus Christ.


[1] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Homily for the Mass “Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice” (April 18, 2005), at The Holy See,

[2] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 6—8.

[3] Taylor, Sources, 16—19.

[4] Taylor, Sources, 16.

[5] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 735.

[6] Friedrich Hölderlin, Selected Poems and Fragments (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 231.

[7] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 143.

Featured Image: Umberto Boccioni, Horizontal Volumes Object, 1912; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Justin M. Brophy, OP

Justin M. Brophy is a native of Totowa, NJ and a priest in the Order of Preachers. He graduated Notre Dame in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Medieval Studies and earned his License in Sacred Theology from the Dominican House of Studies in 2012. Currently, he is in the third year of a doctoral program in Political Theory at the University of Notre Dame.

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