“I identify as X” has replaced, in popular parlance, using an adjective to describe a person’s ethnic and sexual self-understanding. Witness, for example, how the New York Times’ reports on census and demographic data. Common terms like “Hispanic Americans” and “adult male” have been replaced by “Americans who identify as Hispanic” and “so-and-so, who identifies as male.”
Can we use this expression with Catholicism? Can a person “identify as Catholic?” Or should “Catholic” only be used as an adjective, as in, “I am Catholic?”
The choice of “identify as” reflects in language just how deeply our society has fallen into the quagmire of radical individualism. An adjective describes the characteristics of a noun; it tells us what the thing is, and implies what it is not. Colors provide a helpful perspective. “Blue” describes a property of a car. Even though colors are superficial attributes—they can be changed, and they do not affect the essence of a thing (a car is a car, regardless of its color)—they help define a particular thing as distinct from other things. They help set the terms for how we perceive and understand a thing.
In other words, adjectives are limiting. A blue car is not red; it can become so, but it would lose its blueness and now be limited by its redness.
In using the expression “I identify as X,” the individual asserts his control over the characteristics that an adjective conveys. Instead of the adjective describing, and limiting, the person, the person chooses the adjective for himself. He accepts the limitation, but on his terms; the limit is constructed subjectively within his head rather than imposed on him by the world.
In this framework a person chooses his race or “gender identity” based on his personal will. He does so through a warped conception of freedom understood as the assertion of the individual’s desires over reality. In this way he, not the world, determines what is real.
The doyens of Wikipedia tell us that the “identify as” terminology is used primarily for psychological and sociological associations. We do not hear, for instance, persons saying that they identify as teachers, plumbers, or other occupations; nor does anyone identify as grandmother, brother, or other family relationship. The term, then, applies in the two categories that the leading forces of our society have deemed sacrosanct: race and gender, names which themselves, in a manner illustrative of this shift to subjective appropriation of language, were once called, with a more objective lens, ethnicity and sex.
But terminology carries across barriers, and we have seen “identify as” terminology applied to religion, even by Catholic organizations in a recent survey. It will not be long before we hear “I identify as Catholic” more regularly than “I am Catholic.”
The expression “I identify as Catholic” must be rejected, for it flips the nature of our religion on its head in two ways.
First, it puts the individual in a position of power over the faith by insisting that Catholicism must conform to the individual, and not the individual to Catholicism. Such thinking has already spread as a contagion among Catholic politicians supporting abortion: witness House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asserting, “I think I can use my own judgment” about whether she can receive holy communion.
Catholics do not dictate the terms of faith. Faith is a gift, and we are invited through God’s grace to join a Church that is not ours, but Christ’s. We exercise our freedom within the Church not by imposing our views on reality, but by choosing to accept God’s will for us with a loving heart. To be Catholic is to pray for “God’s will be done,” not “my kingdom come, my will be done, on earth so may it be in heaven.”
Second, to be a Catholic is not a mere association or happenstance condition that describes us externally, as does color. To be Catholic is, by virtue of the sacrament of baptism, constitutive of the person. “Catholic” describes not a superficial attribute, but an essential one, since we are changed forever when God adopts us as His children through baptism.
St. Paul had no interest in making Catholicism a mere attribute of our identity. He commanded the Romans to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 13:14) and the Corinthians to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). How do we imitate Christ? Paul explained to the Philippians:
“For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:8-11).
The message of Catholicism is directly opposite the modern world’s. Whereas the latter, in an act of hubris, bids all reality to yield to its will, Catholicism asks for humble submission to an unseen, and greater, reality. For the Catholic, “[Christ] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). We “decrease” by willingly accepting the cross: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
To say, “I identify as a Catholic” is to misunderstand the nature of faith. God calls us to conform to Him; we do not call Him to conform to us. The only answer, therefore, for the sincere believer to the question of his religion, is this: “I am a Catholic.”
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