It is well known that the word “heresy” has its etymological roots in the idea of “choice”. It is interesting in this light to read in Fr Neuhaus’ last published essay in First Things “Secularisations”:
In this religio-cultural circumstance, Americans typically live at two levels of religious identity and affirmation. One is national (“In God We Trust”). The other, more deeply personal and communal, is lived in “the church of your choice.” This is an experienced choice, and is thus a facet of modernity that is difficult to avoid in the American situation.
In the sociological jargon, our religious connection is elective rather than ascribed. Even with those churches, such as the Catholic and Orthodox, that have a deep ecclesiology of being sacramentally incorporated into the Body of Christ and thus being more chosen than choosing, the need for choice and repeated choice is the norm. A tradition chosen is different from a tradition into which one is born and by which one is defined. A choice can always, at least hypothetically, be reversed. This is obviously in tension with the self-understanding of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, but it is the American religious circumstance.
H. Richard Niebuhr wrote that the American contribution to ecclesiology was to add, to the European religious types of church and sect, the phenomenon of the denomination. A denomination is an elective association that assumes the appurtenances of the (upper-case) Church. The Catholic and Orthodox churches do not understand themselves to be denominations but the Church of Jesus Christ rightly ordered through time. For Catholics and Orthodox, one understands oneself to be baptized, and not usually by choice, into that one expression of the one Church. It is true that people also say they were “baptized Episcopalian” or “baptized Methodist.” But that is a matter of institutional identity or even tribal loyalty rather than of a coherent ecclesiology, since other churches do not claim to be what the Catholic and Orthodox churches claim to be.
…Of course, in the real world there are no pure types. The connections between modernity and choice, in both Europe and America, result in a pick-and-mix approach to religion. The French sociologist Daniele Hervieu-Leger employs the term bricolage—which can be translated as “tinkering,” as when a child assembles and reassembles the pieces of a Tinker Toy set or a Lego game. Among Catholics, this is referred to pejoratively as “cafeteria Catholicism.” The American scholar Robert Wuthnow calls the phenomenon “patchwork religion.”
I have often said that my own “choice” to be Catholic was finally a recognition that I had “no choice”. If the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ as she claims to be (a hotly debated thesis on this blog) then the Christian who is aware of this and believes it has no choice but to belong to it. I was more “chosen” than “choosing” if you like!
In the end, I contend that this is not finally a question of whether I exercised personal judgment and choice (which is, I think, phenomenologically indisputable), as a question of ecclesiologies, as Fr Neuhaus points out. It is a question of whether one holds a “coherant” or, rather, an all-encompassing ecclesiology, or a denominational ecclesiology.
I am very aware – given that I once held quite firmly to a denominational ecclesiology until challenged by my good friends Adam Cooper and Fraser Pearce – how hard it is for non-Catholics or non-Orthodox to think their way out of denominationalism. Fr Neuhaus’ essay also made me aware of how much denominationalism – and the “choice” that goes with it – has made its way into the American religious psyche, even of Catholics. The result, of course, is what we have all come to know as “Cafeteria Catholicism”.
My small contribution to the discussion here (and the thesis to which I would invite reaction) is that it makes little sense in this schema for a Catholic who is offended by the phenomenon of “Cafeteria Catholicism”, to make a protest “choice” by opting out in order to belong to an ecclesial community among the denominations.
[Update: in the combox I refer to an essay by Dr Adam Cooper from 2006 which perfectly illustrates the difficulties of a denominationalist ecclesiology. The essay is called “The Church and the Churches”, and is, I should point out, not to be taken as the the author’s current view on the matter, which has, let us say, “developed”.]