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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

“Catholic” as Empty Signifier

Back in the early summer of 2018, when I sent the manuscript for Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything to my publisher, I was pretty comfortable with the identifier “Catholic.” But while the manuscript was in the hands of copyeditors and in the limbo of the publishing process, the atomic bomb that is the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report came out, as did the disgusting details of Cardinal McCarrick’s evil shenanigans. The list, of course, has grown and no end is in sight. The absolute buffoonery of the responses of both the US bishops and the Vatican have done nothing to give me hope. The effect has been just the opposite.

When the manuscript came back in late-September, I thought about changing the subtitle. Perhaps I was not psychologically ready to do so, much like John Lennon being reluctant to remove Paul McCartney’s name from songwriting bylines even after their partnership was no longer a reality. I also thought about adding a new chapter on ecclesiology. I decided that would not be a good idea. The subjects I treat in the book—science, the arts, education, economics, technology—are those I’ve been contemplating for decades, and I didn’t want to write a half-cooked chapter in the throes of my anger and outrage. I left the subtitle alone.

Nevertheless, I had been fully aware for a number of years that what I understand as “Catholic” is nothing like what Traditionalists or liberals or just about any group understands by the term. In general, my position has been pretty ecumenical: to be Catholic is to hold a sacramental worldview, one that acknowledges the intertwined reality of nature and supernature: a cosmologically-configured spirituality that does not prefer the spiritual over the material and is ever-prepared to be open to grace.

Because of this, I feel very at home with my Eastern Orthodox and Anglican brothers and sisters—both of whom consider themselves “Catholic.” Though I was raised in the Roman Church, for the past twenty-five years I’ve identified as an Eastern Rite Catholic; but, as a scholar of 17th-century English poetry (in particular The Metaphysical Poets), I more or less think of myself as 42% Anglican—I even have dreams that I attend Mass in the Rite of Sarum! Indeed, my ideal parish looks quite a bit like Robert Herrick’s in Caroline Devonshire: equal parts Catholic, Anglican, and pagan.

So I have come to the conclusion that I don’t know what the term “Catholic” means anymore. It is an empty signifier, something we all think we understand, but upon closer examination, we find we can’t define it. At least in our own words. Just try to come up with a definition in your own words that doesn’t sound like it came from the wire service at Catechism Central! We can look at institutional mission statements, of course; but they are pretty devoid of warmth as well as meaning. They, too, are empty signifiers. The danger with such empty signifiers is that they become our idols: projections of our own egos we interpret as Divinity. For me, Church Militant’s Catholicism (to use an extreme example) is not anything with which I would want to be associated. But neither is anything else that holds that name as a badge, be it in the name of social justice, Holy Tradition, or saving Christendom.

Christians were supposed to be the salt of the earth. We should know what happens when the salt loses its savor. Time to surrender your badge.

Michael can be reached at See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.

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