At a Catholic university recently I listened to a discussion between a liberal Catholic theologian and an atheist. “Tell me,” said the atheist, “what is a Catholic? What must one believe if he is to consider himself a good Catholic? Must he believe in heaven and hell and in the immortality of the soul? In papal infallibility? Must he believe that premarital sex and artificial birth control and remarriage after divorce are all morally wrong, seriously sinful?”

“Most of that is mere legalism, mere negativism,” the liberal Catholic theologian quickly responded.

“Well,” the atheist persisted, “if people needn’t believe any of these things to consider themselves good Catholics, what must they believe? What isn’t mere legalism? Just what do you people mean when you say you are in the church? What does being a Catholic really mean?”

The theologian clearly did not like this line of thought. Such questions are considered “unecumenical” and “divisive” by the contemporary Catholic liberal. They stress “differences rather than similarities” and belong to the old, the “closed,” the “defensive,” and “medieval” church, to the world of “mere apologetics.” They are “irrelevant” to the new, the “open and authentic” church; and it is considered bad form to raise such questions these days. Nevertheless, after careful thought the liberal theologian attempted an answer: “Being a Catholic means awareness of community—awareness of human unity related to Christ.”

Bemused, the atheist replied: “That’s interesting, because by your definition I am ...

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